Ashbourne: Alive & Kicking!
PUBLISHED: 15:33 14 February 2013 | UPDATED: 22:13 26 February 2013
Ashley Franklin talks to retailers in one of the county's favourite towns as they plan a revitalised welcome for visitors in 2013
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For two days every February, Ashbourne is heaving with people either playing or watching its famed Shrovetide Football Game. The cruel irony for the market town traders is that only the pubs profit from the surge in visitors. The singular attractions of Ashbournes antiques quarter, fashion houses, foodie shops, giftware and gallery shops and numerous other specialist stores lies behind closed doors, quite literally: every shop is boarded up for its own safety. Visitors cant even window shop.
These days, outside of the football, Ashbourne is attending to footfall. In common with most market towns, retailers are having to keep their eye on the ball to score extra custom. Coincidentally, the Ashburnian who is inspiring retailers with a goal, Tim Baker, has a profound association with the town as the painter of the annual Shrovetide ball. Tim is the brainchild behind the Ashbourne Retailer Group which hopes to revitalise the towns attraction as a shopping destination.
Ever since the Ashbourne Partnership was formed in 2004, the town has been working hard to trade as much on its retail appeal as its tourism attraction. For example: it is now a Fairtrade town; its popular Ashbourne Rewards card scheme the first in the Midlands repays customers for their loyalty; as well as voting with their feet, customers can vote for their favourite shop or eating place through the High Street Heroes awards; and there is a Visit Ashbourne website which amongst its recent statistics showed an excellent 6,500 hits per week to its shopping pages. Next on the IT agenda is the Ashbourne App which will provide instant information for visitors on their mobiles and iPads.
As the website declares, the town is compact and easily walkable. As I walked, I noticed that in spite of the downturn, there is an upturn in the number of shops that have opened since the recession began in 2008. There are also fewer empty outlets than I expected to see. When you factor in the towns large catchment area, its tourist trade, art culture, and the high socio-economic profile drawn to the niche independent shops, it is clear that Ashbourne has considerable allure.
However, this makes it all the more concerning that a recent survey of shops showed the town has experienced a drop in footfall and takings. The one positive is that the survey itself was conducted by the band of business owners who have come together as the Ashbourne Retailer Group specifically to arrest the decline.
Tim Baker, who works at Elliots, decided to form the Retailer Group when working at the Mind charity shop in town. I would too often stand at the door, looking down a deserted street, he recounts. Then I would visit the Mind branch at Bakewell and see both the shop and the town heaving. I felt that Ashbourne traders had swept the problem under the carpet with too many using the easy excuse of the recession. The town needs a kick up the backside.
What added value to the groups survey is that the results of a town survey by the Ashbourne News Telegraph showed shoppers and shopkeepers largely chiming in agreement. Most concerning were the high parking charges, with calls for more shops to open on Sunday, an improved market, fewer charity shops and more big name chain stores.
Coincidentally, Ashbourne became linked to another chain only last September with the opening of the first Derbyshire branch of Fat Face, the store which sells casual clothing and accessories to families with an active lifestyle. It is certainly a colourful and vital presence in the Market Place, occupying the space where Spencers caf stood for more than 100 years. Pertinently, a Fat Face spokesman described Ashbourne as a fantastic market town with so much potential.
Shops adjacent to Fat Face have already reported a rise in custom, especially welcome for Charlotte Ellis and her mother Julie who, 18 months ago, opened Emmies Closet, a dress agency selling high end quality clothes at a fraction of the price. Charlotte has neatly coined the phrase pre-owned and pre-loved, and points out that all her clothes and accessories have to be immaculate and less than two years old. The shop keeps its stock for only eight weeks but sells 70 per cent of it. The client base is growing all the time and is set to increase further with the introduction of menswear.
Like most retailers, Charlotte would like to see the market revitalised we are, after all, a market town, she points out and Emmies has joined a few shops which are opening on occasional Sundays.
Another Market Place retailer, Andrea Field of Elliots, which sells quality solid wood furniture, interiors and giftware, also points out that Ashbourne is a tourist town that brings in families and couples on a weekend, which is why they open on Sundays. Sunday opening has proved worthwhile for me, says Andrea; unfortunately, my Sunday customers are disappointed that more shops are not open.
Its encouraging to see a growing number of shops opening on Sundays, though there is still a problem with variable opening times during the rest of the week. For instance, its recommended you visit the antiques quarter on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to guarantee every shop being open. Also, Ashbourne has a tradition of half-day closing on Wednesday but not every retailer adheres to it. We need more consistency, advises Tim Baker of the Retailer Group.
Its because of the tourist trade that Elliots not only opens seven days a week but also promises to deliver its furniture nationwide. It also thrives on its independence. Independent means individual, says Andrea, and individual shops mean individual attention.
There is a further beauty to independent shops, as pointed out by Anne Wright, owner of Young Ideas, Ashbournes iconic fashion house created by Dorothy Thomas over 45 years ago, which started selling designer clothes even before the term was coined. Young Ideas was the catalyst for Ashbournes reputation as a centre for ladies fashions, and that pleases Anne greatly: We all sell different clothes, which makes us complementary rather than competitive. So we like having fashion stores such as Banjo and SACS simply because it gives ladies more of a reason to come to Ashbourne. They can make a day of it. Ladies can certainly lavish quality time on browsing through Young Ideas exclusive designer wear, promoted as both ageless and contemporary.
We cherry pick the best pieces from the best designer collections, says Anne; as such, we believe we have a better selection than youll find in London. Along with their reputation for selection, Anne emphasises the shops special personal service. That service will soon be expanding: to men. We already stock Armani, Belstaff, Paul Smith and Hugo Boss, so we decided to include their menswear, says Anne.
There are other fashion stores in Ashbourne like Chameleon, Pure Inspiration and Bennetts plus Dove Child for tinier fashionistas as well as specialist shops like Pachacuti with its Fairtrade hats, Stepping Stones with its individual childrens footwear, and Lou Lous with its elegant lingerie. Lou Lous, which is regarded as one of the finest lingerie shops in the county, recently celebrated its 21st anniversary under the ownership of Louise Rose.
Added to Ashbournes other reputation as an antiques centre is its growing reputation as a centre for giftware with long-established stores like Elliots, Bennetts and Acorn being joined in recent years by The Bear Patch, The House Shop, Sticky Fingers, The Olive Tree and Vintage Bluebird.
The House Shop, run by Georgina Ashworth and her mother Eileen, is well stocked with tasteful home accessories, soft furnishings, cushions, bath and body products, homemade toiletries, bags, scarves and jewellery plus personalised items. We offer something different that you cant get on the high street, says Georgina.
Neil Garrard says the same can be said of other gift shops in Ashbourne, like his own, Vintage Bluebird: The giftware offering in Ashbourne is comparable with major cities for choice, quality and value. Vintage Bluebird is distinguished by its vintage inspired gifts and home accessories, many unique and handmade.
Another recent arrival is The Olive Tree, run by Paul and Nicki Taylor, whose giftware including mirrors, clocks, wall art, photo frames and jewellery is individual, unique, unusual, and some is handmade, Nicki points out.
It is doubly satisfying to see the old as well as the new. Three very different outlets have recently marked 25 years of trade in the town. One of them is Avanti the jewellers. Avanti is Italian for both advance and welcome and the store has made a welcome advance in custom-made gems through its sophisticated computer software, MATRIX. A typical computer-designed ring shown to me in photo quality 3D by goldsmith Ron Fairweather shows Avanti has elevated its bespoke service to a new level of detail and precision. We still employ traditional jewellery-making skills, though, shop manageress Karen Hancock points out, along with our strong ethos of customer service above all else.
Marks the Butchers is also enjoying a new lease of life since moving from Shaw Croft Car Park trailer to a permanent site, and becoming a finalist in the first time of entering the Meat Trade Journals Midlands and East of England Butchers of the Year. Our locally sourced meat is consistently good, says proprietor Mark Caple, and we do proper Derbyshire oat cakes and a pasty probably as good as the Cornish. A regular customer added that Marks meat pies were legendary.
Marks scores highly on personal service as does Natural Choice, run by brothers Steve and Roy Parker, proven by their second place in the towns 2012 High Street Heroes Best Independent award (first place went to another long-established shop, fishmongers MT Hulme). Its the fourth successive year Natural Choice has been placed in the top three.
As its based on votes from the townsfolk, we value this award highly, says Steve, with eavesdropping customer Sylvia Wood confirming that the staff know what theyre talking about and also give you service with a smile and a nice bit of banter. Beyond its modest shop front, Natural Choice is a Tardis of a store, brimful of Fairtrade and organic produce, with its most popular shelves bursting with jars of loose herbs and spices.
When you add other food-related outlets like Waitrose, Sainsburys, Bramhalls deli/caf, Chimes caf and Cheddar Gorge plus restaurants like Da Carlo and the award-winning Dining Room, together with a thriving book shop and two art galleries Opus and St John Street (which also houses an award-winning caf) along with the stores at the nearby Waterside Retail Park, one can only feel optimistic that Ashbourne can rejuvenate custom and income.
The town may want to look at how the Derby Cathedral Quarter was turned around, through embracing the BID (Business Improvement District) scheme, and its encouraging that both the Partnership and the Retailer Group are in discussions with Derbyshire Dales District Council about revising car parking charges. There is also a call to discuss wider Sunday opening and the revival of the market which has shrunk to a handful of stalls. As Andrea Field of Elliots suggests, the town could tackle both issues in one go by starting up a big Sunday market, enhanced by the creation of a cosmopolitan caf culture in the Market Place. A farmers market (the first on 28th February, 9am-2pm, then every 4th Thursday) and vintage and flea markets (27th January, 24th February, 10am-3pm) recently arrived at the Town Hall. If Ashbourne could twin with market town Soisy-Sur-Seine discussions began in 2010 maybe thoughts could turn to a regular French market?
Whatever happens, Neil Garrard of the Retailer Group is confident about the future: Ashbourne has huge positives. I feel its the friendliest town in the country; theres certainly genuine affection for the place. Our town centre is beautiful and the main thoroughfare from St Oswalds Church through to the Memorial Gardens is one of the finest town strolls to be had anywhere. Key events like Shrovetide Football, the Highland Gathering and the Arts Festival attract many visitors. We are also surrounded by attractions like Carsington Water, Dovedale, Tissington and Alton Towers. We know Ashbourne offers a great shopping experience, but it could be even better if we could bring in a few more chain names, introduce more Sunday trading and revitalise the market.
As an outsider who loves Ashbourne, I am especially taken by Neils comment that the Market Hall in the town is an under-utilised resource. As someone who has also felt the exhilaration of the Shrovetide Game, I could see the creation of a heritage centre devoted to this profoundly historic event attracting visitors on a massive scale. Think about it, Ashbourne: two days of football, 363 days of both football... and footfall.