To let: one market town

Traders fear superstores are killing places such as Ludlow, reports Cal McCrystal
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THE medieval town of Ludlow is slowly dying, victim of a decline in similar market towns across the country. Many shops have already closed, due partly to recession but also to an out-of-town shopping centre which has drawn trade away from the centres of both Ludlow and Leominster, 12 miles to the south. More than 30 Ludlow businesses are up for sale. But worse is to follow: plans to build a Tesco within Ludlow will, local traders say, "kill the town".

The slow death of Ludlow takes on added poignancy when one reflects on those who have sung its praises. A E Housman's poetry, especially A Shropshire Lad, made the town world- famous. "Or come you home on Monday/When Ludlow market hums/And Ludlow chimes are playing/`The Conquering hero comes'. . . ." Anthony Howard, Ludlow resident and former New Statesman editor, encourages his weekend guests to play these chimes also. Last year, one of them, Simon Jenkins, wrote in the Times: "Ludlow is the finest town in England. I brook no argument . . . Ludlow bustles about its business, lovely as ever." Seven months earlier, another Howard guest, Paul Johnson, gushed in the Sunday Times about "the most agreeable and civilised" town in England, whose "self-conscious, self-confident and self-respecting middle class . . . do not moan about the state of their country".

Mr Howard's present job is obituaries editor of the Times. Ludlow's middle class is suddenly moaning with a vengeance. Words such as "doom" and "decimation" fill the air. Is the town ready for its obit?

According to a survey carried out for the Department of the Environment, nearly three-quarters of Britain's market towns are stagnant or in decline. The survey showed only 3 per cent thriving. The current issue of Country Homes and Interiors has an article blaming local authorities for "closing down our high streets".

In Ludlow's High Street last week, optimism was hard to find. Michael Evans, an estate agent and member of Ludlow Civic Society, ticked off casualties: "City of Rome dress shop, Hodge's men's outfitters, Curry's, Dewhurst, a paint shop, an off-licence, a DIY, two fruit and vegetable shops, a craft shop. There are three empty premises in Valentine's Walk."

Of the hundred-odd commercial premises in Ludlow, a market town since the 12th century, more than 30 are up for sale. To Mr Evans and others in the Civic Society, Housman's chimes have become a "death knell".

Ludlow (pop. 8,745) is hemmed by the rivers Teme and Corve, and dominated by the ruins of a Norman castle - once headquarters of the Council of the Marches, which ruled Wales and five border counties in the 16th and 17th centuries. Lawyers and "kingsmen" lived in the town's grand houses, one of which is now the timber-framed Feathers Inn.

Down the street from the Feathers is the former livestock market. Last week, men with blowtorches were dismantling the metal pens and clearing the site. The livestock market has been moved a mile-and-a-half out of town. The old site, bought by the district council for £1.7m, is earmarked for a Tesco. To many Ludlow citizens, the cattle slurry is more appetising.

"Hardly any farmers' wives come into Ludlow any more," said Cynthia Scott, who sells "traditional jewellery". The population "gets older and older", with no facilities for the young.

"The small specialty shops will suffer," said John Mackley, who runs the Batterie du Cuisine on High Street. He moved from London six years ago and fears he will be forced to move again.

A large number of Tesco-resisters are "incomers", who saw in Ludlow and its catchment area attractions that prompted county families to have town houses there down the centuries.

Edward V and his brother the Duke of York (later murdered in the Tower of London) spent most of their boyhood in Ludlow. The Princess of Wales sometimes retreats to nearby Gateley Park. Her estranged husband has also been seen in the neighbourhood. George Melly has a home in the vicinity. So had the late John Osborne. Julian Critchley, Tory MP for Aldershot, lives in Mill Street.The town's attractions have been its history, its architecture and its general air of refinement.

Like Mr Mackley, Mr Evans is an incomer. So are Peter Hadley, who runs an antiquarian bookshop, Brian McKibben, publicity officer of the Civic Society, and Stanley Jones, proprietor of Broad Bean wholefoods. They worry about "new" criminal activities, such as last Sunday's ram-raiding of Teme Valley Antique Jewellers and the almost weekly theft of cars from Mill Street. "The increase in crime has occurred in the last two years," Mr Jones said. "It's all part of 17 years of Thatcherism and market forces."

It is surprising to find Conservative voters so bitter about "the party of law and order" and its creed. Ludlow seems law-abiding and orderly to the visitor. But the upheaval anticipated from Tesco's arrival has focused the middle class on a wider sense of malaise. There is an indigenous working class in Ludlow, hard-hit recently when a trouser factory and a chicken processor left, taking hundreds of jobs. However, "we incomers are more active", Mr Evans said. "The local people tend to take things as they come."

Consequently, some locals don't mind the idea of a Tesco, particularly as it will be in town. Others, such as the barber who cut farmers' hair at the old market, is happily snipping away at the new one. But Osmond Edwards, whose family has owned the Feathers since 1947, is downcast over an erosion of business.

"There used to be two-day race meetings which encouraged people to stay the night," he said. "Apart from that, travel lodges have sprung up on the edge of town. We've been left high and dry."

Two years ago, the Secretary of State for the Environment, John Gummer, turned down a developer's application for a shopping centre on a by-pass outside Ludlow on the grounds that a similiar by-pass shopping centre had deadened the heart of Leominster. Yet the idea of an "in-town" supermarket is no less controversial. Ludlow's objectors to the Tesco believe it would "change the existing polarity" of the town (by driving shoppers from the upper part of town to the lower).

"Most of the chamber of commerce are against the supermarket," said Brian McKibben. "We believe it could kill the town. Visitors like to come here to gawp at the blue Civic Trust plaques and interest themselves in our niche retailing which is part of the town's vitality."

Ludlow's fledgling Green Party agrees. Last week, having carried out a survey of local food shops, it predicted devastation if Tesco came to town. It said that "in the most likely scenario, a 44 per cent reduction [in turnover], . . . 82 per cent of businesses would be closed".

When Stanley Jones moved to Ludlow from Birmingham 17 years ago, "it was as nice a place as any in the UK. Look at the centre now. You will see six or seven charity shops in premises that went bust. I have not heard anyone come up with a solution, even though the Government seems to be worrying about it at last. But I feel we are doomed."