Burton upon Trent and Barton Marina, Staffordshire
PUBLISHED: 20:38 01 February 2010 | UPDATED: 15:27 20 February 2013
Ashley Franklin visits Burton upon Trent and Barton Marina.
Interestingly, I encountered only one Burtonian who queried why Derbyshire Life was venturing into Staffordshire. Significantly, he is new to the town, so I wondered if he'd yet noticed the fact that he owns a Derbyshire postcode! As someone who worked for over two decades at BBC Radio Derby, I've come to know Burton better than Buxton or Bolsover: Radio Derby, in spite of its title, has always carried the tagline 'broadcasting to Derbyshire and East Staffordshire', pointing up the geographical closeness evidenced by that Derbyshire postcode. Indeed, Swadlincote and many surrounding Derbyshire villages actually sit further south of Burton and although I live some six miles north of Derby, access via the A38 and the town's close proximity to that dual carriageway means I can be in Burton in less than half an hour.
Commencing work at Radio Derby, I soon acquired a taste for the ubiquitous Bass and Marston's and, as one of my first reporting assignments took me to the Burton Beer Festival, I became rather fond of the place. On reacquainting myself with the town, it seemed entirely fitting that my day began with a first stop at the Tourist Information Centre as it is now housed in the former Bass Museum site, now the Coors Visitor Centre. However, it's not just pubs that are closing: I came through the Coors doors to learn that the Visitor Centre had shut down in June. Coors cited 'significant losses' in running the museum, though company spokesman John Polglass told me of a rescue package launched by Burton MP Janet Dean which has attracted interest from several entrepreneurs, one of whom has produced a 'viable business plan' and wants to re-open as soon possible, so hope ferments.
You can still sample Burton's brewing past: Marston's Brewery has a visitor's centre, although its three-hour tours have to be pre-booked. Mind you, the Discover Burton guide is keen to stress that although the town is renowned for its brewing heritage, there are other attractions that can be highlighted in what has become a much more modern town. Town Centre Manager Paul Howard is especially keen to point up the extraordinary fact that this medium-sized town with a population of 60,000 has three fully covered shopping centres - Cooper's Square, the Octagon and Burton Place - each with dedicated on-site parking facilities, too. Indeed, I have never found parking in a town so easy. It was also a refreshing relief not to have to negotiate any multi-storey car parks, and this leads to the major reason shoppers visit Burton time and time again: it's so accessible. Virtually everything is at ground level - not only the car parks but also the shopping precincts. The town centre is so compact, too: it's only the shortest of strolls from Sainsbury's to the Brewhouse Arts Centre, from Burton Place to the Cineworld Cinema, and from Cooper's Square to the indoor and outdoor markets, and thence to the quietude of the Trent, where I saw lovers sitting under willow trees while children fed ducks and families took tea on the Library caf patio, all but two minutes away from the hustle and bustle of the town centre.
In between the Trent and the Market Place sits the impressive Palladian-type Gothic architecture of St Modwen's Church where Burton's history began. From the time St Modwen built her church shortly after Christianity came to the Midlands in AD 653, it was said that water from the well here had healing properties. That seems fitting in the light of Burton's brewing history emanating from resident monks discovering that the water had definite properties for the brewing of beer, namely its sulphur, calcium, magnesium and low sodium levels.
Incidentally, the properties of spent brewers' yeast following the discovery of vitamins in 1912 created another industry in Burton: yeast was discovered to be a great source of five important B vitamins and led to the world's first Marmite factory. Burton Marmite was included in soldiers' ration packs during World War I and nowadays there is enough of this bread spread sold to provide 100 Marmite 'soldiers' a year for every man, woman and child. You can also think of Burton if you buy Branston Pickle: in the early 1920s, Crosse & Blackwell set up a factory at Branston near Burton and adopted the village name.
Burton could soon become famous for its flower displays, especially hanging baskets. I was immediately struck by the richness and preponderance of its floral exhibits and it was no surprise to hear that last year Burton won the Silver runners-up prize in the Heart of England in Bloom awards. There is cautious optimism about a Gold award this year, not least because of a Town Centre Management initiative called Business in Bloom which encouraged retail businesses to dress their windows. First prize went to H.J. Richards the Jewellers in Abbey Arcade who created an attractive wild flower theme complemented by photographs taken by manager Andrew Richards.
My photo of that winning window dressing wasn't helped by the reflection of workmen refurbishing the paving, though at least that was evidence of the gradual improvements taking place in the old part of Burton around the Market Place. This is where I met Steve and Rachel Robinson, owners since 2004 of established retailers Start & Tremayne, who began as saddlers in the early 1900s (saddlery products again meeting demands from the brewing industry) and developed as sellers of high quality designer leather goods, especially handbags, wallets, purses and luggage. 'Start & Tremayne has long had a reputation for quality,' Steve points out, 'so we knew we were buying into a loyal customer base.' He also runs Blue Water, which sells classy contemporary clothing. Burton could improve, argues Steve, by encouraging more specialist shops, perhaps creating an independent sector in the area where his two stores are situated, a busy thoroughfare in between the Market Place and Cooper's Square.
Steve is also encouraged by the retail potential offered by the increasing growth of nearby Burton College, considerably boosted this millennium by the development of new buildings, including a creative industries centre, providing first class facilities for the performing arts, design, media, a hair and beauty therapy salon and a management and business centre. I was very impressed when invited to view a recent exhibition of photography students' coursework in this clearly thriving modern college and, as College Principal Keith Norris, points out, the growth of the college can only be beneficial to Burton: 'The centre will have a significant impact on the prosperity of Burton town centre and will be very important in attracting new companies into the area, particularly those that require highly skilled workers.'
Burton College looks out over the Memorial Gardens which houses a splendid war memorial statue. Like the aforementioned River Trent walk, this is a surprisingly quiet and restful spot considering its closeness to the buzz of the town centre. It's only a few steps away from the outdoor market which includes typically cheery stallholders creating both character and atmosphere although their chirpiness conceals the usual doubts about future trading. The outdoor market is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday - with especially brisk business on a Friday - but as Markets Manager Brian Hudson told me, it's difficult to arrest the universal decline of the traditional market through the continual drop in trader occupancy levels.
Ironically, what has probably kept Burton market alive is the proximity of Cooper's Square which, like the Octagon and Burton Place, is a modern, enclosed but pleasingly airy and spacious precinct. Between them, the three centres provide all the popular chains such as Marks & Spencer, Bhs, Primark, W.H. Smith, Waterstone's, Wilkinson's and Beatties, although the latest retailer to join Burton Place is Anderson Electrical, an independent business of 30 years standing. For most of the specialist stores, you need to head elsewhere. On Station Street I encountered the family-run men's outfitters Ellis & Son which also supplies schoolwear across the region. Manager Peter Busby is especially proud of Ellis's traditional customer service ethos. 'It's second to none,' boasts Peter, 'even more important today in this self-serve age where there is a decided lack of personnel training to help and assist the customer; it's our standards that bring us great customer loyalty.' Established in 1865, Peter believes Ellis & Son is the oldest standing retail business in Burton, though I noticed that photographers J.S. Simnett, around the corner in Guild Street, proudly bear the date 1863. In spite of its strong tradition - with a reputation at the turn of the 20th century for photographing stately homes - Simnett has moved with the times, changing from plate to film to digital, now specialising in high quality portraits taken in a large, state-of-the-art studio. An even older business than Simnett is John German, chartered surveyors and estate agents since 1840. Also of historic interest is Volkswagen dealer T.L. Darby. Although the business is only 42 years old, it's housed in probably the most attractive old building in town, the former Fire Station of 1903. The original arched doors through which there emerged horse-drawn appliances are now windows where one can gaze on the latest Beetles, Sharans, Tourans and Touaregs. It's interesting, too, to see a thriving car dealership right in the heart of a town - 'we have people popping in for a browse whilst shopping,' reveals owner Richard Darby, and although business is tough for car dealers in these credit crunching times, Richard is enjoying healthy business, citing the excellence of the Volkswagen brand with its range of good models, plus - and here is mention again of that steadfast factor - a loyal customer base.
Loyalty can come through expert specialist knowledge and that's a proud attribute of Pete Oakley Music, a 16 year-old business on Station Street. More than mere music shop, Pete's store has thrived on offering an on-line shop and in-house music school, plus a professional servicing and repair workshop and extensive accessories and music books - 'enabling us to offer continued support for beginner and pro musicians alike, long after the original instrumental purchase,' says Pete. As a fine country/blues singer/guitarist with several albums to his name, you'll find Pete's enthusiasm for guitars positively infectious.
I fondly remember organising a Radio Derby recording of a Pete Oakley concert at the Burton Brewhouse soon after it opened as a multi-use arts centre in 1991. A dip in fortunes saw this independent venue go into liquidation in 2002 but the Borough Council was quick to take it over and it's pleasing to see the Brewhouse busy as a community-based centre offering a wide range of entertainment and arts provision in the form of plays, musicals, workshops and exhibitions. I also recall the slow demise in the Nineties of the Burton Odeon and the subsequent Robins Cinema on Guild Street (the Robins sign hangs forlornly on the still-standing building). Cinemagoers are now much better served by the luxurious multi-screen Cineworld complex.
Burton seems well served too by restaurants, bars and pubs. Opposite Ellis & Son and Pete Oakley Music on Station Street is the stylish Dial Restaurant where I found the service unfailingly friendly and the food delicious - and quickly served, too. At 99 Station Street, which has received some enthusiastic reviews since it opened in May, there was also a friendly welcome and a tempting choice of food. The Three Queens Hotel on Bridge Street also offers a warm welcome and recently included champagne breakfasts to the repertoire of the Grill Room Restaurant. I like the sound of Little Venice in the Market Place, as well as Italian food it promises 'a contemporary yet relaxed restaurant atmosphere'. For Asian cuisine, Jee Ja Jees on Horninglow Street is described as 'one of the most exclusive Indian restaurants in Staffordshire' and the Chinese restaurant Wing Wah must be worth a visit for the 87 ft long boat with mast and sail that is moored in the dining area. It's actually an enormous buffet table.
If you venture further afield, the nearby village of Anslow houses both the award-winning Burnt Gate pub and the recently refurbished Bell Inn which, like The Burnt Gate, retains a country pub image but also includes a contemporary restaurant. There's also Shaad (Bangladeshi for 'taste') on the A38 near the Lichfield turn-off, and the new Waterfront Pub & Restaurant in Barton under Needwood with room for 120 diners with a Quarterdeck where you can dine al fresco overlooking the 300 berth Marina.
Thinking of outdoor living, a trip to Timberland a little further up the A38 at Barton Fields reveals garden houses that will defeat the British summer and playhouses to delight any child.
Barton Marina is itself a day out. Only a year old, this tasteful, canalside attraction, situated only a quarter of a mile off the A38, is housed within an 85-acre park including two fishing lakes and a promenade where the aforementioned Burton stores Start & Tremayne and Blue Water have opened additional outlets, as has Matthew Paul's classy salon, where jewellery is also on sale. I discovered that all of Barton Marina's retail outlets are quality specialist concerns. At Brauz, I did indeed browse at an extensive and eclectic range of handmade crafts, jewellery, gifts and art, while the delightfully-named The Butcher, The Baker, The Ice Cream Maker sells foods that are 'fresh, free range, local and ethical'. Similarly, Gareth and Esther, who run The Apple Tree delicatessen and coffee shop, specialise in 'traditional, healthy, homemade' foods, including their own blend of coffee beans. They also produce an interesting variant on carrot cake: courgette cake, with lime icing. Not only did Gareth and Esther feel that this waterside location was 'perfect for our Mediterranean concept', they also believe that the Marina has created 'a new village atmosphere which has effectively taken the focus back to local traders and shopkeepers, supporting the community and each other.' What's more, due to demand The Apple Tree is planning an extension, as well as evenings offering wine and tapas.
At Gallery Three you can enjoy a coffee or glass of champagne while viewing a wide array of award-winning original paintings, very collectable limited editions and sculptures in a beautifully lit and spacious contemporary gallery across two floors. The amiable and enthusiastic proprietor Robin Whitehouse offers 'a range of artwork from affordable gift ideas at 80 to items for serious collectors in excess of 20,000.' Visiting foreign tourists on narrow boat holidays have brought Robin to ship artwork all round the world. He'll be looking to some healthy business on 20th September when the gallery welcomes Doug Hyde, 'the UK's most loved artist', famed for his smiley round-faced character creations.
On 30th August, Toys of Yesteryear welcomes a life-size moving and talking Dalek, with museum donations that day given to local schools. In the downstairs shop, owner Steve Fulford is doing a roaring trade in small, talking Daleks though he is a passionate voice for the simple joys of traditional toys like ball and top. The upstairs museum is a nostalgic treasure trove where I relished the sight again of Subbuteo, Meccano, Tiddlywinks, board games like Magic Robot and Formula One and a special James Bond cabinet including a Sean Connery spy watch and even Bond Girl action figures. A further event planned is a Space Hopper race, while the Marina as a whole is looking forward to the development of a nature trail, cycle path, log cabins and hopefully a hotel.
Back in Burton, you can add to the Toys of Yesteryear experience by visiting Spirit Games, a 20 year-old business on Station Street which houses thousands of board games, role-playing games, wargames, card games and puzzles, many with delightful names like Leapin' Lily Pads, Penguin Pile-up and Hey, That's My Fish. It's also refreshing to see new board games including the 'murderously entertaining' Kill Doctor Lucky where players attempt to bump off the owner of a sprawling mansion. In keeping with Burton's history, owners Phil Bootherstone and Sally Evans also sell traditional pub games like crib, dominoes and Shove Ha'penny and even sold a skittles game recently to a local pub. Maybe Spirit Games ought to run a stall at the 29th Burton Beer Festival which takes place inside the wonderfully imposing Town Hall, fittingly one of many buildings gifted to the town by brewery founder Michael Bass (eventually Lord Burton). From 18th September for three days, there will be over 100 real ales to sample, including beer from local brewers like Tollgate of Woodville and Quartz from Abbots Bromley, with the Wurlitzer playing by Martin Atterbury of Tutbury an attraction that brings in visitors from all over the country. Dickie Allan of CAMRA revealed that proceeds from the Beer Festival will go towards the hoped-for revival of the Coors Visitor Centre which CAMRA would like to see re-open as a bigger, more ambitious concern, emphasising Burton's place on the map as Britain's brewing capital: 'Let's have Britain's first national museum of brewing here,' declares Dickie. 'What could be a more fitting place for it than Burton?'