A look ahead to the Ashby de la Zouch Arts Festival

2019 Open Art Artist Margaret Jones working on I Want to Ride my Bicycle

2019 Open Art Artist Margaret Jones working on I Want to Ride my Bicycle - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Ashley Franklin travels south to Ashby de la Zouch and discovers preparations for its vibrant and unusual arts festival, great independent shops and excellent surrounding attractions.

Artists with their 2019 Open Art paintings: Top left - Eye of the Tiger by Katy Ferrari; top right - When You Wish Upon A...

Artists with their 2019 Open Art paintings: Top left - Eye of the Tiger by Katy Ferrari; top right - When You Wish Upon A Star by Celia Brookes; bottom left - (There'll be Bluebirds Over) The White Cliffs of Dover by Maria South; bottom right - New York New York by Julia Hartley - Credit: Ashley Franklin

If you are an inveterate local arts festival-goer, you may well have the festivals at Ashbourne, Belper, Buxton, Melbourne and Wirksworth on your 2019 calendar. I recommend you add the arts festival in Ashby de la Zouch to that list. Yes, I know Ashby is in Leicestershire but art, as they say, has no borders. Furthermore, the town is only a paint pot’s throw from Derbyshire and the fact that this year’s festival is the 14th is proof positive of its established reputation. Also, like those aforementioned Derbyshire towns, Ashby is an attractive, historic market town lined with architecturally pleasing buildings, graced by a wide array of independent shops, restaurants, pubs and cafés, and surrounded by varied visitor attractions.

Typical of most arts festivals, Ashby’s – running from Friday 3rd to Monday 6th May – encompasses theatre, music, comedy, poetry, street entertainment, art and photography exhibitions and workshops in singing, storytelling, glasswork, painting and children’s crafts.

Highlights this year include performances around the town on Saturday 4th May from belly dancers, drummers and a combined schools choir. On the same day, you are invited to a harmony singing workshop in the morning with a cappella group The Teacup Trio followed by a concert showcasing the workshop singers. The Teacup Trio also give a concert at The Lyric that evening. Also, from Thursday 2nd until Saturday 4th, Ashby Dramatic Society presents the dark comedy Ten Rods – ‘a battle of wits and arms staged on an allotment.’

What makes Ashby Arts Festival admirable is that it’s shaped very much by the townsfolk – ‘it’s a diverse, accessible festival, community-led and run,’ says festival treasurer Margaret Jones. What makes the festival distinctive is an ingenious concept which came from the community: an Outdoor Gallery whereby 8 x 4 foot artworks are displayed on the town’s walls, buildings and railings.

Open Art in Ashby from previous years

Open Art in Ashby from previous years - Credit: Ashley Franklin

Ironically, this idea surfaced due to the lack of indoor exhibition spaces in the town. As Martin Vaughan, an artist who pioneered the art boards project, explains: ‘We were quick to realise the beauty and brilliance of this way of exhibiting in that it would be putting art in front of people who wouldn’t normally go near an art gallery.’

‘It adds to the colour of the town – quite literally,’ says participating artist Julia Harley. ‘The artworks give the festival a real presence,’ adds another artist, Larry South.

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It’s an irresistible idea that makes one wonder why most towns aren’t doing the same. As Martin points out, ‘Think about it: there is no cost to the businesses and they love the fact that the art boards brighten up their premises and make them more attractive to shoppers and visitors.’

As Amanda Gates of the vintage confectionery shop Sweet Memory Lane comments: ‘The Outdoor Gallery – indeed, the whole festival – promotes the feelgood factor and encourages extra footfall. It’s especially welcome for us as we are slightly out of town so it’s pleasing to have visitors, even residents, wandering down our way and popping in to say, “I didn’t know you were here.”’

Bluebell Arboretum: Top left - Robert Vernon Jnr next toPrunus Pandora; top right - Prunus Collingwood Ingram; bottom...

Bluebell Arboretum: Top left - Robert Vernon Jnr next toPrunus Pandora; top right - Prunus Collingwood Ingram; bottom left - Magnolia Copeland Court; bottom right - Magnolia Mags Pirouette - Credit: Ashley Franklin

So popular is the Outdoor Gallery that it opens prior to the arts festival – boosting publicity – and runs for a few weeks beyond. It’s also galvanised artists in the area, borne out by the growth of the Ashby Art Club over recent years. Although some painters initially admitted to being daunted by painting 32 square feet of plywood board, most embrace the challenge with relish.

Celia Brookes from Melbourne, in her fourth year as a contributing artist, has painted a beautiful interpretation of ‘When You Wish Upon A Star’, in accordance with this year’s theme ‘Name that Tune’.

‘Being such a big canvas, I had to paint it in the kitchen, which meant my husband Chris had to walk around it for three days. Also, our dog got paint on his tail and added a few brushstrokes.’

‘I love painting big,’ says Marie South. ‘You get a better feel for what you’re painting.’ As artist Nick Howden adds: ‘I love the freedom of painting with big brushstrokes. There’s nothing fiddly about it.’

The number of art boards has increased year on year – this year there are 40 – and participation has widened so that as well as professional and amateur artists, the festival now includes schools, churches, WIs and Guides. There is also a children’s gallery of half-sized boards. Furthermore, the town’s traders now join in by decorating their windows, tied in to the same theme. There is also a Festival Gallery at Ivanhoe College exhibiting art and photography.

With the Outdoor Gallery artworks on display from 25th April for about six weeks, this is the perfect opportunity to visit Ashby and the surrounding area. The bustling town centre gives the lie to the reported decline of the high street. In fact, the only empty unit I found was the shop occupied by Shellbrook Toys until last autumn when the owner died suddenly. It’s sad also to see the demise of the Grade II listed Royal Hotel, which sits boarded up awaiting possible renovation. Otherwise, Ashby is very much the town I last encountered six years ago. About 65 to 70 per cent of its retail premises are independents, which could well be a bigger percentage than any other town in the East Midlands. There is a high volume of shops in the town, too – around 90 with another 45 units offering health, beauty and leisure – and, as Helen Cormack of The Dressing Room told me: ‘Not only is Ashby a vibrant place to shop, but also if you’re looking for something, you’ll probably find it here. Everyone seems to offer something different; no one is treading on anyone’s toes.’

Other favourable comments from residents and traders include: ‘It’s such a compact town – you don’t have to walk far to enjoy the shops’… ‘I love the nice, wide pavements’… ‘I like the courts, yards and alleyways where you find lots of lovely hidden shops’… ‘Some friends of ours who used to live in Ashby came back after many years and thought it was still a special “upmarket” town’… ‘I like the fact that there’s a strong female presence in the shops.’

Walk into Ashby Decorator Centre and you’ll be greeted by two refreshingly young saleswomen, Mia and Beth, who will show you their range of paints from Farrow & Ball, Little Greene, Mylands of London and others plus a wide selection of high quality wallpaper.

One very passionate female presence is Mandy McIntosh, who runs the fair trade shop fair2all. Here there is a dizzying array of clothes, bags, cards, jewellery and pottery plus many recycled goods like candles, crayons and paper – including some made out of elephant dung.

Mandy proudly informed me that last year Ashby won the Best Shopping Experience prize at the Leicestershire Tourism and Hospitality Awards. She also pointed out that there’s a very active town centre retailers group. One of their initiatives was Ashby’s FABulous whereby shop windows are taken over by live models, a popular fun event that could well be repeated this year. The same goes for another enterprising initiative of last year by the town’s homewares store Ashby Toolbox: they created a traditional covered market to showcase over 20 businesses ‘that could be overlooked’, tucked away as they are in the town’s alleyways, courtyards and mews.

One such hidden gem is Sweet Memory Lane which felt like a portal to my early 60s childhood as I could once again purchase Black Jacks, Bon Bons, Aniseed Balls, gobstoppers and Cinder Toffee. Interestingly, one very contemporary aspect of this sweet shop is that it has 25 jars of sugar-free sweets which have proved their biggest sellers. There are even gluten-free varieties.

For both sweet and savoury fayre, there is North’s, a family-owned deli and patisserie on Bath Street, which also houses Ashby Jewellers and two fashion shops: No 10 which offers ‘clean, stylish clothing’ and stocks global designer brands like Sahara, Yaya and Soya Concept; and The Dressing Room. Helen Cormack, owner of clothes store Goose which sells ‘structured clothing’, recently took the opportunity to take over The Dressing Room as well so that she could offer ‘looser, more relaxed, high-end clotheswear’ with brands that include Numph, Joseph Ribkoff, Masai, Sandwich, Naya and Mama B. Also in Ashby is Country Mouse which sells designer childrenswear from birth to 14 years.

One of the newest shops in town is Sew (Your Own) Wardrobe, opened at the end of last year by Alison Smith, renowned author of The Sewing Book who was awarded the first MBE for services to dressmaking. In the store you can purchase patterns, fabrics and haberdashery to create a complete ‘me-made’ wardrobe. Alison also runs her acclaimed School of Sewing from above the shop.

In addition, Ashby has a large permanent indoor market in its grand old Town Hall building and there is a monthly farmers’ market. The town is still a-buzz when the stores are closed, having recently earned a Purple Flag award which recognises that it offers ‘an entertaining, diverse, safe and enjoyable night out.’ As well as pubs, restaurants and takeaways, Ashby has cocktail bars and nightclubs, including Manhattan’s, described as ‘Ashby’s ultimate party venue’. Zamani’s Italian restaurant, which also has a popular cocktail bar and wine bar, is a revered institution in the town. Owner Pejman Zamani, who came to Ashby 23 years ago, is an ardent and charitable supporter of the town. ‘I have lived in lots of countries,’ says Pejman, ‘but I have never known a place more community-spirited than Ashby.’

Pejman says he looks on Zamani’s as a ‘community restaurant’ which produces ‘honest, unpretentious food that cares about local ingredients.’ When I point out to Pejman that there are around 45 food and drink places in Ashby, he says, refreshingly: ‘I like competition like that because it encourages us continually to raise our game.’

Even longer established is La Zouch, a Coffee House, Restaurant and Retail Shop – all under one roof. Owners Geoff and Lynne Utting are also wine experts and run one of the leading whisky cellars in the Midlands with over 350 names.

You might be tempted to spend even more time hereabouts when you consider the surrounding visitor attractions. In the town itself is Ashby Castle, a location in Sir Walter Scott’s romantic novel Ivanhoe, and Ashby Museum which conducts fascinating-sounding history walks, including one entitled The Dark Side of Ashby, billed as ‘an evening of sanitation, slums and seamy characters… By the end of the evening you will not want to go back to the Good Old Days.’

Just outside Ashby – and just inside Derbyshire in Smisby – is Bluebell Nursery. As I emerged from my car, I was greeted by mellifluous birdsong, not surprising as I was in the midst of a nine-acre arboretum thick with trees, shrubs, climbers and woody herbaceous plants, many rare and unusual. Robert Vernon Jnr, son of Robert who began cultivating this land 40 years ago, pointed to a few of the nursery’s 110 magnolias in bloom. There are also over 100 redwoods, 40 to 50 cherry trees and 25 to 30 flowering dogwoods.

It could be said that Ashby is at the heart of a giant arboretum, namely The National Forest, where nearly nine million trees have been planted since 1991. There are also more than 400 woodland sites. Specific attractions close to Ashby include: the National Forest Cycle Centre at Hicks Lodge, offering eight miles of off-road cycle trails for the family; Conkers in Moira, an award-winning interactive discovery centre offering over 100 indoor and outdoor activities; Snibston Discovery Park, the region’s largest interactive museum; and Moira Furnace, one of the best examples of an early 19th century iron-making blast furnace in Europe. Also, the 75-mile National Forest Way comes right through Ashby, the 5¾ mile Stage Four taking you to Sence Valley Forest Park, formerly an opencast coal mine.