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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.
250 years ago the West Yorkshire town of Halifax was at the centre of the textile trade. A few decades later textile mills would spring up all along the valley in which Halifax sits but back in the 1770's most of the cloth was made in the local people's houses on handlooms. The Piece Hall opened in 1779 as a place where these traders could meet and trade their cloth. It was built to replace a smaller building called The Cloth Hall.
Today The Piece Hall is a Grade 1 listed building. It stands in the heart of town centre and is now used largely as a shopping complex.
I was in Halifax yesterday and The Piece Hall was one of the places that I wanted to see. I easily found the main entrance as it is clearly sign posted from everywhere within the town centre but upon arrival I was greeted by the not quite so quite imposing entrance to this very grand building. The entrance is a doorway between the high brick walls which has a small sign above it that simply reads " The Piece Hall Halifax - Britain's oldest remaining cloth hall opened January 1st 1779".
What the modest entrance conceals is a very large rectangular shaped building that is built around a central courtyard. The courtyard is open air with a small patch of green glass but the majority of its space was taken up by market stalls and a huge white marquee tent. This marquee tent appears every winter and houses an indoor skating rink. Despite it being mid week and quite early in the morning it looked very popular and it was also quite noisy, belting out the latest chart tunes as the eager skaters whizzed round to the beats. I didn't go inside the skating rink but it is possible to see inside through the windows.
Around the four outer sides of the complex is where all of the shops are to be found. They are set out on two levels and these shops include book shops, clothing shops and general haberdashery retailers. I even spotted a Goth type clothing/accessory store that had a coffin propped up outside its outer wall, inside this coffin there was a skeleton - I hope it was fake!
There's not a huge amount of shops, probably less than 20 but what is there looks very interesting. They are small independent retailers unlike the chain stores that dominate the high street and I am sure that if you knew what you was looking for then you could pick up a bargain in one of the second hall record or book shops.
Also located within The Piece Hall is Halifax's main tourist information centre and a visitor centre, which along with an art gallery and a museum dominates an entire side of one of the floors. I found the museum very interesting although it is quite small. It has a very intimate feel to it with lots of old photographs of the town and like all good museums it also had a very friendly enthusiastic staff.
When I visited The Piece Hall it was pouring down with rain and the sheltered walkways gave some respite from the rain. I found it to be a very interesting place and if I am ever in Halifax again I will probably pay it another visit.
It is open at the following hours:
Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday - 8am until 5.45pm
Thursday - 6.30am until 6.15pm
Friday - 8am until 6pm
Saturday - 6.30am until 6.45pm
Sunday - 10am until 5.45pm
The Piece Hall
Telephone: (01422) 321002
Fax: (01422) 349310