Northern Roots: At Home with Stockport’s Where The Light Gets In
I feel confident in my assertion that Stockport, a former industrial town famed for textiles, Hatters and musical protégés, situated in the leafy suburbs of South Manchester, is undergoing what can be best described as a cultural renaissance.
You may find my enthusiasm misplaced perhaps even a tad delusional, which is why I should preface my hyperbole with an admission. Stockport is not only a point of interest for me as a writer, but it is also my home.
Born and bred in South Manchester, Stockport has provided the backdrop for some of my earliest and most cherished memories. Saturday mornings spent traipsing around Merseyway shopping precinct, poolside frivolities at Grand Central and excursions, in part coerced, to the beloved Hat Works Museum. Fast forward to present day and my commute would not be complete without catching a glimpse of the infamous Co-operative Bank Pyramid from the towering viaduct above.
If you are not acquainted with Stockport I could easily be accused of painting a somewhat utopian picture. That said, as individuals, we have very little control over where we are born and raised, and even if we are predisposed to some degree of nostalgic oversight, in my books, having pride in where you are from is no bad thing at all.
Rose-tinted or not, Stockport, like many town centres up and down the country, fell victim to the 2008 banking crisis, and has since struggled to compete with the convenience of out-of-town retail complexes. Some might also suggest that it pales in comparison when pitted against the more salubrious neighbourhoods of Chorlton, West Didsbury and the Heatons.
Case closed, well not quite. Investment in Stockport’s retail and leisure industry has been gathering notable momentum over the past few years, and while regeneration of the town has resulted in some rather questionable developments (the £1 billion Redrock cinema complex was bestowed the honour of worst architectural eyesore of the year by Building Design), this should not detract from the bigger picture.
It’s unsightly arrival surely marks the beginning of something quite special for Stockport. While the town still has it sceptics and a number of red tape restrictions, the town’s ambitions are clear to see; to be a place that people are proud to call their home.
A combination of grassroots enthusiasm (the Open Spaces initiative immediately springs to mind), local government funding in the form of the Future High Streets Fund, and a healthy dose of investment has enabled Stockport’s charge towards becoming a relevant and desirable destination for businesses and individuals to put down roots.
One needn’t look much further than Lower Hillgate for evidence of Stockport’s rise in popularity. A bevvy of new stores have begun to fill the once empty units in the old part of the town, from Rare Mags to SK1 Records and Plant Shop, these indie shopkeepers are catering to a younger audience while retaining the historical underpinnings of the town.
Stockport’s burgeoning food and drinks scene continues to attract both local and national interest. A short climb up the hill and you’ll find Stockport Market Place, the current home of the hugely popular Foodie Friday and Steve Pilling’s latest hospitality endeavour the Grade II listed Produce Hall. While the latter has taken a little longer to secure local support, the new addition is in good company with neighbours like Vinaböd, the Project 53 taproom, Bakers Vaults, Remedy Bar and of course, Where The Light Gets In.
It’s hardly a secret but Where The Light Gets In has been fundamental in the repositioning of Stockport as a destination for culinary excellence thanks to their honest and authentic dining concept. I had the pleasure of sitting down with the restaurant’s founder, Samuel Buckley, to find out what pulled him back into the kitchen and to learn more about the pillars at the heart of the concept; traceability, transparency and above all else, family.
You may be surprised to know that despite my evangelical devotion to Stockport, locating Where The Light Gets In proved challenging, to say the least; the former coffee warehouse certainly makes you work for it. Situated on Rostron Brow just a short walk from the legendary Robinsons Brewery, ‘stumbling’ upon the space is, dare I say it, inconceivable.
With a name inspired by a tradition in African tribal knitting where a stitch is deliberately dropped to allow daylight to seep in, I have an inkling even before I arrive that owner Sam Buckley has a penchant for storytelling. Stepping into the space instinctively feels like home and no, I do not live in a New York-style loft with rooftop views replete with a wood-burning-stove, but one can dream.
While I am totally in awe of the brick-lined walls, the Ercol furnishings and the bespoke ceramics designed especially by the founder’s good friend Joe Hartley, I am reminded by Sam that this is, in fact, his second favourite building in Stockport. The first located on Wellington Street is home to Agapanthus, an antique store which specialises in restoring beautiful French lighting fixtures, located just a stone’s throw from the restaurant. Sam strongly believes that a space chooses what it wants to be and given their point of situé hidden down a dark alleyway, he professes that it could only ever work as a destination, “it had to be something special, an experience to make people actually travel to Stockport.”
Sam’s own story is finely weaved into the tapestry of the restaurant, which prides itself on having traceability and transparency at the heart of the operation. Beginning his restaurant journey at Murillo’s, a tapas bar in nearby Marple, simply because he preferred to spend time in the kitchen than at college, Sam then went on to secure roles with Gary Rhodes, Simon Rogan and Tanja Grandits, before taking a break from the culinary world to study and travel. Disheartened by his formative years in hospitality and the sometimes tumultuous environment typical of many professional kitchens, Sam was later pulled back in the fold by the belief that his own food offering could be built upon love and honesty, with green credentials to match. When the conditions were right, he set his plan into motion.
Guests of Where The Light Gets In can expect, “a dining experience from the day’s catch, harvest and slaughter.” With menus starting from £65-a-head, every element of their offering is carefully-curated, from farm to fork, they work directly with their producers, even immersing themselves in the environment where their food is grown. For Sam and his team watching the symbiotic relationship between wildlife and nature flourish, later to be played out in the kitchen - an open theatre where guests can interact with the chefs - gives further credence to his ethos of openness.
For Sam the kitchen is the anchor of his operation, the open-plan design only adds to the feeling of being witness to a theatrical spectacle. With little separation between guest and chef, an entirely intentional quirk, transparency is crucial and begins with his chefs not only preparing the food but stepping beyond the threshold. Delivering the food to the table, the chef will give guests a first-person account of how the food in front of them came to be - articulating the dishes provenance, aesthetic and execution is all part of the performance.
The eradication of the chef pass is just another example of how Sam is eager not to mirror the kitchen culture he was first exposed to as a trainee and this strong moral conviction extends to how he and his team treat one another. Each night, before service commences both front and back of house will gather around for a family meal in what can be described as a wholesome and nourishing act of protest against the ingrained protocols and relentless grind of hospitality. Beginning Friday mornings with group yoga and closed for seven weeks over summer, to give staff a chance to restore, he admits that he doesn’t chase numbers, “as long as everyone is comfortable, it doesn't matter why the money comes in.”
Already boasting extremely green credentials, his team works hard to ensure nothing goes to waste, and while food critics have raved about the create-your-own flavour powder made from dried scallops and kombu that accompanies delightfully packaged bags of crisps, Sam’s appetite for industry-level change, is still yet to be satisfied. From finding more sustainable ways to get rid of fish packaging to dealing with compost in a manner that benefits the environment, the focus is very much on how they can inspire societal change towards more ethical practices in the hospitality industry and less about wine glasses polished to specification.
Sam’s back-to-basics approach is not only apparent with regards to food and service but is at the core of Where The Light Gets In’s entire offering. Keeping it in the family, Sam’s partner Chloe designs the staff’s aprons and uniforms and Stockport-based On The Brink Studio, who also happen to be close friends of the couple have built their furniture, from tables and chairs to wine cabinets and waiters stands; every detail has been carefully considered.
As the team begin their preparation for their next service, I take my cue to leave and as I meander down Rostron Brow on to Lower Hillgate, it occurs to me that what Sam has achieved - launching a dining concept to critical acclaim in a location where one would not expect to find such an impressive level of gastronomical ingenuity - is exactly what a homecoming is all about. Having soaked up the experiences of different nations, shared in the intimate culinary traditions of other cultures, Sam was emboldened to evolve the kitchen experience for his family of foragers and give everyone involved a sense of pride, purpose and enjoyment. The result is a space that feels like home, where every night both team and guests can thrive in the purity of the ingredients while revelling in the wonder of their open and transparent pursuit.
To learn more about Where The Light Gets In and their tasting menus visit their website here.
Images: a selection of photography by: Kat Wood, Chloe Frejaville and Elle Brotherhood.