Whistlestop Manchester: Rochdale Where? 10 miles northeast of central Manchester (formerly Lancashire) Population 216,000 (approximately the same as Luton or Portsmouth) How to get there? rail (fast), tram (slow), M62 Why? Gracie Fields, cheap food and the Co-Op
Gracie Fields: Not a park, but a Rochdale lass who became one of the world's most famous actresses in the 1930s. A trail of eight purple plaques leads round the town centre, including the sites of her demolished childhood homes, but I didn't spot any. What I did find is her statue, unveiled lastautumn in Town Hall Square, showing Our Gracie at the mike, dress-in-hand. The broodingly gothic Town Hall loomed behind, ringing out the hour with the Westminster Chimes, at one end of a recently cleared stripe of waterfront alongside the river Roch. A historic medieval bridge has been revealed, but Rochdale's centrally-cleansed zone felt achingly empty in the pouring rain.
Cheap food: All the usual eateries fill Rochdale's central lanes and shopping mall, at least by northern standards. Starbucks get no closer than a BP garage on the outskirts. At Crawshaws in Yorkshire Street, now the shopping precinct, I was impressed to see the butchers were offering a sausage roll or bacon roll and a hot drink for £1.50. Blimey I said, they know their target audience well, and that puts into perspective the prices we Londoners are prepared to pay for a brioche burger. Thankfully I resisted, because it seems Crawshaws entered into a "transformational partnership with 2 Sisters Food Group" earlier in the year, and a trip to Greggs felt pathogenically safer.
Rochdale Pioneers Museum: Rochdale is the original home of the Co-Operative movement, founded a few days before Christmas in the winter of 1844. The first store opened at 31 Toad Lane, now a museum, and has been recreated in all its simplicity in the very same downstairs room. Even though it's not obvious, remember to enter the museum through the old shop's entrance, not the fire door in the extension alongside, otherwise the nice ladies on the desk will rush outside and look at you with pity. Once within you'll find the story of the Pioneers, whose principled economics eventually grew to become a global enterprise with a over a billion members. Above the permanent gallery is a temporary exhibition, currently focusing on (99) tea and biscuits - an inspired choice. And above that, in a loft space often used by school groups, you can push a button and watch an old Co-Op-inspired film. I chose It's All Yours, a ten minute documentary from 1955 aimed at encouraging housewives to sign-up for the divi, and a reminder that the Co-Op was once Britain's biggest business. Things aren't quite so rosy these days, but the fairtrade-friendly retailer is a fine reminder that commerce doesn't have to be exploitative.