Ashbourne - a unique ‘destination’ town where business is bright
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
In a county that is fortunate to have many unique and appealing ‘destination’ towns and villages, Ashbourne remains a force to be reckoned with... and there are exciting developments afoot
A friendly, intimate and traditional market town with fine Georgian architecture, Ashbourne is unquestionably a gem in Derbyshire’s crown. The historic main thoroughfare from the Memorial Gardens through to St Oswald’s Church – taking in the antiques quarter, fashion houses, foodie stores, and giftware and gallery shops – is one of the most delightful town strolls anywhere in the kingdom.
Last year, this gem lost a little of its lustre when Belper won Best Market Town in the Great British High Street of the Year Awards. Ashbourne has earned its own accolades over the years, once reaching the final of Country Life’s Favourite Market Town award; it was the only market town chosen from the Midlands. However, that was back in 2007.
Since then Ashbourne, like all towns, has had to cope not only with the recession but also the trend towards out-of-town and online shopping. Thankfully, since 2004 it has benefited from the Ashbourne Partnership which earlier this year was dissolved after achieving a great deal: it made Ashbourne a Fairtrade town, initiated a rewards card scheme and High Street Heroes awards, and developed a website for the town. Having made its mark, the Partnership decided to pass on the baton to fresh initiatives, including the recently-formed Ashbourne Life Retailers Group.
There is also new life in the heart of the town. That heart was ripped out following the closure of Ashbourne’s iconic coaching inn, The Green Man Hotel, in 2012. However, it now resounds with a youthful beat since the town’s designer store Young Ideas transplanted its operation to the building. The business has also expanded there, opening two more shops, a sports bra business and, more exciting still, preparing a gastro pub, Jack Rabbits café and hotel accommodation to open next year. Ashbourne is buzzing again.
It seems appropriate that a business called Young Ideas is breathing fresh life into the town, particularly as it was this fashion house – created by Dorothy Thomas 50 years ago to sell designer clothes even before the term was coined – that was the catalyst for Ashbourne’s envied reputation as a centre for ladies’ fashions.
Since Anne Wright and her husband Colin – both entrepreneurs with backgrounds in the food industry – bought Young Ideas in 2008, it has become even more successful. They quickly established a website and online business, opened a branch in Bennett’s in Derby’s Cathedral Quarter, and then in 2013 bought The Green Man.
‘Like many Ashbourne people, we were upset by the Green Man’s demise,’ says Colin. ‘It was looking so sad and unloved and we knew it would never work again as a coaching inn.’
Anne continues: ‘We believed this historic building was important to the town and were keen to see it redeveloped in a sympathetic way and make it relevant to what Ashbourne’s people and visitors were looking for today.’
The Green Man site enabled Young Ideas not only to expand its retail space for ladies’ fashions but also to open a menswear department and a new store, Go Wilde, ‘extending the choice of quality lifestyle clothing along with bedding and homeware which was not widely available elsewhere in the town,’ says Anne. She also points out that offering menswear has encouraged couples to shop together.
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The move has been a decided success, with a phenomenal 40 per cent increase in trade in the store’s opening year, and the winning of three nationally prestigious Drapers Independent Awards, including Womenswear Independent of the Year, with Anne and Colin described as ‘switched-on, professional and inspirational owners’ running ‘a jewel of a business’.
So what keeps Young Ideas ahead of its rivals? ‘Passion and customer focus,’ insists Anne. ‘Personal service is everything and we are also innovative and ambitious, always aiming to keep our business modern and relevant for today’s customer.’
Happily, although Young Ideas leads the way in Ashbourne’s fashion provision, other key clothes stores have prospered alongside to maintain the town as a destination for fashion. ‘We all sell different clothes, which makes us complementary rather than competitive,’ Anne points out. ‘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.’
Further to this point, Gillian Stone of SACS believes that Ashbourne is an attractive destination because ‘it’s big enough to be an appealing place to shop but not that big that you have to fight your way through hordes of shoppers.’
However, Colin Wright, who is managing the transformation of the rest of the Green Man complex, says that Ashbourne needs to get wise to today’s shopping trends and, as he explains, that is one of the reasons he is creating dining and accommodation on this site: ‘We’ve seen the growth of the out of town shopping experience where people can spend all day, taking in lunch as well as some retail therapy and maybe even stopping overnight. This is something market towns haven’t cottoned on to yet. To achieve it, the town has got to come together collectively.’
Colin enthusiastically cites the plans of Sally Montague to expand her salon and spa business from St John Street to the disused Horse & Jockey courtyard, effectively linking it through to The Green Man development.
Sunday opening is another way, Colin believes, whereby Ashbourne can forge ahead and he was happy to reveal that following Young Ideas’ move to opening on the Sabbath, Bennett’s department store followed suit.
As Colin reveals, the development of the gastro pub has involved the town community in two ways. Firstly, the look of the pub was determined by a focus group, with about 80 locals turning up to view a variety of designs. As The Green Man was the spiritual home of Shrovetide, Colin ensured the Shrovetide committee was invited: ‘I wanted to show them that our gastro pub would not be too modern and would have a traditional feel.’ Colin also revealed that the Green Man courtyard will be opened up for the two days of next year’s Shrovetide event. Secondly, Colin engaged Laura and Peter Dale of the award-winning Ashbourne restaurant The Dining Room to act as food consultants for the gastro pub.
Showing me round the courtyard, Colin told me that the gastro pub is set to have 70 to 80 covers and he also pointed to a large wall that will be a public window on the kitchen. Colin then introduced me to Myles Mellor and Nick Taylor, two young entrepreneurs who have recently purchased the Derby café/deli Jack Rabbits and are set to bring the brand to this site. It will complement the gastro pub, providing over 65 covers inside and outside. They will also deliver an evening menu with continental flavours, ‘exquisite’ wines and local beers, and a full range of outside catering options for weddings and events, including an evening cookery school featuring Blok Knives.
Jack Rabbits is scheduled to open in November, followed by the gastro pub next spring. A ten-room boutique hotel is to follow in the autumn, which will bring much-needed accommodation into the heart of Ashbourne. of course, all this will also bring employment to the town. Young Ideas alone has increased its staff to 40, and there’s another growing business on site: Boobydoo, which Anne and Colin’s daughter Charlotte has established as the UK’s leading sports bra specialist.
Colin also opened the door of the Green Man’s massive ballroom to show me the 22,000 sq ft of space that will feature in future plans – still to be decided. ‘I’m still finding bits of this building that I didn’t know we had,’ smiles Colin.
After the tour, we had a coffee in the recently-opened Costa next door. The debate over chain outlets continues in Ashbourne, some folk seeing them as essential to the younger demographic and those unable to afford niche shop prices while others are worried that Ashbourne could lose its individuality and special appeal.
While retail outlets come and go, some remain firm fixtures. In the latter category are the town’s antique shops and amidst them A L Hulme, Derbyshire’s one remaining independent fish, game and poultry merchant, now into its 86th year. The jewellers Avanti will also be celebrating their 30th anniversary in Dig Street next year. Avanti is Italian for both ‘advance’ and ‘welcome’ and the store has certainly made a welcome advance in custom-made gems through its sophisticated computer software, the latest development offering customers the opportunity to fashion their own diamond ring with a dedicated website taking them through a wide selection of mounts, metal types and diamonds.
C W Sellors, which has grown since 1979 to become the UK’s leading manufacturer of British gemstones and design, continues to trade in Ashbourne. However, it will soon be moving its Green Road headquarters to set up a Jewellery Design Centre of Excellence in the landscape surrounding Carsington Water. The centre will enable Sellors to increase its apprenticeships and training and design facilities, whilst offering workshop visits, exclusive exhibitions of British and worldwide gemstones, and a retail outlet.
There are other Ashbourne mainstays that make the town distinctive: The Gingerbread Shop; Bramhall’s Deli/café; the Courtyard Café, recently refurbished; Cheddar Gorge with its 80 different varieties of cheese; Natural Choice for health foods; shoe shops Wigley’s and Stepping Stones; furniture store Elliots; lingerie shop Lou Lou’s; and Acorn Country Store with its multifarious gifts.
There are also more recent additions to the independent retail scene including the gift stores The Village Rainbow and La Paperie; Betty’s Tearoom with its vintage merchandise; and White’s, a sophisticated restaurant/bar with five luxury en suite bedrooms.
The art gallery Opus remains ‘a haven of beautiful objects in a stylish and intimate space’ and further outstanding art can be found in St John’s Street Gallery & Café, run since 2011 by Mark and Petra Courtney. Mark and Petra’s hospitality trade experience and passion for the arts has helped their business thrive. The café is a bright, airy and inviting space with healthy menu options and the bonus of an ever-changing display of original fine art on the walls. Downstairs, the gallery walls resonate with work by John Connolly, Colin Halliday, Louise Jannetta and Anna Thomas and, even more of a presence today, Ashbourne-based Lewis Noble who has moved his studio onto the premises.
‘We feel we have improved the display, quality and variety of contemporary artwork,’ says Petra, ‘and we have a lot of art that is different – we don’t like to always play safe. We also love representing Derbyshire artists and having an esteemed painter like Lewis on site has raised the image and reputation of the gallery.’
I was reminded of Ashbourne’s standing as an arts town on beholding what is possibly the most voluminous display of bunting of any market town – it measures eight miles. It is always on display both before and long after the 17-day summer Arts Festival which increasingly gains in reputation, especially for its Streetfest.
For those interested in Ashbourne’s rich history, the establishment two years ago of a Heritage Centre – after 23 years of striving by the Heritage Society – is a major asset. Appropriately sited amidst the Georgian splendour that is Church Street, this volunteer-run enterprise has two rooms with permanent and temporary exhibits. The September exhibition will focus on the Napoleonic Wars, during which Ashbourne housed French prisoners of war.
While in the centre, two Shrovetide balls caught my attention. Both are associated with Princes of Wales who have ‘turned up’ the ball. It’s a shame there isn’t room for standalone space to display the entire fascinating history of Shrovetide, but as it stands the Centre is a drain on the Heritage Society’s funds. Running costs amount to around £2 per visitor and donations are frequently well below that figure. As Centre volunteer Nick Taylor told me, ‘the financial pressures coupled with the difficulty in maintaining a full Thursday to Saturday rota are threatening the Centre’s future, which in turn could compromise the Society’s future, too.’
The Heritage Society’s future could receive a boost if the Malthouse Project comes to fruition. Situated in splendid if neglected isolation at the rear of Vivyan Manion’s antique shop, the Malthouse housed a business owned by late 18th century entrepreneur Thomas Hemsworth. Hemsworth established a perfect example of vertical integration, controlling the whole production process from growing barley to selling beer. Of seven Ashbourne malthouses this is the only one still standing.
There is an Open Day at the Malthouse on 12th September which hopes to gauge the interest in a project that proposes its mixed-use development, combining a commercial component to pay for upkeep and some community use. The project could cost up to £2 million and take five years to realise.
So, there is plenty happening in Ashbourne. Of course, there are abiding concerns – the dilution of the traditional market, the increase in through traffic and, for traffic that likes to stop, parking charges – but the mood, certainly amongst retailers, seems upbeat. They should be encouraged, too, by the New Economics Foundation’s recent report ‘Reimagining the High Street’ which found ‘a strong commitment to the traditional high street as it often forms an important part of a community’s identity… distinctiveness and a sense of place matter to people.’ Ashbourne seems to have those two latter qualities in spades.
‘We’re still a growing town,’ believes Colin Wright, ‘and we’ve always been ideally placed on the periphery of the Peak. I feel we’re a tourist attraction as strong as Bakewell with the added benefit of being a more commercial centre, and the Green Man development will embed us further on the visitor destination map.’
‘Ashbourne is regaining its enthusiasm,’ adds Tony Grace of the Ashbourne Life Retailers Group. ‘The future looks bright.’