Stop knocking our town - that’s the plea from community leaders in North Walsham

The Market Cross in North Walsham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Market Cross in North Walsham. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

There's a general feeling amongst many in North Walsham that it's a town that has never been given the credit it deserves.

To some it is seen as unappealing compared to its more celebrated neighbours - Holt, Sheringham and Cromer.

But scratch beneath the surface and the town has a lot going for it, and is on the up, according to community figures and traders.

If only people would stop knocking it, they say.

Town mayor Barry Hester is particularly fed-up with a group of people who are constantly negative about north Norfolk's largest town.

Landlord of the White Swan, Pete Edge, left, and mayor, Barry Hester. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Landlord of the White Swan, Pete Edge, left, and mayor, Barry Hester. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

He said: 'We were successful with the Market Town Initiative bid where we got £100,000.

'We are about to re-lay the footpath at the precinct behind the church, and we hope to migrate some of the Thursday market in there.

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'We also plan to put heritage notice boards around the town. And town centre free wi-fi should be coming pretty soon.

'We are on the up despite what some people say.

The Hop In, North Walsham town centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

The Hop In, North Walsham town centre. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

'There's about a dozen people who are always negative about the town.

'We are also aiming to have a Peasants' Revolt event similar to the '40s weekend in Holt and Sheringham.

'Why be negative when there's so much going on?

'We had cinema in the park last year and this time we will have it on two days rather than one. We will have Mamma Mia and The Greatest Showman.'

North Walsham's town sign. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

North Walsham's town sign. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

District councillor for North Walsham, Eric Seward said there was much to applaud about the current state of the town, but also challenges to face.

He said: 'There is a view in the town that the centre is improving, with Costa, Shambles and Specsavers.

'We will relay the square at the precinct behind the church, and also have enhanced lighting, which we are pleased we are getting.

'We've got improved play facilities in the parks, at the Memorial Gardens and Woodside.

Shambles café bar bistro, one of the new businesses in the town. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

Shambles café bar bistro, one of the new businesses in the town. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

'And the district council is supporting a bid for an artificial football-size pitch at North Walsham High School, costing several hundred thousand pounds. We should know more about that in the summer. This is a joint project between the FA and district council, and would be a major boost for sports facilities in the town.'

But he said the town was also facing several challenges.

He added: 'North Walsham has been earmarked as a growth town in the next 20 years for housing in the district council's draft local plan.

'That would mean 2,000 houses on the south-west side of town, between Norwich and Cromer roads.

North Walsham. The controversial precinct behind the church. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY

North Walsham. The controversial precinct behind the church. Picture: DENISE BRADLEY - Credit: Copyright: Archant 2019

'That is still only a proposal, and we don't know if the scheme is viable. We've made it clear that, if they are built, we will need an improved road system, better GP surgeries, and more school places.

'The advantage, if it does go ahead, is that we could end up with a better road system, and it would take heavy vehicles out of residential streets.

'And there could be a retail boost to the town.

'Tied in with that, we require a decent proportion of affordable housing for local people to buy or rent.

Aerial view of North Walsham. Picture: Mike Page

Aerial view of North Walsham. Picture: Mike Page - Credit: Mike Page

'We have a long waiting list of people on low incomes waiting for social housing.

'And as part of that growth, we need a better place for buses to pick up people from, than at the junction with the post office.'

One of the big talking points in town is whether pub chain Wetherspoon is finally going to move in to the former town council office building.

There has been much support, but Matilda Lysaght, whose parents manage North Walsham's Shambles cafe, is not that keen on the idea.

'I hope they don't come,' she said. 'I like to see independent businesses. The money they make at places like Wetherspoon goes straight out of the town.'

The nearby Hop In, where Bradley Butterworth works, is also popular.

He said: 'We are doing very well, and I agree there's a lot of things going on in North Walsham, and that things are on the move.'

Peter Edge, town councillor and landlord at The White Swan in Church Street, has had the pub for nine years.

There's a men's shed at the back of the building, and he's optimistic about the town's future.

He said: 'North Walsham is on the up. There are more people coming in to town. Shambles is very busy and Costa is now here.

'But I would like to see more people come out at night in the town.

'There's nowhere in town to get, say, a steak, at night. But I think it's really on the move for the good.'

Businesses are queuing up to move to town

Businesses are queuing up to move to North Walsham, which has truly been established as a good place to trade in.

That's according to Nick Lee, chairman of the North Walsham Chamber for Business, and managing director of Broadland Travel in the town.

He said: 'We don't have any empty shops in the town. There are empty buildings but that's just where businesses are moving.

'And I've been to places across the country with 50pc empty shops.

'Businesses are queuing up to come into town. We keep in contact with them when an empty premises pops up.

'The retail square footage in the town is huge. Lidl has expanded and doubled in size, Sainsbury's has expanded and we had Waitrose.

'We don't offer any particular incentives for businesses to move here, but that sort of thing generates interest in the town.

'Last year, before Specsavers and Costa opened, the town did not have any major names apart from the chemists.

'Obviously, Wetherspoon wants to move here. We have had a reduction of charity shops in the town, which is a mixed blessing.'

The buoyancy of the town was demonstrated by the sudden arrival of five Vape shops, he added.

He added: 'We went from having one to five, and now it's down to two. The others closed because they realised there were too many.'

The EDP asked readers on social media what are the main issues facing people in the town, what is good or bad about the town, and whether it was a nice place to live and work. As you might expect, we got a mixed response from people.

What do people think of the town? Here are some of their answers on social media.

Caroline Denson-Smith said: 'North Walsham has outgrown itself. Thousands of houses have been built and yet there is still only one petrol station, two GP Surgeries, etc. There is no free parking to attract people to the Market Place.

'Also North Walsham people want Subway, Costa and Wetherspoons, so it doesn't have any individual character like Holt, Aylsham or Reepham. At night it's full of people revving engines and racing around the streets.

'One of the main issues facing North Walsham is that there is a cohort of people who jump on other people if they dare to criticise anything. An example is the dreadful problems with traffic.

'If you dare to mention it, loads of people just crowd in saying there isn't a problem and you need to get out more. Personally, I think North Walsham is a lost cause and people have the town they deserve.'

Andrew Lawn said: 'Traffic congestion is a common complaint, particularly at certain times of the day. The bus stop on New Road could do with being relocated to allow for seating. A second petrol station would be helpful. Another supermarket as our current one seems to struggle to keep up with demand. There is a great community spirit within North Walsham.'

Bob Wright said: 'There have been three recent surveys to capture concerns. The town council's strategy survey unfortunately had a very poor response. Regenerate North Walsham CIC's to identify projects for town centre improvement was well supported.'

Steven Miller said: 'I'm not sure if there's a youth club anymore, somewhere to engage the younger crowd that's not judgey and a bit more constructive. The play equipment on both parks is excellent. Maybe a community-run gaming cafe, a deli that puts out decent stuff.'

Lyndsey Folkard said: 'In my opinion there isn't enough for teenagers to do during the evenings/nights because they hang around the streets a lot getting into drugs and alcohol. We have enough cafes, hairdressers, beauty salons, charity shops and takeaway places.'

Sophia Farrow said: 'Once upon a time there was a good living to be had. Not now. Same in other towns though. Everybody wants more variety but sadly no footfall big enough to support independent shops generally.'

Helen Richardson said: 'I think we have a lots of wonderful things to do within our town. There are lots of groups and clubs for children of all ages. There will always be groups of teenagers who hang around town, there is in every town and always has been.'

Jill Carpenter said: 'We need more social clubs for youngsters, shops in North Walsham open on a Sunday, it's totally dead in the high street on Sundays. Bereavement social club where lonely people can help together and socialise. How about a full time cinema that's affordable? Less vape shops and more little independent shops, a gallery, art and craft shop, more nice restaurants and cafes.'

Karen Henry said: 'Bus shelters and seats at bus stops are desperately needed. Nobody cares about this, though.'

Terry Hampson said: 'Teenagers hanging about the town clock hasn't changed since the mid-70s to my knowledge, and probably since before that. I, and others, have been involved in helping set up things for the youngsters to do in the evenings in the past.'

The long-running Wetherspoon saga

One of the biggest talking points in North Walsham is whether the JD Wetherpoon pub chain will be moving to the town.

A contract for the pub giant to pursue the purchase of the site was agreed in 2016, but the plans were delayed over a right-of-way dispute, which has since been resolved.

Earlier this year, North Norfolk District Council urged the pub chain to make its intentions clear.

And the council said last month that 'final issues' that had stopped the pub chain project moving forward for years had been sorted out, and an exchange of contracts was imminent.

However, Wetherpoon spokesman Eddie Gershon said that they had 'not yet' exchanged contracts.

In the meantime, an alternative plan, should JD Wetherspoon not move into North Walsham, has been drawn up by a local businessman.

Robert Scammell, who already runs Cafe Kitale in the town, wants to put a pub/restaurant into the former town council office building, and build a small cinema at the nearby car park. He said the £1.6m investment would create about 30 new jobs

Mr Scammell said: 'I know how popular Wetherspoon's is with some people, and I'm slightly worried this might backfire on me.

'We could not offer the same prices as Wetherspoon, but I think we could offer something overall, with a cinema, that would benefit the town. We would also source local food and drink.'

He said people wanted the long-running saga resolved.

He added: 'It would be a three-way partnership with myself as the operator, plus a partner who specialises in catering, and a Norfolk-based start-up company that deals in small cinemas.

'The car park to the side of the building would be a 600 sq m purpose-built cinema while the main building would be converted into a family pub and restaurant.'

It's 'funky' and 'cultured' and something new for North Walsham

One of the recent success stories in the town is Shambles, a cafe/bar bistro in Market Street, which opened late last year.

Matilda Lysaght, daughter of managers Rebecca and David, said: 'Since the beginning of November it's been going really well. We are all about the community. We try and employ local youth.

'This is something funky. The feedback's been great. It's about bringing in a bit of culture from across the world - north Norfolk may be lacking in culture, and perhaps it has too many charity shops.

'And it's about serving healthy food, such as Greek salad, and the meat comes from the local butcher. We support local businesses and try to be ethical. We attempt not to use any single-use plastic.'

She said it was a nice place for women to go to, especially.

She added: 'There are quite a lot of pubs where old men go to in the town.

'We get a lot of ladies who lunch here, and we are very female-oriented.

'This is the second oldest building in North Walsham, after the church. Prior to us it was Blakeman's furniture shop. It's an old weavers' barn.

'I think North Walsham is very much looking up, so watch this space!

'It has the potential to be as lovely as Holt. It's got good schools. I went to Paston College. It's even got a Waitrose, darling.

'Costa has just opened here and there's a lot of new build.'

North Walsham Play has transformed the landscape for play equipment at the town's parks

From being a town with a dearth of children's play equipment on offer, North Walsham can now boast a good selection, with more to follow.

North Walsham Play's (NWP) second play park project in the town, a £90,000 facility within the Memorial Park, was officially opened last December.

The community group raised the money in just one year, with North Norfolk District Council's (NNDC) big society fund providing £10,500, and North Walsham Community Shop giving the last £902.87 needed to make the dream become reality.

It followed the opening of the group's Woodville Park in the town in June 2017. That £40,000 project was funded by NNDC, as well as its big society fund, plus donations.

The group's trustee and founder Matthew Smith, who received the town council's community award for 2016/17 for his fundraising efforts, said: 'We have installed two new parks since 2016. The Memorial Park is proving very popular and well-used, and we will add picnic benches there in the next few weeks.

'We have also received about 70pc of funding for a new exercise park, a 13-piece outdoor gymnasium for children and adults, at Memorial Park.

'And we are working with North Walsham Town Council on the skatepark at the Trackside park, near the train station,

'This is an amazing resource already, but we are looking at ways to improve it.

'I think young people are becoming well-served with play equipment at parks in the town. The town has turned the corner in the last few years.'

NWP formed in early 2016 to help address the lack of play equipment in and around North Walsham. The group wants to make the town a 'go to' destination for families in and around north Norfolk.

History of the town and its famous church

North Walsham, population at the 2011 census, 12,634, is steeped in history and dates back to Anglo-Saxon times.

Along with the nearby village of Worstead, it became a centre for weaving, and the wealth generated enabled locals to build St Nicholas Church, which dates back to 1330.

Visitors are always struck by its landmark collapsed tower.

The tower collapsed along with the entire south-west corner of the structure containing the stairwell on the morning of May 16, 1724.

The pinnacled entrance porch is richly carved and decorated with statues and heraldic emblems.

During the medieval period the south chapel area of the church contained a shrine to Thomas Becket, popular with pilgrims en route to Bromholm Priory at Bacton.

The building is one of Britain's largest parish churches and contains many unusual features and artefacts which include the intricately carved telescopic baptismal font cover, a massive iron-bound chest with seven locks, medieval misericord seats, remains of a highly decorated parclose screen with an array of painted saints, a unique Communion Table, and the highly ornate marble tomb of Sir William Paston 1528-1610.