Tamworth Market: the worst street market in Britain?
Edit, 2 March 2015: This post is getting an awful lot of hits today! Be aware, however – as the date on it makes clear – that it was written five years ago. I understand that improvements have been made since, and will be happy to revisit the market – and write a follow-up blog – next time I’m in Tamworth.
Take a look at the photograph above, captured in Tamworth’s main shopping street just before Christmas. Now, from a retailing point of view, see if you can work out what’s wrong with that scene.
To the right of the man in the photograph are some of Tamworth’s permanent shops – the lifeblood of the town centre. To the left of him are the backs of market stalls, facing into George Street. What’s outrageous, in my view, is the space (or lack of it) between the two – a couple of feet at best, and certainly only room to walk through in single file. If you have a pushchair or are in a wheelchair, forget it.
The result is that not only are the shops almost entirely obscured from the street – as you can see in the shot below – but that even if you know the shops are there, it’s a real challenge to navigate your way inside.
Reportedly held since Saxon times, Tamworth’s market has a remarkable heritage, and is something that has potential to be a real asset to the town. What a shame then that on the 450th anniversary of its incorporation, by Queen Elizabeth in 1560, today’s market is such a sorry affair.
To have ramshackle ‘stalls’ in the middle of the town’s main shopping street, where traders display goods on a stack of cardboard boxes, is nothing short of a disgrace. Indeed, when the town has a sizeable open space – St Editha’s Square – that seems entirely capable of accommodating a large number of market stalls with some degree of orderliness, I never understand why they have to be shoehorned into George Street at all.
For as long as I can remember, Tamworthians have grumbled about the lack of big-name or quality stores in the town centre – no M&S, Debenhams, Bhs, Primark, River Island or Next, for example (though a few of those names, plus many others, are now accommodated at the Ventura Park out-of-town retail development, about 15 minutes’ walk from the town centre).
The planned redevelopment of the Gungate Precinct by Henry Boot – a scheme known as Tamworth Junction – is set to provide Tamworth with its first major town centre shopping development in more than thirty years, with an opportunity to offer those missing retailers the size and quality of space that has been lacking to date.
However, if any property scouts had been visiting Tamworth the day that I was there, they would have come away with the impression of a town centre where the shops play second fiddle to the market stalls – hardly an incentive for any prospective retailer to invest in the town.
What is particularly frustrating is that Tamworth town centre has such a lot of potential as an attractive and distinctive retail destination. Tamworth Castle, St Editha’s Church and the Town Hall are historic buildings of importance and beauty, each one a dramatic landmark within the town centre.
Lined with interesting old properties, Lower Gungate, Market Street and Little Church Lane are all streets of real character and charm, populated by many independent shops. It’s no coincidence that the absence of market stalls allows these streets to be properly appreciated.
The town having a Co-op department store – run by the still independent Tamworth Co-operative Society – is also something of a novelty these days, yet it has managed to evolve and maintain its position at the very heart of the town’s shopping experience at the same time as other regional Co-ops have exited non-food all together.
The Ankerside Shopping Centre is also a significant asset, and has aged quite gracefully in the thirty-odd years since it opened. Though it lacks a well-known department store as an anchor, the presence of one of the few Dunnes Stores outside Ireland gives Ankerside something different to everywhere else. Equally, the relatively small number of empty units is an undoubted positive in the current economic climate – and nothing short of a miracle, given that the out-of-town Ventura Park features even more retail floorspace than the town centre.
With so many assets, its frustrating that a visit to Tamworth town centre can still leave such a negative overall impression – an observation seemingly shared by John Harper at the Tamworth Herald newspaper, who questions why “the dreary, lacklustre place it is becoming” cannot be transformed into “a thriving tourist centre”.
Certainly, comparing Tamworth to some of the other, more successful town centres that I’ve visited recently, I can’t help feeling that Tamworth’s powers-that-be need to have more confidence in what they’ve got, and in what they could have.
If nothing else, the place deserves so much better than a bloke in the street selling random stuff out of a box.