In the centre of St Helens’ main shopping centre stands St Helens Parish Church.
It’s an incongruous sight. The grand old church, rebuilt in the 1920s during the town’s industrial heyday, stands tall as a reminder of St Helens’ proud industrial heritage at the very heart of the modern town centre.
The redbrick church sits on an island surrounded by the the Church Square Shopping Centre, and is adjacent to the Hardshaw Centre, the town’s other main shopping centre.
On Church street you can see some boarded up shop windows. Argos and Marks & Spencer are two of the most recent national stores to leave the town.
It’s a visual reminder of the challenges modern life poses to our town centres.
If you carrying on walking down Church Street and turn left you’ll come to Westfield Street. From the top of the street you can see the Clock Tower of the historic Beechams Building.
The major employer left the town when the company merged with GSK in 1989.
But it’s not the only bit of history you’ll find on Westfield Street.
“I’ve got a hundred odd years of history behind me. It’s a lot of pressure”
John Burchall, 70, is the owner of Burchall’s Butchers, the oldest surviving retailer in the town.
The shop was opened by John’s great grandfather in the nineteenth century and is famous for its pork pies.
Speaking to me in the room above his butchers shop, John said: “We’ve been running on this site since 1921.Before that I believe we started in 1840 odd, my father used to tell me, but I’m not sure of the exact date.”
Its walls are covered with old photos of the business.
He showed me an old photo of the shop on its former site on Church Street from 1916. It showed a long line of people queuing round the corner from the shop to collect their rations during the First World War.
John said: “I’ve got a hundred odd years of history behind me.”
John explained the story behind his famous pork pies.
He said: “My ancestor on my father’s side was just a butcher but he married a baker. I presume Mrs Elliot put a bit of pressure on Mr Elliot. I think that’s how it started in either the 1860s or the 1880s.
“Pies used to be a big deal in Wigan but I think we [St Helens] have taken over, but if Wigan bakers want to get in touch with me and shout about it then that’s fair enough.”
While he said he was proud to be the owner of the longest running business in the town, he definitely feels a sense of pressure from it.
John said: “I am proud. But it puts a lot of pressure on me because I’m 70 years old now. I can’t go on forever.
“I can’t go on forever. I have no offspring to leave the business to so eventually I’m going to have to be the one that pulls the plug.
“I’d like to think that the business would go on and that I’d eventually put it on the market as a business and hopefully the reputation that we’d have built up over the years would see it through into new ownership.”
John employs 12 members of staff, one of whom has worked for him for 35 years and he says that they are like ‘family to him’
He reminisces about working late on a Friday with his father back in the 1980s preparing joints of meat to be sold the following day for Sunday roasts.
Now, he says he’s resigned to the eventual death of town centres. He says the process is “too far gone”.
“Everyone knows everyone. There’s a proper strong community feel in St Helens”
On the other side of town centre you’ll find a different story on Barrow Street. One of new begins and fresh optimism.
The Old Times Collective tattoo studio opened in March this year, its striking modern studio stands out among the other shop fronts.
Frances Barton, 24, told me that their story is a sign that young creatives can thrive in the town if given the right opportunities.
She said: “We’re doing really well considering we only opened in March. I’m honestly so shocked at how well it’s been going so far. We’ve been getting praise after praise from people that are coming in. People see the shop and they actually want to come in.
“I’ve studied art my whole life and I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in the creative side of stuff but I never thought I could do this.
“You grow up thinking it’s a very private industry. You need to know the right kind of people to get into it. I never thought I could do it but now I’m here.”
Fran works alongside other young artists Luke Stubbs, Rachael Haney and Sean Duffy. They want to use their business to help the local community.
Fran said: “One of our biggest things was that we wanted to start doing art exhibitions and promote the creative side of St Helens because there’s not a lot out there for young creatives.
“Obviously we’ve not been open long so it’s a plan for the future. We want to do a lot of community things like charity work. We do charity flash days and make people feel welcome.
“There’s a proper strong community feel in St Helens. Everyone knows everyone. Everyone’s very closely knit.”
From speaking to Fran and spending time in the shop it was clear that she felt St Helens needed help to reach its full potential.
“I feel like this place could be really great, it’s just a lot of people from outside St Helens don’t visit here because there isn’t a lot here unfortuantely. I think that’s something that needs to be worked on and I think that’s something the Council does realise.”
Time and again the people I talked to spoke about the community spirit that runs through the town.
“A typical person from St Helens is strong. They’re the kind of people who, if you ask for help they’ll just give it you. It’s a close knit town”
Claire Rigby, owner Momo’s community cafe on Westfield Street, said: “A typical person from St Helens is strong. They’re the kind of people who, if you ask for help they’ll just give it you. It’s a close knit town.”
No-one tells this story better than Claire, someone at the heart of various community project in the town.
Claire grew up in St Helens but moved away for work and study before coming back to the town to look after her father when he fell ill. Before opening Momo’s, she used to work with young offenders and as a teaching assistant.
Formerly based on Cotham Street, Momo’s cafe faced closure last year after it flooded nine times in sixth months. But the cafe was saved by the community who raised money to pay some of Claire’s debts and the deposit on a new shop.
Claire frequently opened her cafe for community events, starting with an autism support group and a knitting club.
She said: “When we closed, people in the community raised £1500 to get me and my family through Christmas. That was raised by the community through secret groups that I didn’t know about.
“They were just ordinary people, customers, people like that who had been in. They’d throw a tenner in, a twenty in, a hundred quid in, and then £1500 was given to me.”
Claire said that the gesture overwhelmed her.
She said: “I had a breakdown. It overwhelmed me to the point that I just broke down. I just broke, I was in tears.
“January came and I started lining up job interviews but then one of the other directors here asked to meet for coffee and he said ‘we’re going to reopen Momo’s!'”.
Claire explained that many people in the town rely on her and the cafe as an informal support network.
She said: “At least 200 people were needing Momo’s on a regular basis for their mental health. They’d come straight to us because we knew where to send them.
“We’d get a phone number off the doctor and say, ‘right, you need to phone these people to get a referral’, and we’d make those phone calls for them.
“We always say: We’re not psychiatrists, we’re not psychologists, we’re not doctors, we’re not counsellors. If you come here you can have a brew, you can have a cuddle, you can have a chat.
“We help people at crisis point. We drive people to A&E. We sit with people in A&E. We’ll make those initial calls for people, but that’s as far as we can go.”
I asked Claire where she got her motivation from for all her community work given that she also has a business to run.
She laughed and said that this is a question she gets a lot.
She said: “It’s just in me. If you can help, why not?”
But as we carried on talking, it was clear that her desire to help others was a response to the deep rooted anger she has at the treatment of her town and others like it across the country by central government.
She said: “I was absolutely furious when all this stuff started happening. When the Tories came and the cuts came, and Universal Credit came, and the bedroom tax came. Even though I wasn’t affected by that stuff I saw the effects it was having on other people.
“I vowed after I left uni in 2014 that I was going to help people in this town but I didn’t know what it was going to be. This is what it’s evolved through.”
Claire told me that she believes getting young people the work experience they need for the jobs of the future is the route to a better future for the town.
She told me that she regularly takes on volunteers who begin with nothing and leave with a hospitality and catering qualification.
“You’ve got to do what people from St Helens are good at which is getting stuck in and working hard”
When the recession hit in 2009, Gary Forsyth, from Blackbrook, had a decision to make. He was working in marketing for a construction company at the time and was told that he would have to move to Watford to keep his job.
Instead he decided to set up Cultivate , a web and graphic design studio based in St Helens with another colleague who he worked with at the time.
Gary, now 49, employs 8 members of staff, some of whom studied graphic design at St Helens College.
They’ve worked with many big name clients including St Helens Rugby Club, Liverpool FC and Everton FC.
I asked him what he thought about the struggles the town has had since the decline of manufacturing.
“Unfortunately it’s a sign of the times at the moment. It’s not just St Helens. I think St Helens has a particular struggle but you can take a lot of local northern towns that have lost the manufacturing side of employment.
“The town has struggled. I don’t think you can shy away from that. At the moment it’s going through a bit of a dip but you can see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
For Gary, the decision to set up a national business in St Helens is one that he believes can work for other businesses if they are prepared to put the work in.
“I think you’ve got to do what people from St Helens are quite good at which is getting stuck in and working hard.”
Andrew Stuart, 32, started working at Cultivate when he graduated from St Helens College on an apprenticeship scheme run by the Chamber of Commerce .
“I’ve always lived here and I didn’t particularly want to go far away”, he said.
“On finishing uni there weren’t that many opportunities for design and creative jobs in St Helens, so I was immediately looking at Manchester or Liverpool but being paired with cultivate here was ideal.”
Andrew told me that the he was optimistic about the town’s future but that the change might not be to everyone’s liking.
“People seem to think that in those days that the town was in better shape, obviously with shops closing now and things like that, but I’m quite hopeful.”
“I know the Council have had CGIs made talking about a 20 year vision for the future. I understand that’s not going to be for everyone but I think for thing’s to progress you’ve got to change. “
St Helen’s has an unbreakable community spirit that has endured through the difficult times.
Top news stories
The Council has a ten year plan for regenerating the town, but many of the people I spoke to said that they wanted to see these changes now.
It’s a proud town, with proud people who want a future that lives up to its history.
Now it’s time for central government to step up and give towns like St Helens the tools to succeed.
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