Brian Viner: What has befallen our market towns?

The fate of places like Leominster should be a source of national shame

If ever there was an advertising campaign that got its message across too late, it was the one inviting us to appreciate the wonder of Woolworths. Woolies never seemed so wondrous as it does now that it has closed, now that we can all see the impact on our towns and cities, with dispiritingly empty shops where for decades there were thriving businesses.

Similarly dispiriting has been the media coverage of the demise of this commercial and indeed cultural behemoth, with every television news reporter issuing an obituary from an otherwise bustling high street in a city or large town.

Excuse me, but what about us out in the sticks? It is the small market towns of Britain where branches of Woolworth's are missed most, where staff redundancies cause the greatest pain, and where the retailing slump is biting hardest.

Take the market square in Leominster, as in fact the recession has. Leominster is the small north Herefordshire town where I do most of my shopping. In less than two years the market square has lost its most dominant enterprise, the post office, and now its largest retailer, Woolworths. In the surrounding streets, To Let signs are multiplying like rabbits, circumstances replicated in market towns across Britain.

Some market towns are better able than others to deal with this rapidly deteriorating situation. I have some friends who live in a Staffordshire town of roughly the same size as Leominster, who come here and marvel at the civic pride and general air of cheerfulness. In their own town, they say, there is a more tangible malaise.

This is not unconnected with the long-term reliance on one big light-industrial employer, which has recently laid off several hundred local people. But even before the recession bit, my friends liked to insist that places have personalities no less than people, and that their town was of a gloomy, rather lethargic disposition, only too happy to see its pubs taken over by characterless chains and unable even to sustain an amateur dramatic society.

Britain's small towns need sparky personalities now more than ever. Happily, Leominster seems to be made of the right stuff, perhaps because its fortunes have oscillated dramatically since they hit an all-time peak in about 1380.

The town will get over the relocation of the post office to the back of a newsagent's, and the closure of Woolies, much as it got over the occasional outbreak of cholera, the burning of heretics, and the steep socio-economic decline in the immediate wake of the Industrial Revolution. But it really shouldn't have to.

It is shameful that in 21st-century Britain a settlement of more than 10,000 people should lose a dedicated post office and the nearest thing it had to a department store. Obviously, we must all bow to financial imperatives. But must we bow with quite such weary resignation?

When Leominster's swimming-pool was abruptly closed on health and safety grounds a few years ago, a defiant band of townsfolk set about raising the money to have it rebuilt. Two years ago, their tireless efforts were rewarded.

I'm not suggesting that they, and admirable people like them, should re-open as co-operatives some of the closed retail premises in our market towns, but then again, why not? Napoleon was being disparaging when he called us a nation of shopkeepers. Unwittingly he was acknowledging one of our greatest strengths. But we can't be a nation of shopkeepers without shops.