How Belper became major tourist destination in Derbyshire
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
How has the town fared since winning Best Market Town and High Street awards in 2014? Ashley Franklin talks to the people behind its success
Belper has been my family’s home town for 40 years and the town’s progress since the turn of the millennium has been nothing short of miraculous. For 25 years it was merely the town where I shopped. Today, it’s a cultured, cosmopolitan, proactive and prosperous place.
Visit as we spring into summer and the town has never looked so good, especially if you visit the River Gardens, a haven of calm, charm and horticultural splendour. Since town councillor John Nelson spearheaded Belper in Bloom 25 years ago, Belper has won Gold in East Midlands in Bloom for the last eight years and Best Large Town in Britain in Bloom in 2012. More than benefiting Belper’s environment in terms of cleanliness, colour and conservation, it also galvanised the community.
This has gone hand in hand with the promotion of Belper at the heart of the Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site. Although the cotton industry established by Jedidiah Strutt has long gone, its heritage has helped to reinvigorate the town.
When I first wrote about Belper for Derbyshire Life in 2005 – local historian Mary Smedley recounted the tale of a potential town visitor slowing his car down to ask a local: ‘What’s ‘ere?’
‘There’s nowt ‘ere,’ came the reply. ‘Drive on to Matlock Bath.’
Today that local could pass on this year’s Belper Events Guide brochure, signposting events such as Belper Goes Green – the eco festival organised by Transition Belper – Larks in the Park, Belper Open Gardens, Belper Games, Well Dressings and Discovery Days – Derbyshire’s biggest heritage festival organised by the Derwent Valley Mills team. Then there’s A Christmas Food Festival, monthly farmers’ market, and the summer Food, Craft & Ale Festival, which began in 2007 with around 40 stalls and 3,000 visitors and now has over 100 stalls and 10,000 visitors.
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The Events Guide also reveals that Belper has become an arts town. This May sees the sixth Belper Arts Festival, with a strong focus on artists through an Arts Trail and Open Houses, as well as a celebration across its three weeks of literature, theatre, music, dance, comedy and photography.
These events might not have happened at all had Belper remained in the doldrums when it was losing the major manufacturers that succeeded the cotton industry such as Silkolene, Thornton’s, Brettles, Blounts and Jaeger. However, Belper has re-invented itself as a hub for small businesses, not least in its shopping streets. In 2014 it won the inaugural Best Market Town award and was named High Street Champion. It hasn’t looked back since. In fact, the award has made Belper even more of a go-to town for both businesses and visitors.
Two fortuitous factors were the opening of deli/café Fresh Basil in 2005 and the Ritz Cinema in 2006 which have gradually regenerated the town quarters they occupy. This continues, too. Six months ago the Monk Cocktail Bar – established for a decade in Matlock – opened opposite the Ritz. As manager Tom Ingham reveals: ‘We saw Belper as an up and coming town with a good drinking and dining culture.’ The bar has already been proclaimed a success. ‘We’re attracting everyone from 18 to 68,’ says Tom. ‘They love the atmosphere and the place is buzzing.’
Adding to the dining culture in this part of town is the Italian restaurant Nonno’s, the award-winning Nourish on King Street and The Loft. The last, run by Craig Tyrell, is a cosy, convivial restaurant that has just launched an eight-course tasting menu of its ‘modern British cuisine’. There are also types of shops that have struggled to retain a High Street presence in other towns, such as the Belper Book Shop, Motoshop – the car care and accessories store – and stationery store Moss Office Services.
Two other long-established shops nearby include: Liquid Treasure, where Julie Wyllie promotes her passion for wine, ale and spirits; and Hall of Frames, renowned for its professional framing and art gallery. Both businesses have benefited from the Ritz’s presence and its pulling power of 60,000 visitors a year but have also played their own part in revitalising this part of town.
The presence of the ever-popular delicatessen/café Fresh Basil on Strutt Street has created a café culture that includes I Should Cocoa and The Perfect Cuppa, while the footfall hereabouts encouraged the opening of Peakdale Outdoor and clothes shop Strut Menswear, opened a year ago by Laura Surga to ‘fill a gap in Belper,’ namely a shop selling quality branded men’s casuals and streetwear.
Further up in the Market Place sits Prestige Beauty, run by Sue Ilic, a spacious, stylish beauty clinic and hair salon offering ‘everything from a simple eyebrow wax to hairdressing, lipomassage, IPL and the ultimate in skin care.’ It has five treatment rooms, four nail stations, hair studio and a tan cab. ‘Our clients love the salon ambience,’ says Sue, ‘and we have equipment and services no other salon in the area can offer.’
Sue loves the Market Place location – ‘lots of free parking’ she points out – though feels this part of town still has potential.
Next door is long-established furniture store Colledges while on the opposite end of the Market Place sits A&S Estate Agents, set up two years ago by Steve Milward. Steve says the housing market in Belper ‘remains strong’ and he is encouraged by what he sees as ‘significant efforts made to improve the image, appearance and facilities of the town year on year, giving us local businesses the impetus we need to improve and prosper ourselves.’
Other businesses to set up shop since Belper won the British High Street Award, are gift shop Belle la Vie, pre-loved women’s clothes store The Old Chic Boutique, and the constantly fascinating and colourful retro goods store TimeandAgain.
Since opening two years ago, the Angels micropub on the Market Place has won several awards and recognition for being the only pub in the town where the ales come straight from the barrel. ‘It’s like going to a beer festival every weekend,’ smiles manager Katy Creswell, adding that ‘even the brewers comment on how well we keep their beer.’
It’s a great testament to Belper that department store Clarkes – a fixture in Ripley for over a century – opened on King Street two years ago. As owner David Clarke observed, ‘We saw a town with a strong sense of identity and a real buzz about it.’ His wife Jodi, who runs the store, added: ‘King Street is vibrant and independent-friendly.’ Clarkes has a range of fashions on the ground floor, with upstairs dedicated to homewares.
Further down King Street is This Boutique, opened six months ago by Emma Auger. She’s already attracting a strong customer base for her mid-to-high end fashions for the 30-pluses. Her latest brands include NYDJ, Noa Noa, Inwear, Cream and Bariloche – ‘clothes that are comfortable, affordable and stylish,’ says Emma, who feels friendly Belper has taken her to its heart.
Several long-established, family-run shops seem to double as social hubs: giftware store Frearsons; ironmongers Tomes; Lester & Nix, suppliers of TVs, and white goods; award-winning butchers Jerry Howarth; and The Leather Shop, run by Judith Helen Poundall. ‘Leather gives refinement, elegance and prestige’ states Judith, ‘and it smells great!’ She reveals that the keys to their success are being ‘individual and specialists in our field’, that Belper people are ‘appreciative of good quality merchandise’, and a steady influx of visitors who often tell Judith and her staff – Jo and Tracy – ‘there’s nothing like this where we live.’
There will be a steady influx of visitors to the Belper Arts Festival from 5th May, and it was newcomers to the town – like playwright George Gunby and artist Sheila Guyatt – who helped shape and progress the arts culture in Belper. In its five years so far the Festival has attracted over 75,000 visitors and put almost £1m into the local economy.
‘We had no money and little more than an idea when we conceived of a festival,’ recalls George; ‘but we had passion and drive, and a mantra that has sustained us to this day – inclusivity, not exclusivity… to make it a festival for everyone.’
As George continues: ‘There were plenty of artists in Belper but they almost all worked independently. We have gradually brought them together.’ Along with the Open Houses – where locals and/or artists open their home or studio to display art (26th-28th May) – there is an Arts Trail, created by Suzanne Parnell and Kelly Nixon (on 6th-7th May). This month’s festival will see up to 140 artists in over 50 venues, with an accompanying music trail involving up to 80 musicians.
As George Gunby reveals: ‘When poet Ian McMillan performed last year, he said that Belper Arts Festival should be the template for every small town festival in the country.’
Artist Ruth Gray, who moved to Belper ten years ago, says that the heritage of the area drives her painting: ‘The town has become a thriving hub of the arts. It means that so many artists like myself can make a good living here; and the town is well placed to continue attracting creative people.’
‘Belper has been very inspirational to me,’ says artist Andy Mayers. ‘The energy and character of the Industrial Revolution lives on through the buildings and landscape.’
It’s hard to take in the remarkable renaissance of this town and there is still so much untapped potential, notably at Belper’s two surviving mills. The North Mill is classified as ‘At Risk’ by Historic England, while the East Mill is unoccupied and deteriorating. Steve Milward, who has a family tradition of building, believes the renovation of the mills ‘could be financially viable for mixed use incorporating retail units, office space, hotel, residential apartments, a roof terrace and a visitor centre along the lines of the Beamish or Black Country museums.’
Belper’s new mayor, Cllr Tim Sutton, supports this kind of thinking: ‘We need to get all interested parties in a locked room and not let them out until they have agreed and funded a viable and sustainable plan for the future of our mills. I would be happy to buy the pizzas to post through the letter box to keep their energy levels up.’
One much more certain outcome for the area is Derwent Valley on Demand, described by co-creator composer/musician James Oldrini as ‘a website-based community hub for the Derwent Valley and its visitors across the globe, combining a directory for venues, shops, restaurants, hotels etc, with visual radio podcasts shining a light on this area and boosting Belper and all our valley.’
‘It’s an exciting venture,’ enthuses James, ‘and can only further embed Belper on the map of Derbyshire… and the world beyond. There’s never been a more exhilarating time to live, work and play in Belper.’