Emulate Morpeth? Duchess’s controversial comments draw mixed response from Alnwick

Alnwick traders Matt Allport from the Wild Sheep Company, Steve Bell from Bell and Sons, Lisa Aynsley from Hotspur 1364 and Kirsty Sample and Claire Welsh both from Capella.
Alnwick traders Matt Allport from the Wild Sheep Company, Steve Bell from Bell and Sons, Lisa Aynsley from Hotspur 1364 and Kirsty Sample and Claire Welsh both from Capella.

The Duchess of Northumberland has faced a fierce backlash from Alnwick traders and residents following controversial comments suggesting the town should emulate Morpeth.

But while some of the business people have been left ‘hurt and disgusted’ by her statements, they have said they are prepared to draw a line in the sand and are calling for a meeting with her to create a working relationship for the good of the town.

One of the Cancer Reasearch UK shops in Alnwick

One of the Cancer Reasearch UK shops in Alnwick

It comes on the back of last week’s revelations by the Duchess, who said she was disappointed that Alnwick did not have more ‘quirky, interesting’ gift shops, wanted the town to develop in a similar way to ‘buoyant’ Morpeth and was keen to see an Alnwick hotel catering for the niche, deluxe market.

She also said it was ‘really sad to see Alnwick lined with charity shops’ and was upset by the number of empty shops over the years, although did admit that the town had all the components for individuality.

However, traders have hit back, pointing out that Alnwick is packed with independent stores – especially along Narrowgate – and have described the Duchess’s comments as ill-timed, negative and unhelpful.

During a meeting with the Gazette on Tuesday night, a host of business owners throughout the town urged the Duchess to see for herself the progress that has been made in Alnwick over the last year or so, by visiting individual stores.

The Oxfam charity shop in Alnwick

The Oxfam charity shop in Alnwick

They also want to hold peace talks with her to move forward and work together to further improve the high street.

Karen Scrimshaw, who runs shabby chic, retro and vintage studio Marilyn and Melrose, on Narrowgate, said: “The tone of some of her comments were very damaging to the town. They were not helpful and in her position as the Duchess, she should be the ambassador for Alnwick.

“I would suggest that the Duchess has an open meeting with people in the town so we can see how we can move forward symbolically. Yes, this has been negative, but it is an opportunity for everybody to open up and speak very frankly and hopefully we can come up with some ideas and solutions together. She would be made very welcome and we would like to hear her views.”

Lisa Aynsley, of nearby premium-brand menswear shop Hotspur 1364 endorsed Mrs Scrimshaw’s comments, adding: “I would like to see more joined-up thinking between the Duchess, Northumberland Estates and the traders and more consideration of the impact their actions have.

Jane, Duchess of Northumberland

Jane, Duchess of Northumberland

“To me, it would make sense to set up a team, whereby we don’t just moan about the impact of said actions, but we learn from them and grow together with all parties involved, in order to maximise on trading opportunities, and change thought processes, learning from past mistakes and making the town a better place to live, work and shop. Ideally, this would involve the Duchess herself.”

One of the Duchess’s comments which struck a nerve was the suggestion that Alnwick needed more quirky, interesting shops and her apparent suggestion that Alnwick was living in the shadow of Morpeth.

Julie Robinson, who runs Narrowgate-based Regram Runway, which sells exclusive women’s labels, as well as fashion-accessory store The Emporium, on Bondgate Without, said: “It was an upsetting read, disgusting to be honest. Particularly about the interesting, quirky gift-shop bit. We have got that in Alnwick, more so than Morpeth in that respect.”

Martina Potter, of Grannies eatery on Narrowgate, said that the street has filled up over the last year or so.

She added: “People say our shop is quirky and we get people coming from all over, including Morpeth. Morpeth is great, but Alnwick is great also.

“If she did go about the town, she would see the progress that has been made.”

Another statement which provoked a fierce reaction was the Duchess saying there were too many charity shops in Alnwick. While traders at Tuesday night’s meeting agreed with the sentiment, some said that it was a galling comment, claiming that Northumberland Estates has charged high rental prices in the town over the years, deterring independent traders.

They added that this had previously hindered progress on Narrowgate, before the Estates gave up a number of units along the street.

Traders also pointed out that Morpeth has its fair share of charity shops.

However, the Estates responded by saying that it now owns just six shops in the centre of town, as well as Athey Antiques on the corner by the castle.

An Estates spokeswoman said: “This is a very small proportion of the retail element within the town centre.

“In our experience, the small independent retailers find it difficult to make money anywhere in the UK and Alnwick is no exception. Despite people saying they would like to shop in market/local towns, the reality is they more often than not head for the convenience of a supermarket.

“There is also an issue in towns such as Alnwick in that many of the shops are old buildings, often listed, and not commensurate with a modern retailer’s needs – good, regular shape, with good frontage, easy rear-loading etc. This makes them difficult to manage, expensive to fit out and consequently hard to let. The more regular type of units do let well in Alnwick. One reason why the Estate is investing in sites such as the old Willis garage site is that we are then able to successfully attract popular retail operations such as Aldi and Majestic, which attract people to the town and hopefully everyone benefits.

“I can’t comment on rents in the town charged by other landlords, but as you can see we don’t own enough property to have any sort of monopoly.”

The traders also felt that there was a barrier in the town, with the Duchess, the Castle and Alnwick Castle on one side and traders on the other. They believed more needs to be done at the attractions to plug the town.

Traders said that the 2014 Christmas lights switch-on was an example of the Garden being put before the town centre, when the attraction held a free event immediately after the 7pm switch-on in the Market Place in November. Traders said this hit them hard.

Miss Aynsley said: “On a night where thousands of people turned out in Alnwick to support the Christmas lights switch-on, I saw faces who are not from Alnwick and had driven through specifically to see the wonderful event. It was a super opportunity for the town’s shops, cafés and bars to pick up additional, much-needed trade, many of whom had stayed open late to seize said opportunity.

“What could have been an exceptional late-night trading opportunity was trampled into the ground when all of the people in the Market Square promptly marched along to the Alnwick Garden for its free event scheduled directly after the main town switch-on.

“I firmly believe those are people who would have walked the town to view all of the lights, popping into the local shops browsing and spending, as indeed I myself have done for many years before.

“Scheduling this event on a different night not only would have improved footfall on that specific date but given the traders in town two cracks of the whip.”

Miss Robinson said she doubled her takings by staying open late during the 2013 switch-on, but had only a handful of customers in 2014, as a result of the Garden event.

There was also a feeling that residents need to support local shops and that Alnwick is not alone in some of the problems that its faces.

Steve Bell, of Bondgate Within-based menswear store Bell & Sons, said: “Every town centre is suffering in the same way. We have lost a lot of multiples in the town and you can’t force people to open in the town. But that said, the town is looking pretty good at the moment.”

Mrs Scrimshaw added: “The misconception is that local is expensive, but that is not always the case. Then there is also the case of local shops offering that personal experience and Narrowgate, for instance, is an attractive street.”

The Gazette was told that the Duchess did not wish to comment further following last week’s response.

The Duchess’s comments about Alnwick sparked a huge reaction from our readers on Facebook. Here are a selection of the comments:

Claire Shiels: Whilst I understand the Duchess’ comments in The Gazette this week about how Alnwick should be more like Morpeth, I think she’s taking a blinkered view. More unique boutique/gift shops would be lovely but potential shop owners of course also need to consider demand, disposable income in the town outside of peak tourist season and high business rates - all of which can cripple a shop owner if not researched carefully. The money within and character of Alnwick will always differ from that of Morpeth.

Catherine Nairn: She’s right.

Rachel Smart: An M&S Simply Food is what’s needed!

Mary Rains: A new bus station like Morpeth’s would be a good start, and on the charity shop front, the two towns are running about equal at the moment. Food shopping in Alnwick, in spite of Morpeth’s lovely new Morrisons, is good because there is more choice and it’s about to get better. Sanderson Arcade looks good but the change over in shops there is as bad as Alnwick. I agree that M&S food would do the town a lot of good.

Jenny Watson: Hotel like this fine for the tourist season but what about the local residents. There’s nowt for them. Time the duke and his sidekick did something for the local folk, apart from opening the castle occasionally for free.

Gemma Stonehouse: If she is so passionate about the town of Alnwick why be so negative? As has been said empty shop that are now full were all owned by the duke. How often does she visit the shops and hotels in Alnwick? A poor interview with total disregard for the towns residents and business owners.

Sarah Latimer: Sanderson Arcade may look good but they have had problems with filling the shops and keeping them filled due to the high rates, and why should we be more like Morpeth? Why not look at being more unique than trying to copy? Also, a lot of the villages outside Alnwick no longer have bus services so restricting the people that can visit the town, I think many issues need to be addressed to bring Alnwick up to scratch and I don’t think niche hotels/trying to make it like Morpeth are not the way.

Sarah BakesCakes Hutchinson: I am shocked by her comments to be honest, especially regarding the amount of empty shops. I’ve been looking for premises for years to expand my business and have been so disheartened seeing what the Estates charge for its properties. At one point I even considered Morpeth as it would have been cheaper, even factoring in travel! You want a cute, boutique bijoux town? You encourage, nurture and support the small boutique and bijoux businesses that are in the area.

Quentin Field-Boden: Maybe she has simply sucked too many visitors, too much spending power and too much interest down to her own personal ventures down at her castle. Bit like having out of town shopping centres, they kill the town centres. If someone set up a massive theme park nearby the castle would suffer like hell and I’m sure she he would hate it. However, that’s not likely, they own all the land.

Carl Johnson: Well I’d have to agree! Like it or not we are a ‘tourist town’ and a luxury hotel would greatly benefit the town! Might give the existing ‘hotels’ a nudge to pull their socks up!!

Deryn Jagerbomb Campbell: As a partner of a local Alnwick lass whose family own two speciality businesses – I come and live in Morpeth – I visited Alnwick for around three months and the first problem I encountered was brand-named shops. There was hardly any which straight away made me think I need to shop elsewhere. I think Alnwick is a beautiful town with a long and interesting history and a fully-working castle and gardens that truthfully had never been brought to my attention before which is a shame. Some of the buildings and pubs in Alnwick are beautiful and very traditional. Alnwick shouldn’t be more like Morpeth. It has its own charm and almost a romance about it when as a ‘tourist’ is very compelling. We all take our surroundings for granted because we’re used to them. I do it with Morpeth. Maybe improving your established hotels and pubs, focusing on family events and supporting local businesses could bring more tourists. I love Northumberland and I am very proud to live in this part of the country. Each town should be different with its own appeal. To cut a long opinion short, I believe Alnwick has a lot to offer. Just more advertising and don’t let Morpeth overshadow you – healthy competition never hurt anybody!

Scott Baty: Has she ever been to Morpeth? It’s brilliant if you want to visit a charity shop, estate agent or a coffee shop.....

Blue Bell Hotel Belford: I don’t see Morpeth as anything to aspire to. The high street is dire and there certainly aren’t any ‘boutique’ hotels. A bit of an own goal with this one Duchess, as everything points back to yourself and the Duke.

For more of your responses to the Duchess’s comments, visit the post on our Facebook page.