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Belper at Christmas - Festive shopping on the High Street

PUBLISHED: 00:00 03 December 2019

A Christmas scene in Belper Memoiral Gardens

A Christmas scene in Belper Memoiral Gardens

Ashley Franklin Photography

Will it be festive cheer for the High Street in Derbyshire? Winner of the first ever Best British High Street Award in 2014 - out of 135 contenders - Belper was nominated again this year. The town is teeming with gift, homeware, fashion and jewellery stores which are part of a wide spectrum of shops, cafés, pubs and restaurants - over 160 - with few empty units to be seen. There is no denying that the High Street is in decline but no one seems to have told Belper.

Belper Mill with Christmas decorationsBelper Mill with Christmas decorations

'Belper is buzzing,' says Neil Hunt of gift shop Nordicana, who came to the town two and a half years ago, one of many businesses attracted by the buoyancy of Belper's retail scene. Rebekah Wright of childrenswear shop Cheeky Bambini says Belper's High Street award was a strong factor in her decision to set up shop 18 months ago.

A fresh plus factor for Rebekah and the other High Street businesses has been Love Belper, an organisation that promotes the town's independent shops and dining and drinking establishments. Love Belper was founded by Laura Armstrong of Strut Menswear. Concerned about low footfall during weekdays, she set up a Facebook group with other local retailers to work as a team on marketing the town. 'The idea snowballed,' recounts Laura. 'We had 1,000 Facebook followers within a few days.'

'Retail is hard,' adds Laura, 'and because so many other retailers know that, they were only too eager to help. So many businesses, especially the independents, are here because they do love Belper, and I just knew that if more people saw the richness, variety and quality of the town's retail landscape, they would come to love Belper, too.'

There is little doubt that Belper's British High Street nomination this year is mainly due to Love Belper as Laura has been shortlisted for the High Street Hero Award. Love Belper now has a website, has published a handy guide and map of the 'eclectic independent experience in Belper' and has increasing help and support from community organisations like Accessible Belper and the Belper Arts Trail.

One of the many Christmas displays inside PrimsistersOne of the many Christmas displays inside Primsisters

'Without Love Belper I would have given up,' admits Rebekah of Cheeky Bambini, 'and because of it, we have grown strong through working together and addressing customer needs.' Rebekah herself has been responsible for superb initiatives like the recent Pumpkin Trail and Love Belper Umbrellas where you can pick up a Love Belper-inscribed brolly from a shop and 'drop it off when you're done.' Love Belper also introduced the Belper Fiver Fest, a promotion pointing out that 'if every adult in Belper spent just £5 per week locally instead of online or at a big supermarket, it would mean an extra £4.3 million per year going into our local economy.'

For Christmas, Rebekah has come up with the idea of a festive loyalty card whereby customers collect stamps when shopping at participating shops, with each full card entered into a draw to win prizes donated by those shops.

So what can Belper offer as a destination at Christmas? In the Love Belper guide, there are seven different listings:

The Christmas Tree Festival at Belper's Central Methodist ChurchThe Christmas Tree Festival at Belper's Central Methodist Church

Dress to Impress

This section includes established fashion outlets like De Bradelei Mill and Slenderella through to more recent arrivals like This Boutique, run by Emma Auger, selling mid-to-high end fashions for the 30-plusses - 'clothes that are comfortable, affordable and stylish,' says Emma, 'and I've got party outfits for Christmas!'

The Leather Shop has been a popular presence in Belper for nearly 60 years selling quality bags, purses, wallets, briefcases, belts and gloves. Manager Judith Poundall makes the salient point that 'being an independent shop, customers matter more, so personal service is paramount. When you've been here as long as us, familiarity breeds content.'

It's heartening to note that a more recent arrival also selling leather goods - Pellegrino -co-exists only three doors away, stocking Italian and French designer bags, Swiss vintage and designer watches, ladies' outdoor wear and quality gifts.

Jodi Clarke displaying some of Clarkes' Christmas gift rangeJodi Clarke displaying some of Clarkes' Christmas gift range

Clarke's department store also has a wide range of bags, along with ladies and menswear, footwear, jewellery and home and giftware. For Christmas, they have 'unusual and unique' ranges of gift food. 'Our shop will feel full and festive,' promises Jodi Clarke.

The map in Love Belper's guide includes outlets on the fringes of the town, such as Cheeky Bambini at the far end of Bridge Street. Owner Rebekah Wright sells clothes for children aged 0-5 years which are 'responsibly sourced for safety, ethical trading and low environmental impact.' The ethos of the shop is 'buy less, buy ethical.' As Rebekah explains: 'It's not only about responsible buying but also passing this high quality clothing on.' Rebekah also stocks 'sustainably sourced' toys which 'promote imaginative play.'

Culinary Delights

Julie Wyllie of Liquid TreasureJulie Wyllie of Liquid Treasure

There are also eateries that draw people out of the centre of Belper towards the mill end of Bridge Street and at Bridgefoot. They include Dessertalicious, a name that yells mouth-watering desserts and Elaichi, which offers superior Bangladeshi fusion food served by knowledgeable staff who are passionate about their food. Our veggie friends love the wide vegetarian menu. Also at the Mill end of town there is Tom Yum for authentic Thai food in the Mill building itself and, just over the Mill Bridge, Aramando's dishes up supreme Italian cuisine.

Into the heart of Belper, the Lion Hotel has built up a great reputation for its authentic stone-baked pizza, and the ever-popular Italian restaurant Nonno's on Green Lane now has a pizzeria on Strutt Street. On King Street next to the Ritz, a new fine dining restaurant and gin bar - Juniper and Grapes - has opened. There is a charming Gallic flavour to the 16th century building transformed by Nourish at No 44, which has energised the middle of King Street as a café bistro by day and candle-lit restaurant at night. Nourish has just won Best Restaurant/Bistro in the Great Food Club Awards with the judges praising their 'hard work, passion, an eye for detail and a love for well-cooked, locally sourced food.'

Like Nourish, most Belper restaurants have special Christmas menus. The menu is never less than fascinating at Arthur's which won Derbyshire Life's Best Newcomer prize in the 2018 Food & Drink Awards and has picked up two more accolades this year: a Good Food award and East Midlands Restaurant of the Year in the Food Awards England.

Leo Hill and his partner Amelia have created intriguing, inventive cuisine with a menu focused on wild game and 'nose-to-tail' cooking techniques, resulting in dishes such as pig head terrine, cod head fish fingers, ox heart tacos and pork fat and damson ripple ice cream. Accompanying ingredients are also invariably foraged from Belper and Milford. Christmas favourites include roast goose with a side dish of barbecued Brussels sprouts skewers with a black garlic emulsion and grated roast chestnuts. With little fruit to forage in these winter months, Leo goes for root vegetables, his caramelised parsnip iced parfait being a weird but firm favourite. Leo loves Belper and as a chef has a good feeling about this 'progressive' town: 'the sign of a thriving High Street is a good butcher - and we've got two!'

Paul Davis of TimeAndAgainPaul Davis of TimeAndAgain

The recent arrival of Bang In Belper, has brought yet more variety to Belper's culinary offerings: artisan street food. 'Both tasty and healthy,' says owner Andrew Dodman, 'and from a diverse range of cultures, catering for omnivores, vegetarians and vegans alike.' Andrew is delighted he chose to open in the town: 'Belper people and the area itself are cool without being pretentious, and olde world without being fuddy-duddy.'

Out & About

Lavender Grey gift and homeware shopLavender Grey gift and homeware shop

Belper can certainly consider itself cool with the presence of The Monk cocktail bar and two micro-pubs - Pump It Up and Angels, where ales come straight from the barrel. 'It's like going to a beer festival every weekend,' smiles manager Katy Creswell.

Cultural Experience

Opposite The Monk sits the Belper Ritz, which continues to make a night at the pictures an occasion and where Christmas will bring the final Star Wars film. On the same site is Hall of Frames, renowned for its professional bespoke framing and gallery of original and limited edition fine art by local, national and international artists. It attracts customers from all over the Midlands and as far afield as Surrey and Scotland.

Stephen Gresty, 
Angela Parrott, 
Linda Pell, Jane Boyce and Peter Hall of Hall of FramesStephen Gresty, Angela Parrott, Linda Pell, Jane Boyce and Peter Hall of Hall of Frames

The same has been experienced by Duffield Art Gallery since moving to Belper at the start of the year. 'Being in Belper has widened our client base,' reports owner Jill Underwood, 'and we're regenerated - business is 70 per cent up on this time last year.' The gallery - more snug and approachable than the one in Duffield - is on two floors, and all around are the colourful, delicate, Impressionist-style canvases of resident artist James Preston. He's prolific, too - step into the gallery once a month and you'll likely view seven or eight new pictures. Also on sale are James Brereton's traditional marine paintings, the vibrant oils of Duffield's Colin Halliday and the exquisite animal bronzes of Riber sculptor Eddie Hallam. This is also the only gallery to sell the original oils of Bill Makinson, too.

Specialist and Traditional

You won't find a better 
specialist off-licence than 
Liquid Treasure where Julie Wyllie promotes her passion for wines, ales and a wide, exclusive range of spirits. For country sports, the town houses Belper Tackle & Gun and for outdoor wear, Peakdale Outdoor, whose owner Mike Lacey, after seeing so many towns 'down on their luck', chose Belper to set up shop as 'it bucked the trend.'

Café Culture

Mike also feels fortunate situated on Strutt Street as 
he's close to Belper's café 
quarter comprising deli Fresh Basil, The Perfect Cuppa and I Should Cocoa. On Chapel Street, the tea rooms has been transformed into The Filling Station and Belper now has its first vegan café, Vegan Revelation, where they are 'saving the world, one cake at a time.' If you want a cake made for Christmas, head to Beaurepaire Patisserie which has just won a Good Food Award for 'exceptional levels of food quality, service and value.'

Hidden Gems

If you are shopping for Christmas gifts, you'll need a whole day in Belper: Love Belper's guide lists a remarkable 16 outlets selling gifts and homeware that happily co-exist because they are complementary rather than competitive. Susie Allen of Primsisters points out: 'All the gift shops recommend each other. If, for example, a customer wants chunky or rustic furniture, we send them to Sundial, and if someone wants soft toys or handmade silk flowers, Sundial send them to us.' I'd recommend a visit to Primsisters to view the shop's Christmas displays. It took Susie ten days to create a winter wonderland the equal of any big city store. She says, 'There's so much to see that customers go round twice, and it's lovely to watch children's eyes light up as they get lost in this magical world.' Under hundreds of tiny, twinkling lights, amidst the baubles, tinsel, pine cones and candles, you'll find not so much Santa and reindeer as butterflies, flamingos, swans, giraffes, mice and mushrooms.

On the other side of town is another destination gift store, Lavender Grey. Founder Lucy Coulthard points to 'amazing candles, small furniture, plenty of lighting and some real quirky trend-led pieces.' They also have Farrow & Ball paint, wallpapers and fabrics - delivering an interiors service of 'originality, beauty and flair.'

Defiantly quirky and individual is Nordicana, specialising in Scandinavian gifts and homeware. As owner Neil Hunt says, 'Nordic countries are world famous for their Christmas decorations.' He recommends their blown-glass, hand-finished tree decorations - 'future family heirlooms.'

If you'd like to buy Belper-made gifts for Christmas, Willow rents out shelf space to local artists. Likewise there are antique dealers, artisans and craftspeople across three floors and under one roof at Derwentside Shopping Mill.

Of the long-established antique, homeware and gift emporiums, Sweetings has four floors and 12 showrooms and for gifts and jewellery there is Frearsons. A relative newcomer is Belle la Vie, a lifestyle store with gifts, ladies and children's fashion and a Christmassy room upstairs.

Different yet again is TimeandAgain where Paul and Karen Davies sell distinctive homeware, gifts and furniture inspired by mid-20th century designs, alongside genuine items from the late 1950s to early 70s. Timeless retro goods with style.

Adding to the festivities as well as enhancing the real meaning of Christmas will be Belper Central Methodist Church's second Christmas Tree Festival, under the title of 'A Fairytale Christmas'. Last year's inaugural festival included over two dozen decorated trees. Belper itself will be festooned with decorations following the 29th November Christmas Lights Switch-On event. Credit goes to Belper Town Council for this and the Christmas Food, Drink & Craft Fair on 8th December.

Belper certainly seems geared up for a prosperous Christmas, though Paul Davies strikes a cautionary note: 'Yes, Belper seems like a thriving jewel in the market crown town - and in many ways it is - but Christmas will be crucial as some businesses are only just being able to manage. So, we do need local people to shop locally. Our saving grace is the diversity and abundance of traders, large free car park, annual festivals and cultural events - a great boon at other times of the year - and the great dedication of Love Belper.'

Andrew Dodman of Bang In Belper adds: 'The community spirit of the townsfolk and the gritty persistence and enthusiasm of Love Belper has made our town special.' And, as Leo Hill of Arthur's concludes: 'During the recession, we had a broken and declining High Street here. Gradually, people have realised how important it is to support our independent shops and it shows - the town is flourishing again. There aren't many High Streets like ours left. So, love Christmas by loving Belper.'

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