New panorama forms on Ipswich waterfront

INTERACTIVE When Robert Gough decided to create a four-star hotel on Ipswich's waterfront six years ago, he was told he was “brave”. Now people tell him he's lucky.Mr Gough's conviction that he had chosen the right place has proved right.

Sarah Chambers

The giant cranes soaring above Ipswich Waterfront give an idea of the colossal scale of the change taking place along a once-thriving industrial district which fell into decay. Sarah Chambers looks at the changing face of the site at the heart of the town's regeneration drive, as the results of over £1billion-worth of investment begin to take physical shape.

WHEN Robert Gough decided to create a four-star hotel on Ipswich's waterfront six years ago, he was told he was “brave”.

Now people tell him he's lucky.

Mr Gough's conviction that he had chosen the right place has proved right. In the last few years, Ipswich's ancient waterfront, which can trace its roots back to Anglo-Saxon times, has seen a rapid turnaround in fortunes.

The face of the old wharf, once a jumble of warehousing and industrial buildings of varying degrees of architectural merit, from concrete monstrosities to architectural gems, is now being transformed.

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This year, as the scaffolding and sheets come down, a new waterfront scene, still incomplete but with many gaps filled, will be unveiled.

“It's interesting that when we came down here, a lot of people said: 'Where?' It's an interesting measure in how quickly the Waterfront has changed,” says Mr Gough.

The Waterfront was traditionally dominated by Paul's Malt, for whom it was an important industrial hub. Protected from tidal variations by a lock gate, and bypassed by a canal, the New Cut, which took the river further south, it provided the perfect base for their operations.

Up until this point, the development of the area had been in fits and starts. Italian shipping company Contship led the way 18 years ago with a costly refurbishment of an old industrial building to create its Suffolk headquarters.

But many believe that setting up a marina along the south side of the Waterfront in the 1980s was a key turning point in the history of the site.

Love them or loathe them, the leisure boats lining the quayside added their own ambience to a waterfront scene which was now moving inexorably from industrial to leisure.

Entrepreneur and yachtsman Alan Swann, came up with the idea of a marina for Ipswich, and set up Neptune Marina, which has 150 berths, in 1982. Since then, Associated British Ports (ABP), which now owns the port, has set up its own facility on the opposite side of the water, the 218 berth Ipswich Haven Marina.

In 1988, Neptune Marina sold an area of land by the waterfront to Bellway, paving the way for another important stage in the history of the modern waterfront.

The new Bellway building, reflecting the maritime history of the waterfront, demonstrated that people wanted to live along the waterfront, and at the heart of a constantly-changing and interesting commercial and industrial scene. The building, the first sign of a shift in thinking towards residential development at the site, is admired by Ipswich Society chairman Jack Chapman, who also chairs the Waterfront Partnership.

“The Bellway. That's where it all started,” he says. “Lots of properties were very derelict. They took a chance and put a lot of money into it.”

Its success emboldened others to believe in the site, he says. The area was already blessed with some landmark buildings, able to lend character to the Waterfront, including the Old Custom House, a Victorian building designed using simple, classical principles and described by Mr Chapman as “a real little gem”. Owned by Ipswich Borough Council, it is occupied by ABP.

The Isaac Lord complex, including an ancient merchant's house, also adds to an attractive quayside scene.

Further along the river, changes were also taking place, and the redevelopment in 1998/99 of Felaw Maltings, a pre-World War I building which had fallen into disrepair was another major turning point. The building, now owned by Mars Pension Fund, was revamped with the help of public money and has become a hub for local businesses and organisations, including the Suffolk Chamber of Commerce and Suffolk Development Agency.

As the last of the Paul's waterfront operations wound down at the beginning of the century, it was felt that the shape and feel of these buildings and that of the neighbouring Cranfields millers should be kept, and amalgamated into a new quayside tapestry of homes and businesses.

Piece by piece, a new-look waterfront began to emerge, and history, culture and new architecture has begun to come together into a new whole.

When the decision was taken to make Ipswich Waterfront the heart of a new Suffolk university, the area began to aspire towards becoming an important cultural centre for the town. With the Waterfront set to provide a home for regional dance agency DanceEast and Ipswich theatre company Red Rose Chain with the creation of the DanceHouse and the Witchbottle Theatre, the scene is now set for more cultural and artistic enrichment for the people of Ipswich.

The sweeping transformation of the area is far from complete, and the picture today contains many gaps waiting to be filled, but heading east from Stoke Bridge to the lock gates at the beginning of 2008, a new waterfront scene has begun to emerge.

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