Arts and music projects are just one aspect of culture flourishing in Crewe and Alsager
PUBLISHED: 10:34 17 January 2014 | UPDATED: 10:35 17 January 2014
Once Crewe and Alsager were just linked by rail and road. Now a corridor of culture is discernible between the two – though the railway is rarely out of the picture entirely.
Crewe’s Lyceum Theatre is a noticeable symbol of a flourishing arts scene. ‘It’s a fine Edwardian theatre,’ says Marketing Officer Allison Sundaram: ‘We’ve recently done the interior up and given it a facelift so it has a more theatrical feel, with plush red-and-gold surroundings.’
As so often in Crewe, the Lyceum traces its roots to the railways, its forerunner a chapel for Irish navvies. It’s packed with practical character: ‘The 18 degree rake [slope from front to back of the stage] is the second steepest in the country,’ says newly-appointed theatre director Gordon Millar: ‘These theatres were built on the idea that wherever you were on stage you could be seen by everyone in the auditorium. It brings some special measures – we have anti-rake scenery and special doors so they don’t just flop open.’ The theatre also retains one of the few ‘sun burners’ still working in Britain, an old form of air-conditioning designed to clear cigar-smoke – or these days special effects dry-ice – rapidly.
Alsager has a more contemporary visible gesture to the artistic: ‘We’ve had a redevelopment in the centre with a new town square,’ says Lindsay Lewis, project manager for Alsager Partnership: ‘We incorporated an artwork into the square itself, designed by Cheshire artist Stephen Broadbent and his daughter Lucy Gannon.’ Their still nameless work was chosen because it encourages use of the square for creative purposes – performances and displays – and includes bronze inlays with designs by local children.
For its three stages Alsager’s Music Festival needs the greater space afforded by Milton Gardens, the main park. ‘It’s a free one-day event. All involved are volunteers, this year under the umbrella of Alsager Music and Arts, helped by the Round Table and Rotary,’ explains festival chairman Barney Smith: ‘We’ve a provisional date for 2014 of July 12th. It runs from 12 till nine, and there’s interactive stuff like kids getting to make instruments from junk. Last year, the fifth, we had about 4000 people there.’
Another general arts festival takes place earlier in the summer, and there’s talk of a food festival being added. Not bad for a town of 12,000 souls.
Yet another creative event in the town has far deeper roots – its September show, run by the council and Alsager Gardens Association: ‘We show vegetables and flowers, and some crafts – needlework for example.’
This too has railway ties. Allotment keeping here was boosted with the arrival of the Royal Ordnance Factory (now Bae) in Radway Green, sited partly for its easy connection to the main line. ‘The society was first set up about 1910,’ explains Melvin: ‘It flourished once the ROF factory at Radway Green was built with its housing estate. One of the first things they did there was dig for victory with allotments.’ They now have four allotment sites, though it’s more digging for pleasure today.
One cultural institution actually pre-dates the railways here. The Primitive Methodist Chapel and Museum at Engelsea Brook welcomes visitors from around the world, many researching in its extensive library. ‘The chapel at Engelsea Brook was built in 1828 for the princely sum of £113,’ says museum chairman Michael Parrot. After a period of closure it reopened in 1986 as a chapel and in the 1990s became a museum. ‘About 50 schools come every year for a tour,’ says Michael: ‘Some of them have a Victorian school lesson that’s very popular.’
In spite of this heartening environment, Bentley booming, and HS2 promising a rail renaissance, the Samaritans’ phone lines are rarely quiet; the Crewe and South Cheshire Branch has cause to celebrate nonetheless: ‘It’s our 50th anniversary in March next year,’ says their spokesman Bill [they prefer not to reveal surnames]: ‘And we have two people with over 40 years service here, Jean, and Julia - she in 2012 was awarded an MBE for Samaritans activity.’