According to the New Economics Foundation, Britain is becoming a place of ‘clone towns’ − where the corner shop and the deli are extinct or endangered. So it’s time to make a stand for the different, the individual, the bloody-minded.
Readers, we want you to vote for BRITAIN’S MOST INDEPENDENT TOWN. First, we asked professor of tourism and Faversham fanatic HAROLD GOODWIN to tell us just why, more than ever, we need towns with personality.
I am privileged: I live in Faversham, a real place, a town with a past and a future. It’s a town marked by its history: by the dissolution of the monasteries, by gunpowder, by brickmaking, quarrying, industry, agriculture and brewing. It’s a town built by generations of merchants, labourers, smugglers and craftsmen on the edge of the marsh, on a creek that brings the sea to the town, twice a day, briefly.
Off the beaten track, the old Roman road runs to the south. We are no backwater. The town is distinctive. We have a strong sense of place. As I write this, I can see St Mary’s, the parish church, which dates back to 1070, its rare elegant and distinctive crown spire from the late 18th century, its interior by Sir George Gilbert Scott – the largest parish church in Kent.
The community that built it was making a point. Our church is more than a picture postcard: it is a focus for the community, believers and nonbelievers alike.
Like many other towns and cities we have been affected by the march of the national brands that have undermined distinctive local businesses and local products. Our high streets are less colourful, less diverse and more boring than they used to be. As Paul Kingsnorth, the author of Real England, has argued, we need to battle against the bland, the dull, pasteurised, homogenised retail experience, sweeping across Britain; a process that results in everywhere becoming like everywhere else. We are sliding, apparently inexorably, into a bland monochrome future.
In 2005 the New Economics Foundation surveyed London villages and British villages, towns and cities. They found that 41 per cent are clone towns, 34 per cent are home towns and 26 per cent are in danger, on the border of becoming clone towns.
Home towns are distinctive places, places we can identify with, places we are proud to call home. They belong to us. If we care we should do something about it. We can make a difference by the way we shop − we can choose to buy local.
We can lobby our councils and campaign as groups such as Keep Chorlton Interesting (South Manchester) and Friends of Portobello Road (Notting Hill, London) are doing to maintain their distinctive local shops and markets. We are what we eat, biological and socially. Eating local and seasonal foods and shopping locally, buying from people we know and trust, talking with the producers and retailers enriches our lives. That is why I can be found at the Ludlow and Marches Food and Drink Festival every year (they have great beer too). There is nothing bland or monochrome about the food now in our shops, restaurants, bars and cafés. The flavours, smells and colourful presentation by enthusiasts in the kitchens and front-of-house has been a revolution.
Farmers’ markets have spread rapidly across the face of Britain, bringing us fresher food, enabling us to buy directly from the producer, improving our lives.
Faversham is a product of its history. The place I chose to live is the result of the decisions made by people in my town over many centuries. I am an outsider. I was not born here and will never be a local, but I am passionate about my place and its history.
Faversham has not been immune from the tides of history. The dissolution of the monasteries brought the destruction of the Abbey; Faversham sent the Hazard to defeat the Armada; most of the gunpowder for the Napoleonic wars came from here; and bricks baked from Faversham earth, shipped to London in Thames sailing barges, were used to build much of Victorian London.
The Faversham Society has campaigned to protect and now interpret the town’s history. Our fine collection of vernacular architecture in Abbey Street was protected by local people with the foresight to restore them under covenants enforced by Faversham Borough Council, which narrowed the road and planted trees. That was a brave and unorthodox solution when other local councils were clearing and rebuilding, spreading bland.
Faversham is unique and distinctive: the product of the decisions and efforts of previous residents and of battles won and lost the product of its geography and its history.
There are new battles to fight every year – a town of 18,000 with a Tesco and a Morrisons, will shortly have an out of town Sainsbury’s. We also have a farmers’ market three days a week, local real-food producers, butchers and bakers worth queuing for, fish landed and smoked locally and a food culture in the East Kent Triangle to compare with Ludlow.
Faversham will be what we make of it; our children will inherit what we bequeath them.
Celebrate local distinctiveness, tell people about it, take pride in it. Campaign to maintain what is unique and special about the place you call home and the places you care about. You can make a difference, use it and fight for it or lose it.
Escape from the clone zone.
JOANNE O’CONNOR celebrates 5 British towns that have characters – and minds − all of their own.
1. Totnes, Devon
A magnet for artists, druids, therapists and hippies, this bohemian little market town at the head of the Dart Estuary was declared the ‘capital of New Age chic’ by Time magazine. It was the first town in the UK to launch its own currency, the Totnes pound, to boost local trade. Rickshaws fuelled by recycled cooking oil carry passengers up the steep hill from the river to the High Street.
2. Louth, Lincolnshire
This Georgian market town in the Lincolnshire Wolds has become something of a foodie Mecca. Spirited resistance to incursions from supermarkets and retail chains, spearheaded by the Keep Louth Special campaign, has ensured a diverse and thriving town centre with specialist grocers, poulterers, a fishmonger, cheese shop, no less than five butchers and three food markets selling local specialities such as haslet and plum bread.
3. Whitby, Yorkshire Nowhere combines seaside brash and gothic melancholy quite like Whitby. Bucket and spade emporiums rub shoulders with shops dedicated to the occult in the shadow of the brooding ruined Abbey and clifftop graveyard. The town’s Dracula connections (the vampire comes ashore on a stormy night in Whitby in Bram Stoker’s novel) and the twice-yearly Gothic Weekends attract a loyal following from people who dress in black and wear too much eyeliner.
In the 1880s a group of painters from the Glasgow School of Art established an artists’ colony in this attractive harbour town. The artistic tradition continues today with a community of painters and craftworkers lending a bohemian air. Scenes from the 1973 cult film The Wicker Man were shot here and the popular Wickerman Festival, a music festival held on a nearby farm every July, has put the town on the map for a new generation.
5. Aldeburgh, Suffolk
With its excellent independent cinema and world-class concert hall, the Snape Maltings, this genteel seaside town punches well above its weight culturally.
On the shingle beach is Maggi Hambling’s controversial sculpture, The Scallop, dedicated to Benjamin Britten, who launched the acclaimed Aldeburgh Music Festival in 1948. And it serves a mean fish and chips. The Aldeburgh Fish and Chip Shop is regularly rated one of the best in the country.
By Harold Goodwin, Do Not Disturb (In-hotel Magazine)