Leatherhead high street fights back
PUBLISHED: 12:27 16 October 2007 | UPDATED: 14:53 20 February 2013
At one time or another, most high streets across Britain have suffered with a slump in shoppers, trade and culture, and Leatherhead is no exception. Now, however, the town centre is thriving, with an abundance of shops and restaurants, a wonderful...
Originally published in Surrey Life magazine August 2007
At one time or another, most high streets across Britain have suffered with a slump in shoppers, trade and culture, and Leatherhead is no exception. Now, however, the town centre is thriving, with an abundance of shops and restaurants, a wonderful theatre and its very own drama festival
Words by Nicola DeThere. Pictures by Pete Gardner
When Leatherhead High Street was voted one of the worst in the UK a few years ago, it came as something of a shock. Most people in the town felt their high street wasn't too bad at all, thank you very much, and there were definitely far worse. All the same, the results of the survey, commissioned by BBC Radio 4's Today programme, seemed to touch a nerve, and they vowed to change things for the better.
Well, five years later, the results have been astounding. These days, the town is bustling with people, and packed full with an abundance of shops, entertainment facilities and job opportunities.
Photographer Andy Newbold, who has been a driving force in the battle to reinvigorate the town, set up his studio in Leatherhead High Street in 2004.
"At that time, Leatherhead was struggling," he says. "The Theatre had only just reopened, there was no Argos, Travelodge or Costa Coffee, and there was a depressed look about the place. But rather than sit back and let it rot, lots of groups got together and did what they could.
"Aside from the local Chamber of Commerce, who play a big part in the town by organising and developing the markets, providing networking opportunities for traders and social events, there have been groups like Leatherhead Ahead, Leatherhead Tomorrow, The Leatherhead Society, and the new residents association that has been dedicated to improving the town."
A bustling town
These days, there is a huge number of events and activities to shout about in the town including four annual fun days - The Christmas Festival, St George's Day, The Duck Race and Halloween.
The Leatherhead life festival, which runs for two weeks in July, has combined a wide variety of art forms including performances by local bands and artists, puppet shows and talks by big names such as Rosemary Conley.
Leatherhead Drama Festival
But perhaps the biggest draw for the town is the annual Drama Festival, which is attended by Hollywood star Sir Michael Caine, and is designed to celebrate amateur dramatics in the area.
The festival is held at The Theatre, one of the major focal points for visitors to Leatherhead, over two weeks in May. Built in 1969, the theatre was designed by the same team behind the National Theatre in London.
Originally called the Thorndike Theatre, after its first patron Sybil Thorndike, it was forced to close for four years in 1998 due to a lack of funds. Unlike the Dorking Halls, the theatre is not funded by grants from the authorities and relies on donations and ticket sales. Happily, though, the theatre was reopened after being taken over by church group Pioneer People in 2001.
"Entertainment facilities have improved so much in the town with more things happening at The Theatre than ever before," says town centre manager Lucy Hanson. "The pedestrianised area of Leatherhead town centre lends itself to community events and we are lucky to have such great support from the town's traders, to be able to host the four main ones that we do.
"One of Leatherhead's greatest assets is the people and businesses who work tirelessly to promote the town and encourage people to shop here. The friendly community atmosphere within the town is also something to be proud of and is hard pushed to be matched."
One person who has seen more changes in the town than most is local resident Ena Froude who is one hundred years old. She moved to Leatherhead from Bookham in 1966.
"The town was very busy when I moved here and it has changed a lot," she says. "There was no market but plenty of shops where you could buy a hat or a dress or anything you wanted.
"It didn't look unlike it does now, except the Swan Centre wasn't in the town. I remember when that was opened, it was a bit of a novelty and everyone was very excited."
But Ena, who moved into Milner House care home in Ermyn Way, Leatherhead, two years ago, believes the biggest change in Leatherhead came with the introduction of the M25.
"There was lots of controversy when it was built. I should think it is the biggest change that has happened to Leatherhead," she says. "It brought all the big businesses with it and lots of coffee shops so the workers could go out to lunch. I remember when they changed all the roads and I had to make my way from Bookham, I had to ask someone official to show me the new route."
Development goes on
And the development of the town is still on-going with plans afoot to revamp Church Street and create a more relaxed, continental atmosphere. John Howarth is a member of the Leatherhead Area Partnership Ltd, an official company set up to co-ordinate the town centre regeneration projects.
"There's no doubt that Leatherhead has worked very hard to recover from the difficulties it experienced a few years' ago and is now beginning to benefit from that hard work," he says. "Credit is due to many people and it is impossible to name all of those who have put the effort in to improving things in the town. There is no doubt that the arrival of Argos, the Travelodge Hotel and Lidl has also made a huge contribution to this.
"My colleagues on the Leatherhead Healthcheck are also doing good things for the town - the recent consultation about the High Street and the ongoing consultations in respect of Church Street are cases in point.
"But they have also, in response to suggestions from the public in the Healthcheck, raised funds to, amongst other things, improve access, particularly for the disabled, to the River Mole, to put seating on the routes into Leatherhead for those who walk there and to improve information about bus routes into the town."
Back at his studio in the now thriving town centre, photographer Andy Newbold adds: "Leatherhead still has its issues but now the town is in a much better position to deal with them, which is due to the passion that people have for the town. I am very proud to be where I am and love the community spirit; it is getting harder to walk from the car park to my studio without stopping and chatting with people and that is something that just wouldn't happen in London or many larger towns.
"Slowly but surely, the negative issues in the town are becoming less and with the proposed development of the Church Street area and money coming into the town via the new Leatherhead Area Partnership Ltd, it is reasonable to predict a good healthy future.
"If things continue to develop at the rate they are doing and we can encourage a few more national names into the High Street we will all be moaning that it is too busy. But whatever happens I am sure that Leatherhead will retain its friendly and unique personality."