Belper: Trading Places

Renowned for its Industrial heritage, Ashley Franklin reveals a different side to Belper, as one of the county's top 'destination' towns

Belper’s designated World Heritage Site status in 2001 seems to have reinvigorated the place. A hub of the Industrial Revolution, in more recent decades it lost big industries like Deb, Silkolene, Thornton’s and Brettles, but Belper has now reinvented itself and, whether by accident or astuteness, has three singular attractions: as a commuter, small business and destination town. There is still potential here, too: on a tour of the town, I lost count of the number of people who chimed the words ‘Belper is up-and-coming’.

I also lost count of its specialist, independent and family-run shops, maybe even more than Derby. The significance of this is encapsulated in a maxim chalked above the counter of Belper’s deli Fresh Basil: ‘Independent shops are the glue of the community.’

Our Belper tour starts at the top, so to speak. High up on The Butts – and well worth the uphill trudge from the Market Place – is Sweetings, established 40 years ago and run for the last 33 by Kevin Jayne. Its four floors and 12 showrooms are brimful of varied and unusual furniture and interiors.

‘Belper is full of character and culture,’ states Kevin. Indeed, several locals remarked that Belper is on its way to matching Wirksworth as ‘a creative hub’ and ‘an arts town.’ Plans are even afoot for a Belper Festival of the Arts next year, and an arts trail is now part of the annual Food, Real Ale and Craft Festival. Furthermore, the recent sixth festival drew record crowds.

Belper is certainly a town of crafted goods. Around the corner from Sweetings is Primsisters Country Decor, notably one of many shops to have opened here during the recession. It’s also enriched the town’s reputation for smart interiors and gift stores, especially selling ‘shabby chic’, like Lavender Grey. Others include Kalico, Ginger, Hunky Dory, Looks The Biz and Sundial Style, three floors of rustic furniture and a dizzying array of accessories from all over the globe.

I then wind my way into the Market Place, dominated by The Black Swan with its ever-changing menu of hearty food. There’s a farmers’ market here every second Saturday of the month, though adjacent retailers would welcome more use of this considerable cobbled space.

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Opposite the Market Place, Colledges is one of those ‘Tardis’ stores where you step in to admire its wide range of furniture and just keep on exploring. There’s vast choice, too, inside Joy Clarke Furnishings with its thousands of samples amidst the curtains, blinds, poles, cushions, bedding and towels. It’s a similar set-up at the other end of town in Webber Sunley where a return to its former site on Bridge Street seems to have regenerated business. Both shops are clearly thriving, providing a wide choice, good value and personal service.

At the top of Belper’s main shopping street – King Street – is The Little Dress Agency, opened only last year, which has an eclectic mix of designer, high street and vintage clothes. Central to this high end of King Street is the Belper Ritz with its multiplex comfort and quality film choice. Reviving the town cinema has regenerated this part of town. The ‘Twilight Suppers’ at the bistro/caf� Fresh Ground opposite and the Italian cuisine at the recently-opened Caf� Nonno’s around the corner give the perfect excuse for making a cinema visit a special occasion. In the same building as the Ritz, Hall of Frames is renowned for its professional framing and has a wide array of mirrors, pictures, objet d’art and, since the Ritz opened, movie artwork!

The Ritz effect catalysed the recent opening of Stately Brides just over the road, offering multifarious designer dresses. ‘We’re all about style and affordable quality,’ says shop manager Rachel Pecz. Also here is Liquid Treasure, where Julie Wyllie promotes a genuine love and deep knowledge of wines, beers and a surprisingly wide and salivating range of spirits.

For the regeneration of the centre of the town, Strutt Street, credit goes to delicatessen Fresh Basil, around which a food quarter has arisen with the local Co-op, traditional confectionery in Sweet Memories, ‘artisan handmade chocolates’ in the caf� I Should Cocoa, and Strutt Street Bakery offers ‘coffee, cakes and catering’ with fresh bread from The Loaf in Crich. Fresh Basil also has its own bread and, amongst its 60 varieties of cheese, exclusive shop sale of Derbyshire’s own Hazelwood Cheese made by 82-year-old Joyce Wagner. Above the counter teeming with fresh produce is the message: ‘If every person switches just one per cent of current spend to local products, it would put an extra �1 million on the local economy each week.’ Food for thought, indeed.

Fresh Basil has also become a Belper Ambassador, a bright, simple scheme introduced by Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site whereby shops and business workers learn about Belper’s heritage, attractions and facilities so they can impart information to visitors.

World Heritage Site Coordinator and long-time Belperian Adrian Farmer is encouraged by interest in the scheme: ‘It shows there’s civic pride in Belper,’ believes Adrian. World Heritage Site status has helped, he adds. In more ways than one, too: the recent �2 million Townscape Heritage initiative brought new shop frontages and architectural improvements. ‘Belper hasn’t looked this good for decades,’ says Adrian, and he refers also to improvements to both the Memorial and River Gardens and the floral beds and hanging baskets bedecking Belper, earning the town a Gold Medal in the last two East Midlands in Bloom contests. It’s also won the honour of representing the East Midlands in this autumn’s Britain in Bloom.

Belper certainly blooms for Dr Matthew Pigden who runs Element Chiropractic under the same roof of Genesis Dental Care on Green Lane. After moving to the town three years ago, his appointments book is full virtually every day and, as for Belper, he believes there is a stronger community feel in the town than in the several villages he’s lived in previously. ‘I love it that they know me in the deli and that everybody seems to go out of the way for you here,’ adds Matthew, ‘and the townsfolk are very supportive of local businesses. I really feel I belong. I also love the industrial architecture – it’s like stepping back in time here – and, as a keen climber, it’s great being on the doorstep of the Peak.’

Former Tesco employee of 27 years Steve Large is enjoying the outdoors around Belper in a new lease of life as a tree surgeon. Following redundancy, this passionate gardener studied arboriculture at Broomfield College and has combined his business skills to make a great success of his company Clip ‘Em & Fell ‘Em.

Memorable business names take me back to Belper and Kiss & Make Up on Bridge Street, selling cosmetics, perfumes and jewellery. It also includes a popular nail salon. Also at this end of town is the succinctly-named, newly-opened bistro Nourish, run by contract caterers Ali Nadin and husband Perry, an experienced long-time London chef. Ali believes Belper has become ‘a foodie town’ and, after waiting for the right premises to come available, the couple cannily chose the old Imperial Vaults for its distinctly French look. The cuisine is ‘old-fashioned French and English with a modern twist,’ and there is room upstairs to expand from 25 to 60 covers, plus a long back garden. There are also plans for a cookery academy.

In contrast to Nourish which opened only last month – and has been an instant success – there are many long-established family-run shops including: ironmongers Tomes where you can buy everything from four candles to fork handles; Lester & Nix where, for owner Steve Nix, the business of selling TVs, cookers, dishwashers and other white goods is ‘not a job but a way of life’; The Leather Shop, run by the exuberant Judith Poundall, stocking middle-to-high-end bags, purses, wallets, briefcases, suitcases, belts and gloves – ‘customers come in regularly just to smell the leather,’ smiles Judith; and Frearsons where five years after taking over, Steve Silverman together with wife Maxine and son Sam, has given this well-loved giftware and jewellery store fresh impetus. These shops, and more besides, thrive on close personal service. As a Belper resident, I accepted long ago that there is no such thing as a quick shop as so many stores double as social centres!

Another established business is Robeys which has enjoyed phenomenal expansion since moving seven years ago from its original Green Lane site to a massive, two-floor showroom in Goods Road, where it now displays and sells not only its renowned fireplaces, woodburning and multi fuel stoves, Italian refrigerators and range cookers but also furniture and accessories. Director Mark Robey reveals that as the extra space enables their more lavish stoves and fireplaces to be arranged in home-style settings, it regularly results in customers buying the whole setting as well as the stove!

Mark and wife Sharon, Robeys’ company secretary, love the central location of Belper and reveal that numerous customers from afar visit Robeys and then spend a whole weekend visiting the Peak. Belper has even more to offer customers if they visit outlets in the outskirts, like Country Tiles at Heage, a converted stone farm building selling a remarkably extensive range of ceramic and porcelain tiles for floors and walls in virtually every conceivable style and colour. ‘We have experience and expertise built up over nearly 25 years,’ says founder Heather Jones, ‘so customers feel confident buying from us.’

So, Belper has much going for it, and I still need to mention award-winning butchers Howarths, the classy florist Lilac with a fine line in hat hire, a pet store, country sports shop, cake and party shop and other independents selling bikes, books, carpets, sports goods and children’s toys.

Belper is still far from being retail heaven. Some would contend that seven charity shops is excessive, especially as it was pointed out that the town lacks a haberdasher, fishmonger and lingerie store; and although there are two factory shop outlets selling clothes – De Bradelei and Slenderella – there is no independent fashion house.

Steve Silverman of Frearsons prudently suggests the appointment of a dedicated Town Manager for Belper. That person could help sort out the large unused outlet in the middle of King Street, the former site of Haldanes supermarket – an oft-heard comment is that a Waitrose there would add some class to Belper – and since Thornton’s factory on Derwent Street closed, that area remains neglected.

Some of the outlets at the north end of Bridge Street seem rather out on a limb, which is a shame as Bridge sells superb mid-to-high-end kitchens and bathrooms –  ‘all innovative, stylish and of great build quality,’ says owner Matt Schofield, and there’s the exquisite cuisine served up by Elaichi (Bangladeshi), River Gardens (Chinese), and Armando’s at the Talbot Hotel (Italian). Then there is the mill itself. ‘Here are some of the most important industrial buildings on Earth,’ says Adrian Farmer, ‘thus it’s a shame they are underused and looking neglected.’

‘However,’ concludes Adrian, ‘the best of what Belper has to offer far outweighs the weak spots. The town has upped its game hugely in the past decade and has proved itself a worthy destination town, offering so much to both visitors and residents.’

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