Ipswich Icons: What does the future hold for our shopping centres?

Sailsmakers tavern street entrance

Sailsmakers tavern street entrance - Credit: Archant

John Norman, of The Ipswich Society, looks at the history of the Carr Street Precinct, Greyfriars and The Buttermarket Centre

Carr street prior to construction

Carr street prior to construction - Credit: Archant

The recent announcement that the new owners of the Tower Ramparts shopping centre (Mars Pension Fund) are to invest a substantial sum in changes and improvements is to be welcomed.

The scheme received positive approval at a recent meeting of Ipswich planning committee. Someone suggested that Tower Ramparts was Ipswich’s first shopping centre, but that’s contentious.

The Walk

The first shopping mall in Ipswich, and some way ahead of its time was architect Leslie Barefoot’s The Walk. The scheme also included improvements to The Thoroughfare, which had been, for a considerable period of time, a passageway between the Post Office (on the Cornhill) and the Buttermarket (it is shown on Ogilby’s map of 1674). Before being redeveloped The Walk was simply a narrow entrance to the rear of buildings on Tavern Street, not in public use and without an exit. The sheds and workshops at the back of the shops were demolished and replaced by a narrow shopping lane with numerous small retail units.


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Importantly, both lanes were pedestrianised, which made for a pleasant shopping experience. To add to the ambience many of the buildings were finished in a mock Tudor style with extensively carved timbers.

Carr Street Precinct (Eastgate Shopping Centre)

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When the East Anglian Daily Times moved out of its offices and printworks on the corner of Carr Street and Little Coleman Street the building was demolished (May 1966) and the work on Carr Street Precinct started. Notably, Little Coleman Street was subsumed into the new centre but a through route was maintained for pedestrians who could walk through the precinct.

As the centre grew it incorporated the gas and electricity showrooms, both of which promoted their respective fuels as a replacement for coal. The electricity showroom moved from Electric House in Crown Street (Tower Ramparts bus station) and the Eastern Gas showrooms from an older building in Carr Street. When built, Carr Street precinct was open to the sky. The first refurbishment added a roof over the mall and a change of name to the Eastgate Centre; the second upgrade did away with the mall and increased the size of the anchor store (today another “pound shop”).

Greyfriars

At about the same time as Eastgate was being built a different developer was being persuaded to construct a major new facility at the southern end of Civic Drive.

Greyfriars included flats, offices, a nightclub, shops and a multi-storey car park. The rationale was based on the forthcoming population increase, accommodating the substantial number of “London overspill” expected in the next couple of years. Greyfriars included a branch of the Midland Bank, a supermarket (Pricerite) and Ipswich market, which had been moved out of the Corn Exchange to enable that building to be converted into an entertainment complex.

What didn’t happen, however, was the influx of people. A change of Government policy meant the London overspill no longer went to Suffolk but to a whole new town – Milton Keynes – which was built complete with one of the largest indoor shopping centres in Europe. Thus the bank and supermarket closed, the market went walkabout and the empty shops at Greyfriars were demolished.

Tower Ramparts

Tower Ramparts, built by Henry Boot of Sheffield, opened in 1986, the first completely undercover shopping centre in Ipswich.

It was anchored by Littlewoods at the bus station end and by Boots at the Tavern Street entrance. The centre provided a convenient route from both the central bus station and Crown Street multi-storey car park into the shopping heart of Ipswich.

It enjoyed mixed fortunes, possibly because Ipswich shoppers didn’t like deviating from the “golden mile” of Carr Street, Tavern Street and Westgate Street. Today the centre is anchored by a branch of Poundland, and Iceland: not quite the quality stores to which they aspire.

Buttermarket Centre

The Buttermarket Centre was designed by the Building Design Partnership, built by Fairclough’s and opened in October, 1992. Unfortunately it suffered from the progressive loss of four anchor stores: Owen Owen, C&A, Allders and T J Hughes, and today is anchored by discounter TK Maxx.

Additionally, the centre witnessed the demise of a number of well-loved retailers, including Athena, Benetton, Covent Garden General Store and the locally-based Andy’s Records.

When it opened, the Buttermarket consisted of some 48 units but changes have seen some of these amalgamated into bigger units as demanded by national retailers.

Proposals for changes to the Buttermarket Centre, from prime shopping to leisure facility with restaurants, was proposed and approved in 2012.

Vue cinemas were due to install nine separate screens in the upper floors of what was the department store but the cinema firm was taken over in 2013 and no work has yet taken place.

Ipswich’s four shopping centres have seen a steady decline in footfall, quality stores and occupied units, with the vacant units taken over by budget retailers.

This story could apply to almost any town centre in the country as shopping habits change, so what future for a refurbished Tower Ramparts and will its new name, Sailmakers, make a difference?

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