When earlier this year the Manchester DJ Luke Unabomber declared “Stockport is the new Berlin” – a tagline enthusiastically taken up in this northern town – no one was being remotely serious. But joking aside, this nonetheless confirmed that something interesting is happening in Stockport.
Historically overshadowed by larger, louder Manchester, seven miles north, Stockport has seen its visibility boosted in recent years by the rise of proud locals Blossoms, one of Britain’s biggest bands, and the return of league football to Stockport County’s Edgeley Park. But it is the DIY, grassroots activity in food, fashion, art and music found in the architecturally striking old town, that is exciting early adopters and generating media notices about, “one of the coolest little corners of the country”.
A music map of Stockport featuring Blossoms. Photograph: Emily FlanaganThe action centres on Little and Great Underbanks, historic streets in a split-level layout next to Stockport Market Place. When Emma Nosurak opened her self-explanatory Plant Shop in 2017, this area was quiet, unloved, with many shops boarded up. But Nosurak says: “There was a charm about it. It had that York-Harrogate vibe. I really liked some of the buildings that weren’t run down. I felt something could happen there.”
Soon, Plant Shop was joined by Rare Mags, retailer of publications covering everything from food to 90s raves, and SK1 Records, a vinyl treasure trove which, in summer, throws outdoor parties on Little Underbank. With the adventurous All Night Flight records also staging irregular events in its loft, music fans could suddenly catch credible DJs and live acts in Stockport, rather than travelling into Manchester.
Stockport mapThe Underbanks is still a work in progress, but word is out that, like Manchester’s Northern Quarter in the 1990s, this is an enclave of relatively affordable space where people are doing interesting things. It is now home, for example, to an array of clothing, vintage and homeware stores, such as Top of the Town, Nosurak’s second project Rare Finds, homeware store Squound, which specialises in mid-century furniture, vintage shop 20th Century Stores, the newly expanded Old Town General Store and Emiko, where unisex clothing is made on site.
Art is mingled with commerce, too. A female-led community collective, Underbank Studios, is near-neighbour to the new Sleepy Parrot Studios. Beyond Underbanks, GRIT houses 20 artist-makers in the kind of space (“cheap, ugly, next to a scrapyard,” says co-founder, John Macaulay), that is increasingly rare in Manchester.
GRIT houses 20 artist-makers. Photograph: Crispy MultimediaRunaway Brewery recently relocated from Manchester to a spot in the shadow of Stockport’s famous viaduct, for similar reasons. Feeling “less relevant” in increasingly corporate Manchester, owner Mark Welsby was drawn to “smaller, more human” Stockport: “There’s a creative, independent community here. We’re among likeminded people.”
By that, Welsby emphasises, he doesn’t just mean “hip kids moving out from Manchester”, but also established venues that already attract discerning drinkers. Runaway’s taproom is now part of a terrific potential pub crawl taking in the cosy, bric-a-brac-filled Ye Olde Vic, Heaton Lane real ale gem the Crown, the Petersgate Tap (next to Stockport Gin distillery), and the revered Magnet, a traditional pub with an exceptional range of modern beers.
Some will decry these changes as gentrification. It is a reasonable fear. But like many post-industrial northern towns, there is so much empty space in Stockport that the town’s existing core and its bohemian fringe can rub along productively. The Merseyway shopping centre isn’t going anywhere. The neighbouring Redrock leisure hub, home of the Light cinema (which recently hosted a premiere for BBC drama Waterloo Road), does its mainstream, family-friendly thing.
For some, this focus on Stockport is an opportunity to shout about its longstanding achievements in music and millinery. Stockport’s Hat Works museum is being redeveloped and this month will see the launch of Stockport Music Map, with a party at emerging multi-use space Syndikat. Monthly guided tours and events will celebrate Stockport’s music history, most notably 10CC’s Strawberry Studios, also used by Joy Division and the Smiths. A covers album, Strawberry Studios Forever, will launch at the Plaza theatre in April.
The Trans Pennine Trail runs through central Stockport and given its proximity to the Peak District, the town could equally sell itself as a rural gateway. Walkers will not lack places to refuel. The monthly Foodie Friday sees thousands enjoying music and street food traders around Stockport’s covered market (do not miss Oh Mei Dumpling), with drinks provided by pubs such as the Bakers Vaults, Mobberley Brewhouse’s Project 53 and natural wine evangelist Wine Boy.
A sea bass dish at Where The Light Gets InChef Sam Buckley, a fellow natural wine advocate, runs Where The Light Gets In, a tasting menu restaurant acclaimed for its sustainable ethos, creative cooking and focus on artisan crafts. Its sister bakery-cafe Yellowhammer; the Colombian Café Sanjuan (try the papa, a buttery, beer-battered ball of crushed potato stuffed with shredded brisket); and the convivial Mekong Cat – south-east Asian noodles and incredible fried chicken – are notable, newer additions to Stockport’s food map. As is the Produce Hall food hall.
In the Spinn Off, the apothecary-style Cracked Actor or Good Rebel, the Underbanks’ bar scene is equally lively. Next year, Blossoms vocalist Tom Ogden and his wife Katie will (above the latter’s hair salon, Bohemian), open the speakeasy-inspired Bohemian Arts Club, an intimate space with curated music and arts events. “Stockport definitely feels like it has a new lease of life,” emails Tom, between tour dates. “The Underbanks has something special in the air.”
Bask is a gig venue, bar and comedy club. Photograph: Nathan WhittakerMotivated creatives are driving this change, but are quietly supported by Stockport Council, which is buying buildings let to independent starts-ups, and offers them open-minded support. It has, for example, allowed Buckley to create the Landing, an allotment and planned community garden atop the Merseyway shopping centre (curious horticulturists can view it via the car park stairs off Arden Walk). After the live Art Battle drew 1,000 people to Stockport’s empty Debenhams, the council is considering proposals for events there throughout 2023.
For Benji Taylor, co-founder of Bask (a bar, gig venue, comedy club and late-night, DJ-led hang-out), the contrast with the Stockport of his youth is profound. It came 12th in an early-2000s poll for the book Crap Towns, sp it is “great to see it turning full-circle”.
He adds: “We did a run of ‘Stockport Isn’t Shit’ bags with Hug & Co. They sold out in a day. People are as proud of Stockport as they’ve ever been.”
Ever greater Manchester
Lonely Planet tipped the city centre as a destination for 2023 but, increasingly, the good stuff is found in its suburbs and neighbouring Salford.
The city is home to cutting-edge music and art, at White Hotel, Islington Mill, Partisan. Eat at Porta, drink at pub-theatre the King’s Arms.
In this south-western suburb, venues Dulcimer, Electrik’s and the Carlton Club, and restaurants Amma’s Canteen and the Oystercatcher, have plenty going on.
In between Manchester and Stockport, the “Levy” district has, to name but a few, Trove’s for brunches, Levenshulme Bakery for excellent shawarma, natural wine bar Isca and Ventile Brew Co’s tap Station Hop.