Belper - a high street success story

PUBLISHED: 10:10 01 April 2016 | UPDATED: 10:10 01 April 2016

Belper Farmers' Market

Belper Farmers' Market

Ashley Franklin Photography

Derbyshire Life visits the businesses behind Belper’s popularity as a shopping destination

As I’m chatting with Deborah Shiels in The Old Chic Boutique, which she opened only last October, Dawn Baker arrives. Not only is Dawn a new customer, she is also new to Belper, having moved from the quaint Sussex fishing town of Shoreham-by-Sea. Belper compares very favourably, as she says, ‘There is a wonderful community feel here and I love the variety of shops.’

There is even more to Belper, I begin, and then off I go, telling her that there is a life and buoyancy to Belper unlike anywhere I have ever known. I moved to Milford in 1977 and for 25 years it was just the town where I shopped, yet now I use every opportunity to sing its praises and have done so increasingly since 2001 when this section of the Derwent Valley was listed as a World Heritage Site. Dawn raises her eyebrows as I reveal that she is in the birthplace of the factory system and the cradle of the Industrial Revolution.

There is no doubt that due recognition of this rich heritage is largely responsible for reinvigorating the town. A notable instance is the £2million Townscape heritage initiative which brought new shop frontages and architectural improvements. It is also no coincidence that since gaining World Heritage Site status, Belper has won Best Large Town in Britain in Bloom and a Gold Medal in East Midlands in Bloom in the last six years. Belper River Gardens – a haven of calm, charm and horticultural splendour – has never looked better. Long-time Councillor John Nelson, who spearheaded Belper in Bloom, admits the town was previously a ‘disgrace’.

‘Not any longer,’ he states. ‘Belper has got its pride back. I now walk around the town with a spring in my step because I see not only locals applauding what we’ve done but also visitors admiring the place; and when they do that, they come back.’

King Street with the backdrop of the ChevinKing Street with the backdrop of the Chevin

Visitor numbers have also increased since 2014 when Belper won the first Best Market Town award, out of 135 contenders, and was named High Street Champion.

Deborah Shiels, who resides in Ripley, revealed that Belper’s award brought her to set up her shop there. ‘I loved Belper as soon as I arrived,’ says Deb. ‘My son was with me and he said it had all the warmth, feel and friendliness of a seaside town.’

Just like a seaside town, Belper is now attracting tourists. This has proved a bonus for Mike Lacey who opened Peakdale Outdoor in 2013. He had visited several East Midlands towns before deciding where to open his shop but felt most seemed ‘down on their luck.’ Belper, he found, ‘bucked the trend.’ At first keen to open a shop in Bakewell or Matlock, he felt there was already ‘too much competition’ in these towns and that like them Belper had a healthy influx of visitors. His shop’s situation on Strutt Street is also ideal as it puts him close to Belper’s café quarter, comprising Fresh Basil, Strutt Street Bakery and the delightfully-named I Should Cocoa. Just around the corner, the exclusive ladieswear shop Nero e Bianco was opened only last October by Jill Hartley. Like Deb at The Old Chic Boutique, she was drawn to Belper by the High Street award.

Tourism, café quarter, exclusive ladieswear… these are not words I typed in my last article about Belper just four years ago. What I did type – and can repeat – is that Belper maintains a healthy number of specialist, independent and family-run shops. Still on the chalkboard above the counter of Fresh Basil are the words: ‘Independent shops are the glue of the community.’

Fresh BasilFresh Basil

Some townsfolk would argue for more than the current smattering of chain names to boost trade; others feel that the small, niche shops make Belper special and encourage similar stores, which recent arrivals would appear to confirm. Whatever the case, my tour of the town shows a breadth and diversity equal to similar-sized shopping destinations anywhere in the country.

Starting at the top, so to speak, high up on The Butts above the Market Place is Sweetings, established in 1972 and run by Kevin and Jayne Sweeting. Its four floors and 12 showrooms are a veritable emporium of furniture, lighting and home accessories. Sweetings could be said to reflect Belper itself when Kevin speaks of their ‘huge choice and variety’ and in being an ‘individual and unique destination’, and he certainly mirrors the retailers when asked about the key to the shop’s success: ‘We’re customer-friendly and fairly priced.’

Sweetings is also benefiting, as other retailers noted, from the reported trend for increased visits to town centres. ‘We find people are coming in to Belper not just to shop but also to look around, explore the history and have lunch or an evening meal,’ says Kevin.

Kevin also believes that Belper has become ‘more cultured and cosmopolitan’, helped by the recent introduction of a Belper Arts Festival and the continuing success of the town’s Food, Real Ale & Craft Festival which, on Sunday 10th July, will doubtless draw in its usual 10,000 visitors to the 100-plus stalls with music acts and dance troupes enhancing the street atmosphere.

Bridge StreetBridge Street

Arguably, Sweetings’ presence has led to a town brimful of furniture, home and gift wares through shops like Primsisters Country Décor – ‘customers love our handmade, quirky goods,’ says owner Zehra Allen – Kalico, Lavender Grey, Belle la Vie, Brilliant Things and Sundial Style, three floors and five showrooms of solid, rustic furniture and a dizzying array of accessories from around the globe.

As I make my way down to the Market Place, I note Colledges, one of those ‘Tardis’ stores where you step in to admire the furniture behind the window and then find passageways to further rooms and more exciting things to buy.

Mention of the Market Place reminds me of the Farmers’ Market which takes place on the second Saturday of the month. It is a small but busy and varied market, though adjacent retailers and Belper shoppers would welcome more frequent use of this characterful cobbled space.

Just down from the Market Place is the top of King Street which has enjoyed a new lease of life, largely through the presence of the Belper Ritz which is celebrating its tenth anniversary this November. The ‘Twilight Suppers’ at the bistro/café Fresh Ground opposite and the Italian cuisine at Café Nonno’s around the corner give the perfect excuse for making a cinema visit a special occasion night out.

Paul and Karen Davies of TimeandAgainPaul and Karen Davies of TimeandAgain

Also here is Hall of Frames, renowned for its professional framing and gallery of original and limited edition artwork; Liquid Treasure, where Julie Wyllie promotes her passion for wines, ales and a wide exclusive range of spirits; and Stately Brides offering ‘style and affordable quality’ in its multifarious designer dresses.

Like the Ritz at the top of the town, delicatessen and café Fresh Basil has regenerated the middle part of town. Charlotte Tansley, who has risen impressively from waitress to manager and now owner in just six years, is taking the deli into its second decade alongside manager Bruce Mather. They clearly have their collective finger on the pulse of the place, discerning that their consistent popularity is down to ‘great location, bespoke products, fantastic support from locals and strong customer relations.’ They have already moved Fresh Basil on through the constant sourcing of new produce – ‘so that customers know there is something different every time they visit’ – a canny initiative whereby a cheese of the week is sold at a special price, and the introduction of Sunday opening as well as occasional evening events of food and music.

Along with their renowned breakfasts, Fresh Basil’s enthusiastic support of the Belper Ambassador scheme has also helped to maintain their standing as a buzzing social hub. The Ambassador scheme was a noted factor in the town’s High Street award and is another successful offshoot of World Heritage Site status. Shops and businesses know all about Belper’s heritage, attractions and facilities so that they can impart information to visitors and persuade them to stay a while longer.

‘I’m actually an example of someone who found this scheme really helpful as I’m from Horsley,’ smiles Charlotte. ‘I would recommend the Ambassador scheme to every local retailer because increasing numbers of tourists are balancing a day out discovering Belper’s history with a visit to the shops and cafés. We also see a lot of walkers due to the beautiful scenery hereabouts so we can offer them helpful advice as to what they can see around the town.’

Bruce Mather, Manager of Fresh BaBruce Mather, Manager of Fresh Ba

The tourism factor loomed large in Paul and Karen Davies’ decision last October to take over the shop TimeandAgain, selling colourful, contemporary homeware, gifts and furniture inspired and influenced by mid-20th century designs alongside genuine items from the late 1950s to early ’70s. Retro goods with real style.

‘We see visitors from all over the UK and even a handful from overseas,’ Paul points out, ‘and they all find our distinct produce very alluring. There’s a nostalgic warmth to our shop that customers love.’

Paul believes that allying this unique merchandise with ‘personal service’ has enabled TimeandAgain to flourish in the High Street: ‘In this world of megastores and faceless internet shopping, customers appreciate a friendly welcome from someone who can offer one-to-one assistance and knowledge. Because we sell non-essential items that you’ve maybe saved for to treat yourself or someone else, a customer needs to feel appreciated. They’ll remember that as much as the special item they’ve bought and they will spread the word.’

Next door to TimeandAgain is another new shop, Nero e Bianco, opened last October by Jill Hartley. ‘I sensed both pride and positive vibes in Belper, so it seemed the perfect place to open a store,’ says Jill.

With ‘a passion for fashion, style and elegance’, Jill’s rationale behind Nero e Bianco is simple and splendid: ‘I believe all women can look fabulous and have an innate drive to help women feel good about themselves.’ Jill spends a lot of time, especially in Italy, sourcing clothes that are ‘different, edgy and chic, of good quality, wide range and exclusive to this area while still being affordable.’ Having just returned from a tour of Italian fashion houses, Jill is looking forward to a spring season where she will be selling ‘cool pastels, pinks and aqua with vibrant yellows and coral.’

Already, the store has attracted custom from all over the East Midlands and it’s refreshing to see these two new arrivals next door to each other at a time when more than a dozen shops a day are closing in the UK, largely due to internet shopping.

‘There is a place for online shopping,’ says Jill, ‘but there are still customers who would rather see the clothes, feel the fabric and know exactly what they are buying. Also, we offer prosecco and chocolate as a thank you. You don’t get that on the internet.’

As I move further down King Street, I note Sweet Memories where you can taste the treats of your youth like Chocolate Limes and Sherbet Fountains – and don’t forget the ‘artisan handmade chocolates’ in I Should Cocoa just a few doors away.

The middle of King Street has been enlivened by the bistro Nourish at No 44 which, in adapting the old Imperial Vaults, has brought a Gallic flavour to Belper. Indeed, the cuisine is ‘old-fashioned French and English with a modern twist’ and I love the relaxing, unpretentious atmosphere of the place.

Towards the bottom of King Street and into Bridge Street sit several well-loved stores: Howarth’s the butchers; Lester & Nix where, for owner Steve Nix, the business of selling TVs, cookers, dishwashers and other white goods is ‘not a job but a way of life;’ The Leather Shop, stocking middle-to-high-end bags, purses, wallets, briefcases, belts and gloves – ‘all with the elegance, quality and prestige that leather gives’ says manager Judith Poundall; century-old ironmongers Tomes, where you can buy everything from fork handles to four candles; George’s Tradition – ‘the home of first class fish and chips’; and Frearsons with its personalised gifts, glassware, jewellery, watches and clocks. Steve Silverman, whose family took over from the Frearsons nine years ago, believes he has made the shop ‘leaner, fitter and more structured and efficient’ while still maintaining it as ‘the shop of the people’.

‘We are proud of our customer service’ says Steve, a mantra that rang through every store I visited. ‘Being an independent shop, customers matter more so personal service is paramount,’ says Judith of The Leather Shop.

Most retailers also spoke of the loyal support of Belper customers so it’s to be hoped they will get behind the encouraging growth of retail businesses along Bridge Street towards Belper’s iconic mill. The Lion Hotel, a former 18th century coaching inn, has been spruced up inside and out by its new owners and has an attractively refurbished bar and dining area; and there’s plenty of dining experiences further along, including the handsome Gillivon Tea Rooms; Elaichi, superior Bangladeshi food served by warm, knowledgeable staff; the ever-popular Chinese restaurant The River Gardens; Tom Yum, authentic Thai food in the North Mill building itself; and, just over the Mill bridge, Armando’s, dishing up great Italian cuisine.

Also at the Mill end of Bridge Street is Yardley’s, a stylish wine and tapas bar offering ‘a relaxed Mediterranean feel’, opened four years ago by Pete Yardley and his family as a refreshing alternative to Belper’s numerous pubs. He admits that opening a bar at this previously unfashionable quarter of Belper was ‘a big gamble’ – he spent £80,000 on the interiors alone – but it’s flourishing. ‘We’ve created something classy and one of a kind,’ declares Pete. His belief in siting Yardley’s here was based on the large catchment area of Belper Lane End’s housing estate just beyond the mill. ‘That’s why it makes sense to have this area developed,’ states Pete.

That said, Bridge Street is ideal for retailers who aren’t wholly dependent on a High Street presence. It’s certainly worked for Belper Cycles, opened 18 months ago by father and son Kevin and Leon Churchill – ‘we have a passion for getting people on bikes,’ declares Leon – and Allison Louise Bridal, opened two years ago by Michelle Allison.

Offering a range of dresses priced from £600 to £1,200, the bridal shop has been a labour of love for Michelle – ‘this is a tough business with long, unsociable hours so your heart and passion have to be in it,’ she affirms – but in carefully sourcing exclusive bridal wear designs and ‘building up a reliable and trustworthy customer relationship’, trade is flourishing and she has had a ‘flying start to 2016’.

At the other end of Belper, history and commerce combine with the former Brettles hosiery factory now operating as de Bradelei Mill, a complex of shops selling women’s and menswear, shoes, accessories and giftware. The Brettles name lives on in Belper, having been acquired by Slenderella, who run a popular factory and retail shop.

A name that now deserves a place in the esteemed history of Belper manufacturing is Robeys. Thirty-four years ago, Mark Robey set up shop in the former 18th century Unitarian Sunday School, selling traditional wood-burning stoves and cooking ranges. Now in Goods Yard with a two-floor warehouse and showroom and a staff of 28, Robeys is one of Europe’s leading suppliers of sophisticated top-of-the-range fireplaces and stoves with customers worldwide. They also have a thriving trade in cookers, refrigerators, furniture and accessories.

Belper has even more to offer if you look to the outskirts. Country Tiles, for instance, in Nether Heage, is a converted stone farm building selling a remarkably extensive range of ceramic and porcelain tiles for floors and walls in virtually every conceivable style and colour. ‘Our fine reputation for expertise has been built up over 28 years,’ says founder Heather Jones, ‘so customers feel confident buying from us.’

To end where we began – inside Deb Shiels’ Old Chic Boutique – this is a handsome, double frontage shop with a wide range of secondhand women’s clothes, hats, bags, shoes and jewellery. ‘All the clothes are carefully sourced,’ says Deb, ‘and I especially go for something that’s a bit different. I also sell sizes 6 to 26 as I have friends at both ends of the scale!’

With Deb’s shop and the other recent arrivals to increase the richness and scope of the Belper shopping experience, the future crtainly looks promising. Steve Silverman of Frearsons believes Belper would benefit from a dedicated town centre manager who could ‘manage and plan events, control street furniture – especially A boards – and also control what kind of businesses can operate from the town.’ This, affirms Steve, would help prevent duplication of retail units.

As for the threat from online shopping, Paul Davies of TimeandAgain believes Belper’s retailers shouldn’t fight against it but rather use it to enhance their customer service: ‘The internet shouldn’t be seen as an alternative to the High Street but rather an extension of it.’

Charlotte Tansley of Fresh Basil has a lot of confidence in Belper: ‘The town has continued to grow these last ten years and we just need a few more independent stores so that we can truly say Belper has something for everyone. A town centre manager could help but in my opinion the people and businesses of Belper are great at rallying together to make this great town even greater.’ w

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