The charm of Aylsham

It is perhaps the archetypal Norfolk market town, and its tranquil charm has led to it becoming part of an international movement celebrating a slow quality of life. KEIRON PIM went home to Aylsham to find out how it is adapting for the future while preserving its heritage.

Two years on from when Aylsham became part of the Cittaslow movement, it doesn't really look or feel any different.

After all, the main criterion for membership - being a place with its own character where quality of life takes precedence over speed - could have been designed for the north Norfolk market town.

As Liz Jones says: “We actually have changed very little in Aylsham because it was so right for us, it fits us like a glove.”

Liz is the chairwoman of Aylsham town council, as well as being a director of Cittaslow UK, the British arm of a movement that began in Italy. Literally it means “slow city”. The first British town to join was Ludlow in Shropshire, Aylsham was the second, and last year Diss became the third.

Being part of Cittaslow sums up how Aylsham is addressing the issues facing all historic market towns of its type: how to move forward while retaining its heritage, how best to attract tourists, how to convince people to shop locally.

And naturally Liz and her colleagues have found that the answers lie in focusing on and enhancing Aylsham's existing strengths, rather than trying to modify it into something it is not.

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With its assortment of independent shops in the market place and on nearby Red Lion Street, and a wealth of historical character, the town has plenty to offer both residents and tourists. These strengths can sometimes be overlooked however when faced by the convenience of internet and supermarket shopping.

“One of the challenges that faces market towns today, not just Aylsham, is that people like to shop in a way that's convenient for them,” she says. “That could be through the internet, where you don't need to leave the house, at any time of day or night. “Having said that, when you shop on the internet you haven't got someone in front of you who will give you friendly customer service.”

With a slowly growing population of just under 6,000, Aylsham is still of the size where you can walk into town and expect to see some friendly faces, and where the shopkeepers soon grow to know you by name. This is one of the reasons why Liz says that “there are a lot of people out there who prefer to shop in a small market town. Since we have been a Cittaslow and been more aware of what brings people to the town, people like what we have to offer.

“It's one of those places that's very down to earth and as you see it, it's very unpretentious. People like the safe environment and the friendliness. If you look around there are hardly any retail units up for lease. It's fairly full and has been like that for a long time.”

Aylsham has long been known for its market and the auction at G A Key's salerooms, both of which have always drawn people to the town from afar. Now it has introduced a monthly farmers' market, which again ties in with the Cittaslow ideal of championing local produce.

“It has been very successful and has brought large numbers of people to the town,” says Liz. “We want to build on that and have a specialist in the town every Saturday. Last autumn we had a craft fair in September. Ultimately we would like people to think 'It's Saturday morning, let's go to Aylsham and see what's on offer today'.

“Having said that Aylsham has always been a Cittaslow although we didn't know it, I think it does give you a bit of a renaissance.”

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It is often only with hindsight that you appreciate where you grew up.

And for me, I can see now that there are probably few better places to spend your childhood than in Aylsham.

We moved up from London when I was four and, while I always missed the cultural diversity that I saw whenever we returned to the East End, we were safe and my parents could buy a nice Victorian semi-detached house that would have been unobtainable in the capital.

A trip to the coast was only a quick drive away and Norwich was just as near.

As a teenager my friends and I would always moan that there was nothing to do, but actually we kept ourselves busy - cycling out to Abel Heath, and then through Silvergate to Blickling, where we could tear around through the woods on our bikes.

We could nip out from our back garden across the field, keeping an eye out for the farmer, for a walk along “the ridge” - the raised strip of land where the old railway line ran. There was the Recreation Ground (aka the Rec) to kick a football around whenever we wanted, and a youth club for a game of pool or table tennis.

And once we'd reached 18 we were spoiled for choice as to where to go for a beer - Aylsham has always had a good number of pubs, though today is nothing compared with the 19th century when Red Lion Street alone had five alehouses.

Sure, things have changed a little since my childhood in the 1980s, though the town's character remains much the same. Whereas my parents' home to the west of the town was once surrounded by farming fields, it is now being approached on both sides by a steadily creeping army of new houses.

But that is the price of progress: the town's population has increased and with this has come a livelier, more bustling atmosphere. Sometimes when I go “home” it seems a very different place from what I remember, but in truth I know it has changed very little in centuries, and that's one of the best things about it.