Griff's tour of historic Ipswich!

By Rebecca SheppardIT is easy to lose your bearings when you're being led on a tour of Ipswich with the comedian Griff Rhys Jones.If you are not scurrying to catch up with him as he strolls out to the next place he wants to point out, or imagining his vision of better road planning, then you are gazing up at buildings while he talks enthusiastically of the town's heritage.

By Rebecca Sheppard

IT is easy to lose your bearings when you're being led on a tour of Ipswich with the comedian Griff Rhys Jones.

If you are not scurrying to catch up with him as he strolls out to the next place he wants to point out, or imagining his vision of better road planning, then you are gazing up at buildings while he talks enthusiastically of the town's heritage.

The pace is often halted as we walk around Ipswich's town centre as Griff stops abruptly, with hands on hips to passionately point out the problem.


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However, there is often a modest shrug of the shoulders accompanied with an aside of "in my opinion" and "my money's on" or "I think, for what it's worth".

But it is clear that his opinion is worth listening to.

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As the presenter of the surprise-hit series Restoration, which sees 21 buildings in dire need of repair battle it out for the public vote and the millions of pounds needed to preserve them, he has made us think more about our heritage and our surroundings.

And this is what has brought Griff to Ipswich on Saturday - to put the record straight about what he thinks about Suffolk.

Griff, who has restored a number of buildings himself, has lived in a village near Ipswich for 20 years and has spent a further 20 years visiting the county.

He said: "The reason I moved there is that I love all the rivers of Suffolk. I love the Stour, the Orwell and the Deben and I used to go sailing on them as a kid.

"It's beautiful. When I had a bit of money after Not the Nine O'Clock News, the first thing I wanted to do was to buy a house in Suffolk.

"I love Suffolk people and I adore Suffolk. I have chosen to live here. I am astonished to say that living in Suffolk I spent every spare moment coming up here and I hadn't seen many of the places and towns I visited as part of Restoration."

Griff's seemingly boundless passion for heritage is born from looking around towns with friends and family and questioning what was happening. "All I am urging is that people should care," he said.

His big worry is that the Government has moved to free up the planning permission needed for supermarkets and big stores in towns like Ipswich.

Griff said that, with more supermarkets and big stores moving out to the large retail units to have greater efficiencies, councils panic and think the only way to bring back the liveliness of their town is to authorise demolition and more supermarkets and shopping centres in the centre of towns.

That then leads to bigger roads being allowed so that people can get into the middle of the towns, and the accompanying car parks.

Griff said: "I always used to say that when you go around Britain you go to a lot of towns which in some point in the 70s were wrecked because they ripped out the heart of the town and put in a lot of shopping centres.

"I always used to say 'Well, the great thing about Ipswich is that somehow Ipswich is a sleepy town and they didn't do that'.

"They seemed to have missed the opportunity to do that, so, I said, the town is in a great position to go forward into the 21st Century with its medieval street pattern and no great motorways running through.

"Then in the 90s they seemed to give the indication that they were going to try to do it themselves."

Turning his sights on the county town, which is seeped in 1,400 years of history, not only leads Griff to consider the preservation of historic buildings, but the character of Ipswich and how it fits together.

He said: "Ipswich was known in the 17th Century as paradise as it was such a beautiful town. It's not really paradise anymore, but it could be because of its location at the top of the river."

Griff's big quibble with the town is that it seems very "car-orientated", particularly with the ring road of Star Lane and its derelict car parks.

"I don't know what they are trying to plan down here, but whatever it is doesn't seem to quite work because they have run a huge ring road right the way through the centre of town," he said.

Griff felt the ring road was just acting as a short cut for people wanting to cross from the north to the west of Ipswich or vice-versa.

"Of course I want to see cars in the centre of Ipswich coming in, but on a cul-de-sac basis. This is a fast route," he said.

"They have got the pedestrian area up there and that's where they want everyone to go. What they are doing is they are trying to get everyone to drive there and what you end up with is motorcyclists and cars charging through."

While Griff welcomed the development of the semi-industrial Waterfront area with plans for a dance centre and loft conversions, saying it was a great opportunity, he questioned whether people would want to walk or take their children there across the busy ring road.

He was also concerned that the loft conversions could become "slightly unpalatable homes" with the traffic zooming by.

But Griff's problem with the ring road goes far beyond noise and rushing traffic, which could be solved with a congestion charge, as in London, as well as the park-and-ride schemes.

For the road system also splits Ipswich. The bustling town centre is on one side and the regenerated Waterfront on the other, with its attractive wet dock and luxury apartments. In the middle, the casualties of the ring road are the medieval churches.

He said: "So you've got these beautiful churches, which were once at the centre of Ipswich, the whole thing of Ipswich, that have now become roundabouts, nobody uses them.

"I know that they will say that nobody wants to use them, but nobody wants to use them because, listen to the traffic charging across here. You couldn't live here as long as this is dominated by road surface engineers."

And there lay the roots of another problem that Griff enthusiastically wanted to point out. The plans for a sculpture of six churches to mark the lost city of Dunwich for the East of England Development Agency's Landmark East.

Griff said: "I do not think Dunwich needs these sculptures at all. The point about the Angel of the North is that it's in Gateshead and it is quite rundown and the angel lifts up the region.

"Dunwich is already a fantastic, spiritual place. It's like gilding a lily. They should be more careful about adding something to somewhere that is mystic already.

"There are wonderful churches here, which are extraordinarily beautiful and preserved since the middle ages. We are lucky to have them. They should concentrate on the real churches rather then build fake ones off Dunwich."

rebecca.sheppard@eadt.co.uk

GRIFF'S VIEWS ON…

THE WATERFRONT

This is one of his favourite places in Ipswich.

"This is beautiful Ipswich. Everyone likes coming along here. In Ipswich the future is fantastic. We can't at the moment link up with the rest of the town and that seems to me the problem," said Griff.

Calling the Old Custom House, which was built in 1845 and presides over the Wet Dock, a beautiful and important building, Griff said he once had a boat in the harbour and was amazed at the change there over the past two years.

"I think it's taken a long time for towns in Britain to realise that people who own boats are not all sort of rich, wealthy yacht owners, just like people who own cars really," he added.

"What's great is to see the dock side develop, but in France it probably would have happened a long time ago. In terms of tourist attraction it makes a huge difference if there's a good harbour and restaurants."

FORE STREET

"I love this side of Ipswich. I am not such a fan of the big shopping streets of north Ipswich, but that's just me. There's a problem all along these streets as they sense they are on the road to nowhere," said Griff.

Passing historic buildings, which have been converted into shops, but are now deserted with their windows boarded up and covered with posters, Griff said people were put off walking up really nice streets if there was fast traffic flowing around them.

He added: "There seems to be a movement saying that 'We don't want people to leave the villages and live in Ipswich'. But why not? What is wrong with people moving to Ipswich and buying a flat in the centre of the town if all these shops had flats on top of them?

"Not only are there no shops, there aren't any flats on top of them either. What a pretty street this is. People pass by Ipswich as they think there is nothing to see here, but this is a marvellous street."

LOWER BROOK STREET

Looking up and down Lower Brook Street, Griff asked: "Why is there not anyone living in this street?"

He was concerned that towns like Ipswich had streets where no-one lived and instead the historic buildings were all offices.

"The danger is that somebody says 'This is no good as an office, let's knock it down and build a proper office'," said Griff, adding the risk then was the town lost its special character, which was its selling point to visitors.

CARDINAL PARK

Griff, who has visited Cardinal Park for the cinema, said of the complex: "I think it's a great idea to have these areas that develop with all the pubs and clubs there.

"The problem is how people get to these places. I don't suppose the great architects like Sir Norman Foster, who has made a huge contribution to Ipswich with the Willis building, is that bothered about designing car parks. But the real problem is how to we incorporate car parks into a town like this."

ANCIENT HOUSE AND BUTTERMARKET

Griff said other towns in Britain had merely smashed away old Georgian houses and historic buildings to make way for shopping centres.

However the Buttermarket had got it right with the grade I listed Ancient House and its decorative plasterwork preserved next to the retail centre.

"The Buttermarket has been put in carefully and cleverly. Wouldn't it be wonderful if this went all the way down to the Waterfront? I think the Buttermarket has been done in a sensitive way and came in quite late in the game," said Griff.

THE TOWN HALL AND CORNHILL

Griff said: "I do like this it has been very well-preserved. I am not too fond of the purple paving - they need to spend a bit more money on the paving, but it's my personal taste and at least it wasn't yellow."

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