The exciting potential of Ilkeston’s shopping streets
- Credit: Ashley Franklin
Ashley Franklin finds out what’s changing on the High Street of the county’s second largest town
Last spring, retail champion Bill Grimsey, a former chief executive at Wickes, Iceland and Focus DIY and author of The Vanishing High Street, went on a national tour to look at the challenges facing the high street. After his tour, he spoke of a Derbyshire town having the most exciting potential for development of all the places he had visited. It’s not the town you might think.
The challenges facing every high street are considerable. However, considering the trend towards shopping either out of town or online, Derbyshire’s market towns have worked hard to buck that trend, exemplified by Belper recently winning Britain’s Best High Street award.
Derbyshire’s largest town, Chesterfield, still has one of the biggest markets in Britain. It’s pleasing, too, that Chesterfield has survived the loss of its biggest department store – the Co-operative – in 2013.
At the same time, Derbyshire’s second largest town – Ilkeston – also lost its Co-op. This was much more of a hammer blow to Ilkeston, as the store stood in the beating heart of the town alongside the Market Place. That hammer could have been seen as hitting the last nail in Ilkeston’s coffin, as the town had already suffered the closure of two other major stores – Woolworths and Argos – in 2009. Smaller but still considerable chain names have followed: Curry’s, Clinton Cards, Burton and Yeoman’s.
However, to adopt Mark Twain’s quote, reports of Ilkeston’s death have been greatly exaggerated. Believe it or not, Ilkeston was the town Bill Grimsey singled out on his tour of the regions as the one with the greatest opportunity for growth. Casting his gaze around the huge Market Place and down to the pedestrianised Bath Street, he told the Ilkeston Advertiser: ‘There is so much around here. It is a historical and beautiful town’, though he noted that the ‘empty buildings are eyesores’.
Grimsey admitted that not all of the vacant units could be saved for retail alone and put forward the interesting idea that ‘empty shops held potential for accommodation for residents who could immerse themselves in the centre.’
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But what of the hope for existent retail outlets in Ilkeston? Granted, Ilkeston will never be as attractive a retail destination as Ashbourne, Bakewell or Belper. However, close exploration reveals a place with much to offer and rays of hope everywhere. The market, though a little depleted, is still trading three days a week and has improvements earmarked; there are more niche, independent shops than you might think in a town with a lower vacancy rate than the national average; grants are in place to bring vacant units back into use and also improve shop fronts; away from the high street are thriving businesses, including one of the country’s leading fitted furniture designers; and the award-winning Erewash Museum and the second oldest cinema in the UK – the Scala – provide two more appealing reasons to come into the town.
Sharon Flint, Chairman of Ilkeston Chamber of Trade and a podiatrist who runs The Foot Centre on South Street, remembers coming into the town in the late 1970s for her Saturday shopping. ‘The town had everything you needed,’ she recounts. ‘We didn’t just have the Co-op; we had Marks & Spencer and British Home Stores. But, after I had been away from Ilkeston for 20 years, I came back to find my town had been stolen. There was no M&S or BHS and the market had shrunk by 50 per cent.’
In moving back to Ilkeston and setting up shop, she got involved with the Chamber of Trade because, she says, ‘I wanted my town back.’ The Chamber has regular meetings with Erewash Borough Council and Sharon says that around £200,000 has been spent on various improvements to street furniture. Clearly, time and money has been spent on better floral displays as last year Ilkeston achieved its first ever Gold award in East Midlands in Bloom. There has also been a concerted Shop Local campaign which has brought about a pilot scheme offering one hour’s free parking in all of Ilkeston’s major car parks. ‘All this helps send out the message that Ilkeston is open for business,’ remarks Sharon.
There are plenty of shops open for business in South Street. In fact, the last time Sharon looked, there were only two empty units. It may be surprising to learn that Ilkeston’s vacancy rates overall stand at 12 per cent, two per cent lower than the national average.
On South Street, and a presence in Ilkeston for over 125 years, is the family-run furniture store Thorpes which sells sofas, chairs, beds, recliners and cabinets and wardrobes. Manager David Thorpe takes great pride in the shop’s reputation for ‘personal, no-pressure service’ and competitive prices.
Business rates are a sore point for David, though. As he points out: ‘My shop and my house are of a similar size yet I pay £890 a month on the shop and £189 council tax on the house, yet at the shop I don’t even get the dustbin emptied!’
I found that high business rates were a concern for several retailers, though for Sharon Flint, the bigger issue is attracting more shoppers. ‘There would be fewer complaints about rates if footfall was higher,’ she remarks.
There is plenty of loyal footfall at the long-established flower shop Moores, started 75 years ago by owner Patsy Trussell’s parents. The shop is a riot of colour emphasising Moores’ reputation for its wide range of blooms. ‘We love being on South Street,’ says Patsy; ‘it’s flat, very accessible and has a good bus service.’
However, Sharon Flint believes that considering South Street’s array of specialist shops, it’s undervalued. Ironically, she believes that the answer to this problem would be the return of a few chain names to the town. As she explains: ‘We know that people who live outside Ilkeston won’t come to the town just for our small shops. However, they might be encouraged to shop here if we had a mix of chain names – and those in turn might create a ripple effect and bring yet more retailers to set up shop in town. The fact that Morrison’s opened a store within walking distance of the town says a lot about our town’s demographic.’
Other independent outlets on South Street include the family-run gift shop Ashley Peake which opened 26 years ago, jewellers Goldfinger and Tudor, and the deli Truly Scrumptious which is one of 30 businesses to have been funded by an Erewash Borough Council grant scheme offering up to £1,000 for shop front improvements.
Another funding scheme entitled Golden Hello, run by enterprise agency Erewash Partnership on behalf of the Council, has been solving the problem of empty shops by awarding grants to help businesses move into vacant units. One South Street enterprise that benefited is The Heart’s Café, especially pleasing as it’s run by Sharon Morley who lost her job as a catering assistant when the Co-op closed. She says that opening her own café is ‘a dream come true.’
Last summer, Erewash Council launched its own Empty Shop Improvement Grant where up to £11,000 of match funding is on offer. It’s hoped that three shops under this scheme will be open by the summer.
Furthermore, Simon Powell, the Council’s Economic Development Officer, reveals that Ilkeston’s thriving artistic heritage has inspired a project called rEvive, enabling art to be displayed in unused shops.
Independent shops aren’t just thriving in South Street: there are several in Bath Street, including the recently opened burger takeaway Patti House; U Choose smoothie bar which displays original art on its walls; craft and gift shop Dragonflies which specialises in wedding stationery; and there’s Harpur & Finch, ‘purveyors of fine homeware, gifts and accessories… if you need something special, elegant, or a little bit quirky.’ Owner Sandra Lee opened the shop three years ago. ‘The Mayor opened it and told me I was brave opening during a recession,’ recalls Sandra, ‘but business has been booming. That’s because we’ve got a treasure trove here, we regularly change our stock and offer great customer service – everything is gift-wrapped, for example.’
Sandra recently had a visit from Boris Johnson who was supporting Conservative parliamentary candidate Maggie Throup’s proposal that the pedestrianised Bath Street be returned to traffic. Sandra agrees: ‘It will bring hustle and bustle back to the street.’
Sandra Flint of the Chamber of Trade disagrees but has her own proposal to improve the retail experience: ‘Ilkeston has a long dumbbell shape which makes it quite a walk from South Street to Bath Street. We could do with a shuttle bus.’
Ilkeston’s market, bang in the middle of that dumbbell, would welcome that initiative. Most town markets have declined over the years, though Ilkeston’s Thursday high of 75 stalls has remained fairly constant in the last decade, and Markets Officer Kevin Lowe believes the market still has a lot to offer. For starters, its status as a charter market, dating back to 1252, is a matter of local pride. Also, the 1252 decree has always given the borough council the right to ban rival markets within six and two-thirds of a mile of Ilkeston. Why so precise a measurement? Because six and two-thirds of a mile is the distance a man could drive a flock of geese in a day.
‘Today,’ says Kevin, ‘the market is very accessible by car or bus, the traders offer a wide selection of items at reasonable prices and most of them have many years’ experience, are locals themselves, and have a good following of regular customers.’
‘I love the outdoors and the company I keep here,’ says flower seller Dave Orme. ‘Most of my customers are now friends,’ he adds. Although retired, he carries on as ‘it keeps me out of the house or, better still, the pub.’
‘It’s hard work and long hours,’ says confectionery seller Steven Whylde. ‘Some traders are here at 5.30am because it takes four hours to set up but, like me, they love the tradition of a market and the camaraderie you find, amongst both traders and customers – and you can always pick up a bargain.’
Pleasingly, I met a young stallholder Steven Smith who has cannily exploited the popularity of E cigarettes. ‘I had a nervous, uncertain start as I spent a lot on stock,’ reveals Steve, ‘but it’s worked out. I like outdoor trading – the costs are lower, for one thing – and working for yourself means your motivation is higher and success means a whole lot more.’
‘Where I grew up in Wales, market day was the day you went into town to get your essentials,’ Markets Officer Kevin points out; ‘and to some extent it’s still the same in Ilkeston. The market is a social event for many, a time when they meet up with friends and make a day of it. Anything that keeps a community together is worth preserving.’
Pertinently, Simon Powell of Erewash Council reveals that there is a Jobcentre Plus scheme in the offing which will give local jobseekers the opportunity to try market trading as a route to self-employment. He also promises improvements to the appearance and layout of the market.
Another way of attracting more custom has been to stage special events in the market space. A classic car rally was a previous initiative; a future one is a Farmers’ Market on Shrove Tuesday.
However, Ilkeston’s retail experience isn’t town-centric: there are several varied and successful businesses operating on the town’s outskirts. Arguably the biggest – in terms of prestige – is Osborne of Ilkeston which in 32 years has become nationally renowned for its bespoke kitchens, bathrooms and bedrooms. As owner Paul Osborne points out: ‘That word “bespoke” is misused by rival businesses. Not here – everything is handbuilt, nothing is bought in, and you can have any shape, size or design.’
Osborne’s manufacturing base – with £1½ million-worth of tooling – covers 14,500 square feet. Inside the 8,000 square feet of showrooms, I saw designs of the utmost elegance and class; it’s no surprise to hear that its customers have included Sir Alex Ferguson, Sir Nigel Rudd and Lee Westwood.
Paul admits that the name Ilkeston is sometimes a barrier – ‘until they see us, that is, and we hear them say “I wasn’t expecting this in Ilkeston.”’
Like neighbouring Long Eaton, Ilkeston has a number of furniture businesses, including Frank Knighton which offers a mix of bespoke and branded furniture with an emphasis on quality sofas. Cherrywood Interiors is a small family business which, in the words of co-owner Elaine Baum ‘offers a very personal service where we go out of our way to make having a new kitchen, bedroom or bathroom a pleasant experience rather than an ordeal.’ The business is also handily located next to an out-of-town centre which houses M&S.
Orchard Kitchens, which has been making made-to-measure kitchen units for 32 years, is just as well situated on Ilkeston’s fringes. ‘We’re easy to find,’ says owner Paul Connett, ‘and as we’re slightly away from the main central streets, anyone that visits us has come to us for a reason and is more likely to be a genuine customer rather than a browser.’
Paul also makes much of Orchard’s employment of kitchen fitters on a full-time basis: ‘This means we can fit to the highest standards, which is reflected in the praise we get from customers for our workmanship and professionalism. It’s very rewarding when they come back to you 25 years after ordering a kitchen to order a new one.’
Likewise, Rutland Windows boasts that 70 per cent of their work comes from personal recommendation or existing customers. There is a particularly long history of repeat custom at Toyota specialists Ron Brooks Motors which dates back to 1962 when Ron and Elsie Brooks set up their own petrol station. Ilkeston actor Robert Lindsay made the journey from London to buy his first new car from the Ron Brooks showroom. ‘That’s because they actually look after you up there,’ he said, adding with a smile, ‘and besides, Ron Brooks used to maintain my roller skates for me.’
‘The philosophy at Ron Brooks has always been to put the customer first’, it states in the company’s 50th anniversary publication, proven by the company winning the recent Toyota Ichiban European Awards for Complete Customer Satisfaction.
The plumbing and heating firm Willbond had so many Ilkeston customers that they set up a branch in the town. ‘Customers like the fact that we’re a large independent company in an industry dominated by national competitors,’ says director Ray Wheatley. ‘We compete on price with the nationals, too, and our personal service takes a lot of beating.’
Good personal service at the age-old and recently refurbished Ilkeston Scala has allowed the cinema to thrive in the midst of the multiplexes. ‘We don’t just herd our customers into a film,’ says manager Michelle Palmer. ‘We take time to talk to them and they talk to us, especially the older ones who bring their children or grandchildren and reminisce about their early cinema-going days.’
Since arriving a year ago, Michelle says she feels she has ‘brought a fresh look’ to the Scala, improving the film offer – live performance films and midnight screenings have now been introduced – which could be enhanced later in the year with the conversion of the balcony area to a second cinema.
2015 will also see the return of a railway station to Ilkeston, yet another positive for the town. These are still challenging times for the businesses but there are signs of possible regeneration.
‘I have travelled to – and worked in – many towns in the UK and Europe and seen them reinstated,’ says Sharon Flint of the Chamber of Trade. ‘It’s very possible here as there is fierce pride in the place.’
‘Ilkeston has long had a reputation for being a bit rough,’ says Sandra Lee of Harpur & Finch, ‘but maybe that’s in the past because I don’t see it. All my customers are lovely.’
‘I remember Ilkeston as an affluent town,’ says Sharon, ‘and those expensive houses are still here. We just need more residents to come into town and support us.’
‘Many local people are still not aware of what a gem we have here in Ilkeston,’ states Simon Powell, Economic Development Officer at Erewash Borough Council, ‘and I feel that in the last year, we have seen real improvements. We’ve sown a seed. Retailers are starting to respond, the town is looking brighter, confidence is returning and more people are looking at Ilkeston and saying that maybe this IS a place to open a business.’