You know times are tough when some empty shops have default notices in their long-closed windows. Tamworth town centre has plenty of those, but one note could be more surprising than all of the others.
And that’s the A4 sheet in the window of the award-winning Tamworth Co-operative Funeral service posted on February 18, 2022 announcing the closure of the branch. At first glance, this means either people have stopped dying in the borough with a population of roughly 80,000 – or too many have passed on to keep such a key business alive.
Truth be told, all of the units in the building have also closed pending its exciting transformation into a new Tamworth College and enterprise hub. The dream is to bring people back into the centre that, on the day of my visit, was desperately quiet.
Read more: Game-changing’ – Tamworth awarded £21.65m for town centre regeneration
The town’s current star attractions are undoubtedly Tamworth Castle and the River Anker and the grounds between them, not forgetting St Editha’s Church and the neighbouring Assembly Rooms on Corporation Street. Take those away – and the Tuesday and Saturday street market with up to 100 stalls – and what’s left?
The Ankerside Shopping Centre is pleasant enough but could be anywhere, other than the fact that its car park is so awful it must be somewhere: Tamworth! Backing onto the 1701 Town Hall is the imposing statue of Sir Robert Peel, a man who was once chancellor of the exchequer as well as Prime Minister twice – but hardly an economic draw today.
Financed by MP Thomas Guy, the Town Hall is a lovely old building with a courtyard facing down Market Street. First listed on May 11, 1950 and now classed as Grade II*, renovating it could be a catalyst for so much more.
Nearby is a plethora of empty shops, from the former Burton to Bonmarché and BrightHouse. The Julie Anne Flowers business has been on site facing the Sir Robert Peel statue since 1981, but even though it’s got the loveliest shop front in town, the current proprietor – who has been there for 23 years – declined to be photographed with any of her lovely arrangements.
For any independent business to have survived 22 years into the 21st century through the financial crash, Brexit and Covid-19 is no mean achievement, but when you are in flowers and the supermarkets have upped their game, that’s an even better feat. My confidante expressed quiet confidence in her own ability to provide the personal touch that online shopping can never match and I bade her good luck for the future.
Next door, the former double glazing shop is simply hosting posters promising better times ahead via the Tamworth Food & Drink Trail. There was precious little evidence elsewhere that such a thing now exists during my visit but the app detailing 58 cafes, restaurants and bars is available from the Apple App Store as well as Google Play (search for Tamworth AR Trails) though my phone said it had only been downloaded 100+ times. A hard copy of the trail is available from Tamworth Castle, Tamworth Information Centre in the Assembly Rooms and other businesses in the town. Hopefully, the warmer summer months should do everyone listed the power of good.
Further down Market Street, The Tamworth Tap, for example, wasn’t trading until later in the day and only opens for lunchtimes at the weekend even though it has an award-worthy beer garden. Further beyond that, Nibbles Cafe was closed for two days and even a firm of ‘Investment Financial Advisers’ had moved out, with a handwritten note behind a rotting window frame saying: ‘Due to our recent merger we may be spending more time at our Lichfield office’.
A forfeiture notice on the window of some ground floor premises on the corner of Bolebridge Street said the property had been seized on April 28 ‘on the authority of the landlord’. Across the road, the JD Wetherspoon pub The Bole Bridge typically had plenty of customers filing in and out. Having had a £1.1 million makeover in autumn 2019, it will doubtless remain popular even if St Editha’s Square some 400 yards away is never turned into the promised multi-purpose outdoor space for entertaining and events.
Anyone who has lived in Tamworth for years will often say past planning mistakes include a ring road and one-way system which make little sense to first-time visitors, demolishing the lido and building Ankerside out into the leisure grounds. The shopping centre was opened by The Queen 42 years ago on June 6, 1980 and it would appear to have been commercially undermined by allowing so many big name stores to open at Ventura Park.
But with new investments coming into the centre, the town looks like it could be about to take several steps back in the right direction. And if it can then look as fresh as the produce at Joe Richards Fruiterer and Greengrocer in the oddly-named Middle Entry shopping centre then all will be well…
The Future High Streets Fund project saw Tamworth recently win a £21.65m grant from the Government to regenerate the town centre. When combined with funding from external partners, the total investment will be around £40m.
The former Co-operative Society building will lose the 1960s’ section to the rear facing the square next to St Editha’s, whilst the older part next to Colehill will be retained with a Tamworth Enterprise Centre then helping to protect that fine building’s heritage. Creating a new home for Tamworth College is expected to attract 1,500 students into the town for day and evening courses.
Announcing the news in March, Tamworth Borough Council leader Cllr Jeremy Oates said: “It will bring a new community to the heart of the town centre with guaranteed footfall, day and night, that is not reliant on other factors or market forces, which will be a real boost for the high street. We can now really crack on.”
Other regeneration projects are coming together under one banner backed by a Government award of £67,455 from the European Regional Development Fund’s Welcome Back Fund.
The locals’ view
Married for 30 years, Les and Wendy Hyde have the endearing habit of finishing each other’s sentences. They say every trip they make into Tamworth these days serves only to bring back memories of people they used to know and meet up with.
Les spent many years working for the local council in its housing department, whilst Wendy has recently had to get used to using a mobility scooter to get around – the kind of vehicle which is commonplace in Tamworth despite the fact that George Street and Market Street up to the Town Hall are on an incline as is one of the main malls inside Ankerside itself.
With friend Shane Morgan watching on from a bench adorned with Poundland carriers, what do they make of Tamworth, I asked.
“Did make of,” said Wendy emphasising her use of the past tense. “(Tamworth) was home. Everyone we ever knew, the lads that used to sit here with their dads on a market day, and around there, all gone.
“If you look at the top of the buildings down there are old fashioned (frontages) on the top. You can see the names, the numbers and the dates. We’ve got Ventura Retail Park down Lichfield Street but everything has just been pushed out by money.
“I ain’t looking forward to winter because I think that could be hard but we’re working on ways that we can be warm without spending lots. I wouldn’t have liked to have paid a lot for the mortgages like people are doing now. All these big houses and ‘Oooh, we’ve got this’… You won’t have it for long, I can tell you that now.”
Les made the news 15 years ago after visiting a local e-boot car boot sale in 2006 run by business partners Andrew Walsh and James Taroni. Others in front of them had been buying little pieces of pottery from a seller that day, but not a cracked teapot with a bright and colourful cat and mouse theme.
They paid £2 for it and eight months later spotted an identical one in an antiques magazine. The following year, 2007, a private buyer purchased the teapot for £32,400 after it went under the hammer at a Sotheby’s auction. Because it had been made at the Minton factory near Stoke back in 1876, it could have realised more had it not been repaired and had the auction not been held on the day of the 7/7 bombing on the London Underground.
Back in the real world of Tamworth 2022, Les added: “It’s getting quieter and quieter (in Tamworth now). A lot of shops are closing down and a lot of the old faces have gone out of town now. It’s surviving but struggling in every area. We’ll see how things go.
“They’ve lost a lot of lovely buildings including the old baths which was all timber on the outside. The town lost a lot of its history when it knocked them down. There were some fantastic buildings but you’ve just got to live with what you’ve got now. I think they might for more residential in the town now.
“But it’s still a nice place because we’ve got the River Anker on our doorstep, the castle and the beauty of that so we’ve still got a lot more than other places have to offer.
“I had a house in the 1980s when interest rates were touching 13 per cent. I lost the house because I had more going out than coming in and that’s frightening for people who’ve got a mortgage because (inflation) could be ten per cent by the end of the year.
“But everything changes, nothing stays the same, so you’ve just got to embrace it and just get on with it.”
Impressions of Tamworth
Visiting on a quiet day meant more time to observe the general fabric of the place. It’s good that many routes are pedestrianised, but, as in Birmingham, do watch out for any faster cyclists taking you by surprise.
Above the shop window level, there are some marvellous frontages on George Street and Market Street but some are in real need of TLC. The bland block paving underfoot, the clashing fascia styles above door height and some shockingly jarring 1960s-style brickwork on other frontages all combine to suck the life out of the area overall instead of complementing it. Having the central streets lined with bountiful supply of colourful hanging baskets could do a lot for the area – they are surprisingly missing given how stunning the town’s flower bed displays always are next to the bandstand at the rear of Ankerside.
Other things stood out more than they might have on a busier day. One bar with an outdoor hospitality area was being monopolised by a borderline anti-social ‘shouty’ group with dogs that you wouldn’t necessarily want sniffing your ankles. They were all probably harmless – humans and dogs – but they gave the area an undercurrent it didn’t need or deserve and by tolerating them perhaps the bar loses more than it gains.
Similarly, every now and then there would be one or two males who looked simply out of place on a family shopping area. One was walking down Market Street away from Sir Robert Peel with a drink in one hand, his phone glued to his ear whilst his overloud voice could be heard trying to persuade the other person on the call to join what sounded like a scam.
Later, two lads with their hoods up were walking in the opposite direction and looking every inch as if they couldn’t be trusted either thanks to the way they’d covered up two-thirds of their faces with far more than a Covid-19 mask.
Even though the police issued a Section 35 order from 6pm on Friday, April 29 to 5.59pm on Sunday, May 1 to be able to compel anyone suspected of causing crime or anti-social behaviour to move on, I was surprised I didn’t see a single officer until 5pm on May 6 when a Friday night van drove up George Street. Perhaps they rely on the forest of CCTV cameras more than you imagine.
Meanwhile, lots of others were trying to make a hard-earned living…
This shop in lower George Street was busy with people coming who were looking like they were having tough lives. A worker behind the counter had a large Apple iMAC 2011 for sale at £250. It had a 1TB SSD drive on the label, and, although he didn’t know what that meant, any purchaser would be promised a 12-month guarantee. You could buy everything on the cheap here from iPads and other tablets to phones, cameras, watches, TVs and tools including electric saws and drills.
Unable to offer a view on whether inflation and / or a recession would be good for business, the worker said: “We’re not doing a lot of bikes though – we just haven’t got room for them.”
Tamworth has many, but because they are agreeably well-spaced you might tend to pop into a different one for a change, depending on where you are. Any one of them could have a real bargain inside at any given time.
Most of the major charities are represented from the British Heart Foundation (Middle Entry) and Sue Ryder (Church Street) to Cancer Research UK (Market Street) and Oxfam, right next door to Cash Converters.
Age UK is on Colehill close to a mobility scooter hire and buy shop, whilst the Ankerside centre is home to Farplace Animal Rescue.
The Acorns store on George Street had a rail of clothing outside for £1 per item and inside there was a model train track railway line for £50. A pair of smart, black leather-soled shoes was just £2. Sue Ryder even includes white goods items like fridges as well as bigger furniture items, some of which were new.
With prices that would rival a car boot sale without the risk of mud, I asked a manager at one of the above if rising inflation or a recession would either help or hinder their takings.
“I don’t know – we just carry on,” she said. “I don’t watch the news and I haven’t got a car, so the rise in petrol doesn’t affect me either.”
But with nearby budget shops including Savers and Home Bargains on George Street and Wilko on Market Street, even the charity shops have their work cut out offering the best prices for what are often non-essential goods.
In one of the independent phone accessory shops, the self-employed trader said business was holding up – as it had to if he was to keep up with local property prices.
“They are still increasing,” he said. “I was enquiring about a house which sold for £320,000 but then a few months later I saw it back on the market for £360,000 so the owner was looking to make £40,000 just like that.
“But I think the prospects for the town are pretty good.”
The drinks shop
People seem to prioritise their phones over everything else these days. Another trader less convinced about the future was manning a shop selling pop and sweets but not much else. So he was busy not being very busy until the local school children began walking past after 4pm.
Had he not thought about selling newspapers and magazines? “We have thought about that,” he added. “And we’re thinking of getting a coffee machine, too, but trade is just very quiet.”
For everyone in Tamworth, you get the feeling that the new investments can’t come soon enough if those already showing faith in the local high streets are not only to survive – but thrive.
Read more:I went to Tamworth’s two biggest shopping centres and lost the plot while trying to park my car
For the latest on events and attractions, food and drink, and things to do around the Midlands, visit our What’s On home page. If you’re on Facebook, you can find our What’s On Black Country page here
Stay abreast of the latest on days out, nights out, shopping and more with our Daily What’s On Email updates