At a time when so many small local traders are struggling to survive, it’s hard to be positive about your high street. But those who love Axminster will agree that something is stirring in a town that has been struggling over recent years.
Barrie Hedges www.midweekherald.co.uk
The turning point came a few months ago when the abandoned anchor shop, Trinity House, found a new owner in the shape of Axminster Property whose wider mission is to invest and manage on behalf of pension funds. From the deep gloom that had descended when that pivotal building closed as a department store suddenly came new hope.
All eyes turned to managing director Ian Styles to see what would emerge from a man recognised for his ideas. Would it be a quick fix followed by a swift re-let to the first available bidder? Fortunately for Axminster, Ian Styles loves his home town and had rather different thoughts washing around – and a very different approach to restoring the fabric of a beautiful old building.
Within weeks, the skilled carpenter was himself back ‘on the tools’ at the head of a small and talented team who formed a work bubble to enable them to progressively attack years of decay on a building whose origins go back 200 years.
Fast forward to today and that team has delivered something quite startling with the opening of an inspirational new Community Waffle House stretching right across the first floor.
Those with an insight will know that ‘the Waffle’ is not just about enjoying a tasty delicacy and drinking excellent coffee.
Waffling is also about getting people talking, tackling isolation and a host of other social challenges. Its role in the community is truly transformational.
Ian Styles and his team had already delivered a new home within Trinity House for the rebranded Lou la Belle boutique where owner Louise Wall is reporting a big customer response.
More recently came the Crafty Hobbit, which serves as a market for a large group of local craft ‘makers’. Two more retail units are in the offing on the ground floor – and there’s also a large basement with great potential.
But if Trinity House marks a tipping point, don’t for a moment dismiss the underlying strength that surrounds it in a town whose bedrock is small, independent and often unique businesses.
There are few shops more beautiful in my view than Collate Interiors, the Acorn Gift Shop and Courthouse Makers, and few more embedded long servers than Axminster Printing, the Fabric Shop and Axminster Jewellers.
Archway Bookshop has true old-style bookshop atmosphere yet has also reinvented itself during lockdown with an online service that punches way beyond its weight.
The faith in Axminster in the midst of a pandemic is significant. In addition to the Waffle, the town’s eating opportunities have been further boosted by Ric’s Kitchen, the Cow and the Bean and the Corner House Bakery.
The town centre is undoubtedly ‘on the turn’; but it still desperately needs a longer-term direction that can only come from development of a real vision for the future.
With its Neighbourhood Plan having stalled in mid-air nearly four years ago, there is a burning need right now for a lead to be taken in setting a direction and, crucially, in winning funding. Issues such as pedestrianisation, heavy traffic and what to do about empty shops are nitty gritty bullets to be bitten.
Retail experts seem to agree that we can’t turn back the clock – the fundamental structure of high streets has changed and it’s no good being sentimental.
The feeling is that town centres have to be reshaped to equip them for a new future that draws people for different reasons such as health, beauty, entertainment and education.
While they are there, they will also hopefully shop. The challenge lies in creating an overall experience, making Axminster’s town centre a go-to destination where people want to dwell a while.