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Paul Miller's Ashbourne voice

By Ashbourne News Telegraph  |  Posted: May 21, 2014

The high street is a valuable resource, not least because it brings people together – for the greater good of the town.

Paul Miller looks at the human side of the town's high street.

IN my opinion, our daily high street is the most important part of Ashbourne's heritage. In 100 years, our Georgian frontages could be destroyed by planners but could still be restored to former glory through investment and sensitive restoration.

Our human heritage, our way of life and the way we operate as a community, is much more fragile. There is a spider's web which holds us together and coordinates us.

Although we have disagreements, debate and politics, it stays in place over generations. Each issue we face plucks a thread somewhere on the web and the vibrations make their way to us – provided we stay connected.

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I've banged on extensively in the last few columns about the importance of shopping locally and you could be forgiven for thinking it's all about the money.

This week I wanted to tell a slightly different and far more important story: about the human side of it.

There is no contract which holds the web together – it's based on decades of trust, respect and belief.

I can't think of any other way to tell the story than through personal anecdote.

I'll start with the market. Two years ago I knew none of the traders by name. I was just a shopper. I overheard Vic (clothing) mentioning the threat to the Thursday market and it struck a chord.

I learnt more about the issues and, through blogging, I exchanged ideas with Jim at Derbyshire Dales.

I was offered support from others who shared my concerns and we raised a petition which got a lot of support.

Over the ensuing months, I translated stalls into people and met Margaret (household goods), Julie (fruit and veg), Lorraine (underwear) and Michelle, who had a stall with flapjack and olives and who subsequently runs the craft and farmers' markets in the town hall. She recently made me a bow tie to match some cufflinks I'd bought – try buying anything comparable from national chains.

Through blogging and social media I discovered more about our high street independent retailers.

I don't think I'm one of life's natural networkers but, through a common cause, I've had an excuse to turn being a customer into having a more general conversation.

I've converted social media "friends" and "followers" into people to talk to. By talking, you discover what you have in common and how you can help each other.

Neil (Vintage Bluebird) had the perfect birthday present, Nikki (Olive Tree) had some great ideas for Valentine's Day, Jackie (Betty's Sewing Box) had some small quantities of wool for my wife, Steve (Natural Choice) found something that works for my sinuses and is a source of giant cous cous and Bob (Fresh Choice) sold me my first loaf of Pete's magnificent bread and introduced me to the long-lasting pleasure of Jerusalem artichokes.

Most recently, I had the honour of meeting the wonderful Charles who solved my wife's handbag dilemma (don't ask but he is a very clever man).

Right now, planning is an issue and it can seem the most faceless. Like a couple of hundred other people, I attended the housing consultation meeting months ago. I asked questions, researched a little and kept up with the neighbourhood plan. Lucy, Darren, and Jeffrey became real people rather than stories in the newspaper.

I went to talk to Sue at the Coffee Stop and it's only through discussion that I appreciated the devil in the detail and the real impact decisions can have. There is no doubt we've missed some large tricks in planning over the years through being inattentive but we are now in a positive place. Our way of fighting back is through working together, not through a legal battle.

Importantly, we are getting much closer to understanding the challenges faced by the town and what "Ashbourne" really wants rather than what we should want.

We are now asking people who feel disenfranchised and, importantly, some of the teenagers and young adults in Ashbourne what they think about our town. Maybe the neighbourhood plan's consultation will give them the representation they deserve.

I'm more convinced than ever that true heritage is in the daily snippets, gossip and conversations on the street and not in the bricks and mortar that border it.

Our retail high street, our pubs, restaurants and places of worship are the reason Ashburnians meet, interact and strengthen the web. That's why we must protect them all.

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