Fakenham is our kind of town

It has been derided as dull but in fact there are plenty of signs of life and the future is looking very bright. KEIRON PIM took a trip to Fakenham and discovers the role it and other market towns have played in Norfolk’s history.

Whether or not it is fair comment, if you mention Fakenham to many people they will immediately think of the word “boring”.

When a resident of the north Norfolk market town described it as such on a website in 1998, the tag quickly stuck.

What actually happened was that someone posted a comment on the Knowhere Guide website saying it was “the most boring place on Earth” after early closing on a Wednesday afternoon. This was picked up by the national press and before long the idea that Fakenham was deadly dull had become established.

The past decade has seen the town do its utmost to shed this unwanted reputation - and judging by a visit last week, there is a definite sense of optimism about the place.

New shops are springing up and retailers appear to have the confidence in the town to expand and develop their businesses.

Throw in the fact that Fakenham has a thriving racecourse, a bustling weekly market on Thursdays and a wealth of independent local traders, and the “boring” description seems wholly unjustified.

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Margaret Rose, of the Fakenham Society, said that the lack of parking and access for people with disabilities were problems, but added: “It's a lovely place and the local people are lovely too - nothing is too much trouble for people here. People say that it's quiet but there are something like 80 different clubs and societies going on in the town. We were annoyed when it was described as being boring because there's a lot going on in the town.”

The atmosphere of renewal is well summarised by Newman's Yard, off Norwich Street. It is in the process of being redeveloped and, when finished, should be reminiscent of other Norfolk towns such as Holt, which already have a reputation for high quality independent retailers.

Restaurateur Peter Bunting explained that he plans to build on his existing business by leasing more nearby units in the small accompanying arcade.

“We own the Old Stables restaurant in Newman's Yard and we are taking over units two, three and four in the arcade and turning them into a posh deli. We hope it will be like Fakenham's answer to Byford's in Holt, and we'll be using good local products.

“The landlord is going to redevelop the whole of Newman's Yard and it will be more like a Mediterranean courtyard.

“The yard will be semi-covered with grapevines and wisteria, they're getting rid of the plastic tables and replacing them with wrought iron tables, and it should have a lovely atmosphere.

“There's a whole car park next to here and at the moment everyone who parks there walks past here to go into town. We hope that this will help drag them into the arcade.”

Next door is Debbie Powles's gift shop, Evolve.

She has only been in business for two months but is cautiously optimistic about her chances, saying that Fakenham is a positive environment in which to start up a new company.

“My experience to date is that everyone has been really good and supportive. This is an unusual shop in that there's nothing else here quite like it.

“There are a few empty shops but they are being taken up very quickly, so it bodes well. It's the 'watch this space' moment!”

Walking up from Norwich Street to the market place, you can start to understand why the town's reputation received a welcome boost in 2002 when Country Life magazine voted it the seventh best place in Britain to live.

And North Norfolk District council's recently published Local Development Plan suggests that the next 15 years will see the town move forward noticeably.

It is envisaged that another 830 houses will be built in the town in the next few years, including a significant proportion of affordable housing, and this will result in the need for a new primary school and expansion of the existing high school.

The town is already well known among nature-lovers for boasting both the Pensthorpe Waterfowl Park and the Hawk and Owl Trust, and it is possible that the countryside between the two might be turned into a country park with cycle and footpaths leading into the town centre.

The document says that the Fakenham area local economy remains relatively healthy and an additional 9.1 hectares of employment land is proposed next to Clipbush Lane on the town's outskirts.

The council has identified a “retail weakness”, however, in that a significant number of people travel out of town for their non-food shopping.

To try to “claw back” some of this lost trade will require creating new opportunities for shop development. Possible sites exist at Bridge Street and Whitehorse Street.

The town centre department store Aldiss is already a well-known draw for shoppers, but another way that the town is already attracting visitors is through the establishment of a farmers' market.

As with several Norfolk market towns, Fakenham has found that this brings many people into the town and provides a perfect showcase for local produce.

Adam Longcroft, of the UEA, sees the advent of farmers' markets as an ideal way of keeping towns like Fakenham thriving.

“It seems to me fairly obvious that to ensure market towns' survival, anything that can be done to ensure the longevity of the market is crucial,” he said.

“Recent developments, like the introduction of farmers' markets, can only be a good thing.

“It adds life to the community and enables people to buy local produce. And it stops us going to the supermarkets!

“We all complain about them but we all use them. Town planners have to think very carefully about what they allow in order to allow the survival of the centres of our communities.”

Dr Longcroft specialises in local and regional studies, and is an expert on the development of this region's centres of population.

He explained that in our county, market towns mainly date from mediaeval times.

“There are some that predate the Domesday Book, a very small number, but most tend to be post-mediaeval in origin,” he said.

“Wymondham is pre-Domesday Book, for instance.

“We know some were there before but they hadn't settled into big centres and were fairly unimportant in terms of their trade function. That developed after the Norman Conquest.”

Instead, it was the “new towns”, those that were specifically founded by landowners with delineated town defences rather than developing organically, that developed markets.

“It's the new towns that account for most of the market towns we take for granted. Norfolk has quite a few - New Buckenham is a good example of a new town in Norfolk that never really outgrew its defences.

“It never really developed in the way that its founder William d'Albini hoped.”

A significant moment came with the Statute of Winchester in 1285, which ruled that markets could no longer take place in churchyards, meaning that designated marketplaces developed instead. These spaces remain to this day, though they are generally far smaller now than when they were first laid out. By the 17th century a lot of the market places that had been very successful had declined to the point where they were not functional.

“There was a big thinning out in the 14th to 16th centuries because it was a period of population decline. You can get an idea of the sheer density of the mediaeval population of East Anglia from the number of churches. Reepham is the classic example where you have three churches in one churchyard!

“And in Stiffkey you have got two in one churchyard, one still standing. It's surprisingly common and almost unique to the east of England.”

With this decline in population and merchant activity there was less need for a large marketplace, and Georgian and Victorian buildings were allowed to encroach into the space instead.

“Aylsham is a really nice example of market encroachment,” said Dr Longcroft. “It's the same as Fakenham, it has been almost all gobbled up by encroachment. At Aylsham at least a third of the market space has gone.”

The market place's purpose changed over the years and while the markets themselves grew less important, shops and small businesses became more important instead.

Today they largely have a different function. The decline of the rural economy and the rise of out of town shopping have brought new challenges for the county's market towns, forcing them to address their role in our lives. But the good news is that many are rising to the challenge, forcing themselves to adapt for the 21st century and making the most of their qualities.

Fakenham is a fine example of how a Norfolk town is trying to keep its head above water, retaining its character without stagnating and attracting optimistic local businesses - which is far from boring, and is actually pretty exciting.