Stockport - My kind of town
PUBLISHED: 20:58 01 December 2009 | UPDATED: 15:36 20 February 2013
Stopfordian Patrick O'Neill returns to his home town to discover there are tidings of comfort and joy for residents and visitors to Stockport
Good old fashioned pantomime is alive and well, leaping into a coach, popping on a glass slipper and having a ball in festive Stockport this Christmas. Oh yes it is, says Emmerdale's Lisa Riley who will be waving her Fairy Godmother magic wand over Cinderella at the Plaza, the venue which is in itself something of a showbusiness fairy tale.
Because this is a bingo hall that turned itself back into a live theatre and cinema. And that is not the only way you can celebrate Christmas around Mersey Square and Stockport Market this Yuletide. On December 10 look out for Father Christmas and his live reindeer paying a visit to Merseyway, where there is even the chance to win a ride on the sleigh with Santa. Oh yes there is.
It's all part of the 'Simply Christmas, Simply Stockport' campaign to beat the credit crunch for visitors to Stockport's big-name stores, bustling market and the town's 'alternative quarter' - magical Underbank with its mix of boutique shops, bars, salons and fashion stores. To my mind this now has an atmosphere and much-restored architecture that can rival even Watergate Street in Chester.
And there's more. St Mary's in the Marketplace, Stockport's Parish Church and its ebullient rector the Rev Roger Scoones hosts no less than 24 carol services where the faithful are joyful and triumphant in numbers that would rival any cathedral.
Alternatively, enjoy a Victorian extravaganza at Stockport's famous 'glass umbrella' (the gloriously refurbsihed market hall) or celebrate a traditional Christmas Eve with a tea dance at Stockport's iconic town hall, affectionately dubbed 'The Wedding Cake', which celebrates its centenary this year. Oh yes it does.
But to me, Stockport born and educated at St Joseph's 60 years ago, it's the people that make all the difference. The town that produced Fred Perry, the last British men's Wimbledon champion, broadcaster Joan Bakewell and has connections with TV presenters David Dickinson and David Coleman has come a long way since Karl Marx's comrade Friedrich Engles dubbed it 'the duskiest smokiest of holes'.
And where better to start than at Bob's Buttons in the covered market where Eve Spencer, aged 86, still helps to run the stall with her brother, Bob, 70. As a stall holder for over seven decades she is surely Britain's longest serving market trader. 'Keep smiling, keep healthy and keep working' is her motto. And it epitomises an approach to life on the market that is copied by Wally Henderson, king of the market spiellers, with his raucous cries of 'cheap and cheerful', 'all taste and no watse' and 'try before you buy' who tells me that the sell-out veg this Christmas is pasnips.
Top butcher Bob Donohue on Orman's stall predicts that the best value this Christmas will not be turkey but a rib of beef and a return to English cuisine which would have Hakim Benyoub from Lyons still calling us 'roast beefs' as he sold his 'escargot and brioche' to surprised shoppers on Underbank.
Because it is on Underbank that the variety which spices life in Stockport is most evident. This is the street of surprises. It's a propeer street with real shops and old curiosities like the bell ringing figures of Soldier, Sailor and Old Father Time on Winters clock. The ambience was perhaps best summed up by John Marshall of Heroes and Legends who can sell you memorabilia from Tiger Woods to Ricky Hatton, with his claim that in Underbank the customer is the real star.
And talking of stars it's back to the Plaza whose patrons include Ken Dodd OBE, Leslie Phillips CBE and Sabrina. Do you remember Sabrina, the Stockport girl who became something of a sex symbol via the St Trinian's movies?
Manager Ted Doan and a team of fundraisers are fronting a campaign to bring in 3 million which will restore Stockport's art deco landmark to its pristine 1930s condition: 'Neon strips will run down the front and it will be topped by a neon crown. Coming down the A6 it is going to look like the most amazing Prince Charming's castle. All we need is a Fairy Godmother to complete the fundraising and we will be really sorted,' he said.
At the other end of town in the nave of the tastefully restored St Mary's in the Marketplace, the rector, the Rev Roger Scoones, is speaking of a different Christmas star: the one that shone over a stable in Bethlehem 2,000 years ago.
The rector, who has the truly grand ambition to appear as a gargoyle on the roof of his own carefully conserved parish church, reminded me that Christmas is a celebration of that supremely mystical moment when 'God is intimately involved in sending his son into the world as a human being'. This is perhaps for many the real reason to celebrate Christmas in Stockport.
And on that festive note, I am sure that photographer John Cocks and myself would want to wish all our readers a very happy Christmas. Oh yes we do.