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Towns high street to grow as traders bounce back

Work on new retail units in a Norfolk town could inject new life into its high street as businesses and traders look to bounce back from the pandemic.
Thetford Town's high street

Town high streets have been hit badly by Covid – but how are they bouncing back now life is returning to normal? Reporter Sarah Hussain visits Thetford.

Work on new retail units in a Norfolk town could inject new life into its high street as businesses and traders look to bounce back from the pandemic.

That’s the hope in Thetford which, like so many market towns across Norfolk, has faced numerous challenges as a result of Covid-19, with many traders grappling with a decline in footfall and having to adapt to changing customer habits in order to survive.

Some of these challenges still seem to be present in the town, but there is optimism that ‘normality’ is returning.

But just before 12pm, the Market Place, where the weekly Tuesday and Saturday is held, was relatively quiet, with just two out of the usual three to four Tuesday stalls open.

Sharon Charrigan, of Carmichaels Fishmongers, a stall that offers fresh fish sourced from Lowestoft and has been in the town for more than 50 years, said some people were still “scared” to come out and were not visiting as they used to.

She said: “It is really hard at the moment in terms of people coming through.

“On a Saturday there was quite a lot of stalls, but after Christmas a lot of traders go on holiday, so usually it is quiet.

“It’s got better, people are slowly starting to come back out. But people were encouraged to stay inside and shop online.

“I hope it starts to pick up.”

Hoping to encourage customers to return, she added: “We’re outside, it’s a safe environment, and you get fresh produce.

“We’re here twice a week and rarely miss a day, whatever the weather – rain, snow and wind, we do turn up.”

Fellow trader Lisa Perkins, of cake business It’s Good ‘Ere, said: “Shopping isn’t going to go back to what it used to be.

“There’s a few stalls, some have dropped off because they haven’t done so well during lockdown.

“At Christmas things got a bit busier. It’s picking up but it’s not where it was.”

The co-owner added that her business has been fortunate after adapting during the pandemic to offer delivery for customers who did not want to leave their homes.

She added: “I think people now need to have a bit more faith that it’s safe to go outside.”

But opposite them, new sweet shop owner Jade Bowles shared a different story, having opened her store Cocos on January 29 following the success of the business which she started at home in May 2020.

The 29-year-old said it had been a “whirlwind” after having people “shoulder to shoulder” on the day of the opening.

She said: “The amount of support I have had has been absolutely wonderful.

“It has been steady since. I just hope it continues. It’s sad to see the high street so dull but I do feel more people are coming out and it’s picking up.”

Elsewhere, Ian Hilton, who runs J Jones Butchers on King’s Street, said the town centre had been impacted following the pre-pandemic closure of HSBC and NatWest.

He said: “It has changed since they closed, it reduced footfall a bit.”

But Mr Hilton said his loyal customers have kept the business going throughout the pandemic.

“We’re still surviving,” he added.

“We’ve had a good customer base. It’s steady.

“It was maybe a bit busier prior to Covid, there was a lot of events going on then.”

And Jane James, town councillor and owner of Not Just Books on Riverside Walk, said: “People are starting to come out a bit more, compared to last year it’s been amazing.

“We’re finding people are wanting the element of tangible.

“They had two years of virtual and Zoom meetings, so holding that tangible thing like a book is something customers want.

“It’s great to be back, and we need to maintain that momentum.”

She warned if people did not support local businesses they risk losing them.

However, there are positive signs on the horizon.

Just around the corner of her shop, work is taking place to bring eight new units to Thetford after redevelopment plans for the former M&Co site, owned by Marchmont Farms Ltd, were revealed last year.

Terry Jermy, Breckland councillor and town councillor, said the town is going through an “exciting stage” and that work had started around two weeks ago on the units.

He said: “We want small, niche type shops in there.”

On the state of the high street as a whole, he added: “Generally market traders and town centre traders have had a tough time over the last two years.

“It was so difficult during the lockdowns and people were looking online.

“Now is the time for people to come out and support them.”

Hazells Chartered Surveyors is currently advertising the proposed Riverside Walk units to let online, saying units 11-19 will be ‘coming soon’ to the town.

It said: “The proposed redevelopment will maximise the potential of the attractive riverside setting with frontage to the Little Ouse River and views across to Butten Island and the public open space fronting the cinema and Travelodge complex.”

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