Frontier town puts its fighting spirit to good use
Another market town, another unique set of circumstances – and Launceston is as unique as it gets.
For example, it is arguably the only community that you could describe as a frontier town in the South West. Climb the mighty ramparts of Launceston Castle and look out at the wide marches between Bodmin and Dartmoor, and up there – on the dark tower – confronted by the heartlands of our peninsula, you will feel the essential beat of the region's pulse and you will also see how the town really is located at a meeting place between two very separate zones.
It is the place where Celtic meets Anglo-Saxon – the place which acts as a portal between all that is English and all that is Cornish.
To me, this gives Launceston a unique selling proposition, or USP – but I don't think it has fully grasped this happy accident of geography mingled with history to full advantage.
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I am sure it will, though – because Launceston is a place that is in the process of reinventing itself and pulling together in a way that it has, perhaps, not done before.
When I visited 12 years ago for the WMN's first market town series Launceston did look just a bit down at heel in places. Not any more it doesn't.
There is a positive buzz about the place which is perhaps encapsulated by the truly impressive way the community has revamped and refurbished its mighty town-hall and guild-hall.
It is also portrayed by the fact that nearly 100 Launceston businesses have signed up to the town's new loyalty card scheme – an innovative venture aimed at attracting consumers and getting them to return again and again.
In researching and writing this series it has become apparent to me that our traditional towns need to be fully proactive – civic movers and shakers cannot just sit there and assume that long proud histories will mean long proud futures.
You get the feeling that in Launceston they are already getting all hands to the communal pump – although some people may question the town's apparent enthusiasm in welcoming a giant new supermarket.
Anyway, Launceston not only has a USP – it has an amazing location right by the main A30 thoroughfare that takes millions of folk in and out of Cornwall. So let us find out if the town manages to lure travellers off the big road.
I asked the town's tourist information centre manageress, Alison Jeffery. "We are always trying to 'up' visitor numbers," she told me. "Launceston has a lot to offer and we are trying to make it a more attractive place to come to. There's lots of parking and there are things to see and do and plenty of unique shops."
But is all this heralded to the passing motorists as they zoom down the A30 which bypasses around town?
"The signage is a bit of a contention," said Mrs Jeffery. "We have discussed it at some length – we'd like to go back and look at it again."
Next I called at the grand new town hall for a word with Mayor Rob Tremain who first of all explained why the old building had required a £1million make-over.
"In 2010 the building was shut for 12 months while it was completely renovated – we had a new roof, new under-floor heating – it's an absolutely fabulous space for the people of Launceston to use.
"And they are using it," said the mayor. "It used to be a case of bringing an overcoat and a cushion when you came to the town hall – it's not any more. It cost getting on towards £1million – but there's not a day goes past without the main hall, the guild hall or one of the two letting rooms being used.
"We've got almost every organisation you can think of – all the societies – and we now seem to be working together. I think the reopening of the town hall acted as a catalyst for people to act together in the town.
"Launceston has a new buzz about it," he went on. "We've got some super new shops – specialist shops – and people discover us and say: 'Gosh – we didn't know you had all this here'."
So, what about the big elephant that is about to enter the room? I asked Mr Tremain what he thought the community felt about the idea of a big new Morrison supermarket being built on the outskirts of town.
"Well, it's going to be a flagship store which will make Launceston a destination town – whatever that means. People go to Bodmin for the Morrisons or Asda – or to Bude – whereas they don't do their big supermarket shopping here. The people who should know about these things are saying it will bring people to Launceston.
"We've got everything for the visitor here – the castle, the museum, the church, the steam railway, the otter park – there's an awful lot in and around the town. The hope is that people will come and do their bread and butter shopping – then come on into town. Many of the local business people are welcoming the new Morrisons. And the town council is hoping that when we sit down to work things out with planners, it's not just plonked on the outskirts – that there will be some link through to the town centre."
One reason a large retailer would be interested in Launceston is that the town is growing. "For many years we were hovering around the 6,000 [population] – now we're up to the 8,000 mark," Mr Tremain told me. "Now there's plans for another couple of hundred homes with a new primary school as part of the deal.
"We're pretty near Exeter and Plymouth and people do come here to live who work in those places – but we don't just want to be a dormitory town. That's partly what the new Morrisons is about – there are going to be jobs up there in other developments – a hotel and so on. We are hoping it will all be good for the town."
To find out what local retailers think I met Jeremy Loft, who runs Gillards sweet shop and who is a prime mover in the "Love Launceston Loyalty Card Scheme".
"We won't stop the Morrisons development and it will give our existing Tesco a run for their money," he shrugged. "Launceston is unique. The shops that we have try to sell things that the supermarkets don't.
"But we do have a lot of people who go to Bodmin shopping at the moment – hopefully now they will stay here. So there are plus-sides – it won't kill the town and in some ways it might help us." Mr Loft is obviously a man who believes that towns and their businesses should be taking their own fate into their own hands – and he was only too keen to explain the local loyalty card scheme to me.
"We got together about eight months ago to encourage people to shop in town and to do something about the price of parking. When the scheme first started on May 11 we had 66 businesses sign up straight away. They give a discount to customers who can use the loyalty card any time as much as they like.
"There will be certain lines on the discount – and the shops will change their offer, perhaps once a month. For example, here we are doing 20 pence off an ice cream – so a family will save over a £1 – put that towards the parking and it's a big discount.
"We now have 93 businesses that have joined and it's growing much more than we ever thought it would," said Mr Loft. "That is reflected in the number of customers taking the cards – we have people looking for the offers now – our website is being rebuilt and we are big on Twitter. All these things are getting out the offers."
Mr Loft told me that he and his fellow Launceston businessmen and women had other ideas in the pipeline that would make the town unique in the Westcountry.
"We have to work together – and, with us being so unique, people will shop here. To put it simply – we have to do things better and compete – and this is what things like the loyalty card scheme are all about."
As a frontier town, Launceston has certainly seen a great deal of fighting down the ages – most notably in the English Civil War – and it's good to see that in a self-help kind of way the old fighting spirit still exists in town today.