In the southeast of Greater Manchester, Stockport is a historic market town that was swept up in the region’s textile industry in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In this time Stockport became the capital of the UK’s flourishing fur felt hat industry, which was pumping out millions of hats for export each year.
A former hat works is home to the country’s only dedicated hat museum.
This is one of a few great museums run by Stockport Council, and they offer a multi-site pass granting discounted access to this and a number of interesting sites around the town, like the astounding 15th-century Staircase House on the historic Market Place.
Let’s explore the best things to do in Stockport:
1. Staircase House
You wouldn’t know standing outside on the Market Place, but this building holds the oldest townhouse in Stockport, dating from around 1460. Many of the earliest timbers are still in place at Staircase House, while the building is named for its finest feature.
This is an extraordinary Jacobean cage newel staircase from 1618 – one of only three remaining in the country – with highly ornate carvings on its timbers.
With help from an audio-guide Staircase House paints a picture of domestic life in Stockport down the centuries and details the painstaking restoration efforts after a fire in 1995. The house is fully interactive, allowing you to lift the quilt on the bedroom’s four-poster bed and try writing with a 17th-century-style quill.
Afterwards pop next door to the elegant Blackshaw’s Cafe for lunch or a snack.
2. Hat Works
The stirring Wellington Mill (1831) is the venue for a charming museum about Stockport’s hat-making industry, appealing to everyone from fashion fans to industrial historians.
The Wellington Mill started out as a cotton-spinning factory before being converted into a hat works in the 1890s.
You can explore two floors of interactive exhibits taking you back to when Stockport was the UK’s hat-making capital.
There are 20 completely restored machines and a collection of more than 400 top hats, bowlers, trilbies and Homburgs, from all ends of the Earth, many dating from before 1900. On special days budding designers can get to know the art of millinery on courses by professional hat-makers, and there’s a Family Fun Zone with hands-on educational displays for little ones.
3. Bramall Hall
This newly restored Tudor manor house is in 70 acres of landscaped parkland to the south of Stockport.
The half-timbered mansion was expanded and refined over hundreds of years between the 14th and 19th centuries when it was home to the landowning Davenport family.
Bramall Hall reopened in 2016, and you can appreciate the ornate studwork on the facade, the enigmatic wall paintings from the 1500s, masterful Elizabethan plasterwork and the Victorian kitchens and servants’ quarters.
The gardens, once part of a huge 2,000 acre estate, were remodelled in the Romantic Victorian style in the 1880s.
They are dotted with towering ancient trees and have a terrace leading down to a tangle of brooks and little lakes.
4. Stockport Museum
On the Market Place, in the same complex as Staircase House, the Stockport Museum has wide-ranging exhibits investigating various aspects of Stockport’s past.
You can examine finds from the Iron Age settlement in Mellor and find out about life in Medieval Stockport.
Special attention is paid to the industrial expansion of 18th and 19th centuries and Stockport’s older rope-making trade.
The museum has been given a makeover in the 2010s to make the displays more engaging for younger attention spans.
In 2017-2018 there was a great exhibition, “I am in Love”, charting the history of the epoch-changing Strawberry Studios, with recording equipment and profiles of people like Martin Hannett who helped define the sound of bands like Joy Division, New Order and the Happy Mondays.
5. Stockport Air Raid Shelters
In preparation for air attacks on this industrial centre, the red sandstone underneath Stockport was burrowed with nearly a mile of underground tunnels.
The warren of tunnels was started in 1938 and eventually expanded to accommodate up to 6,500 people.
The shelters are owned by Stockport Council, and in 1996 the biggest tunnel was opened to the public.
In these galleries there are makeshift living quarters, a loo, sick bay and kitchen.
You can see life through the lens of a war-time Stockport resident, and using an audio-guide you’ll feel what it might have been like to await an air raid in this space.
Self-guided tours are available on weekday afternoons (except Monday) and all day on weekends.
6. Stockport Town Hall
A shining piece of Edwardian Baroque Revival architecture, Stockport Town Hall dates to 1908 and has bold pediments with Ionic columns, below a resplendent open clock tower.
On weekdays take a guided tour if you call in advance, and it’s well worth taking the chance to go inside.
The entrance hall is clad with Italian marble and leads to a splendid ballroom, installed with a Wurlitzer organ (one of only 16 of its kind remaining) that used to be at the Paramount Theatre in Manchester.
Stockport’s town council sits at the Council Chamber, decorated with delicately carved oak benches, brass chandeliers and spectacular plasterwork.
In the hall outside you can also find the town’s silverware collection made up of pieces dating from the 1400s.
7. Plaza Cinema
Opened in 1932 as a Cine-Variety venue that mixed films and live shows, the Plaza Cinema was restored in the early 2000s after decades as a bingo hall.
This gorgeous Art Deco theatre can seat more than 1,300 people and has a busy programme all year round.
You can watch musicals, performances by Britain’s top comedians, plays, tribute bands and talks by prominent personalities like the historian Dan Snow.
There’s also a schedule of live screenings from the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre.
The choice of movies is just as diverse, and includes new Hollywood releases, classics Hitchcock and Billy Wilder, as well as fun sing-along events for musical films like the Sound of Music.
8. Stockport Market
Integral to Stockport’s community, the market is in a painted iron and glass hall dating to the 1860s and affectionately called the “Glass Umbrella”. A market has traded in roughly this location since the 1260 at the latest.
Tuesday, Thursday, Friday and Saturday there are more than 50 independent traders at the market, selling farm fresh groceries in the Produce Hall, as well as flowers, handicrafts, clothes, toys, jewellery, homewares and vintage knickknacks.
Keep an eye out for special weekend events, like a Makers’ Market where you can get hold of speciality goods such as gin distilled in Cheshire.
9. Underbank Hall
On Great Underbank in the centre of Stockport, take a moment to savour this wonderful 16th-century timber-framed townhouse, which is in near-perfect condition.
Underbank Hall houses a branch of NatWest Bank, and has been a bank since 1823 when it was sold off by William Arden, a friend of the Prince Regent.
On the street, cast your gaze at the continuous fenestration on the ground floor, and look up at the intricate patterns on the cornices forming the gables, which also have dainty finials.
Inside, the mantelpiece in the main banking hall and the manager’s room are exceptional.
10. Avro Heritage Museum
A brief drive south of Stockport there’s a captivating aviation museum for the Avro brand on the site of its former factory at the old Woodford Aerodrome.
Storied aircraft like the Anson, Lancaster, Shackleton and Vulcan were built at this very place.
Part funded by BAE Systems, this museum evolved from a former Avro heritage centre and opened in 2015. It’s housed in the aerodrome’s refurbished former fire station and displays the collection of the Avro Heritage Trust, with tens of thousands of aviation artefacts and documents.
There’s a complete Vulcan outside, as well as nose and cockpit sections of another Vulcan, a Lancaster bomber, an Anson, an Avro 748 series, English Electric Canberra and a Vickers VC10.
11. Stockport Viaduct
The largest brick built structure in the UK cuts through the centre of Stockport.
Built in less than two years for the Manchester and Birmingham Railway, the Stockport Viaduct (1840) is now used by the West Coast Main Line and crosses the River Mersey with 27 arches and at a maximum height of almost 34 metres.
The statistics involved in this half-kilometre construction are mind-boggling: 11,000,000 bricks went into this structure and 600 workers laboured in shifts around the clock to get it made.
If you’re inspired by feats of industrial engineering there’s a good view from Wellington Road by the Hat Works Museum.
12. Etherow Country Park
Once an industrial site encompassing a mine, cotton mill and mill pond, this green space was one of the UK’s first country park’s when it was set up in 1968. Still surrounded by beautiful 19th-century industrial architecture, the park is on the River Etherow in the foothills of the Peak District.
That river feeds the man-made reservoirs that used to power the mills.
On a summer’s day you can watch dinghies belonging to the local sailing club gliding over the reservoir and can take a seat outside the cafe by the water.
The Compstall Nature Reserve in the park is a Site of Special Scientific Interest for its blend of swamp, reed beds, fen, carr, open water and mixed woodland.
For a hike to remember, Etherow Country Park is the trailhead for the Goyt Way, winding southeast for ten miles to Whaley Bridge in Derbyshire.
13. Strawberry Studios
A pilgrimage site for fans of Manchester’s music scene, Strawberry Studios is an unassuming building in Waterloo Road.
These former recording studios are now private offices, but the facade bears a blue plaque detailing the building’s place in pop history.
The studios were founded in 1968 by future members of the band 10cc, and were named after the Beatles song Strawberry Fields Forever.
Over the next 25 years Paul McCartney, Neil Sedaka, Joy Division, the Smiths and the Stone Roses would all record here.
If you want to go inside, the building has started opening once or twice a year for heritage days.
14. Reddish Vale Country Park
In the Tame Valley, the Reddish Vale Country Park is 161 hectares of greenery along the banks of the river.
This environment is tranquil woodland, riverside meadows and hillside fields for grazing horses.
Crossing the Tame is a striking 16-arch railway viaduct, built for the Hope Valley Line in 1875. The vale is woven with paths, cycle trails and bridleways, and the abundance of water attracts breeding kingfishers and sand martins, as well as visiting grebes, herons, coots, ducks and geese.
Hardy walkers can use the park as a stepping stone for Transpennine Trail or Midshires Way.
There’s a small visitor centre in temporary cabins, an children’s animal attraction at Reddish Vale Farm and the 18th-hole Reddish Vale Golf Club, established in 1912.
15. Marple Lock Flight
Not far east of east of Stockport in the village of Marple is a picturesque set of 16 locks on the Peak Forest Canal.
The canal was completed in 1796, but this tricky hillside section needed a bit longer because of lack of funding, and a tramway had to be used until the lock flight was finished in 1804. Commercial navigation ended with the advent of railways, and the locks were in disrepair until they were restored in the 1960s and 70s.
It takes around 20 minutes to walk through this Green Flag park to the top of the flight, and there’s a small visitor centre at the highest point in a former toll house.
If you’re here in summer you won’t have to wait long to see a narrowboat passing through.