It’s difficult to imagine a place that embodies South East Englishness more than the Norfolk town of Aylsham. Set just off the A140 between East Anglia’s capital city, Norwich, and the beautiful seaside town of Cromer, Aylsham has much to celebrate. Rounded flint buildings, Edwardian houses and traditional shop fronts create character-filled streets such as Market Square where the fortnightly FARMA accredited Farmers’ Market promotes the finest local artisan produce.
The National Trust’s complete 5,000-acre country estate of Blickling Hall is a formidable reminder of the region’s rich history, and along with the ever-popular nine mile Bure Valley Railway running through the picturesque Bure valley countryside, seek to entice visitors from afar. It’s no wonder that record numbers of people are choosing to set up home here.
A determination to remain plastic-bag-free since 2008 (an achievement that hasn’t been managed in many places outside of Wales), has garnered much respect. Further plaudits must also be given for Aylsham’s commitment to Car Sharing with the Norfolk Car Club helping commuters and businesses reduce related carbon emissions whilst providing greater access to transport that, in turn, can greatly reduce transport costs. The list of environmental projects and initiatives championed by Aylsham Town Council is extensive; take the Stela LED lighting due to be fitted in Aylsham Market place and Red Lion Street, or the striking and new aquamarine-tiled public toilets that have a revolutionary environmental design; there are numerous examples. This respect for the past, married with a progressive approach towards developing the town, led to Aylsham becoming the second UK town to join the Cittaslow network in 2004.
Improving quality of life for all residents is Cittaslow’s focus and it is achieved through a set of goals compiled by Cittaslow’s International Scientific Committee. Aylsham’s high scoring against these goals, some of which the town was already working towards prior to membership, is a testament to the inordinate amounts of time and energy put into the town’s future by hardworking volunteers and town Councillors.
Certification is a ‘whole town audit’ with a town proving that it scores at least 50% against the internationally recognised goals. Completing the audit can be lengthy but Cittaslow Aylsham Committee members such as Town Clerk, Mo Anderson-Dungar, Cittaslow UK Chief Executive, Liz Jones and Giles Margarson (who also chairs Aylsham Slow Food and was the driving force behind the new Heritage Centre), and not to mention Cittaslow Aylsham’s Co-ordinator Paul ‘Smudge’ Smith MBE, have shown unwavering vision in their efforts to embrace innovative approaches that have gained strong community support.
Localism is not a new political buzzword in Aylsham; it’s something ingrained into the fabric of the town. An approach that supports local businesses and champions community participation is inherent, making Aylsham a vibrant place to live. The town boasts the highest concentration of growers, producers and suppliers in its locality across Broadland District Council and has a wealth of local shops from the divine Carousel Chocolates to traditional Old Tea Rooms. The dynamic Aylsham Business and Enterprise Forum, chaired by Deborah Blake, is an excellent example of Aylsham’s proactive attitude towards the economic demands of the twenty-first-century, consisting of an eclectic mix of traditional and family run businesses.
Walk through the town and you will inevitably end up at GF White traditional family butchers where information about the origins of the meat will be provided along with some helpful hints on how best to cook it. Juxtapose this with the cutting edge technology that has made Barnwell Print Norfolk’s first Carbon Balanced Publication printer and it’s plain to see how Aylsham is working to protect its heritage whilst embracing innovation. These businesses are Aylsham’s economic backbone, creating jobs, encouraging visitors and generating a friendly atmosphere of cooperation and support.
Promoting Aylsham’s history is undertaken by Aylsham’s new Heritage Centre. Funded by Biffa Awards and the National Lottery, the recently renovated church buildings in the grounds of St Michael’s Church provide an illuminating window into Aylsham’s past as well as being an information centre and resource for community members and visitors. Various creative and craft workshops are held for all ages. Victorian days that bring Aylsham’s past to life for local school children are proving to be a roaring success and illustrate the way in which the Heritage Centre is encouraging future generations to engage with the town’s history.
Now to come full-circle and return to the food produced and sold in Aylsham. Norfolk is farming country; this is evident in the wealth of locally sourced produce available, and in the real passion local people have for supporting it. Slow Food Aylsham has been active since 2004 organising hugely popular events such as the Big Slow Breakfast and The Taste Adventure; events that are as delicious to partake in as they sound. This culminates in the splendid Aylsham Food Festival, three days of food-filled-fun where the whole community come together to celebrate and support local farmers and producers. This year it will be held on 5th to 7th October.
When these initiatives, projects, businesses and community groups are added together it isn’t hard to see why Aylsham is a successful Cittaslow town. It is this holistic approach, drawing upon the strengths and abilities of a variety of people that generates success. This article has barely touched the tip of the iceberg to highlight some of the wonderful work carried out – it could easily run to pages. The latest research being undertaken by consultancy firm Urban Delivery points to a bright future where the town is continually building upon its current successes, cementing community partnerships and supporting the local economy; attracting an increasing number of visitors who come to experience first-hand the charm and hospitality of this small market town.