What’s new in Burton upon Trent

PUBLISHED: 15:27 20 October 2014 | UPDATED: 15:27 20 October 2014

High Street

High Street

Ashley Franklin Photography

Ashley Franklin returns to Burton upon Trent to find out about the latest developments there

I last visited Burton upon Trent in 2011. Commissioned to reflect on the town three years on, notably as a visitor destination, it’s pleasing to see development and progress. No town, of course, should ever stand still. That said, every town should retain a comforting sense of continuity so it’s also heartening to see that some aspects of Burton have changed little.

Indeed, my recurring thought as I drive down the A38 is easy accessibility. Burton may be in Staffordshire but it’s less than 12 miles from Derby. That’s one mile nearer than Ashbourne. The A38 is a quick dual carriageway, too. From my home in Milford, I can be in Burton in less than 30 minutes. To travel to Buxton takes 50 minutes. Furthermore, it’s only a brief drive from the A38 exit towards the town. Before you arrive in the centre, your eyes fall on the National Brewery Centre, the homage to Burton’s heritage as the beer capital of the world and a look back to when half the town was engaged in the brewing industry and a quarter of Britain’s beer was produced here.

At the time of my previous visit this museum had just opened. It now welcomes 30,000 visitors a year. Incorporating large elements of the original Bass Museum, the Centre offers a ‘unique’ experience, ‘a celebration of the social history of the development of brewing’. Visitor feedback is very positive about the variety of the tour as the guide to the brewing process takes in steam engines, vintage vehicles, Shire horses and drays, multifarious pub memorabilia and, of course, sample tastings. The Centre also thrives on weddings, corporate events and restaurant bookings with October events including Hallowe’en ghost tours, a Last Night of the Proms with Gresley Colliery Band and an independent brewers’ beer festival. Marston’s Brewery also offers tours by appointment.

As I drive on, Burton town centre looks reassuringly familiar. A constant plus of Burton is that parking is so easy as it’s all on ground level – no multi-storeys to negotiate. The car parks are reasonably priced, too. Furthermore, it’s remarkable to see a medium-sized town with three fully-covered shopping centres. This is one good reason why, in the words of Cllr Robert Hardwick, Deputy Leader (Cultural Services) of East Staffordshire Borough Council: ‘Burton punches above its weight.’ The three centres – Coopers Square, The Octagon and Burton Place – are all busy, bright, spacious complexes, with Coopers Square and The Octagon also on ground level, while The Octagon has just a small upper level area. The town centre is very compact, too; from Coopers Square car park, there is a walking radius of about five minutes. There’s nothing fussy or fanciful about Burton, either. It’s like an old friend: solid and dependable. As local historian and Burton Civic Society member Richard Stone believes, ‘Burton is small enough to have a sense of intimacy, large enough to offer choice and variety. I particularly like its unpretentiousness.’ For instance, once parked outside Coopers Square, it’s only a short stroll to the Brewhouse arts centre or the Cineworld cinema; or, if you step inside one of the enclosed shopping precincts with its high street staples like M&S, Boots and Waterstones, you’re only a few steps away from the older part of town with its array of more independent retailers. Also close by is the outdoor market and the regenerated indoor market and, just a few steps further, the relaxing quietude of the walkways beside the Trent.

Burton by the TrentBurton by the Trent

Wherever you walk, Burton appears clean, tidy and, especially in the summer, full of flora. It’s no surprise to learn that Burton has achieved a run of six consecutive gold medals in the regional Britain in Bloom competition. Hanging baskets and flower beds enhance some quite attractive period buildings in the traditional shopping streets and it’s pleasing to see a Borough Council scheme – the Inner Burton Initiative – whereby 24 shop fronts along the northern end of High Street are being restored and replaced. This is a welcome project as it will improve the look of a few of the town’s independent shops and eateries and may encourage other niche outlets to Burton.

Andrew Richards of HJ Richards, the jewellers who have been trading since 1897, says business is improving after three ‘tough’ years but adds that Burton ‘needs to be spruced up.’ A restorative sprucing would certainly lift the handsome Abbey Arcade his shop occupies, an arcade that also includes David Whyman’s crystal engraving business. Is there another glass engraver in the world whose intricate, artistic work is owned by Queens, Princes, Sultans, Emirs, Dukes, Earls, Lords, Knights and a US President?

There are other independent traders hereabouts like the clothes store Unique, gift and interiors store Alphabet which also houses a coffee shop, and Start & Tremayne, specialists in designer handbags, luggage and leather items. There have been many generations of customers here as the Start name goes back to the early 1900s when the business provided saddles and harnesses for the brewery Shire horses, Mr Tremayne saddling up with Mr Start in the 1970s.

Maybe a few entrepreneurial traders of the future will be drawn to Burton through its recently refurbished indoor Market Hall. The £1.6 million Hall is, according to Cllr Robert Hardwick ‘more than just a market hall’ as it has, along with its 25 fixed shop units, several ‘pop-up’ stalls occupying the central area of the hall, thereby allowing that space to be used for entertainments, wedding fairs, antique fairs and other events. At the time of writing, ten traders had set up stall with a further seven to come and interest from four more. One of those first traders, Dave Mullis of Sheridane’s Vintage Market, had previously kept his business to the rounds of antique fairs, so he’s made a bold step. ‘When I saw the Market Hall’s bright, clean, airy space, I decided to give it a go,’ said Dave. ‘It was a quiet start but business is picking up and I’m very hopeful.’

Coopers SquareCoopers Square

Business will surely pick up if the outdoor market traders return to the Market Place adjacent to the Hall. However, this is a tricky issue: while the Hall was being refurbished – a period of 18 months – the open air traders were moved a few hundred yards to Station Street. As footfall has been good there, the traders are reportedly reluctant to return. It will be an embarrassing irony if the outdoor market trades on but not in the actual Market Place, the traditional heart of the town.

No longer trading, sadly, is the Schoolwear Centre, better known as Ellis’, a poignant loss having been founded in 1865 and being a subsequent provider for numerous generations of school uniform wearers. However, it was pleasing to see Burton’s two oldest businesses – estate agents John German (1840) and photographers Simnett (1863) – still thriving.

Next door to Ellis’, I was delighted to see Pete Oakley’s music shop still going strong after two decades. With so many stores closing due to online buying – possibly the cause of Ellis’ demise? – Pete has positively embraced the web, trading as guitarsuperstore.com. However, as Pete confirms, guitar customers in particular – the store offers over 1,000 guitars ranging in price from £40 to £10,000 for a PRS Martin – will travel long distances to touch, feel and play to ensure they invest in the right instrument. This is where Burton’s central location in the country helps enormously. As Pete reveals: ‘We get customers coming up from the south who say “we don’t have anything like this in London.” Our prices are competitive, too. We also offer a repair service, in-house music school, extensive accessories and music books and, importantly, we are all pro musicians.’

One of those musicians is Dan Baker whose band Kitten Pyramid is making waves in prog rock circles, though their overall sound is dizzyingly varied. To promote their debut album, they’ve hired the Brewhouse Arts Centre on 27th September to stage the first of what will hopefully be a series of ambitious circus-themed concerts.

Burtons new Market HallBurtons new Market Hall

The Brewhouse, opened in 1991, carries the kudos of once hosting a gig by Desmond Dekker and a comedy night with rising stars Jack Dee and Lee Evans. It went into liquidation in 2002 and struggled for some time but is now, under the auspices of the Borough Council, re-establishing itself as a venue for music, drama, dance and art exhibitions with, recently, Marston’s and Derby QUAD coming together to help improve the café/bar facilities.

Kitten Pyramid member Nick Gilligan is thrilled to be getting behind the Brewhouse, especially as it lends itself so well to the band’s circus event: ‘Although we’re a local band, there are still people who haven’t heard about us so our circus is a big opportunity to turn that around. It will also help to breathe more life into the Brewhouse. It’s an amazing venue and could quite easily be the choice of bands on the circuit. It’s perfect for our circus, too, as we want space for art and craft stalls and demos, a music workshop, screenings of short films and fun things like ladies’ arm wrestling. Ultimately we want our circus to be a celebration of local creativity in every arts centre in the country and it would be great to know it started here in Burton.’

While the Brewhouse, as its name indicates, took over an old brewery building, the nearby Volkswagen dealership TL Darby was commended for bringing fresh life to one of the most attractive old buildings in the centre of Burton, the former fire station of 1903. Although it’s been there for nearly 50 years, T L Darby is set to relocate to Centrum East Retail Park. Whilst it’s sad to see the closure of a handsome edifice – its future uncertain – this is highly positive news in the sense that TL Darby has successfully expanded and outgrown the building. The current six car showroom will now be 12, and 12 will also be the number of new employees. Also, the workshop will be bigger and all service equipment brand new. The move is expected to be completed at the turn of the year and, in a canny customer care initiative, a shuttle bus service to the new premises will be laid on for anyone who turns up at the old building wondering why it’s empty!

Coincidentally, two more old buildings have been regenerated since I was last here, both within a hundred yards of each other. The grandeur and elegance of the late 19th century Burton House is now the ideal home for Langan’s Tea Rooms and café. Heart-warmingly, it’s a social enterprise business where all the money raised goes to the O’Connor Gateway Charitable Trust, helping recovering addicts with work experience, training and education opportunities. The staff members themselves are positive living examples of the Trust’s success. This venture led Burton MP Andrew Griffiths to describe it as ‘a pioneering initiative showing that Burton is leading the rest of the country in tackling drug and alcohol addiction.’

A tour party at the National Brewery CentreA tour party at the National Brewery Centre

Close by is a building brimfull of nostalgia: the former site of the Burton Robins cinema, reopened in June after extensive restoration by the Sandhu brothers Dee and Indy. Also restored is the cinema’s original name: the Ritz. Trading as Ritz World Buffet & Banqueting, there are two distinct floors. Downstairs there is an already successful 285-cover buffet restaurant offering world cuisine – with cinema icons on the walls – while upstairs is a huge space for corporate events and weddings. It’s an eye-catching space, a notable feature being the art deco flourishes by Ian Fearn of Darley Classics Period Mouldings.

‘We are delighted to have breathed new life into this building,’ says co-owner Dee. ‘Local people have flocked to us. It’s a place full of fond memories which they can now relive.’

While the Sandhu brothers have helped restore footfall to Guild Street, two sisters are doing the same at the other end of town in Lichfield Street. Georgina and Libby Naseby have recently opened The Whynot Gallery in a most attractive three-storey Georgian townhouse. Coming from a family steeped in the retail industry and with Libby being a professional picture framer, the sisters decided ‘to celebrate all that is art and craft.’ The craft element is important, they stress – ‘this makes us more than just an art gallery’ – and there are also gifts and cards in the ground floor boutique-style shop. They are geared to promote local artists and artisans and, with two upper floors available, can stage several exhibitors at a time. This month, for example, they are showcasing works by contemporary artist Cliff Warner as well as his wife, Martine, a photographer; fine artist Louisa Simpson; and award-winning mixed media artist Freda Harris.

Outlets like Whynot could represent a vital future for Burton. One former Burton clothes shop retailer told me he no longer trades in the town because ‘too many young people gravitate to Birmingham and Derby’ and Cllr Robert Hardwick hopes that the new-look Market Hall will bring in younger shoppers.

‘We think Burton has much to offer,’ say Georgina and Libby, ‘so it’s a shame it gets overlooked, not so much by visitors who tell us they are impressed by the town, more by residents. Some of them have been seduced by other towns’ regenerations which we have yet to go through. With the support of local people together with the local authority, we feel we could greatly improve the town’s prospects.’

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