Rachel Price became Town Centre Manager for Sudbury just a few months before the pandemic hit. Ahead of the second Heritage Open Days weekend and a Green Sundays special – she takes the opportunity to wax lyrical about the town she loves!
I came into the role in November 2019 and despite the manifold challenges of the past year or so, it is a role I wholeheartedly embrace – Sudbury is a very special place.
Prior to taking the job, I was working in the cultural and not-for-profit sectors in operations and project management doing everything from marketing, event organisation, fundraising to statistical analysis.
The role of Town Centre Manager is to facilitate the vibrancy of the town, moving with the ever- evolving retail landscape. This involves both short and long-term strategies, keeping up to date on national research impacting town centres, whilst working within the unique issues and opportunities presented to us at a grassroots level as a town council.
Pre-pandemic there was already a seismic shift happening in the way people use town centres. Traditional high street retail was suffering from the convenience of online shopping but, as a result, town centres are taking on a new function as social spaces, what is called the ‘experience economy’ – more cafes, restaurants, salons, gyms, galleries etc – basically anything it is difficult to buy or experience online. In a cruel twist of fate, it is these ‘experience businesses’ that have been hardest hit lately.
To date, my role has been dominated by the challenges of the pandemic and supporting businesses as best we can. This has involved setting up Sudbury’s Virtual High Street during the first lock down in April 2020, shop local campaigns and promoting Sudbury’s wider offer for visitors and residents as we began to re-open our town. Our unique heritage, fantastic range of independent businesses and market, beautiful water meadows, trails and year-round programme of events make Sudbury an excellent place to live, work and play. It’s all here, we just need to get better at shouting about it.
The past year has presented us all with an opportunity to re-evaluate the way we do things. Thinking about where and how we shop, what we eat, reducing our carbon footprint along the way. Thinking more locally and creatively is key to this change – this is why we’re piloting our ‘Green Sundays’ events this year – a celebration of local businesses and organisations who are leading the charge towards a more sustainable way of living.
There hasn’t been a single person, businesses or organisation who hasn’t been impacted by the challenges brought about by the pandemic. When Covid hit, Sudbury’s businesses and community pulled together and responded quickly and creatively. Pubs, restaurants and cafes set up takeaway services, online shops were built, live online shopping events were held. The resilience and innovation of Sudbury’s businesses was and continues to be an inspiration.
As a result of this local innovation, in April 2020 I created Sudbury’s Virtual High Street – designed as a one-stop resource for residents to continue to support local during lockdowns. It was well used with hundreds of weekly online visitors. It was a means to help keep Sudbury connected with the businesses that need our custom. Following investment, the concept of The Virtual High Street has now been rolled out to four other local market towns.
The pandemic has only added to the many challenges facing high street businesses: Brexit and staffing and supply chain issues, a grossly out of date business rate system, slow town centre infrastructural changes and even the weather which can adversely affect footfall. Despite all this, our business owners are passionate, dedicated and extremely hard working.
Sudbury’s Town Centre is comprised of just under 70 per cent independent businesses – well above the national average. It is our independent businesses and organisations that give our high street so much character and their adaptability has meant that the challenges of the past year or so have been fought better by indies than the nationals.
A visitor to Heritage Open Days at the weekend commented on this. They were visiting from a larger town which is dominated by national/global chains and said that where they live they could be on any high street in the UK, but the indies of Sudbury give our town a distinctly unique and characterful feel.
The fate of our town centres lies with all of us. If you don’t shop local, you have absolutely no cause to complain when high street shops close – use it or lose it. I practice what I preach – and I can honestly say that over 90 per cent of my shopping and recreation expenditure goes to Sudbury businesses – I work, socialise, eat and drink, walk and shop here and I never tire of it and I can always get what I need.
With Penny Wilby from thebestofSudbury, we set up the #ShopSudburyPledge earlier this year as a way of sharing and celebrating our Sudbury shopping experiences. It’s a great way to get recommendations and find out what we have on our doorstep!
The #ShopSudburyPledge is a promise made by anyone who wants to be involved to regularly shop and support local. Cumulative small shifts in our consumer behaviour will have a colossal impact for our local businesses. Many of us have recently discovered some of the fantastic local businesses right on our doorstep and this is a pledge to stick with them.
Every £1 spent in our town is worth 400 per cent more to the local economy than £1 spent out of it.
This means more local employment opportunities, better customer experiences for you, a more cohesive community and shopping local is an excellent way to reduce your carbon footprint.
It hasn’t been like some magic switch that has turned back on. Everyone has been shaken by this experience but many of our businesses have worked tirelessly throughout lockdowns and restrictions to stay connected with their customers, promoting their businesses and attracting new regulars along the way.
The doors are open, events are being hosted in the town again and the footfall is slowly returning. It is so nice to see people chatting at the market, shopping, socialising and generally enjoying the town again.
Our businesses often comment on how unpredictable their busy/slow periods are. Pre-pandemic there were always many factors affecting town centre footfall and it is no different now: time of the year, proximity to pay day, holiday season, special events, markets and every Brit’s favourite topic – the weather.
Never underestimate the impact of the weather on footfall. Conversely a warm, sunny weekend can be detrimental (everyone heads for the beach) where a drizzly, grey day can be a positive for the high street (perfect day for a cooked breakfast, roast or doing a spot of shopping).
It’s important we all ‘go out to help out’ – go meet a friend for a pint, try out one of our town’s many pub quizzes, enjoy a meal (we have a restaurant for every taste), enjoy some free live music – we really are spoilt for choice in Sudbury!
Unrelated to Covid, we are also concerned about the number of bus services that have been cut over the years. This is completely contradictory given the national sustainable transport agenda. for some in outlying villages, buses were/are their only means of travelling to Sudbury. Public transport needs to be much more regular, and more affordable if we are all be encouraged to get out of our cars – especially in rural areas.
This year we have twice as many free guided tours, more of Sudbury’s historic buildings have and will be opening their doors and we really wanted to co-ordinate this year’s Heritage Open Days activity in Sudbury. We’ve produced a free map and programme and we have a pop-up information point on Market Hill both weekends – this all helps visitors find everything that is going on.
Sudbury has much to celebrate, and Heritage Open Days is an excellent opportunity to embrace our uniqueness. There are many things that make Sudbury special: our ancient water meadows, diverse townscape, characterful architecture, our industries past and present – Sudbury retains its status as the UK capital of silk! As for our cultural heritage – Thomas Gainsborough, Maggi Hambling, Mark Catesby, Dodie Smith, Adrian Bell and many contemporary artists, designers and writers we should be proud of still work in and are inspired by Sudbury today.
Sudbury often gets overlooked as a visitor destination given it is in such close proximity to towns like Bury and pretty villages like Lavenham. We really shouldn’t be.
Where else can you enjoy picture perfect riverside and ancient water meadows, see kingfishers, egrets, muntjac, herons and our lovely famous grazing cattle and in under five minutes be in a bustling town centre with your pick of cafes, shops, pubs and everything in between? Sudbury also has 242 listed buildings, for a town our size that is one of the highest concentrations in the country. The cherry on the cake is that you can even visit us car-free, we have a wonderfully picturesque train line!
Heritage Open Days is an opportunity for us to really showcase our incredible town, which is steeped in fascinating history and centuries of stories to tell.
It’s a very exciting time for Sudbury, the ambitious Gainsborough’s House re-development project ‘Reviving an Artist’s Birthplace’ is months from completion, due to re-open their doors in Spring next year. St. Peter’s are also now embarking on their own redevelopment project with some very exciting plans for the future – and we continue to welcome new independent businesses to the town and market.
I love the guided town tours. We work with Guide East who have a group of brilliant Blue Badge guides who head off the beaten track to really bring Sudbury’s fascinating past to life. During the Heritage Open Days weekends everything is free – and these tours are the perfect opportunity to delve into over 1000 years of Sudbury’s stories – whether you’ve lived here all your life or it’s your first visit, you’re bound to learn something new.
This weekend, alongside free guided tours, we have Gainsborough’s House pop-up stand on Market Hill with their nomadic Camera Obscura – well worth a visit and an excellent opportunity to find out more about their redevelopment project. We are also embracing the ‘Edible England’ theme with a ‘Taste the World in Sudbury’ event in the Mayor’s Parlour at the Town Hall – this is really to celebrate the incredible culinary diversity and quality on our doorstep. We also have pub crawls through time, kingfisher trails, a tour of Sudbury’s ancient water meadows with the Common Lands Charity and more!
We have a new tour this year ‘Legends & Literature of Sudbury’ which covers the sites and stories of many Sudbury legends from Dickens to Defoe, Dalmations to Dragons.
Unlike Sudbury’s painters of the past the famous writers associated with the town haven’t exactly been enamoured with Sudbury. Dickens modelled his ‘Eatanswill – The Rotten Borough’ on Sudbury in The Pickwick Papers – inspired by the town’s reputation for electoral corruption in the 19th Century.
Daniel Defoe famously wrote of Sudbury:
“I know nothing for which this town is remarkable, except for being very populous and very poor.”
What a charmer!
Author Dodie Smith was much kinder. Smith lived just outside Sudbury for over 60 years and was a familiar sight in the town, frequenting the local shops and market. Her affection for the town is clear in one of her most famous books: 101 Dalmations:
“Just before midnight they came to the market town of Sudbury. Pongo paused as they crossed the bridge over the River Stour. ‘Here we enter Suffolk’ he said, triumphantly. They ran on through the quiet streets of old houses and into the market square…”
Heritage Open Days has a special ‘Edible England’ theme this year and September’s Green Sundays (on Sunday September 19) on Market Hill will feature some bumper harvests from the likes of The Garden Nursey (based in Constitution Hill) and Sudbury Kitchen Garden, selling hyper local organic veg.
We also welcome back Applewood Acres Farm, Soaps and Scrubs, Health Foods for You and Nature’s Temple, two local cycling businesses (Torque Bikes and Spoke & Motor), Eco News and we are excited to welcome Aponic who have pioneered a patented, sustainable urban farming system that uses 90 per cent less water and yet grows 30 per cent faster and gives 30 per cent larger yields compared to traditional growing techniques.
We are also supporting the River Stour Festival’s ’30 days, 30 miles’ campaign this September which encourages us to reduce our food miles by sourcing our food as locally as possible. Green Sundays will be an excellent opportunity to fill your baskets with hyper local produce!
We’ll also be hosting a ‘Corn Exchange Creations’ stand – we’re inviting one and all to flex your creative muscles, help yourself to free drawing materials and be inspired by the magnificent Corn Exchange building (now library). All ages and abilities are welcome to join us.
We are very pleased to announce that our Christmas Light Switch & Fair will be returning to the town on Friday November 26, everyone is welcome and entrance is free. We have rides, a range of stalls, Santa’s Grotto, live music, performers and a huge dose of Christmas cheer.
Sudbury gets a bit over-excited about Christmas! A couple of businesses have already started to get the decorations up…
Last year, we held a virtual Christmas light switch on, the town looked absolutely magical. Over 17,000 people watched our live stream video from all over the world – a former Sudbury resident let us know she was tuning in from Canada!
So, some positives have come from challenges of the past year – and we’ll live stream this year’s switch on again so our friends from across the pond can join in the fun again. If you still don’t feel comfortable at events just yet then you are most welcome to be part of the fun online.
The next Heritage Open Days weekend takes place in Sudbury on Saturday September 18 and Sunday September 19 at various venues throughout Sudbury town centre. Full programme, free event map and guided tour booking at: sudburytowncouncil.co.uk/hods. For the second weekend Sudbury will be embracing this year’s festival theme ‘Edible England’ – from pub crawls through time, our ‘Taste The World in Sudbury’ event, a Green Sundays special and of course, more free guided tours. Visit Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. If anyone is planning a future trip to Sudbury please visit: sudburytowncouncil.co.uk/visit. Or get in touch with friendly Tourist Information team to plan your trip.
Featured image: Rachel Price (left) and Susan Gale (right) at the Pop-up Information Point on Market Hill at last weekend’s Heritage Open Days event in Sudbury. Picture credit: Andy Longhurst