Rising to the challenge at All Souls’, Bolton

This summer we caught up with Richard Miller, Centre Manager at All Souls’ Church in Bolton, to see what the last year has had in store for the former regeneration project turned community centre and meeting space.

All Souls’ Church in Bolton, Greater Manchester, is a Grade II* listed Gothic Revival building with a difference. The church was first established in 1881 and came into CCT’s care 106 years later in 1987. Between vesting and today, much has changed at All Souls’.

Image of All Soul's Church interior, showing the modern staircase with people walking up the stairs, agains the historic entrance.
© Andy Marshall
All Souls’ mixes breathtaking architecture and ultra-modern facilities

As long-time supporters of CCT will likely know, in 2007 a local resident, Inayat Omarji, recognised the potential of All Souls’. He gathered support for the regeneration of the church and began to seek financial backing. In partnership with the Churches Conservation Trust, a rescue plan was developed which would breathe new life into All Souls’, crucially, for the benefit of the community and Bolton as a whole.

With all plans and permissions in place, building work finally began in August 2013, thanks to a £4.3m grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund as well as additional funds from the Churches Conservation Trust, English Heritage and Bolton Council.

In December 2014, All Souls’ reopened to the public as a centre which mixes breathtaking architecture and ultra-modern facilities thanks to an innovative ‘pod’ design, spearheaded by OMI Architects. The philosophy of the restoration was to preserve the original beauty of the church while incorporating the very best of contemporary design. The interior features two pods of modern design which provide office and conference space in a new and visually striking way.

Since then, All Souls’ has provided an events space in the main body of the church for heritage and community activities and an office space for social and private enterprises, alongside celebrating history through a ‘History Wall’ with photographs and stories featuring local people and their heritage.

Groups of people gathered inside All Souls' church around tables, The National Flag of India hangs in the top right and childrens play corner can be seen in front of the groups of people.
© Jessica Robertston
All Souls’ has provided a place for the community to meet since its launch, including events such as the Commonwealth Big Lunch in 2018.

The church successfully branched out into the office and meeting space environment with five offices providing space for local businesses to meet and for tenants to run their organisations from. These tenants range from businesses in the financial sector to local groups such as the Halliwell Local History Society. All Souls’ is also home to multiple clubs and groups which hire the unique space, from sewing and crafts to karate and, of course, bell-ringing.

With that said, All Souls’ has certainly faced some challenging times since 2014, partly due to the limited footfall past the church due to its location between two major roads in Bolton. However, at the start of 2020 the successful launch of All Souls’ Curry Club with All Souls’ in-house cafe, Cinnamon Bean, where locals could treat themselves to as much curry as they could eat for just £4 inspired a wide range of people to stop by the church.

Then, in March 2020, COVID-19 caused All Souls’ to close its doors for the first time since reopening. However, just because the doors were closed, this didn’t mean things slowed down. All Souls’ had been the meeting place for both a women’s and men’s group, started by local organisation Huddle Up, which gave people a safe and free space to talk openly with members from their communities. The men’s group in particular focused on mental health, providing men from all backgrounds with a safe space to discuss their wellbeing and support one another.

With the doors closed, Richard, the Centre Manager, and Suzanne, then the Local Community Officer for the church, realised the importance of keeping these lines of communication open. The team at All Souls’ set up a rota for staff to call and chat with the participants of the group throughout the lockdown, doing their part to support their community when it was needed most.

Interior view of the entrance of All Souls', with prominent signage informing visitors of the one way system, need to wear a face covering unless exempt and hand sanitising station.
© Richard Miller
The font at All Souls’ became a dividing line between the entrance and exit of the building after a oneway system was implemented alongside social distancing, face coverings and sanitation stations.

As Government guidelines began to change, some businesses were able to reopen in a physical space, including those in the financial sector, which included some of All Souls’ regular tenants. After lengthy discussions, and even lengthier risk assessments, it was decided that All Souls’ could reopen for tenants in May 2020, making the site the first CCT church to reopen.

To make the site COVID-Secure, a one-way system was put in place, with the stunning Victorian font serving as a dividing line for the entrance and exit. All Souls’ had a QR code sign-in system (before Test and Trace became mainstream), hand sanitisers near touchpoints, temperature checks and signage throughout to promote social distancing. Pre-pandemic, All Souls’ had been cleaned every evening, but this was changed so that the site’s caretakers could work throughout the day to keep the space safe, following both a general and high-intensity cleaning checklist which involved logging the cleaning of touchpoints such as handrails, handles and bathrooms, every two hours.

As what is commonly referred to as the ‘first wave’ of COVID-19 began to ease in early summer, All Souls’ was also able to open for in-person meetings in July 2020. With many still hesitant to meet in person, the team at All Souls’ put extra measures in place. These included only holding one meeting in the building’s offices at a time and offering a delegate pack as part of day-delegate hire, which included a hand sanitiser, face mask and a ‘no touch key’ which could be used to open door handles and at other touch points.

Single person desks, spaced out to enable social distancing inside one of the meeting rooms All Souls' Bolton. Each desk has a water bottle and cup, writing utensils and a delegate information pack.
© Richard Miller
Desks spaced out to enable social distancing, each desk its own reusable water flask, disposable cup, writing utensils and information pack.

The measures put in place by the All Souls’ team assured those who had previously hired office space at the centre that the church was a safe place to hold meetings when needed. All Souls’ was also able to provide a safe space to hire for essential businesses unable to return to the office spaces they had previously used, including Tigerlily First Aid Training and the Fire Industry Association. New hires and tenants also included a more novel use of one of All Souls’ offices, the Austin Room, by local music instructor Nicola Turner. Nicola turned the meeting space into both a virtual and, later, in-person teaching space through the use of plastic screens between herself and one pupil.

At the time of writing in early summer 2021 Government restrictions were cautiously beginning to lift in England and All Souls’ was able to open back up to the public. Locals could even stop by the Cinnamon Bean café for a coffee and a bite to eat after being vaccinated at the nearby vaccination centre. The team at All Souls’ were delighted to be able to welcome back the groups that once filled the building with life, and the local bell-ringers were certainly keen to get back to the tower which is also a local training centre for budding campanologists!

Since opening in 2014, All Souls’ has become a building that has slowly begun to return to the heart of community life; a case study in how historic churches can be used and loved by the people of today while still maintaining their historical significance.  Throughout the last year, All Souls’, Bolton, has continued to support, both virtually and in person, the community around it, responding to the challenge that 2020 set before us all with dedication and diligence. To find out more about All Souls' Bolton, visit allsoulsbolton.org.uk

This article was originally published in the Summer 2021 issue of Pinnacle, CCT's members' magazine. Join CCT as a member from £3.50 a month to recieve Pinnacle and other member's exclusive content, all while helping to support the care and future of historic churches across England.