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From white elephant to jewel: The rebirth of Halifax’s Piece Hall

Date:3rd October 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'A new book from Historic England that involves the Piece Hall in Halifax. It�"s one of 12 Yorkshire places that feature in A History of England in 100 Places. Pictured Piece Hall, Halifax.
Date:3rd October 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'A new book from Historic England that involves the Piece Hall in Halifax. It�"s one of 12 Yorkshire places that feature in A History of England in 100 Places. Pictured Piece Hall, Halifax.

So what do you do, I ask Rachel Flynn. “Equine photography,” she says. I nod vaguely. “I photograph horses,” she explains. “Back in Australia.” And she does, very well, if her website is anything to go by. Based in Melbourne, Rachel is visiting friends in Halifax and is browsing round the bright, stylish new shops at the town’s Piece Hall. This superbly restored building – which Prince Charles described as “marvellous” when he visited earlier this year – is one of 12 Yorkshire locations featured in Historic England’s newly published Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places.

The book – not to be confused with John Julius Norwich’s 2012 History of England in 100 Places – celebrates buildings and sites that have played an important role in history. There’s the Royal Observatory in Greenwich, for instance, where the modern measurement of time began, and Ye Olde Trip to Jerusalem in Nottingham – possibly England’s oldest pub, where time was first called.

Date:3rd October 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'A new book from Historic England that involves the Piece Hall in Halifax. It�"s one of 12 Yorkshire places that feature in A History of England in 100 Places. Pictured Piece Hall, Halifax.

Date:3rd October 2018.'Picture James Hardisty.'A new book from Historic England that involves the Piece Hall in Halifax. It�"s one of 12 Yorkshire places that feature in A History of England in 100 Places. Pictured Piece Hall, Halifax.

Places nominated by the public were grouped under ten headings – including Science and Discovery, Sport and Leisure, Loss and Destruction and Faith and Belief – and sifted by high-profile “experts and champions”, including Mary Beard, Bettany Hughes and Lord Robert Winston.

Author Philip Wilkinson has done an impressively thorough and thoughtful job of putting the 100 in context, with attractive photographs (though a map pinpointing the places geographically would have been useful).

With the Angel of the North spreading out welcoming wings on the cover, it’s a startlingly eclectic collection. Bristol Bus Station, London’s Abbey Road Studios, Blackpool Tower Ballroom, an Oxford garage and a row of Birmingham prefab bungalows take their place alongside Canterbury Cathedral, Windsor Castle, Chatsworth and the Palace of Westminster.

Here in Yorkshire, a Quaker meeting house near Ilkley, Scarborough’s Grand Hotel and a former steel research laboratory in Sheffield get equal billing with the more predictable Brontë Parsonage in Haworth and Fountains Abbey.

The Grade One-listed Piece Hall is up there with the best. Wilkinson credits it with “bringing to mind the splendour of ancient Rome” and the latest West Riding edition of Pevsner’s Buildings of England calls it “one of England’s greatest Georgian commercial buildings”.

It’s Britain’s last-surviving “cloth hall”, a huge (66,000 sq ft) piazza-like courtyard surrounded by galleries. They originally housed more than 300 rooms where weavers sold their “pieces” or lengths of woollen cloth – a sort of prototype shopping mall.

It opened in 1779, but within 30 years the Industrial Revolution had transformed weaving from a cottage industry to a factory industry and the Piece Hall became obsolete – a white elephant black with soot, as it has been described.

It spent the best part of a century as a wholesale fish, fruit and vegetable market, with stalls and sheds hiding its splendour. When Victor Canning, best known as a thriller writer, visited Halifax (“a town of smoking chimney stacks, rotund gasometers and melancholy church towers and steeples”) for the Daily Mail in the 1930s, his largely enthusiastic article made no mention of it.

The hall subsequently survived a demolition threat, and found a new life housing independent specialist shops. Bustling in the 1980s, it gradually came to seem underused, a bit of a backwater. But, after a £19m conservation-focused redevelopment, it reopened last year and now easily justifies the enthusiasm of the late architectural historian Gavin Stamp.

“Coming upon it is like finding one of the great mosques of Delhi or Cairo,” he wrote 30 years ago. “It ought to be one of the sights of England, but it is comparatively unknown. Perhaps that is because Halifax is not so much visited, both owing to the blinkered prejudice of Southerners and the fastidious taste of aesthetes who care only for the aristocratic and the rural.”

That could all change now. The new Piece Hall is a clever and unpretentiously chic blend of culture and commerce. With its water cascades, it’s a pleasant place to sit and people-watch, with high hills rearing behind.

On a chilly autumn afternoon, the place is busy with visitors – some doubtless lured by BBC 6 Music’s much-quoted description of Halifax as “the Shoreditch of the North” (which prompted one West Yorkshireman to describe Shoreditch as ”the Halifax of the South”).

Shop-owners are delighted by “the hub of Halifax”, as some call the hall, which incorporates a heritage centre, a smart new library, and a link to next-door the Square Chapel arts centre, another fine regeneration project.

Isobel Hampson first opened her Creative Crystals shop here in 1993. She moved out in 2014 when the hall closed for redevelopment, but is now back, surrounded by trays of moonstones and amethysts, pink opal and smoky quartz.

“It’s amazing,” she says, enthusiasm unbounded. “I’m doing better here than I ever have. Old customers have come back and I’ve got new regulars. We’re getting people from down South who’ve seen the Piece Hall on the telly, and we get coach parties coming in – which we’ve never had before. I love it, I absolutely love it. Everybody says the same.”

Along the gallery, Alan Sargent echoes what she says at Al’s Emporium. The business, which stocks antiques and collectables, started in Todmorden but didn’t take off and he and his wife Simone thought of selling exclusively online. “But we saw the vibe here when it reopened. It had got scruffy and rundown before, but now it’s absolutely brilliant,” says Alan.

Downstairs, Book Corner – which has a children’s section called Bookworms – is a focal point for visitors. “I think the Piece Hall has put Halifax on the map; it’s become a destination,” says manager Sarah Shaw. “We’ve seen Grayson Perry walking round, and Andrew Lloyd Webber. We get as many tourists here as local people.”

Plus the occasional equine photographer like Rachel Flynn. As she moves on to the next shop, she adds: “Incidentally, I’ve bought a horse over here. I’ll be flying him back to Australia.”

I nod vaguely again.

Irreplaceable: A History of England in 100 Places by Philip Wilkinson (Historic England, £20).

Yorkshire Post Readers can use the discount code YP18 on the basket page at https://retail.historicenglandservices.org.uk and receive 15 per cent discount plus free p&p in the UK.

The author will be speaking at Raworths Harrogate Literature Festival on October 18 (4pm). Tickets: £11 (01423 562303).