Reasons to be cheerful about Ipswich

John Field

John Field - Credit: Archant

Former town centre manager John Field was asked to make some comments as part of the Ipswich Star’s questionnaire survey of our town.

He said: “When undertaking an exercise of this sort, it is essential that we take a fair and balanced view of things. We should never be complacent – there is always room for improvement – nor should we make exaggerated and unfounded claims.

“We have to accept that in Ipswich, as in all places, there are things that could be improved.

“However, as part of this review, I am going to concentrate simply upon the many positive physical aspects of our town as I see them.”

His list of 20 positives about Ipswich are:

1. It has a long and fascinating history, being the oldest continuously-inhabited English town, with over 650 listed buildings – one of the largest concentrations of historic buildings in East Anglia. These include such wonderful examples as Christchurch Mansion, the Ancient House, the Unitarian Meeting House, Isaacs and the large collection of full-blown Victorian buildings, particularly around the Cornhill – a legacy of the town’s wealth during the great period of industrialisation in the 19th. Century. We must not forget, also, our important modern buildings, in which I include Willis’s, an early masterpiece by the world-renowned British architect, Norman Foster, Suffolk County Council’s home - Endeavour House, the Arts Block at UCS and many of the new buildings around the waterfront.

2. Within its town centre, there are 12 Mediaeval churches – one of the largest concentrations of such beautiful and ancient buildings, in one town in the country. These historic buildings have been part of the Ipswich scene for centuries and their gothic architecture and stone and flint towers (one brick-built) enhance many views when strolling around our central streets. They all have important historic features and one of them, St Lawrence, has the oldest ring of 5 bells in the Christian world.

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3. It has a well-preserved historic street pattern, part of which goes back, at least, to the 7th. Century.

4. It has 14 Conservation Areas, which are ‘areas of special architectural or historic interest’, and were designated by the Borough Council because they encompass particularly attractive or historic sections of the town. Their designation gives greater powers in controlling developments and changes affecting these important areas and the buildings and trees they contain.

5. The town has one of the most extensive and beautiful collection of parks of any comparably-sized town in the country, with three - Christchurch, Chantry and Holywells - on English Heritage’s ‘Register of Historic Parks and Gardens’. With Christchurch Park, Ipswich is almost unique in having a 70-acre parkland, with its Tudor Mansion, immediately alongside its historic town centre. The Borough Council’s improvement scheme for the park and its arboreta, undertaken a few years ago with financial support from the Heritage Lottery Fund, greatly upgraded the park and, currently, improvement work is taking place at Holywells Park, again with Heritage Lottery funding.

6. With its many fine parks, open spaces and tree-lined rim, Ipswich is already a ‘green’ town, but considerable effort has been made over many years to increase the number of street trees in the town. Because of the large number of underground services under the town centre’s streets (gas, electricity, water supply, surface drainage, sewage systems, telephones) - all limiting space for planting - it is often impossible to find locations in the town centre where trees can be planted. However, opportunities to plant trees where possible have been taken, particularly in the newly landscaped town spaces, including Arras Square, Curson Plain, Giles Circus, the Old Cattle Market and St Margaret’s Plain, as well as 18 trees in the area around Willis’s office and over 20 trees planted around the UCS Waterfront Building on the dockside.

7. It has an extensive pedestrian-priority area in the town centre. The implementation of this scheme, over a series of phases, has given Ipswich central area a significant traffic-free zone for most of the shopping day. It provides a high-quality and safe environment for people, free of vehicles, in most of our primary shopping streets and is larger than such zones in most other towns of a comparable size in the country.

8. It has had a programme of upgrading the environmental quality and landscaping of the town’s urban spaces including Arras Square, Curson Plain, Giles Circus, the Old Cattle Market and St Margaret’s Plain - all with high quality paving, trees and street furniture. These spaces now form pleasant urban ‘oases’ dotted around the central area. (I would love to see a similar approach taken with St Margaret’s Green, which is a wonderful space on the edge of the town centre, with many historic buildings, including the finest church in Ipswich, bounding it but sorely in need of a high-quality enhancement scheme).

9. It has one of the finest Tourist Information Centres in the country – St. Stephens Church - where tourists to our town can start their visit in a fine historic building, containing many important features, in the heart of the town and close to many visitor attractions.

10. Its shopping centre has a wide range of main stores and a good coverage of the chain and smaller shops. Plans for major upgrading improvements to the town’s two shopping malls - Buttermarket and Tower Ramparts – have been approved. Of course, the complaint about a lack of upmarket ladies clothes shop in the town centres is often heard – I know from experience that it is very difficult to attract such shops and we can only support the Borough Council and Ipswich Central in their endeavours in trying to get more of this type of retail outlet into Ipswich. Support includes, of course, Ipswich and Suffolk people using these shops when they arrive.

11. Although there are some empty shop units in the town centre, we must note that this is happening in all towns and cities throughout the country (and abroad) – in fact, our occupancy rate is slightly better than the average for the country as a whole.

A current vote of confidence in Ipswich town centre retailing has been Tesco’s recent decision to carry on with the conversion of the old Croydon’s building in Tavern Street to a food outlet. This is despite announcing, at the same time, the closure of nearly 50 of their shops country-wide and the cancelling of over 40 other proposed outlets, due to difficult trading conditions nationally. (Not many years ago, I remember the public concern that most food shops in the town centre had disappeared. By contrast, today we now have a wide range of such outlets in the centre and I welcome Tesco’s addition as part of the town centre fight-back against the domination of out-of-town retail giants. I share, however, the Conservation and Design Panel’s and Ipswich Society’s concern that the company, in undertaking the necessary construction works, must respect the historic nature of this building and its attractive interior features, such as the staircase, panelling and decorative plaster work).

12. The impressive rejuvenation of St Nicholas Street and St Peters Street, in terms of retailing in recent years, with their wonderful medley of small individual shops and restaurants, has given the area a very special ‘character’. I feel that the upgrading of this area is particularly welcome as it adds not only a special dimension to the Ipswich shopping ‘offer’ but also provides a strong and attractive link between the town centre and the increasingly important and successful regeneration of the Wet Dock area.

13. It has three major museums/visitor attractions - Christchurch Mansion, the High Street Museum and the Ipswich Transport Museum, in addition to a number of smaller museums and attractions. The Mansion, set in its historic monastic parkland, is a fine Tudor building with period rooms and the biggest collection of Thomas Gainsborough and John Constable paintings outside London. Regarding the High Street Museum, the Borough Council has recently announced plans for major improvements and extensions, which are expected to form a basis for an application for significant grant aid from the Heritage Lottery Fund, and which, when implemented, would greatly enhance the visitor’s experience. The Ipswich Transport Museum has the largest collection of transport items in Britain devoted to just one town – everything was either made or used in and around Ipswich. Together these three major attractions form an important force in attracting tourists and visitors to our town as well as being important venues for local people.

14. It is becoming a major cultural and entertainment centre, with a good range of theatres and other venues including the New Wolsey, the Wolsey Studio, Red Rose , and the John Mills Theatre, all located in the town. The Borough Council’s Regent Theatre has the largest auditorium in East Anglia, having a seating capacity of more than 1, 500 and attracts a wide range of national acts and shows.

The Corn Exchange, in the centre of town, is one of East Anglia’s most prestigious venues, hosting big name comedians, live music, theatre shows, dinner dances and balls.

The Cineworld cinema, in Cardinal Park, has 11 screens with seating for up to 500 people, and the highly successful Ipswich Film Theatre, close to the Cornhill, contains two screens. St Peter’s on the Waterfront, in St Peter’s mediaeval church, has become a major centre for music and another of the town’s redundant churches, St Clement, close to the waterfront, is currently being considered for future use as an Ipswich Arts Centre, designed to attract a wide range of activities.

15. It has become home to a wide range of festivals and other similar activities during the year, including Ip-Art, Music in the Park, the Spill Festival, the Pulse Festival, the Ipswich Maritime Festival, the Ipswich Beer Festival, the scouts’ Fireworks display in Christchurch Park, the occasional crafts market in the ‘Saints’ area and various special markets in the town centre and on the waterfront quayside. Together, these provide an exciting and very varied programme of activities taking place in the town through the year, which adds greatly to the vitality of the town both for local townspeople and visitors.

16. An independent agency, recently appointed to advise Suffolk and Norfolk County Councils on how to attract more tourists to the region, has stated that Ipswich’s role in attracting cultural visitors to the region is crucial and stated that ‘the growth in cultural events at Suffolk’s county town was ‘quite extraordinary’” . It added that Ipswich has seen an explosion in cultural events over the last few years and it is now starting to be noticed on the arts scene.

17. The recent changes we have seen in our historic waterfronts in the Victorian Wet Dock area are part of the largest and most exciting regeneration scheme on the East Coast, between the Thames and Humber estuaries. Recent years have seen the restoration of a number of historic buildings, the construction of many fine new buildings and the introduction of a wide range of important uses, giving the area a strong vibrant character and creating a truly exciting environment. It is important to note that, at a time when the national economic situation continues to be difficult, the Dock area is still seeing substantial investment:

Work is nearing completion on the 386 new homes at the Stoke Quays development, which will enjoy wonderful views over our historic waterfront.

Work has just started on the next stage of the highly-successful Isaacs’ complex, with a new construction fronting the quayside designed to house another restaurant area.

Work is underway on the new American Diner restaurant near the Old Custom House.

A gym is due to open shortly in the Regatta Quay development.

Restoration and extension work in underway, by Suffolk Mind, on St. Mary at the Quay mediaeval church, aimed at creating a Wellbeing Heritage Centre for everyone in the community.

Ground work on a new surface car park and pedestrian walkway at the rear of Regatta Quay is nearing completion.

It has just been announced that work will re-commence, in the Spring, on one of the casualties of the recent economic downturn – the ‘Wine Rack’ . (It will be a great relief - not only to the owners - to see this building finally completed, as will be the outstanding repairs to the nearby ‘Mill’ building, following the storm damage).

The Borough Council has made it known that it wishes to facilitate the redevelopment of the large vacant site and associated buildings near Stoke Bridge, fronting St Peter’s Wharf, for appropriate uses. It is particularly important for this site to be developed as it will form the essential gateway ‘link’ between the long-established town centre, via the ‘Saints’, and the huge investment, undertaken in recent years, in the Wet Dock area.

18. The investment in the Wet Dock area is helping to put Ipswich firmly ‘on the map’ (a wonderful aerial view of it is one of the images regularly used to promote one of our regional television news programme). Important uses which have settled there include DanceEast – which houses the East of England’s regional dance centre - two large and successful marinas, a wide range of restaurants and bars, a large number of new apartment enjoying the maritime character of the area but only a stone’s throw from the town centre facilities, offices, two major centres of learning and three new hotels. This exciting mix of uses and activities has resulted in a highly vibrant environment, adding greatly to the overall interest and attractions of Ipswich as a place to live, work and visit.

19. The two centres of learning, Suffolk New College and University Campus Suffolk, situated in the Wet Dock area, together provide for several thousand full-time and part-time students. The presence of so many young and active minds, concentrated in the area, is likely to add greatly to the vibrant and varied character being developed on the waterfront. Further proposals for these two educational facilities will gradually increase these student numbers. (Who would have imaged, 10 years ago, that Ipswich would become home to over 420 students attending STEM courses (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) at university level, with the possibility of this number increasing following recent additional funding from the Higher Education Funding Council for England?)

20. It is the county town of Suffolk. The county has two basic major roles – it is an integral part of an important agricultural region and, with its long coastline, it also has a strong maritime and sea-going tradition. Throughout its history, Ipswich has combined these two aspects of the county’s life, with one part looking towards the surrounding agricultural hinterland and the other looking outwards towards the sea and the wider world. This duality of purpose has resulted in the town’s physical structure, with one sector centred upon the Cornhill and the other main shopping streets and the other focussed upon the 17 acres of water forming the Wet Dock. Having these two separate sectors, each with its own strong character, lends an extra and interesting dimension to our central area, which we should safeguard. Although there are already strong links between these two sectors there is a need to plan for further integration and linkages.

Before finishing, I feel that due to the considerable public debate, it would be wrong not to mention the current road works being undertaken by the County Council, which are designed to improve traffic conditions in Ipswich. It is always the case that extensive road works such as these, affecting almost every major junction in the town centre and elsewhere, will, unfortunately, cause a high level of disruption in any town during the construction period. We can only hope that the proposed improvements, with linked traffic lights and a computer controlled urban traffic management and control system (UTMC) and better provision for pedestrians and cyclists, etc. will be, once completed, worthwhile and effective in facilitating better traffic movement for all users.

In this listing of positives I have limited myself only to Ipswich itself, and not mentioned the fact that the town is set within an attractive rural area of historic market and wool towns, villages and hamlets and placid countryside, and that it has the designated Suffolk Heritage Coastline, the Suffolk Coast and Heaths Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and one of the prettiest estuaries in England, on its doorstep.

Finally, although, as I said earlier, there is always room for improvement in any town, and Ipswich is no exception, I strongly believe that the points listed above give us Ipswich people full justification for being immensely proud of the place.

John Field

Chartered Town Planner and Landscape Architect

Chairman, Ipswich Conservation and Design Panel

Chairman, Ipswich Heritage Forum

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