Arts, Architecture & Design, Travel

Maybe it Cannes…

To be frank, for the principal town of an attractive county, Ipswich is rather a disappointment. Having been a major port, it suffers from many of the post-industrial problems of much larger places: derelict land, low incomes and a workforce widely lacking many currently-marketable skills.

The town centre has some fine buildings, though it also suffers from more than its fair share of bland sixties and seventies development. The town was bombed during the second world war, and some of its inner areas seem never to have fully recovered.

The local authority seems aware of the difficulties and has made efforts to rebalance the town. It is an intractable problem: on the one hand, the local population has pressing immediate needs, and yet on the other, as many places have realised, the only real solution to urban decline is to try to attract new blood, hopefully in the form of high skill, high income arrivees, who will bring different lives and habits with them. But how to attract them to places that may not cater for their expectations?

The town centre has had several facelifts over the years, the latest of which seems to have improved some of its streetscapes – but there is only so much that can be achieved while those unappealing buildings remain… and the sad reality is, the local population does not much resemble the chic mannequins that populate the architects’ visualisations either in appearance or some of its behaviour. More Marseille than San Tropez…

Ipswich does, however, have one major ace: its waterfront, which for those interested in industrial archaeology, includes some iconic building such as the R&W Paul warehouses. I last visited the area maybe twenty years ago, when much of it was still semi-derelict, with just the early shoots of revival beginning to show. It was indeed starkly atmospheric, even near death.

Ipswich docks in 1982

In the meantime, a wholesale redevelopment has occurred, which is belatedly reaching its latter stages, after a stop-start experience following the 2008 financial crash, which hit a number of the developers hard. The aspirational role-model is not hard to see – a kind of Monaco or Cannes on the North Sea. A mix of renovation and new-build has created what I feel is a generally successful new quarter, with the planners’ habitual recipe of shops, restaurants and residential development. Some of the buildings are more successful than others (I do dislike post-modern re-interpretations of historic buildings, especially when the two sit cheek-by-jowl; it only devalues the real thing. The contemporary architecture, while uneven, is better). Fortunately, the decision was made to adopt modern street furniture rather than the fake Victoriana that was the default choice in early such schemes.

The fearless use of tall buildings echoes the old warehouses and grain silos, and has created an ‘amphitheatre’ with a skyline that successfully gives a sense of place in otherwise flat surroundings. The new University of Suffolk has also been lured to locate its campus on the waterfront, in the knowledge of a potential permanent supply of young for the bars and cafes and it has invested in reasonable examples of a building style that I fully expect in due course to become known as “University Modern”.

It is permanently high tide behind the inner harbour’s lock gates, which give out onto the Orwell estuary, a scenic ten-mile ria that stretches to the North Sea proper at Felixstowe. This means that the sleek yachts and cruisers that now populate the water need never sully their keels in the east coast mud… The still-working chandlers and marine estate agents lend an edge that means the area does not feel over-preserved.

If this were indeed Cannes or the south of France more generally, most of those units would be occupied by a mosaic of small independent traders, rather than the usual-suspect chain restaurant that normally invade such places in the U.K. and instantly turn what could be distinctiveness into just another sad high-street clone. Luckily, this has not entirely happened in Ipswich; while some of said chains are present, there also seem to be a number of local operations and the overall mix is reasonably successful.

Unfortunately, at present the waterfront remains disconnected from the town centre; while St Peter’s Street offers an interesting mix of independent shops, there is a tract of no-man’s-land of car parks, yards and indeterminate spaces that presumably were once home to a historic quarter, and really needs to be filled. There are some signs that this might be happening, but it is a large area and there is a long way to go. Hopefully it can be seen as an opportunity to create something genuinely characterful.

Our recent visit took place on a dull day in a disappointing August, when even the best imagination in the world could not make the climate look like the Riviera. However, in general, I think this area works; it doesn’t feel too contrived, and it is certainly a better use of this asset than the decaying wreck that I last saw. It has a more up-beat, and dare I say glossier, atmosphere than the rest of the town; in that, it seems surprisingly successful.

Coming decades will tell whether the area matures gracefully, or is allowed to go downhill again – all such areas tend to have hesitant gestations and can easily end up feeling permanently windswept and lost. It seems as though those in charge in Ipswich do have the right idea – maybe it is not in vain to hope that one day the county town may be a worthy centre for the rest of Suffolk. Cannes-do attitude needed…

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