TAITMAIL The Mechanics of community life

Marsden is not one of those places whose name resonates in the annals of the arts world. Indeed, for many people travelling by train from Leeds to Manchester it’s no more than the briefly witnessed name of a station as your carriage whizzes past (though perhaps “whiz” is the wrong verb in the context of a journey that takes the best part of two hours to traverse a distance of just over 43 miles). 

But Marsden, still within the boundaries of Yorkshire but only just, deserves more than a passing glance - not least because it’s a great example of what Arts Council England is trying to achieve with its Meeting Point programme. 

This encourages museums and galleries to add contemporary arts of other kinds to their programmes. The latest batch of grants from Meeting Point, overseen by the specialist agency Arts and Heritage, brings together artists with venues as wide ranging as the Didcot Railway Centre and the Ure Museum of Greek Archaeology in Reading. Good luck to them and to the 26 other projects that the Meeting Point programme has supported. 

But one could ask, why is such a programme necessary at all? 

Surely all branches of the cultural world should be collaborating all the time. Museums are stuffed full of artworks from the past, why stop there and not allow audiences to make the connections between past and present art? Galleries of all kinds feature pictures of musicians, ballet dancers and actors. Why not see their contemporaries at work in spaces which could have been made for the production of dance, music and theatre?

Which brings me to Marsden, where slap bang in the middle of this small community of no more than 5,000 souls is an extraordinary Grade II listed building called the Marsden Mechanics. This building is now the life and soul of the town, hosting not only a library and community centre but the headquarters of the local community association the Marsden Jazz Festival and those indefatigable pioneers of narrowboat theatre, Mikron. It also hosts plays, music, dance, films and exhibitions, talks, meetings and just about every incarnation of local societies and clubs. 

But the fact that the building is still here at all is testimony to the spirit and resilience of residents, who in 1974 would not accept the local council’s (Kirklees in this instance) insistence that the building should be demolished after decades of neglect. Originally built in 1860 as the Mechanics Institute it was one of the worldwide network of places established, usually by enlightened employers, to train local workers. Mechanics institutes were important forerunners of adult education and over the decades widened their remit from technical and engineering skills to include art classes, literary talks, reading rooms and all manner of educational activities.

Indeed, the Mechanics Institutes are celebrating their bicentenary, it being 200 years since the first was opened in Edinburgh in 1821 which is now known as Heriot-Watt University. 

As such establishments declined in the face of other mass entertainments like television, many struggled to adapt to the new cultural context. But the trust set up to save the building believed that the Victorian institute still held an important place in the hearts of local people, and with care and attention could play a useful role once again. Over the decades they have badgered authorities to release grants, raised hundreds of thousands of pounds from donors and well-wishers and generated steady income from a host of other activities. Its most recent grant was for £308,000 from the National Lottery Coronavirus Community Support Fund. 

The Mechanics, as it’s known locally, is not the only show in town. Marsden is also the home of the Silver Prize Band, one of the longest established brass bands in the country whose HQ also runs a plethora of music classes; St Bartholomew’s Church, a magnificent slice of Victorian nestling by the River Colne, is also a regular venue for all sorts of concerts from classical to musicals.

And of course, it helps that Marsden is surrounded by stunning scenery, much of it now cared for by the National Trust, with a beautifully restored canal and is next door to the Canal and River Trust’s Standedge visitor centre, dedicated to the UK’s longest, deepest and most intriguing canal tunnel. 

Little wonder that animation companies, musical instrument makers, art shops, cheesemakers and artisan bakers have all been enticed to set up shop in this tiny Pennine community as have dozens of filmmakers attracted by the town’s film set good looks and proximity to Manchester and Leeds.

The Tory budget this week attracted criticism from some in the arts world that while the uplift to culture funding was welcome, the Chancellor has paid too much attention to giving cash to buildings. While no-one is saying that helping freelances or supporting local councils with arts budgets aren’t important matters, buildings can make a difference – as Marsden has shown. 

Of course, it helps to be able to call on a dedicated army of volunteers to make places like the Mechanics work. But saving heritage buildings, turning them into arts centres and making them the centre of community life might just prove to be a winning formula. Let’s celebrate it. 

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