Congleton - 'the Little Town with the Big Heart'
PUBLISHED: 00:00 20 May 2014 | UPDATED: 17:46 16 February 2016
Community spirit is alive and well in Congleton where an army of volunteers are going for gold
Congleton – ‘the Little Town with the Big Heart’ – is going for gold. Streets and parks, indeed virtually every nook and cranny in the historic market town, will be cloaked in golden floral displays this summer as Congleton represents the North West in Britain in Bloom.
And Congleton is hosting a leg of the Queen’s Baton Relay, en route to July’s Commonwealth Games in Glasgow, two years to the day since the Olympic torch passed through and 16,000 people out of a total population of 26,000 turned out to see it.
But that’s typical of Congleton, a place that supports more than 150 groups and organisations and is populated by folk with civic pride who show themselves willing to engage in all manner of activities from fitness campaigns and eco-drives to the arts, culture and fun events.
George Hayes – elected youngest mayor in the UK at the age of just 21 last May – concurs: ‘It was a great honour for me to be chosen as town mayor and fantastic to see the work that all the community groups are engaged in. There are some big, new ideas in action, which have all contributed to putting Congleton in the top one per cent of the most desirable places to live, according to a Halifax survey.
‘We have a busy Youth Council in Congleton; I joined when I was 14 and I really enjoyed living the life of what the council and the community groups were doing.’
Highlights of his year in office have been Congleton’s welcome home for the soldiers of the 1st Battalion The Mercian Regiment (Cheshire) from its tour of duty in Afghanistan for which virtually the whole town turned out, and meeting members of the Princess Irene Brigade of the Dutch Army which regularly attends Remembrance Day parades in the town. The unit was formed in Congleton in 1941 following the Nazi occupation of the Netherlands and has been accorded the freedom of the town.
A sporting chance
Congleton’s sporting heritage is remarkable. In the run-up to London 2012 not only did the Olympic torch pass through the town but Congleton runners staged an historic relay from Much Wenlock in Shropshire which lays claim to founding the modern Olympics as ‘the Olympian Games’ in 1850.
Seeing them off was Ann Brightwell who, as Ann Packer, became Britain’s first female Olympic track gold medallist by winning the 800 metres at the Tokyo Games in 1964 (she also took silver in the 400m). She has lived in Congleton with her husband Robbie Brightwell, who captained Team GB in 1964 and won silver in the 4x400m relay, for more than 40 years.
‘There’s a tremendous community spirit in the town, it’s something that’s unique in our experience,’ she said. ‘The turn-out for the Olympic torch two years ago was absolutely brilliant and hopefully will be again when the Queen’s Commonwealth Games Baton arrives this month. Congleton is the only non-city it is visiting in England.’
The baton will arrive in Congleton from Manchester at noon on May 31st and will stay in the town for two hours before departing for Sheffield
That demonstration of Olympic enthusiasm triggered the launch of Team Congleton, led by Ann and Robbie, and its ‘Twin Assassins’ Campaign aiming to raise £3m to develop facilities at a local school, Eaton Bank Academy, as a lifestyle and fitness centre for the whole community.
Robbie takes up the story: ‘It was when Ann and I were touring and giving talks ahead of the Olympics that we became concerned – and astonished – at the levels of obesity and inactivity we encountered, particularly in schools. These are the twin assassins, because obesity can mask a host of invidious conditions like heart disease, kidney problems, diabetes and cancer.’
Their cause won the support of the then Minister for Public Health, Anna Soubry. Robbie said at the campaign’s launch in parliament: ‘Unless radical measures are taken to remedy this situation, the NHS will be brought to its knees in 10 years time.’
A fruitful endeavour
When it comes to mobilising Congleton’s sense of community, few can be as energetic as Patti Pinto – one of the lead volunteers behind the Britain in Bloom initiative and a driving force locally for the Eco Schools programme managed by the Keep Britain Tidy Group.
Patti said: ‘Our Britain in Bloom bid is up against some really serious competition this year in places like Perth, Truro and Colwyn Bay, all of which have big tourism budgets, but Congleton’s army of volunteers will be able to show the sort of year-round commitment that the judges are looking for.’
That commitment has seen thousands of edible plants from herbs and blueberries planted in tubs and gardens around the town centre, the establishment of a community orchard at Astbury Mere, looked after by the Congleton Sustainability Group, and mini orchards planted in schools and at New Life Church. So much fruit has been harvested that Eddisbury Fruit Farm has produced thousands of bottles of Congleton Apple Juice in recent years.
Patti’s Eco Schools initiative has also been remarkably fruitful. The former toxicologist at Astra Zeneca, now a voluntary assessor for the scheme, said: ‘It involves recruiting pupils as eco warriors and raising awareness of sustainability issues like saving energy and money and getting them thinking about transport and looking after school grounds.
‘They work towards the award of a Green Flag and I’m proud to say that 13 of the 16 schools in Congleton and district are Green Flag schools. The benefits of working towards the award extend beyond the improvement of the environmental quality of the school. The programme gives the pupils a sense of responsibility and pride in what they have achieved. With this comes the hope that the pupils will continue this behaviour in the wider community.’
The latest initiative in Congleton has seen the planting of 42 rowan trees in the cenotaph area and elsewhere in the town to commemorate the centenary of the outbreak of the First World War, coinciding with a Heritage Lottery Fund bid to renovate the war memorial.
Central to the Britain in Bloom bid and other planting schemes in and around the town are the Streetscape services – responsible for grounds maintenance and keeping the centre clean – taken over by Congleton council earlier this year from Cheshire East.
At the age of just 24, Ruth Boffey supervises 12 staff charged with planting more than 35,000 bedding plants and maintaining 150 hanging baskets in the town centre. ‘Before I took this job I worked on my dad’s farm in Church Lawton where I lived and was brought up.’
The first woman in all the Cheshire councils to fill such a role, she added: ‘Streetscape covers a big area, Congleton and four neighbouring parishes and I design the beds on the town’s four roundabouts, its park and community gardens. I just love the job.’
Live at the Electric
Congleton’s Electric Picture House is a non-profit making artist-led co-operative creating a diverse range of work including painting, printmaking, glass, street art, sculpture, ceramics, jewellery and fashion textile design. The building, in Cross Street, has had a chequered history to say the least.
Artist Petra Lea, one of the 10 studio members working there, said: ‘It was originally a textile mill and was then converted in to Congleton’s first electric picture theatre in 1911. It has since been an ambulance station, dance hall, bicycle shop, a garage and most recently a cannabis factory. We took it on in July 2011 and considerable work on a very limited budget was undertaken to make the space usable.
‘It is our aim to encourage participation in the arts in the local and wider community by providing workshop and gallery space and by organising exhibitions, art workshops and community projects.’
The venue also hosts theatre and music performances and has grown to be an intrinsic part of Congleton’s growing reputation for arts and culture. Another key player is Sandi Marshall, who is heading up a creative arts group that will deliver the Open Space Arts Festival in September.
‘It was begun last year by a group of local volunteers who wanted to do something to celebrate the rich variety of art and culture which takes in Congleton,’ she said. ‘We invite local groups and individuals to hold events which showcase what they do on the last weekend of September, and we also try and deliver events which will surprise and entertain people in Congleton. Last year’s festival was so successful that we have decided to make Open Space an annual event.
Plans are well underway for this year, with many events already booked, including Congleton Proms, a series of concerts at venues around the town centre with performances by Clonter Opera and several local choirs; Cheshire Poet Laureate John Lindley will be putting on a show called Talking Bob Dylan, which takes an affectionate look at Dylan’s lyrics, local businesses will be re-creating famous film scenes for an exhibition and a group of young people are re-writing Dylan Thomas’ classic, Under Milk Wood as Under Town Wood.
All this, in addition to the popular biennial Congleton Carnival in July, taking on a 1970s theme, and the Food and Drink Festival in June, rated one of Cheshire’s best, will make 2014 a busy old time in Beartown – so called, according to legend, because the people of Congleton were so attached to their resident bear that when it died just before the town festivities, the money put aside for the new town bible was borrowed to replace him.