PIECE OF THE ACTION
It reopened after a £19m restoration project. Now two years on, Piece Hall is determined to establish itself as one of Yorkshire’s most exciting entertainment venues.
I t’s a sunny, midweek afternoon much like any other at Halifax’s Piece Hall. Except of course for the gigantic baby doll in the middle of the central square. Standing at 22ft, even under glorious spring blue skies it is the stuff of nightmares and those grabbing a quick lunch at one of Yorkshire’s most impressive historical landmarks don’t quite know what to make of it.
The doll is part of an immersive theatre show by Bradford’s Mind the Gap and while one of those passing through the Welcome Centre says he’d much prefer to see the Bootleg Beatles, that massive baby says much about the ambition of the Piece Hall.
“Terrifying isn’t it,” says the Piece Hall’s CEO Nicky Chance Thompson. “But when we reopened 18 months ago, this is exactly the kind of event I wanted the Piece Hall to be staging. Right now it feels that everything is coming together.”
For a while it looked like the reinvention of the former cloth trading hall might never happen. Originally built in 1779 even during its heyday it only opened for two hours a week and by the early decades of the 19th century it had fallen out of use.
Eventually it became home to a market and a succession of independent traders, but opening hours were erratic and when night fell tumbleweed might as well have blown through the stone plaza. While everyone agreed it should be saved from a long and slow decline, the question was how?
Even when funding was secured for a major redevelopment there were a succession of setbacks, including the discovery of 200 ancient bodies buried under the hall.
Chance Thompson came on board at a critical time. The former chief executive had walked without much explanation and with the project delayed it needed a firm hand to prevent the wheels coming off altogether.
“This place is vital to the economy of the town and I knew that if we could get the offer right it could spark something really wonderful. It was about giving the people of Halifax back their town square and making the Piece Hall the beating heart of the town again.”
It’s not quite there yet. As they work to ensure the right mix of traders there are still a number of vacant units. However, with the first level of the two-storey Piece Hall dedicated to restaurants, bars and cafes it has managed to carve out a life post- 5pm and the going forward, the events programme will be crucial to its success.
Next up is a four-day music festival. Organised in collaboration with promoters Futuresound who are also behind Live at Leeds. It will see Mac Demarco, Levellers, Embrace and Elbow all perform in the main square over consecutive nights.
“If you live in this part of Yorkshire, you’ve always had to travel to either Leeds or Manchester for big gigs, but now we have something that’s our own,” says Kane Rattray, who previously worked at Square Chapel before reducing his commute by a few yards and joining the events team at the Piece Hall last year.
While those big-ticket concerts are key to safeguarding the Piece Hall’s future, it also has to ensure footfall remains buoyant even on a wet Wednesday in the middle of winter.
“People often ask us why don’t we organise a farmers market,” adds Kane. “The problem is that this place is vast and we need events to be of a certain scale. No one wants to turn up to event and feel like its being oversold.
“However, the music concerts are a great platform on which to build, I mean who wouldn’t want to play here, this has got to be one of the most impressive backdrops in the country.”
He has a point and if Chance Thompson has anything to do with it, Piece Hall’s tumbleweed days are long gone.