The regeneration of Cirencester
PUBLISHED: 11:34 16 December 2010 | UPDATED: 16:44 20 February 2013
The secret behind the regeneration of Cirencester? The game of polo that brought a property developer to town, says Adam Edward
Making his Mark
It could be argued that the game of polo has added little to life. In fact one can confidently say that investing the GNP of a small town to hit a white ball with a mallet is of less worth to mankind than an X-Factor judge. The only real value of the game to date has been to impoverish some of the richest and idlest in society.
And so it is cheering to be able to report that the colonial game that was born in India in the late 19th century can now, at last, claim a moment of import. It can for the first time boast social success without mention of the word climbing. For it is indirectly responsible for the regeneration of Cirencester.
Polo has brought Mark Booth to the capital of the Cotswolds and he in turn has brought a new prosperity to the town.
I started playing polo regularly in Cirencester Park and it was convenient to buy a weekend cottage nearby, says the corn-fed capitalist who grew up in Worcestershire.
In those days I was based in London but even then I couldnt help noticing that Cirencester looked tired and faded.
Booth, like every other soul living in the picturesque limestone hills a decade ago, was acutely aware that the old Roman capital was no longer the central motif in the Cotswold mosaic. Rather it was the hole in the donut. It was a clapped out shell of a place that had had the goodness sucked out of it by the recently built out-of-town supermarkets Tesco and Waitrose. And while the surrounding countryside continued to prosper with its intake of wealthy weekenders and London downsizers, the town struggled to find a new identity. Charity shops dominated the main street, the hotels catered solely to package tours for poor geriatrics, the flea-pit cinema was bust, the coffee bars and pubs were stuck in the Seventies and the residents seemed to dress predominately in beige.
Booth, a former chartered surveyor who had cut his property teeth buying up potential sites for Sainsburys, decided that this depressing scene was ripe for a makeover.
The businessman already had his own property company called Wildmoor, which he had set up in 1997 and which was developing town centres across the UK, including those of Hull, Brighton and the London Borough of Harringay. And Cirencester fell neatly into that portfolio.
What we do is identify a town where the existing retailers are selling it short, says Booth, who cuts a well-manicured figure in his fashionable rural gilet and designer trainers. We are long term investors that like to take a holistic approach. Any town that stands still is in danger of losing its edge it must be in a position to constantly adapt. And we felt that perhaps we could help Cirencester to adapt.
It was in the 1980s that Cirencester could have gone the way of every other small market town in the UK. There were proposals in the pipeline to develop its centre, in particular what is now the Brewery car park, into a large, anonymous multi-story shopping centre.
It could have been dropped in cheaply, says Mark, who runs his own empire from a modern set of rooms above the towns dusty old WH Smith, the back of which overlooks the Brewery car park. It didnt happen, thank goodness, but it left the town bereft of modern retail facilities.
The town was run-down, he says, but at least it had retained its charm and character. And what it needed was someone to give it substance.
It needed someone to find a way to develop the town as a retail centre but in a far more organic way than simply installing a shopping mall, he says. Of course it would have been far easier to build a mall, but in Cirencesters case one needs to consider both below ground the archaeology and above ground the listed buildings. What was needed was a development that knitted itself into the town.
Booth started buying up buildings in the centre as a long-term project. And his first and most prestigious acquisition was the old Corn Hall in the Market Place and its immediate neighbour, The Kings Head Hotel. The Corn Hall was an interesting project, he says as we chatted in the small glass-sided board room with its empty table, its surface only marred by his state-of-the-art Blackberry. We had a huge dialogue with Cotswold District Council and all the conservation departments and I believe we came up with a solution that was a compromise for both sides. On the whole the CDC is supportive, but it inevitably will raise issues and challenges.
The Corn Hall is now largely completed in terms of the fabric. Wildmoor, which not only develops properties but also likes to manage them afterwards, will continue to run the Hall and Booth says that the challenge now is to find a range of different activities to put on in the evening. He hopes the Hall will become the daily focal point of the town.
His immediately followed the development of the Corn Hall with what he calls the Post Office scheme, which developed the back of the post office and created a new lane that links up Black Jack Street and Swan Yard. It will be completed early on this year. Then in the early summer The Kings Head hotel will open.
Forty or fifty years ago it was the best hotel in the Cotswolds, says Booth. Over the years it faded into a shadow of its former self and nobody knew how to stop the rot. The trouble was it contained a couple of listed buildings within it and the various restrictions on those buildings made it almost impossible to re-develop.
But Booth and his company did find a way around the red tape and now it will become an independent hotel Wildmoor will oversee the running of it with a major restaurant and bar on the ground floor. It will, believes Booth, give the boutique hotels a run for their money. It will be a serious up-market, multi-starred hotel that is fit for a town that considers itself the Capital of the Cotswolds.
It is easy to see Mark Booth and his company as the new squires of Cirencester and I asked him if it was his ambition to be the grandee of the market town.
Not at all, he says. I see our job as pump-priming for the town. I am very excited by what we have achieved here but I am a firm believer in the free market, in giving opportunities to businesses to establish themselves in town. If we feel that we have something to add to a particular property we might add to it to our portfolio, but we dont feel the need to buy up anything for the sake of it.
There is however one further plan in the pipeline the development of the Brewery Car Park. We are in dialogue with the council about it, says Booth who now lives permanently in Chedworth with his family. When you drive into the centre of Cirencester, into the Brewery Car Park, the first impression is still bad. It is the same for lots of towns car parks turn towns inside out. We hope to improve the north side of the car park with quality buildings and we have got support from English Heritage and the CDC.
And, whisper it softly, but that development will also include an arts cinema. Hell, the next thing you know polo players will be wearing oblong spectacles and chattering away about sponsorship by the English National Opera.
CIRENCESTER POST OFFICE SCHEME
The Post Office scheme in Cirencester has dramatically turned the town into a clever network of interlinking shopping lanes and streets.
The key to the development was buying up the old Post Office. That allowed the PO to move its sorting office out to the Love Lane industrial estate, which in turn let Wildmoor develop the back, which opens onto Black Jack Street. The company turned the old retail front of the Post Office into a shop (now occupied by the excellent independent outfitters Jack Russell) and an alleyway with small outlets that now include a sushi bar (Soushi), a childrens shoe shop (Splosh) an upmarket womens clothes shop (Joya), a handbag outlet (Wren & Co) and a specialist chocolate shop (Lick The Spoon).
By the end of this year that alley will link up with Swan Yard, which leads to the Church and the Market Place. This simple idea (although I imagine very complicated to develop) has turned the centre of the town into a linked set of miniature shopping malls. It will need time to bed in, says Mark Booth. But as far as the residents go it is already an unmitigated success.