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Ramsbottoms Tilted Vase
Liam Barker

Now Then in the Valley of the Ram―a brief exploration of the past in the present.

Rather stupidly―perhaps due to childhood holidays spent ambling through preened National Park villages―I never thought heritage railways could incongruously weave through the modern world. On its rumbling approach to Ramsbottom station, my cacophonous train clanks past a filled FedEx depot and busy Aldi store. No, this town isn’t a museum piece smitten with the Golden Age of Steam, nor a precious display of pristine quaintness; it’s a place in which the past reverberates through the streets, but not as sonorously as the present. Like certain other areas of Greater Manchester, Ramsbottom feels in tune with its history but isn’t beholden to it.

The train pulls away with much captivating fanfare; it's as if I'm witnessing an enormous, wheezing can of spam on wheels. Steam-blasted in its wake, I’m left on a fast-emptying platform whose stop signal, hit by crisp midday light, stands as an unusual sundial. The locomotive’s accelerating departure dissipates into the Lancastrian distance, giving way to a background hum of bank holiday energy that's like the low-level sizzle of pylon wires in drizzle. I head through the exit to see what the buzz is all about; it’s subtle enough to be tasteful, but tangible enough to belie the town’s relatively small population.

Ramsbottom Station

Ramsbottom Station

Liam Barker

The busy streets are scented with a faint aroma of boho-chic, though in a relatively innocuous sort of way―and for every café with a name like Drinc, there’s half a dozen cobbled back-alleys lined with wheelie bins. There's also a rather ramshackle set of market stalls, one of which leaks a sopping wet trail of fish juice. I’m tempted to rashly conclude this diminutive display of market day activity reflects a culture in which traditional life occurs uneasily alongside Ramsbottom’s more polished, middle-class tendencies―yet I know this is reductive, even if it may contain a kernel of truth.

If cultural dissonance is a side effect of the old mill town’s supposable aims to attract well-heeled, Hebden Bridge-type folk, it’s not irrefutably obvious. And as misguided as the following comparison surely is, any melding of traditional and gentrified feels far gentler here than its stark manifestation 12 miles away in Manchester city centre, where shiny Deansgate towers provide uncompromisingly sleek backdrops for cowed red-brick warehouses to squat before.

Alley in Ramsbottom

Alley in Ramsbottom

Liam Barker

The fish juice trail eventually runs dry, and my nose breathes a quiet sigh of relief. Before long I’m standing in front of the town’s pièce de résistance in Market Place, hoping to see a purer form of liquid pour from it. Initially loathed by locals when it was unveiled, the ‘Tilted Vase’ by acclaimed artist Edward Allington is now rightly regarded as a unique centre-piece, which perfectly captures the town’s architecture and industrial heritage. Its smooth curvatures reflect Victorian architectural predilections, whilst its bolted-together, two-ton metal pays hefty homage to the heavy sounds of the spinning, weaving, and printing that once happened here day-in and day-out.

No water’s pouring from it today, meaning its pump might be broken. Even so, it still convincingly represents Ramsbottom’s inseverable connection to industry and the River Irwell, as well as its residents’ capacities for carefree conviviality―half a kebab lurks at its bottom, like some curious creature on the sea bed. The market stalls’ fishy offerings flash before my eyes.

Elsewhere, Peel Monument―a memorial tower for ex-Prime Minister Sir Robert Peel, AKA the ‘father of modern British policing’―overlooks the town with a monolithic grandiosity. Although it’s a notable landmark, it might be more impressive if its position on Holcombe Hill wasn’t so obtrusively vain. On balance, I’d rather look at the old chimney in Nuttall Park near the station―it's decidedly less conceited, grounded by a former working life of simple necessity.

So that’s exactly what I do―I turn in the direction of Nuttall Park’s sunny mid-spring embrace, wondering whether the ghost of Sir Bobby will send police to manage my churlish disregard for his very tall tower. My straightforward enjoyment of the park soon puts any spectral tomfoolery firmly out of mind―after all, I’m taking in open green fields and soaking up an easy, languid ambience. I’m floating towards a friendly, sun-kissed beer garden; I can feel it.

I sip suds as Long Hot Summer plays on a jukebox. It’s a matter of minutes before my train arrives to take me back to Bury in erratic bursts of steam―but there's still enough time to realise why Ramsbottom might be such a likeable place. You see, in the valley of the ram, life's still informed by the certainties of the last three centuries, but it's also immersed in the ineluctable charm of a town that knows how to enjoy today.

The chimney near Nuttall Park

The chimney near Nuttall Park

Liam Barker

Previously from Knowing Manchester Outside In

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Next stop for Now Then is Mossley—where houses are built on hills and old county borders meet.

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