The British Midlands is the unlikely setting for a new cultural revolution.
The formerly industrial cities of Nottingham, Leicester and Derby have been slowly re-inventing themselves in recent years with the opening of boutique hotels and chic eateries.
The cultural renaissance comes full circle this year with a triumvirate of new arts hubs to showcase the burgeoning Midlands arts scene.
Derby’s QUAD, the first to open, combines gallery spaces, two independent cinema screens and multi-media facilities.
In April it plays host to the Format’09 International Photography Festival, featuring works by David Lynch and Cindy Sherman.
Leicester’s Curve opened late 2008 and features an innovative ‘inside-out’ design, whereby audience members and actors break down traditional dramatic divisions.
The Light In The Piazza, the European premiere of a romantic musical evoking the glamour of 1950s’ Florence, runs April into May.
The final opening, Nottingham Contemporary [its bookshop pictured above], has been pushed back to September 2009, but exhibitions are currently running in various Nottingham venues as a preview.
The landmark gallery, built at the entrance to Nottingham’s famous Lace Market, will be the largest single gallery space in the East Midlands.
The venues bring outstanding architectural design to the region. They offer a range of facilities to attract internationally renowned artists and encourage local people to get involved with the arts.
Laura Dyer, Executive Director, Arts Council England, East Midlands, said:
“This is one of the most exciting periods for the arts in the region, providing world-class facilities which, together with the region’s existing attractions and strong cultural scene, will put us firmly on the cultural and tourism map.”
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This story was first published in High Life magazine in 2008.
Derbyshire is back on the silver screen with Keira Knightley, who spawned a local tourism boom in 2005 while filming her role in Pride & Prejudice, returning to the region to depict Lady Georgiana Spencer in the film The Duchess.
Many of the scenes were filmed at Chatsworth House, where Georgina lived following her marriage to the Fifth Duke of Devonshire, with Kedleston Hall, five miles from Derby, standing in for the Spencer’s family home of Althorp.
But Derby is causing ripples in more than just the film-location business these days.
The ongoing £2bn transformation of the city highlights the potential of this lesser-known East Midlands city as a place for relocation.
With strong employment growth, a vibrant high-technology sector and blue-chip endorsement from the likes of Toyota, Bombardier and Rolls Royce, the latter this year celebrating its centenary in the city, Derby is attracting an influx of well-qualified professionals seeking a higher quality of life.
The Derby Cityscape Masterplan is designed to transform the city centre by 2020, but the first fruits of regeneration are already on display.
The £340m Westfield Derby shopping centre opened last October, incorporating the UK’s first Cinema de Luxe with its Director’s Lounge for airline business class-style service.
The Cathedral Quarter Hotel, Derby’s first boutique hotel, opened in May in a £3.8m refurbishment of the former council offices. The old safe vaults are now a particularly well-stocked wine cellar.
Finally, QUAD, a major new arts centre, will open its doors late September in time for the annual Derby Feste weekend, while Cathedral Green Bridge, an iconic new bridge across the River Derwent, will be unveiled around the same time.
Pouring over the 12-project regeneration masterplan amid the genteel surrounds of the Cathedral Quarter Hotel’s Opulence restaurant with John Cadwallader, the avuncular CEO of urban regeneration company Derby Cityscape, we map out the future of the city centre over lunch.
When completed, it will add 5,000 new houses to the city centre, mixing townhouses with apartments, plus 1.5m sq ft of office space and a host of leisure and cultural developments.
“Derby has been described as a Southeast city in the Midlands but the city centre didn’t reflect the strength of the local economy.”
“When I first walked around the city I felt it lacked impetus. It was very understated and lacked the right retail offer,” says John, tucking into an apple and raspberry streusel with crème fraiche sorbet.
“But, by 2020, it will a complete place to live and enjoy the amenities of a city centre, appealing to a broad range of people – young professionals, downsizers and retirees.”
After lunch I head off to explore the progress at grass roots level.
Strolling down Amen Alley behind the imposing Cathedral, the Cathedral Green area marks the start of the Unesco-listed Derwent Valley Mills World Heritage Site, which stretches 15 miles down the river Derwent from Derby to Matlock Bath.
The Mills were the crucible of the regional industrial revolution in Derby’s heyday. Cathedral Green Bridge, designed for pedestrians and cycling, will bring the region into the 21st century, linking the riverside apartments, office space and restaurants of Cathedral Green to the proposed hotel, retail and leisure developments of North Riverside.
Over the next two years, further developments will add 1,000 new homes as part of the Friar Gate Goods Yard development, 30,000 sq ft of retail at Saddler Square and the opening of the Roundhouse, a new vocational centre and visitor attraction, plus the completion of the £20m regeneration of the central train station.
Having found my bearings, I then don a hard hat and plastic-bag overshoes for a sneak preview of the finishing touches at QUAD.
The £11m project, comprising an arthouse cinema and community arts centre on the fringe of the currently unloved Market Square, aims to foster regeneration via culture.
“It’s a real statement of intent, a symbol of the changing face of Derby,” says QUAD Director, Keith Jeffrey, a former deputy director of BALTIC, which helped to bring urban regeneration to NewcastleGateshead.
Chris Brown, of Boxall Brown and Jones, President of the National Association of Estate Agents, who has worked in Derby for 40 years, says:
“Derby has finally stopped playing second fiddle to Nottingham. Ten years from now, I doubt I will even recognise the place.”
“I sense a move towards more development in Derby with apartments, but also two- and three-bedroom houses, fostering more of a community feel. And the planners are on board.”
Brown believes affordability is a key selling point for Derby with houses prices below the national average.
A typical three-bedroom semi in a reasonable location costs around £170,000, an estate-type, three-bedroom semi £200,000. A substantial, four-bedroom detached house with a garden and a double garage costs around £400,000.
Transport links are good with easy access to East Midlands Airport and strong rail links, while families are attracted by the good reputation of local schools, notably Ecclesbourne at Duffield and Queen Elizabeth’s Grammar School in Ashbourne.
“The north and west of Derby, market towns like Ashbourne and Belper, are known as the Golden Triangle. It boasts more green space, good access to the train station and the M1, and a weekend escape to the Peak District right on your doorstep. Prices start from £200,000 for a semi up to £1m,” adds Brown.
“The market is down but I still have several homes on the market at over £1m.”
“I think Derby is better placed than most to withstand the current economic climate.”
Patrick Welsh, Development Director of the Creative Industries Network (CIN) has certainly been won over.
He relocated the family from London to Derby in 2006, exchanging a two-bedroom flat in North Kensington for a five-bedroom family house in the Darley Abbey area, close to Derby’s university district, for £300,000.
“People don’t know Derby like Nottingham and Leicester, and it’s still got a way to go, but I find the quality of life is superb.”
He adds: “We park on the street, have a decent-sized garden, a good school for our two children round the corner and the countryside is just a few miles away. We’ve even formed a little neighbourhood group.”
“But it’s not a provincial life. I find a lot of people have come from London and brought their skills with them. People have traditionally moved to Derby for the high-tech industries, but there is an increasing number of outlets for the creative arts – and the opening of QUAD will help to foster the city’s cultural life.”
So, if Keira and her current co-stars, Ralph Fiennes and Charlotte Rampling, are back filing in the region over the next few years, they may find a city changed beyond all recognition. John Cadwallader certainly hopes so.
“By 2020, Derby will be, in a word, busier. Quite simply,” he smiles, “that’s our goal.”
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This article was first published in the Weekend FT in June 2008.