A Piece of Halifax Heritage
The Piece Hall (Halifax)
Member Name: fizzywizzy
The Piece Hall (Halifax)
Advantages: A handsome building with an interesting history; free to look
Disadvantages: Not all units ocucpied
It was Halifax's Victorian era civic buildings I most interested in seeing during my visit to the town but it was a building that was completely new to me, and from a different era, that really caught my attention.
The Piece Hall is a Georgian building, and the sole remaining example of its kind in England. It was built in 1779 as a rather grand market place for cloth merchants to display and sell their wares, a 'piece' being the name given to a 30 yard length of woollen cloth made on a handloom. Halifax was at the heart of the West Riding cloth making industry and the successful businessmen of the town wished to have a market place that reflected their standing. At this time cloth manufacture was done by hand; the 'dark satanic mills' as described William Blake were yet to come; as the weavers lived in the various villages scattered around the area, visiting them all was time consuming so the merchants wanted a central place where dealers could sell their cloths.
Like so many self-made men that wished to be seen as cultured and wise, they chose a design with classical elements, opting for the neo-classical style which incorporated many elements seen in Roman architecture, and there is a sense of a Roman forum about the Piece Hall. This was a practice that carried through to the Victorian age when philanthropists, usually wealthy industrialists, spent their money providing libraries and other facilities for the working classes; they would choose architectural styles that they thought portrayed them as men of reason.
The Piece Hall is a square with two arched entrances. As we entered the complex I was astonished; I really hadn't expected something so wonderful. The upper floors are is colonnaded and you can walk all the way round under cover. The ground floor also has some shelter, perfect for escaping the rain or seeking some shady on a sunnier day. The upper floor is accessed by staircases at each corner, but a small lift has been installed for wheelchair users and presumably for moving heavier items of stock for the businesses on the upper level.
When the mills opened there was no need for the Piece Hall and gradually it fell out of use. Fortunately the local council saw its potential and a few years ago it was extensively renovated, providing small shops units and housing the town's tourist information office and an adjoining museum and gallery space. There are several cafes and tea shops and an independent gallery.
You won't find any high street chains here; it's all independent shops, many of them specialists. There's a stamp dealer, a specialist comic shop, one selling vintage and customised clothes, and one selling handmade glass. My favourite was a sweet shop selling lots of varieties of old fashioned boiled sweets and sherbets as well as classic American candy and chocolate bars. There were lots of old favourites and a good number of local specialities such as 'voice drops' which apparently is unheard of in the south of England.
Another brilliant shop is the antiquarian and second hand bookshop. There are shelves and shelves of books covering every subject, the choice is extensive. I pounced on a teeny Yugo-Slav (sic) phrasebook which I knew I would not be able to live without and managed to restrain myself from buying any more crime fiction though there was a huge selection.
The Tourist Information Centre and museum occupies almost the entirety of one side on the square, on the upper floor. As well as having lots of leaflets on attractions in Halifax and the immediate area, there's lots of useful stuff on Yorkshire in general as well as a wide choice of souvenirs. We enquired about a microbrewery we'd heard about and one of the staff kindly found their website then gave us directions, including which bus to take there.
The museum hosts temporary exhibitions, usually with a local theme. At the time we visited it had a display of vintage tins used in packaging from the Mackintosh chocolate factory which used to be one of the area's major employers.
On Sunday we stopped for a coffee at one of the cafes; there are a couple around the Piece Hall including a very nice looking tea house on the second floor. To my disappointment, we discovered the tea house just after we'd had our coffees but I'd certainly have stopped off for a cup of speciality tea had we not just had drinks. The cafes all offer sandwiches and light meals, and the one we stopped at had lots of homemade cakes and biscuits, including some local specialities. All of the cafes have indoor and outdoor seating.
A grassy square occupies the ground in the centre of the courtyard and when we visited there was a small domed stage on one side. I couldn't see what events might be imminent but I do know that the Piece Hall stage is used in July for performances that are part of the Halifax Festival. A temporary ice rink is installed around Christmas time.
The Piece Hall is an important part of our industrial heritage and it is brilliant that is has been given a new lease of life. I would say that no more than half of the units are currently occupied and it would be great if more could be used. Rents are fairly low and it would be a good way of small businesses starting out.
I really didn't know anything about the Piece Hall before I stumbled on it and it was a lovely surprise to find it. The shops were an added bonus; I'm not much of a shopper, but it's more pleasant to shop here than on the crowded high street.
If you happen to be in Halifax or reasonably close by I would certainly recommend you stop off to take a look.
There is lots of parking in Halifax. The Piece Hall is a five minute walk from both the bus station or the train station.
Note - there are toilets in the Piece Hall but you have to pay to use them.
Summary: A Grade 1 listed building that has been given a new lease of life