The continuing decline of the high street has been hurried along by the COVID-19 crisis. But in Great Yarmouth, a dynamism and willingness to be innovative, supported by the Architectural Heritage Fund, is helping buck the trend and creating jewels from treasured community assets.
Since 2014, the Board of Great Yarmouth Preservation Trust (GYPT) has targeted the town’s King Street by acquiring historic buildings in a state of severe deterioration and creating viable and sustainable new uses, including an art gallery, artist studios and quality residential housing and offices.
The trust has provided training and engagement opportunities for the community and established a social enterprise company employing people it has trained during the restoration works.
King Street is one of the principle historic and trading streets within the town’s medieval walls and the King Street Conservation Area of Great Yarmouth. It is in a most deprived area and many buildings had fallen into a poor condition.
The intervention by the trust has created quality, affordable residential units that have helped to generate and sustain a livelier community.
“Redundant and underused historic buildings can play an important part in revitalising towns”
The first building to be repaired and repurposed was a late 17th century house and warehouse. This has been transformed into an art gallery, four artist studios and a three-bed residential unit above. A robust business plan ensures that income maintains the building and services the loan to purchase it.
Using the same method, a neighbouring Grade II listed mid-17th century merchant’s house with two cottages at the rear was saved from extreme deterioration and repurposed as the Neighbourhood Centre (one of the council’s three neighbourhood offices), the offices of GYPT and four residential units in the ancillary buildings.
In 2017, using a mortgage loan from the local authority, a Grade II listed former merchant’s house dating from the 18th century was acquired. Having been used as an American diner, it required significant and appropriate interventions to bring it back into use.
This now serves as office accommodation for the Sue Lambert Trust, a Norfolk-based charity providing support for survivors of sexual abuse. It also allowed the reinstatement of a three-bed town house and the repurposing of the cellar as offices for a newly formed architects’ practice.
The final building – a jettied, timber-framed building dating from 1650 – was subject to a local authority compulsory purchase order and was sold on to the trust in 2020.
The GYPT secured a small loan from the Architectural Heritage Fund to purchase the building and a further grant to create a ground-floor shop with a two-bedroom residential property above. The work will be completed in 2021.
There are many towns in England similar to Great Yarmouth, with an evocative, historic past and a strong identity but now facing huge challenges.
The role of the high street needs to be rethought. GYPT and the Architectural Heritage Fund – through its Transforming Places Through Heritage programme – has recognised that redundant and underused historic buildings can play an important part in revitalising towns.
Finding new uses for these buildings can restore civic pride that deepens connections between local communities, their high streets and town centres.