Ipswich has all the potential to become a magnet for business, creative people and visitors alike. Unbelievably friendly, enthusiastic and welcoming, the town could be a model for how city hubs of the future develop and has a strong possibility of turning into a mini-London.
Setting The Scene
My only previous visit to Ipswich was a brief stop off in a fairly disappointing shopping centre to buy a birthday present several years ago, so my expectations were not high. What I encountered blew me away in all honesty. Even with the weather turning wet and cold, it was still possible to feel a positive energy around the streets.
Ipswich (/ˈɪpswɪtʃ/ (listen)) is a historical county town in Suffolk, England, located in East Anglia about 66 miles (106 km) north east of London. The town has been continuously occupied since the Saxon period, and its port has been one of England’s most important for the whole of its history. The modern name is derived from the medieval name Gippeswichttps://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ipswich
Heading To Ipswich
I decided to leave Brook and take train into Ipswich, as I heard parking can sometimes be difficult for larger vehicles. A warm sunny spring morning, the intriguing mud flats sparkle in the sunlight before the landscape turns into countryside straight from a Constable painting.
The train enters Ipswich suburbs passing featureless new build box houses, which curse Essex and other places with poor construction and messy pointing, before entering the somewhat magical Stoke Tunnel. On the other side is a surprisingly large Victorian station, with diesel fumes and smell of recently painted iron girders bringing back not unpleasant childhood memories of train stations.
Exiting through a well designed ticket office and foyer, travellers are greeted by an expansive space that restricts vehicles to drop off/pick up only, providing a sense of openness and order as a first impression. Turning right, I walk up a number of streets with impressive grand houses, many with expensive cars parked in the ample driveways. Besides the odd mother with baby in pram or student, the streets were deserted of pedestrians, although the traffic flow remained constant. Speaking with one local lady I hear that this is the ‘poshest part of the town’. Having walked a big loop I note a large number of houses closer to the station are multi-tenanted, probably bedsits, mostly in poor repair.
Opposite the station there is a well designed broad stone Victorian bridge crossing the river Orwell. The river banks immediately reminded me of the change that has been taking place in east London since before the 2012 Olympics, with empty space, temporary carparks, overgrown river banks and retail park sheds providing all the hallmarks of a regeneration programme.
Conversion of old warehousing into modern and well designed (from what can be observed) office space is already underway. A collection of new, interestingly designed, council offices run the length of one street attempting a boulevard feel. I ask a few local people their view of these buildings, there is generally a mute response, not negative, just a kind of I have not really thought much about the design.
A lady in cafe opposite did make a keen observation that one council building could make a very lovely Spanish boutique hotel – before following up with “but were not in Spain!” Another quickly became animated and annoyed about the new square outside the old Town Hall, which was fun to listen to, more on this below.
The sky was turning deeper grey and wind rising, attention moved towards reaching the waterfront area before the rain. My first big surprise was noting that Jerwood DanceHouse was situated on the quayside and has become home for the impressive DanceEast company for more than 10 years – how did I not know this?!
Vicky on reception, born locally and trained as a performer at Royal Holloway, provided an in-depth history of the building, how it was conceived, built and is used. Her knowledge and enthusiasm was contagious, and she was not exaggerating when speaking so glowingly of the studios and public spaces. Jerwood DanceHouse is a magnificent example of public arts building. Although the building design is fairly municipal in many senses, kind of architecture seen in small hospitals, it is well built and finished and there is an energy throughout. The design of everything, the typography, the bar area, the music choice in the cafe area are all first rate. Lighting, sound and general ambience is as close to perfect as such as space can probably reach. This is a real triumph and it clearly impacts those working, who seem relaxed, happy and engaged.
Dance studio prices are very reasonable, especially for such high quality. One dancer told me, almost in slight disbelief how wonderful the floors and natural light were and ‘the whole building is just amazing’. Vicky outlined the importance of outreach work and how the theatre has become vital to productions by local schools lacking theatre facilities in-house. She confirmed there remains issues getting people not familiar with the arts over the threshold, yet she has noticed a big change in recent years with many people previously disengaged now visiting.
As if to demonstrate this point, the DanceHouse Whistler Gallery has a group exhibition, expertly hung as would be expected in a building with Jerwood on the front, with some captivating work. It was only after returning to reception did I become aware that most of 30 artists had no art experience since leaving school and are full time family carers. An interesting exhibition with a number of pieces that could easily sell suddenly became a Great Show! Curated by Oyster Press CIC with support from Suffolk County Council and others.
Next door to Jerwood DanceHouse is yet another unique kind of space, La Tour Cycle Cafe, which doubles as the Home Hub, a large windowless warehouse, which also provides meals for homeless people a few time a week.
Loni (far left) immediately engaged me on entering and gave a glowing review of Anna Matthews and the cafe, where it originated and all the great work the boss has done to make the place work. With a wide selection of cakes and food, plenty of comfy seating, art on the wall it quickly became apparent this is a place where some of Ipswich’s bohemian community hang out. With occasional fundraisers to support homeless people and customers just busking inside, the space has a real hub feel that has the community at it’s very core.
The tasteful dockside, with new apartments above a mix of independent and chain restaurants and cafes on one side and large yachts docked on the other leads to Suffolk university. The university campus comprises of a number of new buildings of mediocre design. The college clearly places emphasis on ideas and possibilities, with some catchy straplines including ‘Every change begins with a vision’ – which also provides a theme for a new blog post!
The rain was now pouring and cold so a sharp turn towards the town centre was attempted. This was quickly curtailed as the new road surfaces were not adequately draining and a stream of rain water was splashing across the pavement from passing vehicles, making walking impossible.
Fortunately, Out Of Time Records second-hand vinyl store was happened upon and where I met owner Chris Mortimer sitting behind the desk. Chris gave a good overview of the changes that have taken place in Ipswich over the 30 years his shop has been in business, yet he is concerned about the amount of empty retail premises and is fearful for young people starting out. Listen (6mins) to Chris discussing Ipswich here.
Having spent 2 hours writing notes, having lunch and sheltering from the rain, I took a stroll along the old high street towards the old Town Hall and Post Office buildings.
The streets were quiet of pedestrians and traffic, not surprising on what was now a cold, damp late Tuesday afternoon. The few cars parked were noticeable for mostly having their engines idling, pumping out pungent exhaust fumes while drivers sat texting. Although much larger than a typical idyllic English village, the streets did have a charm and sense of village cum community. The numbers of empty shops were not as high as I was expecting after speaking with Chris, and the general feel was of care, investment and pride.
A large street cleansing team were in action, being the end of the day, and clearly Ipswich borough council have clean environment as a priority with a dedicated sweeper vehicle and a prominent marketing campaign called Digby | Love Your Street.
My final stop was a square where some public art and fountain has been placed outside the stunning old Town Hall and Post Office. The art had a consultancy feel to it, designed through community workshops using post-it notes, unlike the rest of city I had seen up until that point, which felt much more organic and considered. A middle-aged lady, knowledgeable on architecture and with strong opinions, whom I had spoken about the new council offices earlier in the day, was scathing of this new square. She said it was a space ‘only fit for eating kebabs and doughnuts, and the grease from both stain stone so its goin’ to need jet washing all of the time’. Having now seen the square, I think she is probably right.
Arriving with very little expectation on my first Haphazard trip I spent the day blown away by who I met and what I saw.
Ipswich is an exceptionally friendly place, every person I met was open, welcoming and willing to chat about the town they live or work in. It was an uplifting experience and provided much to think and write about. The town has an ordered and thought through appeal. Wide roads give a sense of space, without the duel carriageway sensation that too many English towns suffer. Pedestrians seem to have at least equal priority in Ipswich and the pollution levels felt much lower to other urban places visited.
I will look to revisit Ipswich and will seek to learn more about it over coming weeks and follow up with new blog posts. I am already recommending it to all my friends to visit.
If you live, work or visit Ipswich I would love to read any comments below about this article or the town.
All photos by John McKiernan