Barnsley - A town used to rising to the occasion

One of South Yorkshire's most famous market towns rises to the top as a place to live, learn and do business Words and photographs by Bill Hearld

You don’t need a satellite guide to find Fosters Bakery in Barnsley. The wonderful smell of freshly baked bread takes you all the way there. Not that managing director John Foster notices it any more. He was born at the bakery and he commutes from his home two minutes away. ‘I can smell when there’s something wrong, though,’ he said. ‘I once arrived for work, noticed the smell was different and we found some lagging on fire behind one of the ovens. No-one else could tell.’

John Foster has been awarded an honorary doctorate from Sheffield Hallam University for his outstanding contribution to business. He helped the university establish its centre for food innovation and, in turn, the university helped improve information technology and human resources at the bakery in the tiny Barnsley suburb of Mapplewell.

He is either chairman or a member of several local and regional business and investment groups, but his main boast is that he taught Nigella Lawson how to bake bread when the celebrity foodie turned up at one of his bakery master classes in London. ‘I did not even know who she was then, but she is a lovely person,’ said John. Nigella later gave him a glowing credit in one of her books.

And while we are name-dropping, one of John Foster’s near neighbours in Mapplewell is the much-celebrated cricket umpire Dickie Bird. Fosters Bakery was established in 1952 when John’s grandmother Emily Foster and her daughter Betty first opened a transport caf� in a disused blacksmith’s shop in the village of Mapplewell.

Baking was Emily’s speciality and with one domestic gas oven she could bake two loaves at a time. As her baking became more popular she added a further oven and expanded capacity to near bursting point until September 1959 when the limited company was founded and a new bakery was built.

Today, the much-expanded bakery employs 237 people and operates round the clock seven days a week, has an annual turnover of �10 million and sends its specialist bread to many countries, including Cyprus, Greece, Spain and Portugal. It has even sent baguettes to France.

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John Foster says Barnsley is the ideal place to do business: ‘It is cheap, has a helpful council, it is in the middle of the country, has superb road and rail transport connections and, above all, it has an unpretentious, committed workforce not afraid to graft.’ His workforce includes ex-prisoners who are given a chance of work before leaving prison and, often, are later given permanent jobs.

John reckons Barnsley has everything needed for a business to succeed. That includes Barnsley College, with which Fosters Bakery has formed an official partnership to mark their commitment to the Apprenticeship and Train to Gain schemes for young people.

He is full of praise for the forward-thinking college which has just been recognised as one of the best general further education colleges in the country with an ‘outstanding’ marking in the latest Ofsted inspection. It is only the fourth such college in the country to achieve the overall outstanding grade. And that is despite the college currently undergoing a multi-million pound redevelopment with a new building that will be the main campus at Old Mill Lane when it opens this summer.

Fosters Bakery and the college have worked together since 2007 to provide training for a total of 63 staff and apprentices at the bakery. Since their collaboration with skills and training provided by the college, Fosters has decreased absenteeism and created a happier, well-motivated workforce. Every employee at Fosters Bakery has at least a Level 2 qualification.

There’s a new air of optimism in the metropolitan borough as Barnsley Development Agency forges ahead with a �370 million transformation of the urban centre into a 21st century market town; provides support to local companies and inward investors and its Social Enterprise Barnsley team works on economic development to reach communities and help people back into employment.

Westgate Plaza is a high-rise development towering over Barnsley providing office accommodation, luxury apartments and the new headquarters for Barnsley Council. This development, says John Foster, is helping to take Barnsley into the future and makes a positive statement on the town’s skyline.

John still likes to shop in Barnsley Market where, as a young boy, he was a barrow boy for the family bakery. But his favourite part of Barnsley is a view from the A628 road as you approach the town from Manchester. ‘The first time I saw it, I was 16 and on a moped and it gave me a Sound of Music “the hills are alive” moment. I saw Barnsley on the hill in the distance and I knew I was back home. Every time I see that view, I still get a Julie Andrews moment,’ he said.

How to get there:  Barnsley is 12 miles north of Sheffield 17 miles south of Leeds and 15 miles west of Doncaster, between junctions 36 and 38 of the M1. Its new Transport Interchange on the site of the old Barnsley Exchange railway station has frequent rail services to Wakefield, Leeds, Huddersfield and Sheffield. There are frequent buses operated by South Yorkshire PTE.

Parking: Pay and display car parks in town.

What to do: Barnsley indoor and outdoor markets have 300 stalls open Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday.  Cannon Hall Museum, park and gardens is at nearby Cawthorne and for the children there’s Cannon Hall Farm, Playmania and Pirates Cove Indoor Play Centre.

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