UK Focus: Barnsley

After its pits closed, Barnsley's future looked grim. Twelve years on, its old stone houses and new commuter links are giving the market town a new lease of life. Chris Arnott reports
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It's a Monday lunchtime in Pollyanna, a boutique-cum-gallery-cum-café. Customers are trying on and buying clothes by the likes of Prada, Comme des Garçons and Lanvin, and orders are being dispatched to San Diego. But this is not California. This is Barnsley.

Rita Britton opened the shop 40 years ago. Back then, Barnsley was different, but as she says, "if you wanted to do something in the Sixties, you just went and did it". Today, Pollyanna is a byword for international style, and is like a standard-bearer for the town. "The rethinking of Barnsley has been and gone," she proclaims. "And the remaking of Barnsley is underway."

Britton can be forgiven for talking up her hometown because outsiders tend to talk it down. When the architect Will Alsop, hired by the council as part of the "rethinking", suggested on the Today programme that the capital of what was once the South Yorkshire coalfield could be remodelled as a Tuscan hill village, the sniggering wasn't confined to London and the Home Counties - there were outbreaks in Sheffield and Leeds, too.

But as Leeds, in particular, has continued to prosper and property prices there have soared, commuting to the city from the Barnsley area has become less of a joke. A new road link makes the journey possible in 40 minutes, and a new direct rail line cuts the train journey down to the same time.

"Yorkshire folk are canny," says David Robinson of the Simon Blyth estate agency, "and you get a lot more for your money in these parts." Four-bedroom detached houses are available for not much more than £170,000. "Mind you, they are bog-standard Wimpy homes," Robinson admits. These are on the no doubt ironically named Tuscan Gardens development, built on the site of a former tennis-ball factory. Still, a city-centre one-bedroom flat would cost the same in Leeds.

"The big Victorian houses on and just off Huddersfield Road attract the professionals," he continues. "We've just had an absolute belter come on the market in Victoria Street - five bedrooms, local stone, corner plot, conservatory, cellar, south-facing walled garden, for £375,000."

The National Union of Mineworkers is on a leafy corner of Huddersfield Road. Rita Britton's son John, a photographer just back from Nepal to update the Pollyanna website with yet more cutting-edge designers, will soon be a neighbour: "He's just bought a three-bedroom house on Huddersfield Road for £137,000," his mother reveals.

Rita herself lives with her husband Geoff, an accountant, in an 18th-century farmhouse in Hoyland-swaine, one of several attractive villages just to the west of Barnsley and separated from it by the M1. "We're about 1,000 feet up and, on a clear day, we can see for 30 miles," she says. "And the quality of life round here is amazing."

Included in the "round here" are the villages of Silkstone and Silkstone Common. Not forgetting Cawthorne where, according to Robinson, a four-bedroom "character home, 300 or more years old," would set you back just over £500,000.

Villages on the eastern side of Barnsley are very different. The reason for their existence was the coal beneath them. When the last pits closed down, the area could have gone down with them. "And it did for a while," says Ian McMillan, the performance poet and Radio 4 presenter who is a long-time resident. "But these are exciting times. Café culture has arrived. Six years ago, you couldn't get an espresso here."

In those six years, McMillan himself has moved from being the Bard of Barnsley FC to becoming "the 22nd most powerful person on radio", according to a Radio Times poll. He travels extensively, but all journeys start and finish at Barnsley Interchange station. It keeps him grounded. "We may not become a Tuscan hill village," he says, laughing, "but the Remaking Barnsley master plan is full of good ideas to make this a market town for the 21st century."

As part of the masterplan, the 1970s market is coming down to be rebuilt. Near Pollyanna, artists' studios are being constructed. New office spaces are going up, restaurants and bars are opening. McMillan actually lives in Darfield, a former pit village on the outskirts of town, with what agents now call a "semi rural" outlook - with the pits flattened, the landscape has opened up. "I'll be here forever," he says of the three-bedroom semi he shares with his wife Catherine, son Andrew, 17, daughter Liz, 20, and her son Thomas, 18 months. Another daughter, Kate, lives in what her father calls "a bijou apartment in Grimethorpe".

The words "bijou" and "Grimethorpe" may only go together in the imagination of a poet, but not so long ago, the idea that this most evocatively named pit village would harbour four-bedroom detached homes would have seemed almost as fanciful as remaking Barnsley as a 21st-century market town, let alone Tuscan hill village.