The signs don’t look good. In fact, the signs look non-existent: Milo and I have got off the train at Oldham and are staring at the weather beaten remains of a ‘you are here’ map. A woman approaches, but only to ask me if I know the way into town. As I explain that this is our first time here, she scans the faded map for clues.
‘It just feels a bit like…’
‘The end of the world?’ I offer.
She nods. Mind you, if we have been delivered to the end of the world, I can confidently report that the end of the world isn’t such a scary place: it consists of a roaring dual carriageway, gloomy subway and a station called Oldham Mumps.
‘Right then, let’s go this way,’ says the woman confidently.
I love this about us womenfolk: the in-built ability to wrap a complete lack of knowledge in the reassuring tones of mother-knows-best.
Milo and I follow her into the depths of the subway, emerging into the grey light of an unloved car park beyond. There is still no signage, just empty cars and, across the road, a couple of derelict houses. As I think that a map probably would have been useful at this point, I spot the familiar blue-and-white lettering of a ‘town centre’ sign in the distance.
We walk towards it, the woman and I chatting as we go. Milo twists up to look at her from his pushchair, giving her a sort of toddler death stare as he tries to work out whether she will be of any use to him. When it turns out that she has no toys or teacakes, he swivels back and stares resolutely ahead.
Eventually, the woman and I part company, her peeling off to the right and me reluctantly following the sign for Gallery Oldham that appears to direct me down a back alley. Just as I am about to turn on my heel and head for home, we round a corner – and a small miracle occurs. Here, where at first there appeared to be nothing at all, is a beautiful park: no half-dead summer flowers here, it’s all robust winter flowering plants and neat, winding paths. Opposite glows the entrance of the library and gallery: coloured lights gleam out and entice us in. Inside, we find cleverly-thought-out historic objects on display (Milo is predictably beguiled by an ancient motorbike, while I’m amused by a milk bottle with an Inspiral Carpets advert on it).
We stop and read in the library before heading up to the galleries in a lift lit by a deep green light. As the doors close, Milo and I turn monster green and we thunder around roaring and clawing like characters from Where the Wild Things Are. In fact, Milo is so excited that we have to ride up and down several times before he gets bored enough to submit to the galleries.
And these too prove to be a revelation. The views from the windows show moors and hills; the collections are solidly historic with a little contemporary stuff thrown in for good measure. One show celebrates the women of Oldham and provides a dressing up box for kids, earnestly encouraging little girls to think beyond nursing and childcare careers and instead embrace science, engineering and all the things their female forebears could only ever dream of doing.
So when we decide to head for home, emboldened by our success in Gallery Oldham (and in the flower-strewn town, too), Milo and I try an alternative route back. But rather than deserted car parks and thundering traffic, this time we’re met with a long, long, long road populated almost entirely by pubs, clubs, bars and dubious-looking establishments peddling rock-bottom deals on alcopops. I quicken my step and hurry on and, as I do, I can’t help but wonder how many people have given up and gone home before me, put off by bad roads and cheap booze, without ever getting to the real Oldham.
Ratings. Babychanging facilities: Yes. Cafe: No. Buggy-friendly? Yes. Cost: Free. Worth it? Yes, a wonderful and very genuine community centre that stocks great children’s books (in the library), has limited activities in the galleries for kids and offers a warm welcome to families in general.