Will the local love last? The word on the street
What does designer Wayne Hemingway, artist David Hockney, a gin palace and a Woolly Mammoth have in common? They're all luring us into one Berkshire town.
If you read Muddy regularly (of course you do, you’re amazing and have excellent taste) you’ll know how bonkers we are about spending our time and money on the very best our locale has to offer. It’s the lifeblood of what we do and we can sniff out a quality pub, restaurant, shop or event out faster than a Bloodhound.
But once the giddiness of freedom passed, are we still posting all the heart emojis for our home towns? Spoiler alert! Absolutely. Not taking any of this for granted, Newbury recently commissioned designer Wayne Hemingway (he of Red or Dead fame) to create a vision for the buzzy, waterside market town. Hemingway’s masterplan is a town centre with more independent businesses (yes please), great use of the canal and a footbridge linking The Wharf and Market Place to bring the community together for events. Tick tick tick. But Wayne, there’s a lot of that going already…
John Lewis and Superdry closed down, Debenhams went bust, Newbury’s shopping centre was looking a bit down on its luck, but Andrew Marmot Parkway Newbury manager says it’s all under control. “It’s actually an exciting time for us. Next has taken over the space previously occupied by John Lewis – deciding to return to the high street as many of the biggest names shift the bulk of their business online. HMV will open later this autumn – one of only 10 HMV stores to return to UK High streets, selling music and film plus limited edition collectibles and local indie Isabel’s Vintage & Retro has also moved in.
“We’re now in out 10th year in Newbury, things have changed and shoppers want a more interesting mix of shopping – they want a greater sense of community and more choice with independents alongside the big names. We’re finding people have spent so much time indoors that they want to come into town. Parkway is outdoors, open and spacious, so it ticks a lot of boxes for anyone a bit worried. So that’s the direction we’re going. We will also continue to host events with Visit Newbury to give people an extra reason to visit.” Don’t miss Dragon School this Halloween, see the Spitfire in the run up to Remembrance Sunday and there will plenty of Christmas fun too.
The Hemingway Report proposed the old Debenhams building become a collective for small businesses to have micro presence on the high street. While they might not have the money to invest in their own shop, a smaller unit could be an option. Parkway are currently considering all options.
SCOFF & QUAFF
Hospitality felt the full force of the pandemic and the shockwaves are still being felt by owners of pubs, restaurants and cafés. No drivers = no deliveries, throw in staff shortages and below average bookings, it’s challenging. But pub owner Warwick Heskins thinks Newbury‘s should be shouting from the rooftops about its social scene. “There’s so much choice. We’ve got Michelin star restaurants and gastropubs, lots of superb pubs – The Globe [winner of Best Bar in the Muddy Awards 2021 Best Bar] and The Lion – for beers [or work your way through the 200+ gins in the Gin Garden at Warwick’s pub The Catherine Wheel], Gurkha Chef is a superb Indian, we’ve got Japanese restaurants like Sushi Maki and Arigato and the Blue Smokehouse is coming soon. I could go on and on. There’s a huge amount of choice.”
Let’s not forget Warwick’s new micropub The Spare Wheel that he opened in the middle of the pandemic. “Madness, you might say. But it has been a huge success and is a nod to Newbury’s past when Northbrook Street was full of microbreweries and pubs. We rotate craft beers, offer beer bites like wings and the love for the place has been amazing.
While customer numbers are still well below pre-Covid levels, there’s a groundswell of support to close the town centre streets to cars to create an al fresco European style hangout that spills on the cobbles of Bartholomew Street and Market Place. “For those people who are still nervous about going out, it gives them the opportunity to have some sense of normal life, enjoy a meal, drink with friends without the constant fear of Covid,” explains Warwick. “Newbury is buzzing when we hold events like the Food & Drink Festival and New Artisan Market. By creating a pedestrianised central area, more people will be drawn to that kind of atmosphere far beyond West Berks.”
Unfortunately, the council are yet to be convinced. Try it? You might like it, we say. Who doesn’t love a rosé, people watching in an historic town? Councillor Muddy votes yes.
THE BUSINESS OF SHOW
If you seek it you will find a town punching well above its weight for quality art and culture. “We’ve always been well serviced with wonderful theatres: the Corn Exchange and The Watermill and Arlington Arts. The success of those has seen success pop up elsewhere,” explains Stephanie Johnson of Muddy Award winning art gallery The Base.
“The Base opened in 2019 and our vision in terms of programming has always been – as long as it is really high quality it can appear.” It’s pretty high when you can secure a Matisse, David Hockney, the prestigious Wildlife Photographer of the Year on repeat. Plus in 2022 you can see the work of pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, an immersive Peter Rabbit exhibition and Decoding Braille Decoding Me by a visually impaired Portsmouth artist. Plus there will be the first ever Festival of Arts and Crafts.
“Whether you’re seeing a show at The Corn Exchange, coming to seen an exhibition at The Base or coming to see the free outdoor events we want to preserve that element of having a nice time. People work really hard for their money and we feel honoured that they want to spend it with us.
“Our aim is to make art and culture accessible to as many people as possible. This summer Newbury hosted free family fun days, craft activities and we include a ‘have a go’ workshop activity alongside every exhibition we put on. It’s really about enriching the local community.” It’s that deliberate synergy that creates the magic. Who needs London? Next month Hockney comes to town, plus there’s the annual lantern parade, top flight comedy and panto. Oh no there isn’t. Oh yes… I’ll get my coat.
Did you know Woolly Mammoths roamed around Thatcham? Or that Giant Hippo was hanging out in Donnington? Oh, and Newbury was home to one of the first cloth factories in the UK? Tis all true. They all form part if West Berkshire Museum’s vast collection. Pop in (it’s totally free) and you’ll discover the history of the town and surrounding villages told through its collection of 100,000 objects. The old slab of bacon cooked in March 1676 to celebrate the double hanging of murderers at Combe Gibbet certainly has the Horrible Histories factor and definitely beats my tin of chickpeas (best before Nov 1999).
The Museum’s Heritage Access Assistant Dawn Sellick tells me that it’s not just about collecting old stuff. “We recently asked for Covid-related donations. We need to collect contemporary stuff to keep a record for the future. We’ve received Norman the knitted teddy bear with his mask on, a bowl and spoon used to clap the NHS on a Thursday night, a map drawn during the many lockdown walks and we’re hoping to get a vial of the Pfizer jab.”
The museum has also archived placards and banners from the Black Lives Matter protest march in Newbury last year. And you can see Jemima Brown’s Peace Camp dolls dotted around in different display cases, celebrating the women of Greenham Common Peace Camp which arrived 40 years ago in 1981.
Far from being a dusty place of historical record, West Berks Museum is in fact a vibrant community hub – with a small café, shop and spaces that open up for kids activities, that are free or cost a couple of quid, get togethers and mum and baby groups. More interactive elements are being added all the time to being the past to life for the young and old. They just need to get to grips with the tech.