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Derby on the Brink

It was time to visit Derby , a place that I had lived and worked in for many years, but a city centre that I hadn't graced since the Shakespeare and Blue Note Club on Sadler Gate were the in places to go to. Would I be in for a shock or not?

Parking up in Belper Road the first port of call was Five Lamps. This is a large standard lamp with five arms on it, which presumably dates back to the early 20th century, placed in the centre of the junction of Duffield Road, Kedleston Road, West Avenue and others. The Five Lamps area was renowned for its historic character, but unfortunately it looked like it was shaping up for the commencement of the councils plans for a "racing circuit" here, as part of its road improvement scheme. The interesting thing was the new traffic lights at Five Lamps. Apparently, they have been there a few years at a huge cost to the rate payer and to the disgust of local residents. The main argument being that traffic congestion has increased since the introduction of the lights-seems like a waste of £400k to me.

Further down Duffield Road was St Helen's House. Now empty and boarded up. St Helen's House is a Grade I listed building in Derby . It was built c.1726 for John Gisbourne, an alderman, in a palladian style by Joseph Pickford, and, although the interior has been altered, the façade remains intact. It was the home of Derby Grammer School up until 1966. It is one of the finest and largest eighteenth century town houses to survive in any provincial city. Unfortunately, Derby City Council, who own it, seem to regard it as a liability. It has been neglected for many years (although it remains structurally sound) and the Council now claim that they cannot afford to maintain it. The council suggested that at the time of closure in 2004 the estimated repair bill was £1.9m. This isn't a couple of loose tiles and a new coat of paint. This is years of neglect by successive councils. So what would you expect the council to do in these circumstances-find the money to preserve one of Derby's crown jewels and put the building to good use for the benefit of the people of Derby? Fat chance! No, put it up for sale and put the cash in the coffers to waste on another needless feasibility study or traffic scheme or meaningless leaflet campaign or perhaps to fund the "garbage Gestapo". But the council assures us that the sale will be subject to a development and conservation brief which will lay down guidelines for the house's future. Pull the other one, they will be bending over backwards to get a buyer. And just for the record, the cost of drawing up the development and conservation brief is expected to be £10,000 funded by the ratepayer.

Thankfully, a well-supported group of local volunteers has now formed The St Helen's House Trust with the aim of acquiring and restoring the property for community uses. A conservation plan for the site has been compiled and a specialist firm of structural engineers has provided a detailed assessment of the building's condition, preparatory to a bid being submitted for lottery funds. Has the City Council supported this eminently sensible plan? Of course not. But, having gauged public opinion it has relented to popular opinion and given a stay of execution permitting the Trust time to get the cash together to repair and refurbish St Helen's House. I did try to view the Trusts website at but it was under construction-is that an omen?

From St. Helens House we wandered round the corner to the footbridge that took us over the inner ring road into the city. Derby became a city in 1977, something to do with the Queen's Silver Jubilee. To me it is still a town with a great history. A city suggests a sprawling conurbation, a status Derby has yet to achieve. As we approached that fine old pub The Dolphin, what was noticeable was the number of students wandering around. I wondered how the centre would have changed to accommodate this influx-it wouldn't take long to find out.

At the top of Irongate stands Derby Cathedral . We had it on good authority that we would not be allowed to take photographs. Undeterred we moved in with a plausible story should we be challenged-"for our mom back in L.A. who emigrated to America in the 60's from Derby." Derby Cathedral has the second highest perpendicular tower in England and the oldest ring of ten bells in the world. It has the Bess of Hardwick monument, world famous wrought iron screen by Robert Bakewell and tombstone for Joseph Wright and is very impressive. Work completed we headed into the Market Place.

Gone was the Derbyshire Society, Fabric International and a host of other traditional retailers. What had replaced them?-yes, bars , bars and more bars. How many could there be? Lots more. At least the Market Hall seemed to retain some of its old atmosphere and the refurbishments that have taken place over the years were very much in keeping with the building itself and the smell of the fish market was as good as ever.

At the River Derwent by the Exeter bridge it all got very depressing. The river looked polluted, the back of the council houses were in need of something and the Derby Ram monument had been subject to graffiti. Apparently this area is subject to the "Riverside Project". There has been much debate about this and whatever your position something must be agreed and started quickly. The only art deco bus station in the country is now rubble and has been for some time but because of land disputes the development has been delayed. Apparently the council were unaware of the ownership of one small piece of land that is key to the whole project. Why does that not surprise me?

New court house, Full Street nick closed pending sale and development, whatever next. The whole face of Derby city centre was changing. At the Strand the Post Office was now a bar, Just a Second is a bar, estate agents in the Wardwick are now bars. Everywhere you looked there were bars and the one thing they had in common was, from the outside at least, that they looked shabby and faceless. I couldn't see me rushing into the city to visit one of these dens of iniquity on a Friday night. But perhaps the Riverside Project is my salvation. There is a rumour that the entertainment centre will be aimed at a mature audience. I wait with baited breath.

St. Werburgh's Church looked like it was being refurbished again after being converted into retail units in the late 80's and then closing for many years. Next to the church was a new building a tapas bar. The design was modern, but was pleasant on the eye. It is up for an award and having seen some of the other monstrosities in the competition, it should win hands down. At the end of Friargate the light was fading and quite frankly I had seen enough. Memories of the revolving door in Boots, the rickety escalators in Woolworths, drinking Worthington Bitter in the Dolphin, seeing Derby County parade the Championship trophy in the Market Place in '72 and getting stuck in the lift at the Derby Playhouse were long gone. I am not opposed to change but Derby seems to have lost its character, its spirit and much more. I could have been in Nottingham, but perhaps that is what the council want.

Chris Sabian, Peak District View - 2006-11-20 22:06:19

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