Cirencester has been a market town for centuries. Indeed, the Council’s own website proudly declares that it was mentioned in the Doomsday book and it is undeniably part of the town’s DNA. The wool trade that established the town and maintained its prosperity is now only legacy, with the town now a place for traders of all kinds. The agriculture that surrounds the town, not least in the shape of the Royal Agricultural University is, though, a constant reminder of the town’s roots, and shows its face more clearly every time the artisans come to town to display and sell their crafts and wares.
So it is little surprise that we all hold views on the Market Place, and its lengthy revamp. I can recall various conversations on the topic all throughout 2016 as we worked up to its completion and unveiling, at the switching on of the Christmas lights by the estimable Ben Miller, who even saw fit to make a joke of it. A common thread that ran through all of those conversations was a lack of understanding of: a) what took so long; b) what exactly were they trying to achieve.
The ‘they’, incidentally, in all of this is the Council, the body of women and men who are responsible for the management of the town and its amenities. As such, they are responsible for maintaining and creating an environment that works for the town, its people and its businesses, businesses that contribute to making a community what it is, but also rely on it to be able to survive.
So it is with some concern that within the space of a few days, two of these businesses are literally shutting up shop, and each doing so because of the new Market Place. The first to go was Whiddett’s in Cricklade Street, a bakery that is known to many. Owner Robert Whiddett laid the blame clearly at the door of the Council and its regeneration scheme which, he said, had hit the branch to the tune of £1000 a week. His quote in the local paper, claiming that “the only other Roman town that’s had worse done to it is Pompeii”, may have overstated things, but it does convey a depth of feeling that is genuinely felt. At least they live to fight another day with their Dollar Street branch – do head there and check out their sugar buns!
All but gone too is the Nutrition Centre in Castle Street, which shuts its doors on the 29th of July. This is a particular shame, given the level of nutritional expertise that we will effectively lose from the town. I know some people who have been going out of their way to shop there in a vain attempt to help them survive, but it’s no avail. The owners there, too, privately cite that the regeneration scheme for the Market Place as the reason for the closure. It hit traffic so badly, they say, for such an extended period of time that it did irreparable damage to their footfall and, ultimately, chances of survival.
It’s easy to tell ourselves that the town centre is a thriving and prosperous hub, but these are warning signs that ought to be heeded. The upper end of Castle Street is not what it once was, and Cricklade Street may be heading the same way. Yes, the premises may get filled by some chain or other, or even another local entrepreneur, and we would wish them well. It is undeniably sad, however, that we have lost two local businesses in the space of a few days. We need to cherish – and actively champion – such folks, for they give character, identity, and soul to market towns like ours.
Indeed, independent shops are vital if we want our town to stand out from others, if we want to offer tourists a reason to visit somewhere unique, rather than a carbon copy of smallville, middle England. If our high street ends up looking indistinguishable from any other small town’s – then why would people come? After all, we are the capital of the Cotswolds and we owe some of our prestige and affluence to our visitors. Variety is the spice of life, as they say, and there is no variation in the umpteenth cafe chain outlet.
A few years ago, I was on holiday in and around the town of Holt, a market town in North Norfolk that is not dissimilar to Cirencester. It has a deli-cum-eatery like Made By Bob, a specialist coffee shop with delicious cakes like Cotswold Artisan Coffee, even a pottery painting studio just like our own Pick a Pot and Paint. After a few days there, it struck me that there was not a single chain in sight, not a High Street brand anywhere except for Boots the Chemist. I asked about this and was told that it was the result of Council policy, and I all but clasped my hands in that gesture of half thanks, half prayer. I’ve often wondered whether we need something like that here in Cirencester. It may or may not be the answer, but if another local business ends up having to close and cites the Market Place regeneration as a cause, then we will have serious cause to rethink. The Market Place should make our town, not be breaking it one piece at a time. Fingers crossed that we don’t have to read another commercial obituary in the pages of our local paper.