What a difference a year makes! As I write this, it was a year ago that we had our popular Ipswich past and present photo display on Cornhill drawing in crowds of fascinated passers-by. Just in time as it turned out. We had many other plans to celebrate the 60th anniversary of The Ipswich Society, all of which had to be cancelled.
Just two weeks after the display went up on Cornhill the UK went into its first lockdown for Covid-19, the day before the display was due to be dismantled, and it continued to stand there on a deserted Cornhill for nearly three months. Ipswich town centre, along with town centres all over the country, started to go through a massive change such that no one had ever experienced before.
It was already apparent that town centres were changing and retail was becoming less and less the main attraction. Ipswich was no different and had been losing shops, mainly chain stores, just like other towns, but there was still a trickle of new shops coming in, mainly independents as well as a surge of barber shops, nail bars and coffee shops in most towns. Once lockdown had bedded in, shops started to disappear rapidly from the high streets; many of the these had been unstable for some time and Covid-19 merely accelerated an already downward trend of town centre retail.
There has been some optimism in Ipswich. Deichmann opened their new shoe shop on Cornhill, Dial Lane Books filled the only empty unit in Dial Lane, Hanks filled the two empty Maplin units with their vegan grocery store and The Cake Box moved into the empty Superdrug unit (both in Carr Street) whilst The Ipswich Furniture Project opened another shop in the empty Superdrug unit in Westgate Street. Retail entrepreneur Mike Ashley bought the empty BHS site and started work converting it for multiple retail brands in his empire including Sports Direct, Game, USC and Flannels. Bonbon opened an attractive patisserie shop in an empty unit in Butter Market whilst PocketWatch and Petticoats moved to a more central, lovely unit in the Thoroughfare, their old unit immediately being filled by Lambretta clothing. There has been interest in other empty shops with planning applications currently in progress.
The number of shops we have lost in a short time is staggering. Several of these were not to be found in other sizeable towns in East Anglia. Many people seemed to be unaware how well-off Ipswich was for choice, assuming all these shops to have branches everywhere.
I list some of the names we have lost in just the last year:-
Jack Wills, Office, Kiko Milano, Whittards, Lakeland, tReds, the small Boots, Coast to Coast, Hotter, Paperchase, Jessops, Edinburgh Wool Mill, Burtons/Dorothy Perkins, Monsoon, Thorntons, Little Waitrose, TopShop, Ernest Jones, Quiz, Cotswold; Debenhams will go soon and no doubt more before end of 2021. John Lewis have announced closure of 8 of their 42 stores. It has been suggested by the media that the bigger older stores, such as Norwich, are most likely to go and Ipswich may hang in there. We can only wait with open minds to see how towns develop over the coming years.
Tesco have shown interest in the Jack Wills site whilst rumours abound that a restaurant chain is interested in the old Post Office. Plans are ongoing to convert the old Co-op Department Store into a school whilst the empty Argos unit has plans to be turned into residential apartments.
Above: The New Wolsey Theatre and the Golden Pavillion from Civic Drive.
There are positive developments in construction around Ipswich. The New Wolsey Theatre upgrade and new building have been completed. When I last checked, the Unitarian Meeting House restoration was near completion as was the work on the old Post Office. Carter have started work on the ‘Blue light hub’ in Princes Street where the fire station is being enlarged to incorporate the town police station and an ambulance station as well. There is activity again on the St Francis tower cladding whilst St Clare House has been put up for sale. Gipping contractors have moved onto the old BT site in Handford Road where the former office block is to be converted into apartments whilst town houses are due to be built on the site facing Handford Road and on the former BT car park to be accessed from Bibb Way.
Above: The Blue Light Hub under construction, Princes Street.
Network Rail plans to open its new office for Anglian Outer operations and a training centre for all new signalmen in the area at the recently restored former Paul's Maltings (Hollywoods) office complex on Princes Street. Network Rail will be moving into The Maltings in Princes Street on a 10 year lease in the next few weeks. Work on the next phase of Ipswich railway station upgrade is also in progress.
Above: the Unitarian Meeting House, before and after. All photographs by Tim Leggett.