The town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire

PUBLISHED: 16:13 18 August 2011 | UPDATED: 19:52 20 February 2013

The town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire

The town of Ashbourne, Derbyshire

Ashley Franklin meets the high street heroes intent on making Ashbourne 'the ultimate Derbyshire destination'

There appears to be a fresh buoyancy about Ashbourne. On the towns recently refreshed website, Ashbourne is proclaimed as The Ultimate Derbyshire Destination. For many years, it was billed and popularly known as The Gateway to the Peak. However, since the formation of the Ashbourne Partnership in 2004 which, amongst various aims, vowed to address the deteriorating condition of the town centre environment, Ashbourne has been selling itself as a visitor attraction rather than a tourist portal. Significantly, the town website bears the name Visit Ashbourne.

Ashbourne has long had its attractions. It is still, as author James Croston described 150 years ago, one of the most agreeable country towns in the kingdom where its fine 16th to 19th century buildings around 150 of which are listed continue to have a venerable and stately appearance. So rich is Ashbournes history that a heritage centre would be a tremendous boon to the town it needs a place just to tell the Shrovetide story but the atmosphere engendered by its architecture alone enhances the shopping experience.

A constant attraction is the Antique Quarter, its dozen shops lining either side of Church Street with at least another 15 dealers in the Ashbourne Antiques Centre. The Centre has a cornucopia of collectables including furniture, fine glass, jewellery, artwork, lighting and linen, and manager Barbara Akers speaks of steady business from antique collectors both locally and as far afield as Europe, the USA and Japan. I have learned that there are also plans to resurrect the daylong Antiques in the Street event next year.

The Waterside Retail Park on the edge of the town centre has attracted more traffic into Ashbourne. The Park houses major names such as Homebase, Halfords, Majestic Wine and M&S Simply Food. Town councillors have recently refused applications by Argos and Cotswold Outdoor to set up shop there, declaring they would have significant impact on smaller businesses in the town. One could argue that Watersides close proximity to the town makes the Park a gateway to Ashbourne, with its shoppers more predisposed to popping in to view the town.

One could strengthen this argument in the case of Sainsburys, which is in the town itself, though councillors have recently deferred the supermarkets plans to double its store and car park. The question is: Would extra custom at Sainsburys bring people to park and shop at the store and encourage them to walk into town and discover the wide spectrum of independent shops? As it is, there is a bright airy Waitrose in the town centre which has been doing brisk business since it opened 15 months ago. However, the real beauty of Ashbourne is its noticeable lack of chain names and its splendid specialist stores. Whats especially healthy is seeing several shops which have opened in the midst of the recession and are trading successfully.

As Gillian Stone, manager of the SACS fashion store points out: What makes Ashbourne so attractive is that its big enough to be an appealing place to shop, but not that big that you have to fight your way through hordes of shoppers. As other retailers point out, specialist stores tend to be complementary rather than competitive. Independent also means individual and individual shops mean individual attention.

Despite the recession, most retailers report steady trade and there are comparatively few empty outlets. Even though Bookthrift vacated its site recently, it re-opened in larger premises around the corner. Locally known as the Ashbourne Book Shop, its an independent book store which thrives on personalised customer service. For instance, its specialist range of books has been influenced entirely by its regular customers. Were now bigger, better and brighter, says manager Mandy Harvey, who confirms other retailers views that loyal local patronage in Ashbourne is helpfully bolstered by regular outside visitors.

Other advantages enjoyed by Ashbournes traders are encapsulated in the reasons why, last December, Mandy Hutson decided to lease one of the many lovely Georgian buildings on Church Street and open Sticky Fingers, a bright, beautifully laid out shop offering ceramic painting, craft activities, a caf and giftware.

Mandy researched widely before setting up shop, with Ashbourne ticking virtually all the boxes. Ashbourne was always a town that we enjoyed visiting as a family, explains Mandy, and I felt that it already had the right look and feel for a business such as ours. What made Ashbourne the obvious choice was its large catchment area, the mixed and thriving independent retail sector, its tourist trade, vibrant art culture and the relevant socio-economic profile. What Ive also found since opening is that a strong sense of community exists between the traders.

Part of that sense of community is the High Street Heroes awards, with Mandys Sticky Fingers coming to grasp the Best Newcomer award. Significantly, there were 125 participants in this years High Street Heroes awards, attracting over 2,000 voters, a massive 100 per cent increase on the previous year.

A L Hulme the countys one remaining independent fish, game and poultry merchants won the High Street Champion award. The Lovely Lunch award went to Bramhalls, run by Tim and Tracey Bramhall who successfully ran Bramhalls restaurant in the town a number of years ago and have returned to take over the deli/caf that was previously Patrick & Brooksbank. We felt the deli and caf were separate entities, says Tim, so we unified them. It works a treat: what you eat in the caf you can buy in the deli, including our very popular muesli, hock terrine, quiches, chutneys, pickles and parfaits.

Bramhalls also stocks over 60 varieties of cheese. When I called on Ashbournes other deli, Cheddar Gorge, new owner Sarah Mortimer proudly announced she had 73 cheeses for sale. This is more than double the amount it sold when she took over 18 months ago. Sarah is a local girl who was a customer of the Cheddar Gorge for 30 years before she took it over and injected new ideas, which have included installing a tea room, redecorating the shelves, selling handmade chocolates and setting up Facebook and Twitter accounts to appeal to a younger audience.

Further evidence that the town is moving with the times is that the Ashbourne Partnership is actively investigating the introduction of an Ashbourne App, providing instant information for tourists and visitors on their mobiles and iPads. Ashbourne is also in tune with contemporary mores in being a committed Fairtrade town.

Where Ashbourne hasnt moved with modern trends is with its twice-weekly market. Is it time for Ashbourne to embrace the move to a farmers market once a month?

Another issue is that of Sunday opening. Partnership director Tony offers a diplomatic view: We support Sunday shopping but feel it must be at the discretion of the retailer. I do feel that the strength of Ashbournes multifarious and unique retail attractions outweighs its resistance to opening on the Sabbath.

If the towns Antiques Quarter more than merits a days visit, so too do its fashion houses. Indeed, Ashbournes envied reputation as a town of niche outlets is largely due to the singular influence of Dorothy Adams who, back in 1965, opened her childrens wear store Young Ideas, before moving into designer wear long before the term had even been coined. The store now bristles with iconic labels like Armani, Hugo Boss and Paul Smith. Other individual fashion stores include Banjo A big shop that feels intimate, says owner Yvonne Bullock SACS, Pachacuti, Pure Inspiration, Bennetts and for tinier fashionistas Dove Child.

For hats, handbags and accessories, there is Chic where owner Emma Preswick brings in new stock every week. For underwear, nightwear and swimwear, there is Lou Lous, regarded as one of the finest lingerie shops in the country, stocking leading brands like Lise Charmel, Lejaby, Empreinte and Maryan Mehlhorn swimwear. Its impassioned owner of 20 years, Louise Rose, tells me she still gets a buzz from enhancing our customers lives.

For jewellery, there are two highly reputable names: CW Sellors, noted pioneers in the use of British gemstones; and Avanti, which specialises in contemporary custommade pieces of all kinds.

For shoes, youll find over 20 quality brands at the long-established Wigleys, run by Barbara Leyland who told me of a business that dates back to Victorian times when there were 30 shoemakers on the top floor. That top floor now houses ladies fashions which, in Barbaras words, appeal to those with an artistic temperament. Also for ladies but predominantly for younger feet, there is Stepping Stones, opened two years ago by Helen Williams. Quality shoes at affordable prices, promises Helen. Amongst its 15 brands are Geox, Lelli Kelly and Hush Puppies.

A few stepping stones across the road is the Opus Gallery, billed as a haven of beautiful objects in a stylish and intimate space where, along with fine art on the walls, there is jewellery, ceramics and glass. August sees an exhibition by Buxton artist Rob Wilson who creates stunning mixed media paintings of architecture and landscapes. Further up the road, St John Street Gallery has four floors of contemporary fine arts and crafts with work by noted artists such as Lewis Noble, Colin Halliday and Wendy Darker. One floor houses an award- winning caf.

Opposite the gallery is another award-winning eatery, The Dining Room, while Chimes caf rings to the sound of numerous ticking clocks: horologist owner Rob James both sells and repairs clocks, watches, music boxes and barometers. The tinkling of tea cups can also be heard in the front room of Peter Rigbys Georgian house, The Ivies. It is now Admiral Horatio Hemp-Fenders, an old fashioned tea room complete with lace tablecloths.

There are more words that could be lavished on so many other shops including Acorn Country Gifts, Natural Choice health foods, gentlemens outfitters Graves, John Preston Flowers, Spencers Bakery and Coffee Shop and the famous Gingerbread Shop. There is little doubt that Ashbourne is making a strong claim as The Ultimate Derbyshire Destination.

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