The hidden beauty of the Greater Manchester town dubbed one of Britain's 'most miserable'

High street
-Credit: (Image: Manchester Evening News)

Oldham gets a bad rap at times. The town’s been dubbed one of the most miserable places to live in Britain. And between the heavy impact of the cost-of-living crisis on the area, and years of‘ toxic politics’ - it’s not hard to see why some aren't feeling optimistic.

But, on a sunny day in Oldham centre, framed by the Pennine hills, the town reveals a hidden charm.

Oldham locals are among the harshest critics of their local area. They’ve seen first-hand how rising costs and the pandemic have hit the high streets hard, while rents have risen and local services have struggled to keep up with demand.

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And even though efforts to revive the centre are ongoing - with a new market building, food hall and entrance to the high street in the works - there are, in common with many towns up and down the country, complaints of decline.

An elderly woman
Mary has lived in Oldham for 58 years -Credit:Manchester Evening News

But, quizzed on their hometown by the M.E.N, Oldhamers speak of the beauty - and the pride - in the backdrop of 'Greater Manchester's unhappiest town'.

“I feel at home here,” Werneth resident Mary admitted, after initially saying there wasn’t 'anything good' about Oldham. The 80-year-old emigrated from Ireland in 1976 with her two-year-old son. “I travelled all over England and my family are spread all over the place. But I settled here”, she says.

Devon Wilkshire, 28, has lived in Oldham for ten years, first in Hollinwood and then in Derker. He thinks Oldham locals ‘don’t appreciate what they have’.

A view of the Pennines from Greenacres cemetery, Oldham
A view of the Pennines from Greenacres cemetery, Oldham -Credit:Manchester Evening News

“I grew up in Cheetham Hill, which is quite a deprived area,” he said. “I grew up looking at all the skylines being built up in the city centre and soaking up all the pollution. Whereas here my kids are at the top of the hill. You can see into the Pennines. My kids see trees and leaves and are playing with insects, rolling around in the mud and fresh air.

“I grew up looking at helicopters in the sky every two minutes chasing criminals. I could hear gunshots. We had Strangeways round the corner. There were stabbings and murders. It’s not the same here, no matter what people say.”

“When you come from the city to a place like this, it’s a breath of fresh air.”

The Pennines are visible from many clear hills in Oldham, even from the town centre.
The Pennines are visible from many clear hills in Oldham, even from the town centre -Credit:Manchester Evening News

The town is celebrated as the 'gateway to the Pennines', with snatches of breath-taking views in unexpected places - from residential roads like Cheltenham St to the vista from Greenacres Cemetery.

Devon, a teacher and entrepreneur, said he also feels very ‘passionately’ about the potential of his acquired hometown.

“I see it as up-and-coming,” Devon said. “We’ve got the transport links. Stockport doesn’t have that, Bolton doesn’t, Wigan doesn’t. This little town is perfectly positioned to boost the economy of Greater Manchester. The best thing about Oldham is the opportunities.”

Man in his twenties with glasses and white sweatshirt
Devon Wilkshire feels like Oldham is an 'up-and-coming' place -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Couple Reade and Grace Arden, both in their twenties, are less convinced.

“The trams are good, which I guess is like saying the best part of Oldham is leaving it.” Reade said. Recently returning from a stint working in China, he said he was struggling to find a job with decent pay in the area and thought the quality of life was better abroad.

Meanwhile Grace, an NHS worker, thought there simply wasn’t enough on offer for young people.

She said: “There’s no nightlife. The only times I’ve been out in Oldham is when I was drinking underage - which probably says it all.”

Even if there were more to do, she said, she wouldn’t be able to afford it because the rent for her house share is too high.

“We barely do anything - this is the most we do,” she said, holding up a bag from a charity shop, before interrupting herself: “Charity shops! That’s probably the good thing in Oldham. I do love the charity shops and they keep bringing more.”

A man and woman
Reade and Grace Arden are looking for a way out of Oldham -Credit:Manchester Evening News

But charity shops are not enough to keep the two, who grew up in Oldham, in the town - they’re making plans to move to China at the end of the year.

Meanwhile Chris, a 70-year-old who hails from Ireland but has spent most of his life in Oldham, can’t imagine being anywhere else.

“I used to live by the sea so you can imagine it was quite a shift moving to Oldham,” he said. For the retired teacher, it’s the ‘peace and quiet’ that’s the town’s secret charm.

“I live in a beautiful pocket of St Mary’s, and I won’t be leaving it,” he said.

A smiling man in his 70s with glasses
Chris' teaching career brought him to Oldham and now he doesn't want to leave -Credit:Manchester Evening News

A number of locals pointed to the town's sense of community, its many schools and the library, the nearby green spaces of Alexandra, Stoneleigh and Waterhead Park. Others said it came down to simple convenience.

“I live close to the centre so it’s ideal. I can get on the bus and just take my time and go from shop to shop,” 83-year-old Marge said. She moved from Dukinfield to be closer to her family in Royton after she was widowed. “I’ve never looked back really. I’m happy here.”

Oldham boomed as a cotton town in the 19th century, peaking in production in the early 20th century. But its socio-economic fortunes declined along with the cotton industry.

But while the town has its challenges, there are plenty of people who believe in it. Local councillors have drawn up big plans for the town's future. And the Atom Valley project promises to bring thousands of jobs and homes to the area in the 'next industrial revolution'.

Oldham has a number of large green spaces close by, including Alexandra Park and the 'urban farm' Northern Roots.
Oldham's green spaces include Alexandra Park and the 'urban farm' Northern Roots -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Parts of the borough - like Saddleworth - enjoy a high quality of life and high life expectancy, while others, like Royton, are attracting families and independent businesses.

Meanwhile, as part of the council's 'Creating a Better Place' plan, a number of 'regeneration' projects are in development for the town centre.

"Creating a Better Place is an ambitious plan to transform Oldham," a council statement said. "It will unlock investment worth £285 million and create more than 2,000 new homes in Oldham town centre, 1,000 new jobs and 100 apprenticeship opportunities."

The council is working on improvements for the town centre but they could take some years to complete.
The council is working on improvements for the town centre but they could take some years to complete -Credit:Manchester Evening News

Construction is already underway for a new venue for Tommyfield Market, which will include an event space and dining area, and on the Egyptian Room Food Hall, which is 'set to rival Mackie Mayor'.

A new 'tart-up hub' for small businesses is due to open in the Spindles centre very soon. And there are plans for a town-centre park and an 'urban farm' at Northern Roots.

“I love Oldham,” Mohammed, 37, a local Uber driver, said. “People like to sh*t on it. But the people are amazing, we know how to support each other.

“I think it’s because people are actually really proud of Oldham. It makes them critical. But there’s definitely beauty here, you just need to know where.”