The English high street: Newark, Nottinghamshire – ‘You can’t get a good pork pie anywhere now’

Christopher Howse is travelling the nation to speak to local people about their high street. How it has changed and what they miss… This week, Christopher explores Newark in Nottinghamshire.

“I feel like I have let everyone down,” said the notice in the window of the locked shop GH Porter Provisions, “particularly our fantastic suppliers, wonderful staff and loyal customers. I am sorry.”

I was standing disconsolately in the afternoon drizzle looking at the notice when a man in a flat hat walked by and nodded in a friendly manner. The shop, he said, had been there for 130 years. “You can’t get a good pork pie anywhere now.” If Porter’s could suddenly close, where could you rely on to stay open? 

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Trading since 1890 on a Trollopean corner of Newark Market Place by the huge medieval church, GH Porter specialised in its own smoked bacon, even smoked eel, but also sold meat from local suppliers and high-quality groceries, from cheese to marmalade. In 2022, it won a Great Taste Award. Its owner Tom Blakemore’s heart-rending notice in the window admitted that he had “simply run out of money”.

You’d think Porter’s was in a good location. Beside it, the Market Place (“still a joy” architecturally, according to the 2020 revision of Pevsner’s Nottinghamshire volume for The Buildings of England) is crowded with stalls under striped awnings five days a week. Since the 12th century, it has been the hub of this town of 30,000 people on the Great North Road, bridging the Trent. The A1 now bypasses the town.

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Like many, I’d seen the spire of St Mary Magdalene dozens of times from the East Coast Main Line train. Going north, 12 minutes after the even taller spire at Grantham on the right, Newark’s spire pierces the clouds on the left. The tower and spire dominate the old buildings near the Market Place. 

It is a fine collection of ancient buildings: the medieval timber-framed Old White Hart, the lovely coaching inns of old local brick, some standing on colonnades, and the glorious neoclassical sandstone town hall by John Carr (“of York”, as he is always called). Nothing is over-scale or insulting to its neighbours in style. In the house next to Porter’s, Byron’s first book was printed. There is a lot to lose.

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The town stands in the old Danelaw, so older streets, as in York, are often “gates” – Castle Gate, Kirk Gate, Barnby Gate. 

The Market Place serves as Newark’s high street, and when I’d talked to the man in a cap about the closure of Porter’s, he mentioned two things: the lack of parking and the closure of Marks & Spencer.

St Mary Magdalene church, Newark

‘Like many, I’d seen the spire of St Mary Magdalene dozens of times from the East Coast Main Line train’ says Howse

Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley

Marks & Spencer, a few yards from the Market Place in Stodman Street, closed in 2019. “We were heartbroken when the old store closed, and it broke the town,” a local man called Michael Vickers told the Newark Advertiser. As Tom Blakemore put it: “Every business we lose leaves a hole in the high street and removes another reason to come into town. This is true of banks, pubs and shops.”

The Market Place shows signs of decline. Even Wetherspoons, the Sir John Arderne (named after a 14th-century surgeon of fistula), closed last year. Long gone are the great coaching inns: the Clinton Arms (closed in 1990), the Saracen’s Head (closed in 1956). The 14th-century Old White Hart, originally a merchant’s house, closed as an inn in the 19th century, then housed a draper’s, and was almost demolished in the 1960s before the Nottingham Building Society took it over and restored it. But now there is a “to let” sign in the window.

The Wetherspoons (the Sir John Arderne) closed last year

The now-shuttered Wetherspoons

Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley

In modern high streets, nail bars and vape shops often fill the gaps. Sensei Premium Vapes trades in Newark Market Place, next to the shuttered-up Little Teahouse (which the council has acquired in the hope of a new tenant). They adjoin a curious house, now Toni & Guy, that for centuries has encroached on the square limits of the Market Place. Next to it, beside the old town pump, stands a 5ft stout wooden post, used before the 19th century for bear-baiting. It counts as a listed building. Newark & Sherwood council is responsible for another 1,386 listed buildings.

Barclays Bank (in a historic building in the Market Place that was once the Saracen’s Head, featured in a novel by Walter Scott) closed down last year. TSB had closed earlier in 2023. That meant fewer shoppers coming into town. 

As for parking, Tom Blakemore found himself getting £200 of parking tickets a week during lockdown for loading his van outside his own shop to make deliveries. But when Marks & Spencer opened a big supermarket down by the river (in place of its store in central Stodman Street), it had ample car parking, and so did Aldi, next to it. 

Waitrose, also with parking, is on the other side of the Trent. North of the Market Place, Morrisons, with a double-level car park, presents a curtain wall of brick to Slaughterhouse Lane; to the south, Asda’s lies just outside the medieval town walls. If shoppers come in no farther than these, the historic heart will be hollowed out and abandoned.

Yet there seems a sign of hope in what has happened to that old Marks & Spencer. The builders are in at the moment. Its frontage in Stodman Street is being turned into two shops, with 29 flats above and behind, to be ready by next year. The project was funded through the Newark Town Board, a coalition of local businesses and public bodies. In 2019, the government had invited 100 towns, including Newark, to develop proposals under a £3.6 billion Towns Fund. Newark secured £25 million, part of which has gone to revivifying the historical centre.

Stodman St, Newark

The old Marks & Spencer on Stodman St is currently being turned into two shops and flats above

Credit: Heathcliff O’Malley

Paul Peacock, the Labour leader of the council (which since 2023 has been under no overall party control), told the Newark Advertiser that without the council’s intervention, the old Marks & Spencer site “would have become derelict and an eyesore”. He concedes that shop vacancy in Newark is 9.54 per cent, but the average in England for town centres is worse, at 13.9 per cent.

Persevering in urban regeneration can be exhausting. A website for St Mark’s Place, a shopping centre south of Newark Market Place, still boasts that it is “anchored by M&S and Wilko’s” – the former has moved away, the latter has closed down. Now the council is consulting about future redevelopment of this shopping centre. Its brick frontage on Lombard Street, busy with traffic, does not look as fresh and go-ahead as it did on completion in 1979.

Last year in St Mark’s Place, steel gates were put on alleys that had seen drug use, urination and graffiti. In the Market Place, Michael Thorne, a long-standing stallholder as a butcher, complains of regular antisocial behaviour. “I come on this market at 6.30 in the morning and all the wooden tables of the stalls have been taken off and dropped everywhere. There is litter everywhere.” Mr Blakemore had hundreds of pounds of damage done by a vandal who broke the big glass window of his shop overnight.

The old town centre has constantly been in danger of unsympathetic rebuilding. The former Moot Hall, right in front of the soaring church tower, was rebuilt in 1708 with a beautiful brick face, seven window bays wide, supported on a row of Tuscan pillars on the ground floor. Old photographs show the frontage, next to the disarming sign “JH Phillips: Rope, Twine, Nets and Cover Makers”, mounted with a huge advertising placard on Coyne’s, the music shop, for “His Master’s Voice”. 

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When that was removed, to the benefit of its historical appearance, a far more serious threat was that the front would crash down into the square. Currys owned the building and in 1964 was able to reconstruct it, brick by brick, over a steel frame. Today, it is Starbucks, and I sat under its colonnade in a patch of sun, watching people packing up the market. 

Newark is one of the 67 towns benefiting from Historic England’s £95 million government-funded High Streets Heritage Action Zone programme. These millions are doled out in small packets. So Flossie & Boo, a clothes shop next to the pretty side entrance to the church, got a grant to reconstruct its frontage with a wooden fascia, from part of a £275,000 fund for the whole central zone. The shop does look more attractive and such details add up to more agreeable surroundings for shoppers. But by an irony, the design was chosen to complement the old-fashioned frontage of the nearby GH Porter.

At Harry’s busy salad and sandwich shop, next door to the empty GH Porter, the talk was hopeful: someone might try to make a go of the premises soon. As I walked back to the station from this charmingly historical town, I hoped so too.

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Which English high street would you like to see featured?