What's behind the current revival of Basingstoke
PUBLISHED: 15:59 16 January 2017 | UPDATED: 15:59 16 January 2017
After decades in the doldrums Basingstoke's historic heart is beginning to beat again. Viv Micklefield visits Top of the Town to meet some of those with their fingers on the pulse of this revival
It’s not every day that you’d expect to watch a spectacular Mexican inspired parade of light, to sup cocktails poured from a teapot or to learn how to upcycle a wooden pallet. But then Basingstoke has always had a few surprises up its sleeve. Not least that whilst its skyline remains dominated by high rise office blocks, the southern quarter known, rather confusingly, as Top of the Town boasts an altogether more historic past. And it’s here that despite the challenges, change is afoot.
Turn the clock back four years and, to both locals and visitors alike, Top of the Town had become a Cinderella destination for shopping or some R and R. In the shadows of the altogether more glitzy Festival Place, it was all too easily overlooked thanks in part to the ring road’s endless loop of the town centre. As a result, this former home to Thomas Burberry’s now global fashion brand, had effectively become cut-off and lacking in identity.
The local council, to its credit, listened to what Basingstoke’s residents and businesses had to say about this state of affairs and came up with a plan aimed at breathing new life into the area. Kick- started with an investment of £300,000, a third of which came from the Government’s High Street Innovation Fund, as most would agree: a transformation wouldn’t happen overnight.
“In the short term, there’s been plenty of what I call caring for the place,” says Chas Bradfield, head of borough development and implementation.
As Chas goes on to point out, this has included a street clean-up campaign, improved signage and new benches within both the ancient Market Place and along the pedestrianised streets that radiate from it.
“Then, to attract more people here we’ve had an events programme as well as making this the focal point for the annual Basingstoke Festival.”
“Top of the Town currently feels quite vibrant,” observes Richard Garfield at Phillips Solicitors, whose offices sit alongside the town’s imposing Triumphal Gates. The practice, of 45 staff, has served the local community for over three decades.
“A lot changed when Basingstoke became a new town during the 1970s, yet Top of the Town still has plenty of history; some of the buildings go back to the 15th or 16th century behind their Victorian frontage,” says the business development and marketing manager, for whom several attractions stand out.
“The outdoor market really livens things up; the Thai food stall is particularly good, or, if you prefer, you can go for a traditional pie and mash. And the independent shops here offer a more personal service than you might find elsewhere.”
But what of these retailers, endeavouring to stay afloat, alongside some of the more familiar High Street names?
According to Chas Bradfield existing businesses have taken advantage of a grant scheme to refurbish their shopfronts and there’s been the offer of business advice from a retail expert. In addition, the Shop Start initiative prompted Victoria Kennedy’s Vintage Treasures business to move into a council-owned Church Street site.
“I get these premises at a reduced rate,” Victoria explains, adding: “And, in return, I am also working with students at Basingstoke College of Technology (BCOT) to give them an understanding of business outside of the classroom, while they’ve taught me so much about advertising using social media.”
Having previously sold clothes and accessories online and at Hampshire’s vintage fairs, a permanent shop window does, she says, help: “Now that our customers know that it’s not just a pop-up, we’re starting to get repeat business. Although, as an independent, we still need to think outside of the box and are tapping into the whole make do and mend idea.”
With workshops in everything from furnishings to jazzing-up an old jumper, Victoria loves the freedom that comes with being her own boss and would like to see more artisan business start-ups.
“Over the years, the range of independent retail businesses in this area has shrunk,” reflects Alan Stone, current chairman of Top of the Town’s Traders’ Association.
As the owner of Squirrel Antiques in Joices Yard since 1981 and Stone’s Fine Jewellers in Wote Street for the past eight years, Alan’s keen to foster a local renaissance.
“The Traders’ Association managed to get one hour’s free parking in the council owned car parks, which is great for people who want to come in and do a quick bit of shopping.
“And, these days, as well as having commercial businesses, town centres are becoming recreational destinations. People certainly enjoy walking around Top of the Town; there’s the Willis Museum to visit during the day and we have the Haymarket Theatre open during the evening.”
With the historic district already boasting a number of eateries and bars, this so-called night time economy is one that Chas Bradfield says has the potential for growth.
A new club, Bar Fever which opened last year in Winchester Street, is, he reports, doing well, and established businesses like the Rhu Bar have ridden earlier recessions.
Meanwhile, one venue that’s successfully taken a new direction is The Tea Bar.
“I’ve had these premises for seven years and used to run the Karma night club here,” says owner Hayden Gowan. “The Tea Bar opened in 2012 because I felt that Top of the Town really needed a community meeting point.
“Now, this is the sort of place where my nan can come and have a quintessential cup of tea and a scone, or my nieces can pop in and use the wi-fi while they have a drink and a cake. We have loads of mums and young children too, it’s a very family orientated environment. And at weekends cocktails are served out of teapots.”
Describing the line-up of live entertainment, running alongside, as “an integral part of what we do”, Hayden thinks Top of the Town represents an opportunity for independents, whilst offering some advice to would-be entrepreneurs.
“A business needs to complement the existing ones here. It will be tough, so it’s a case of using your initiative to encourage people to come through the door.”
Should proof be needed that this pays off, The Barn further down London Street has been cleverly converted into a high-end bathroom centre.
And with beauty salon Truly Scrumptious and the Framemakers Gallery minutes away, the impression is of an area on the up.
“Making the whole place better for our communities is what it’s all about,” says Chas Bradfield, who’s confident that the relatively new Basingstoke Improvement District (BID), led and funded by businesses across the town centre, will make a difference.
Traders, so far, are quietly optimistic.
“I’m hoping that the BID will give everyone in Top of the Town more of a voice,” says Alan Stone. “Because this could change the direction of how things are done here in the future.”
• Projects leading the way for a more sustainable future in Hampshire - Hampshire is way behind when it comes to renewable energy solutions. Claire Pitcher investigates the projects helping to lead the way in making a more sustainable future