From quirky shops to festivals - How Aylsham's picturesque heart keeps beating
PUBLISHED: 16:11 15 July 2019 | UPDATED: 16:11 15 July 2019
It's a picture-postcard place where the street layout hasn't changed since medieval times. But can Aylsham learn to thrive amid the modern-day pressures on Britain's market towns? Stuart Anderson brings you this report as part of the EDP's Your Town series.
Stately buildings surround the Market Place and hanging baskets swing in the breeze. Shops selling everything from chocolates to telescopes line well-preserved streets and a 13th century parish church soars over the skyline.
Aylsham, according to town clerk Sue Lake, is a beguiling place because "it just doesn't look like other towns".
"Most of the businesses are sole traders, they're not chains or franchises," she said. "Each shop has its individuality instead of looking like a clone of somewhere else."
Lloyd Mills, town council chairman, said Aylsham's medieval layout was part of what made it so special. "You could literally pick up somebody from 1600 and plonk them down it the middle of town today and they would recognise the street layout."
But Aylsham's well-preserved heart is also the source of one of its greatest problems. Its population was stable at around 2,000 for decades before the town underwent a postwar building boom in the 60s and 70s. There has also been another boom driven by three major housing developments - St Michaels, Willow Park and Bure Meadows - in the past 10 years. Now most of Aylsham's roughly 7,000 residents live outside the centre, with easier access to the A-roads out of town than into its historic heart.
The challenge is getting the 'outlying' residents into the centre to keep Aylsham's precious shops, eateries and community spirit thriving.
David Harrison, one of three Broadland district councillors for Aylsham, said the traffic and parking issues could not be under-estimated. "The centre of Aylsham could die if these issues aren't addressed," he said. "It's choking itself to death."
Mr Harrison's district council colleagues, Steve Riley and Sue Catchpole, said better public transport could be one solution.
Mr Riley said: "Could we have a mini park-and-ride on the outskirts of Aylsham with some very small electrical vehicles?
"They could run every 15 minutes, so you would alleviate the chronic issue of parking and attract more people into the town to visit the shops and events and go to the Bure Valley Railway, etc.
"We also want to see more green infrastructure because Marriott's Way is a bit disconnected from the railway."
Mrs Lake said a strong programme of public events was the key to drawing people into the town's heart, and encourage the newer faces to feel they're residents of Aylsham, rather than "somewhere in mid Norfolk".
As well as the agricultural extravaganza that is the Aylsham Show - held at the nearby Blickling Park Estate - the Market Place plays host to an annual street party, pancake breakfast, car show, netball tournament and one of the most spectacular Christmas lights switch-ons in Norfolk.
And that National Trust-owned Market Place, said Mr Mills, has seen something of a re-birth in recent years.
The Grade II-listed town hall has gained new kitchens and can be used for events such as weddings.
The iconic post office at the corner of Hungate Street closed in 2011, but the building has since been converted into Kennedy's Health and Fitness Centre. The long-standing Clarke's Ironmongers, which has been empty for more than six years, is now being transformed into a Italian restaurant with holiday lets above.
Mr Mills said: "It's an amazing place with lovely buildings all around, and we're trying to involve people in what's happening."
Mrs Catchpole said Aylsham was also facing a "demographic squeeze" with an older than average age of 51 as well as a lot of younger families on the new estates, factors which were putting pressure on the town's two doctors' practices and schools.
She said: "It's also earmarked to be a growth town in Broadland.
"It's concerning that the developments go ahead without the infrastructure. I know that's a national thing but it's very real."
Aylsham's neighbourhood plan, which is intended to guide development in the town until 2038, was passed at a public referendum earlier this month with 88pc support.
Poverty is a 'hidden' issue in picturesque town
Not everything is fine and dandy behind Aylsham's picturesque facades and on its new housing estates.
Curate Jack Branford, who is based at the town's parish church along with Revd Canon Andrew Beane, said perceptions of the town did not always match the reality. The town has two food banks - one at the church on Monday mornings and another at Aylsham Children's Centre on Tuesday afternoons.
Mr Branford, 31, said: "It is known as a middle-class, affluent town, but there is hidden poverty. Our food bank regularly gets used, particularly around Christmas and Easter. We have people coming in with all sorts of problems, and the schools have had an increase of pupils coming in from families that are struggling."
On the flip side, Mr Branford said Aylsham gave more to its food banks than any other town in north Norfolk. He said: "Everything we do at the church is well supported. It's a very generous community."
Creating a 'pop-up' youth cafe or encouraging more youth-oriented stalls to join Aylsham's market could improve the town for young people, according to Ally Mitchell and Hannah Morton.
The 15-year-old students, who represent Aylsham High School as its 'friendly face' captains, also said they wold like to see Aylsham become a carbon-neutral town and for more green spaces to be created.
Hannah said: "I've really enjoyed growing up here - it's a very friendly town and so safe. If you drop something on the floor, someone will pick it up and give it back to you - it's that sort of vibe.
"There's a really good range of things to do - there's Tony Tots, Scouts, Brownies, etc. But if the market had more vintage or youth stalls it would be more appealing for younger people."
Ally, who praised Aylsham's strong community spirit, said the pop-up cafe could take place occasionally in the town hall. He said: "There aren't a lot of placed for us to relax after school".
Aylsham: Five fast facts
1. In 2004 Aylsham became the second British town to join Cittaslow, the international network of 'slow towns' which aims to promote local produce and build stronger communities.
2 Aylsham made the top 10 of this year's Best Places to Live list in the Sunday Times, which describe it as a "ruddy-cheeked market town that doesn't stray far from its flat-cap farming roots".
3. Unlike many other centres, Aylsham never had a large-scale fire in the Middle Ages, so the central street layout has remained the same for hundreds of years.
4. There are two historic town centre pubs - the 17th Century Unicorn in Hungate Street and the Black Boys, perched at the top of Market Place. The Black Boys once hosted everything from cock fighting to court hearings, and Horatio Nelson use to attend dances there.
5. Last year Aylsham's parish church launched a mobile phone app allowing parishioners to rate hymns and give feedback about services.
Aylsham issues: What residents think
A strong sense of community and friendly inhabitants are the two most common 'favourite things about Aylsham' according to a online survey conducted by this newspaper.
On the other hand, respondents listed congestion, too much housing and not enough doctors and schools as their least favourite things about the town.
An impressive 75.8pc of respondents said they were proud to live in Aylsham, but fewer - 49.1pc - said they thought the town was 'on the up'.
A slight majority of residents - 53.4pc - said a lack of facilities and opportunities was a driving factor in young people moving away from Aylsham, and slightly more - 58.5pc - said traffic was a 'major issue' for the town.
When asked to choose what the biggest issue facing Aylsham this year was, 'growth of the town' came in top at 28.2pc, closely followed by 'infrastructure' which 24.3pc of respondents selected. Other issues were 'things to do' with 9.7pc, 'availability and quality of jobs' with 9.7pc and 'state of the NHS' with 7.8pc.
Banger bash: Sausage festival's stunning success
It was the best of times, it was the wurst of times.
The Big Norfolk Sausage Bash made a splash on May 12 drawing so many hungry visitors into the town centre vendors actually ran out of sausages.
Jason Gibbons of Coxford's Butchers, one of the event's organisers, said he was thrilled with what is set to become an annual highlight. "We do a lot of events here, and they help put us on the map," said the 26-year-old, who grew up in the town. "Aylsham's got a lot bigger, with lots of new houses, but it hasn't lost the community feel about it."
Mr Gibbons said he was less concerned about parking issues than some people, pointing out that the town had free car parks at The Buttsland, Burgh Road and at the Market Place itself. He said Aylsham was in a great location roughly equidistant from Norwich and the north Norfolk coast.
He said: "It's a brilliant town to both live and work in. It's got brilliant community spirit with some really nice shops."
A booming town: How Aylsham's business can face the future
Aylsham's charm and deep local roots mean its well positioned to fend off the challenges facing other high streets, according to the Aylsham Business and Enterprise Forum chairwoman, Tracy-Ann Moore.
Ms Moore said the town had a "very strong base of suppliers of local produce" and consumers who supported the town's 'slow food' philosophy and could help stave off the effects of online shopping.
She said: "I believe we will see a future trend being more supportive of the rich delights a market place like ours has to offer, whatever your age.
"Our businesses and organisations should consider, where possible, keeping the heritage of the town in this time of growth, moving with the times and using social media and platforms.
"I truly believe that as we move forward with the times, although Aylsham will undoubtedly expand, it will do so with true charm and evolve in a very positive and sustainable way.