What York could learn from Altrincham…

YOU might not think that Altrincham on the southern outskirts of Manchester would have much to teach York, but you’d be wrong.

To be fair, until yesterday I would have been wrong about that, too. But a visit to Altrincham’s now acclaimed food market put me right. It also made my mind up in favour of the Spark:York plan for Piccadilly in York, where the aim is to use old shipping containers to house a collection of shops and food outlets on the old Reynolds Garage site.

We drove to Salford to visit our middle boy and his girlfriend, then hopped on Manchester’s top tram system for the trip to Altrincham, where nearly four year ago the old covered market was turned into a foodie hub.

You enter the market to see different franchises arranged around the four sides – a pizza parlour, a burger stall, cakes and coffee and so on, with a pub in one stall and a wine-bar in the next – and tightly packed tables lined up in the middle.

I first heard about this place in October 2015 when it cleaned up in the Observer Monthly Food Awards. Our boy thought we would like it, and boy was he right. This is a fantastic place, with the only downside being its heaving popularity.

All the franchises are one-off and local, so there are no chains, and next to the main food area there is a larger covered market, filled with stalls offering everything from crafty things to antiques to tea and coffee and bread, with more food franchises around the far edge.

Further stalls and more permanent shops, bars and cafes are arranged around the market, including an area where a row of basic wooden cabins house more food outlets. All the stalls are run by enterprising young people and the place was buzzing.

We had a coffee there first, then later ate there, too. The coffee was truly good, as was the food. You choose a table and then buy from different stalls: something veggie for the non-meat eater among us, and two big sandwiches from a meat stall for me and the boy, plus a dish of roast potatoes for his girlfriend.

The sandwiches were greater than that word sometimes suggests, about half a locally made baguette – beautifully charred and crusty on the outside, and properly tangy and bready in the middle – filled with pulled chicken, pickled red onion and tarragon mayo. Just about the perfect meal for me, although low on the veg count (that’s for the veg counting one in my life).

Anyway, we left with a positive impression of Altrincham and its market, which is well worth a visit, and has turned the town into an unlikely foodie destination. Yes, it’s trendy – but so what? Trendies usually help revive places. And this was place rammed with mostly young people working hard and producing street food worthy of more established restaurants; and it’s fun and vibrant.

Not everyone likes trendies, but we should embrace them. Yes, areas can change but they are going to do that anyway, and not always in a good way. Altrincham wasn’t much of a destination until the trendies took over the old market, and now it’s a place well worth travelling to.

As we ate outside those wooden cabins, I thought of what Spark:York wish to do. At first I wasn’t sure about this idea, perhaps put off – as others have been – by the thought of shipping containers. But no more. If they can pull off something like we saw in Altrincham, then it would be a boost for York, as our middle boy, who lives in York, has been saying on Facebook for a while now.

So, let’s not grumble. I may be too old to be a trendy but don’t count me yet with the grumblies.

York has tried to do something similar with the makeover of what is now called Shambles Market. A few foot outlets are huddled together at the cold end of the market. A lot of money was spent on smartening up the market, sadly to mostly underwhelming effect.

I know that York doesn’t need to attract visitors, while Altrincham did. But if they’ve not been already, I suggest that whoever looks after such things on City of York Council should have a day out to south Manchester. They certainly won’t go hungry.

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