Ipswich's Ancient House needs a new use - not just a new retail tenant

Lakeland in Ipswich Butter Market

Lakeland will be closing its Ancient House store in Ipswich next month. - Credit: Sarah Lucy Brown

We've all heard many times that town centres like Ipswich have to change to meet new challenges as increasing numbers of people need more than shops to tempt them in.

Now Ipswich council has the chance to show it's got this message loud and clear!

Just days after we heard the full details of the final submission by the Ipswich Town Deal Board to the government for funding for special projects, it was announcedĀ that one of the most iconic buildings in the town centre was closing.

Lakeland has been Ipswich council's tenant in the Ancient House in the Butter Market street for many years - but it will be closing its doors for the last time in January (or, presumably, whenever Suffolk is moved into Tier 4 or is caught up in a new national lockdown!).

I feel very sorry for the staff at the store. It is never good to be told your jobs are going - and it always seems even worse when you are just a few days from Christmas.

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Given the overall state of the retail industry, it must be very worrying for those who currently work there and I wish them all luck in their search for new jobs.

However, I sincerely hope that the borough council which owns the building doesn't go into a frantic search for a new retail tenant - I hope it shows some imagination and looks for something that would really complement what is one of the most important sites in Suffolk, let alone Ipswich.

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The blunt fact is that as a shop the Ancient House doesn't really work any more - and it never really worked for Lakeland.

From the outside it looks great, really quirky - and people like to go in there just to see what it's like.

But as a shop it's a real nightmare. On the occasions when we did need something new for the kitchen, we did look in there. But it was very difficult to find what you were looking for. When you asked a member of staff you'd be told something like: "It's downstairs in the third room on the left."

That quirkiness worked when it was a 20th century bookshop and every section could have its own room - but even bookshops need wide open spaces these days. There's a reason why Waterstones retained their modern shop in the former Corder's rather than the Ancient House after they bought Hatchards in the 1990!

I would like to see the borough, supported by the new Ipswich Town Deal Board, come up with a really imaginative idea for the building - and do something to it that would really help to attract people to the town centre.

How about using the building to house a visitor attraction telling the story of Ipswich, using some of the art collection that it doesn't have space to put on display in Christchurch Mansion and the High Street museum?

Turn much of the ground floor into an attractive cafe and Ipswich tourism shop (the sort of thing we lost with the closure of the tourist information centre earlier this year) and then have galleries upstairs?

That could, I'm sure, work well - but I do worry about whether the borough bigwigs will have the ambition to set the wheels in motion towards that.

The thing is, of course, that they are hoping to get millions of pounds from the lottery to upgrade the museum - and its heritage work is focussed on that.

I really hope they succeed - the Victorian museum was purpose-built in Victorian times and it could be a fantastic visitor attraction. The completion of the Crown Car Park with easy access to the museum has made it much easier for people to reach and spend a day out there and at Christchurch Park which is a short walk away.

But with the best will in the world, the museum is not in the heart of the town centre. You aren't going to get people dropping in there for half an hour in the middle of a shopping trip for a coffee and a quick look at the latest exhibition.

That is where a new visitor attraction in the oldest secular building in Ipswich town centre could really score - it has worked very well in other cities and large towns where shoppers will visit the coffee shop and then have a quick look at an exhibition before resuming their main business of the day.

The borough has been very good at pointing out that the town centre has to change in the 21st century. Now is its chance to prove it understands that and looks for an alternative use for a very important building that it owns.

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