Swadlincote - moving forward as an active and important hub

The Delph

The Delph - Credit: Ashley Franklin except where stated

Once a town of ‘pits and pots’ Swadlincote is moving forward with a revitalised town centre and the green glory of the National Forest.

The old and the new in The Pipeworks retail park

The old and the new in The Pipeworks retail park - Credit: Ashley Franklin except where stated

When I wrote about Swadlincote in 2005, Cllr Ray Jones, the Chairman of South Derbyshire District Council, told me that when he came to live here in 1988, ‘the place was on its knees.’ Today, not only is ‘Swad’ back on its feet, it’s holding its head high and shouting from the rooftops. Or should I say treetops? After all, in 1991 this area was chosen to be part of the National Forest and by 2005 Swadlincote was ‘the fastest-growing town in the East Midlands.’ Once a town of ‘pits and pots’, Swad had been revitalised.

As Swadlincote has grown exponentially, so has the National Forest. Encompassing 200 sq mls, the National Forest attracts 8.2m visitors a year who are spending close to £400m and supporting almost 5,000 jobs.

As for Swadlincote, what was once a backwoods is now moving forward as an active and important hub. According to Frank McArdle, Chief Executive of South Derbyshire District Council for the last 18 years, Swadlincote is a ‘thriving’ town which has, in effect, become ‘the heart of the National Forest.’

‘We are reaping the benefits of the seeds that were sown by the National Forest,’ affirms Frank, ‘and we have a district that is now a green and pleasant land.’

The Princess Diana Memorial Garden

The Princess Diana Memorial Garden - Credit: Ashley Franklin except where stated

The National Forest has encouraged Swadlincote to promote itself as a destination town. So what does the town have to offer? Although its spoil heaps and clay holes have been replaced by new houses and fresh factories, its industrial heritage lives on inside Sharpe’s Pottery Museum, built around a kiln hovel. From the 16th to the 21st century, South Derbyshire’s pottery industry ranked second only to that of Stoke-on-Trent, and the museum also highlights the global impact of the town’s sewage pipe industry. Indeed, who knew that the City of Westminster ordered pipes from Swadlincote to take the flow of waste from the Houses of Parliament?

Within the museum is The Magic Attic, a volunteer-run resource which has made Swadlincote a go-to destination on its own. Its massive stacked-to-the-rafters store of newspapers, photographs, maps, books and artefacts is lovingly maintained by about 25 volunteers. Magic Attic creator Graham Nutt revealed that there are now 18 tons of material here.

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If you have any links with South Derbyshire – and are especially keen to source your family history – this is a treasure trove. ‘Grown men have cried after making discoveries here,’ says Graham proudly. The team has even created a whole series of talks and walks. Graham posed for a photo clutching precious cans of films containing local scenes which will be showcased this summer.

Sharpe’s Pottery Museum also houses the Tourist Information Centre, named in 2015 as one of the best in the country. As Centre manager Gail Archer told me: ‘Swadlincote used to be a place to drive through; now, it’s a place to come to.’ Gail showed me a host of leaflets, one highlighting a Festival of Leisure in neighbouring Church Gresley. Other forthcoming events include: an Antiques Valuation Day at Sharpe’s; a tour of Sealwood Cottage, South Derbyshire’s own vineyard; and Djembe drumming sessions in Swadlincote’s Dance & Music Centre in The Delph – a thriving public square, performance area and social hub. I love the sound of Ay Up Me Duck Day on 3rd August, a day with walks and talks dedicated to Derbyshire dialect.

The Timber Festival will include many outdoor performances in the woods. Photo by teneight.

The Timber Festival will include many outdoor performances in the woods. Photo by teneight. - Credit: Ashley Franklin except where stated

There are leaflets on numerous walks around South Derbyshire. A Magic Attic guided walk on 31st May will reveal the impact of the Swadlincote Townscape Heritage Scheme which has seen the restoration of key buildings, a very recent example being the Princess Diana Memorial Garden. There have also been some notable refurbishments of Victorian and Edwardian shop frontages which have made the town centre more attractive, especially when the award-winning market snakes down the High Street every Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

One traditional frontage bears the name Salts which was known as ‘The Heart and Harrods of Swadlincote.’ This department store is now down to one shop which lay empty for three years until, last year, Jacqui Sidwells’ family re-opened it as an Aladdin’s Cave of vintage and retro gifts, collectibles and artefacts. Local industry is also honoured here with the stocking of pottery from Bretby, Ault and T G Green, the latter famous for its blue and white striped Cornish Kitchen Ware. ‘I aimed to restore and preserve this iconic building sympathetically,’ says Jacqui, ‘and I knew I had when Royston Salt himself came in and gave me a hug.’ Plans are now afoot to turn the ground floor into a café.

Swadlincote is definitely a place to visit if you crave vintage gifts as further down the street is Curly Magpie & Friends where you can buy ‘vintage delights and beautiful handmade gifts’ with 25 specialist traders ensconced in every nook and cranny, one selling jams, another jewellery. There is also The Vintage Kiosk selling furniture and homeware.

There is a vintage feel inside the Bluebell Tea Rooms, ‘a dream come true’ for owner Amanda Collingham, which also loans vintage crockery for vintage parties in your own home.

If you have a sweet tooth you will crave the vintage treats at Churchill’s where for three years Karl Williams has been selling sweets such as spearmint chews, cinder toffee, Pontefract cakes, chocolate limes and lemon sherbets. Cannily, Karl also has 48 jars of sugar-free confectionery.

Traditional craftsmanship is on offer at Clive’s Candles, around the corner from Sharpe’s Pottery. For two years, retired behavioural psychologist Clive Leake has been appealing to people’s sense of smell and memory with hand-crafted candles. His workshop is in plain sight so you can see him create his candles; and if children enter, they are invited to help. He also runs candle-making workshops.

‘I love the alchemy, especially the blending of fragrances,’ says Clive and when he places his best seller under my nose – Black Coffee, a rich aroma of double espresso with a shot of caramel – I can see why. Clive points out that while the industry average for the fragrancy of a candle is three per cent of the wax, Clive’s is ten.

Swadlincote would clearly benefit if there were more niche artisan outlets like Clive’s Candles. The High Street is still alive, though, and has profited from the astute placing of its two main supermarkets, Morrisons and Sainsburys. As Frank McArdle points out: ‘We have created an out-of-town shopping experience in the centre of town.’ Park at either supermarket and it’s only a short walk into the heart of Swad. What enhances this strategy is that there has always been free parking in the town – and there are 1,500 spaces. ‘This is our beacon of support for our traders,’ affirms Frank McArdle. If Swadlincote can make this work, why not other towns?

Better still, adjacent to Morrisons is The Pipeworks comprising varied retail units, a five-screen Odeon and a swish Italian restaurant Prezzo, a strikingly individual modern building with a bright, classy interior and a sumptuous menu. Also, the preservation of part of Hepworth’s pipeworks brings a pleasing blend of old and new. In fact, the pub/restaurant Tall Chimney occupies part of the old pipeworks; and I also noted how the Roger James furniture store has sympathetically adapted the old gasworks, retaining its chimney. Tucked away in a courtyard in town is Provencale, run by Ian Philliskirk, who offers high value kitchens and now uses his showroom for private dining experiences.

There are various leisure attractions in Swadlincote. Apex, a 16-station indoor climbing centre, opened recently and the town’s Ski Centre continues to draw in half a million visitors a year. The dry slope increasingly attracts snowboarding and there is a toboggan run plus sno-tubing and now a Drop Slide – ‘extreme sno-tubing for those wanting a little more adrenaline,’ says centre manager Gemma Whetton. There is also an Alpine Lodge Bar, restaurant and function room with live music events.

Frank McArdle showed me the exciting plans for the new Swadlincote Golf Centre which has been built on an opencast clay hole. Is there any other golf course in the middle of an urban setting? There is already a driving range in place but by the summer there will be a family golf centre offering ‘pay as you play.’ Furthermore, a large country park is planned on the same site with cycle paths, adventure activities and a café and pub/restaurant.

There are even more activities if you go down to the woods today. The National Forest has more than 400 woodland sites with 80 per cent public access. A remarkable 8.7m trees have been planted, increasing the forest cover from 6 per cent in the early 90s to over 20 per cent, with woodland management a key priority.

190,000 people flock annually to the award-winning Forestry Centre in Rosliston, a glorious family retreat comprising woodland and meadow, ponds and play areas where you can walk your dog, ride a bike, take a picnic, fish in the lakes, climb walls or indulge in archery, astronomy, falconry and laser combat games. You can even get married here – at the Glade, offering ‘perfect seclusion’ and wonderful photo opportunities. The venue has recently been rebranded with a bespoke bar and dedicated venue manager and has seen a rise in bookings. The Forest Centre is also home to timber lodges for family stays.

There’s an abundance of fauna and flora, with numerous trails and activities. The Environmental Education Project based at the Centre has branched out across the Forest and enriched the culture, heritage and habitat hereabouts. A Walking for Health programme runs up to 70 walks per month and a Wildlife Watch brochure reveals environmental games, quizzes and crafts, Pond Dipping, a Minibeast Safari, a Bat Walk and a Nightwatch.

There is a big wildlife event on 27th July, a night of wildlife walks, bat talks, observing the stars and moth watching, with local experts on hand. During the school holidays, there are family drop-in activities virtually every day. It’s no wonder that a favourite line of feedback came from a youngster who wrote: ‘Everything was the best bit.’

The establishment of the National Forest Way has proved a great attraction for walkers. It extends 75 miles from the National Memorial Arboretum at Alrewas to Beacon Hill Country Park in Leicestershire, passing through Walton-on-Trent, Rosliston, Hartshorne, Overseal and Ticknall, and can be explored in ‘bite-size’ chunks.

This year also sees the creation of a major new international camping festival from 6th to 8th July, entitled Timber, organised by the National Forest Company (NFC) in partnership with Wild Rumpus, award-winning producers of the Just So Festival. With the substantial growth of the National Forest, this was felt to be a prime time to ‘bring the transformative impact of forests to life.’

As Sarah Bird and Rowan Hoban of Wild Rumpus point out: ‘Trees and forests are at the foreground of our thinking about what it means to live healthily and happily in a modern world so dominated by digital devices and new technologies.’ The festival will be held at Feanedock, a 70-acre site in the National Forest on the Derbyshire/Leicestershire border and features artists, actors, authors, acrobats, musicians, poets, sculptors, comedians, scientists and ‘thinkers’, all within a woodland setting. It will include an opportunity to see Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon – a stunning art installation that had visitors queuing out of the door when it was shown at Leicester Cathedral recently – as well as aerial acrobatics in the trees, a coppice maze, interactive theatre, storytelling, ‘listening walks’, and numerous woodland workshops.

As NFC Chief Executive John Everitt explains: ‘We wanted to explore ways to truly celebrate the scale of what has been achieved over the last 25 years in creating The National Forest, and to place this work in a narrative of what trees mean to people, how forests can transform places and how a forest can be part and parcel of people’s everyday experience and landscape. Timber is going to be thought-provoking, physical, poetic, and great fun.’

With the National Forest also including Conkers Discovery Centre, Calke Abbey and Branston Water Park, plus nearby Tutbury Castle and Sudbury Hall, this is an area rich in attractions. As Frank McArdle says: ‘Our mantra here at the District Council is that this is a great place to live, work and visit, and that’s never been truer than now.’

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