The Asparagus Trail, Evesham, Worcestershire
PUBLISHED: 11:58 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 15:59 20 February 2013
Despite reports of its demise, the town at the heart of the Asparagus Trail is thriving, says June Sullivan. Pictures by stuart Purfield
When the local paper recently filled its front page with photographs of boarded up shops and declared that Evesham was officially in recession, the local town traders were naturally quite miffed, and so were its residents - me included.
For what the paper had omitted to point out was that some of those shops had been empty long before the current recession had even been a twinkle in the banking world's eye. Many of the shops that have shut recently are the national chains that we all know about - Woolworths and Adams the children's wear shop, for example. The little M & S Simply Food also shut - one of 27 similar shops around the country - and I admit that was a blow, not least because it stocked Worcestershire Life!
What the paper also omitted to mention was that not all of the shops were shutting because of the economic downturn. Cargo, the homewares and furniture store, is shutting its doors after failing to agree a new lease, and a 50 per cent rent increase, with its London-based landlord, according to RuSource, the rural information network. Over the past 15 years the Riverside Shopping Centre in Evesham has never had all of its units filled. Shops come and go, recession or no recession, and one of the factors is high rents in the shopping centre say local traders.
So what is left in Evesham? Well quite a lot actually. What Evesham has always had, and still has, are small independent businesses, often family owned and family run. And the thing about these businesses is that they don't have to kow tow to faceless shareholders. They're run by people who have a vested interest in seeing the business survive not by a board of directors who will shut the place down at the first sign of a downturn because it's not making quite as much money as it used to.
Magpies is a well-known Evesham shop. It's been trading for 30 years, 10 years on the current site, and sells a bewildering range of items - jewellery, antiques, toys, Hornby train sets, toy soldiers, books. You can even buy a reproduction suit of armour or a poker set for your fireplace. Owner Neil Parker says: "We're not doing too bad generally. The jewellery is a bit down but because the shop carries such a wide range of things we're doing alright. We stock Hornby sets and people come from a long way to see us."
The closure of Woolworths in the town has been a mixed blessing. "When Woolworths closed people started coming here to buy toys so we've picked up some trade there. I'd have still liked to have had the Woolworths in the town because it brought people into Evesham - increased the footfall - but other shops are picking up business because it closed.
"We're OK because we have a wide range of different things on sale. I wouldn't want to be too specialised at the moment."
Over at the Evesham Hotel, owner John Jenkinson has seen three or four recessions in his 33 years in the business. He spoke to Worcestershire Life straight after a midweek lunchtime service that had been "completely full - we had to turn people away."
"The business custom hasn't dropped off at all but the leisure side has. I saw the first signs of this last March and I dropped my prices then and that's helped.
"We need a good summer to bring visitors back. We had the floods in 2007 and then last summer was wet so we could do with some good weather.
"The people doing well at the moment are undertakers and civil servants, the rest of us have to try a bit harder. It looks like it has bottomed out here but it's still a bit early to tell."
Another business that has adapted to cope is Ali Foulds Interiors on the Blackminster Business Park near the town. "Since the middle of February the business has grown and grown," says owner Ali Foulds. "It's still a bit down but it's not manic like it was before and that's good because we can spend more time with the customers. We sell everything from a 100 blind to interior design jobs for 20,000 to 30,000.
"We've noticed that people are buying smaller items like cushions which will give a room a new look for less. Mind you, one customer the other day spent 500 on cushions...".
Suppliers are also supportive, says Ali. "They've been affected so they're helping us out with advertising, and display fabrics for the shop - it's important because if a customer sees something beautiful on display they will want it!"
Businesses are having to be inventive to survive. Carol-Ann Ellis and Nigel Pagan own Cobwebs restaurant in Evesham and will be celebrating 10 years in the business in October. "It's slow, there's no doubt about it. Our takings have dropped considerably," says Carol-Ann. "Take Sunday lunches. We used to do 80-90 Sunday lunches but at the moment we're doing 45." The restaurant puts on a three course Sunday roast dinner for 14.50.
"We're doing a lot of specials to bring people in. We're famous for our homemade pies, especially the steak and ale pie. We're doing a two course lunch for 9.95 and we do a pensioner's special which is, for instance, cod, chips and peas with bread and butter and a drink for 4.95.
"We'll be doing our cream teas again this summer and we do homemade cakes. Then when the asparagus is in season we do lots of asparagus specials like the salmon and asparagus with hollandaise sauce.
"We're just hoping that the weather helps us this year. Evesham has got a lot to offer with the park and the river and all the events in the summer."
Just talking to a handful of Evesham's business people has given the impression of a town that is adapting to change, that is ready for whatever the economic climate throws at it and which really needs a nice summer to help it along.