You had to think the worst when even McDonald’s pulled out of Stockton’s famous High Street after 22 years, and when a national organisation estimated one in four shops in the town stood empty.
This image, as recently as last September, had representatives of the borough council promptly declaring the scenario unrecognisable. No matter the riders of having the fifth highest rate of empty shops in Britain; of at least doing better than Hartlepool (claimed to be least successful in Britain at securing occupants for its shops then); or that Stockton actually had – the Local Data Company conceded – improved the shop filling position by 2.4% over a year.
Stockton, the town with Britain’s widest high street - and enjoying another survey’s conclusion that it has one of the area’s top 10% of local authorities at engaging in business - did right to question accuracy of the retail analysis; often situations like this change even as statistics are being compiled. Stockton could and did point out how the number of new businesses setting up, together with the findings on its ability to do business, reflected by contrast, “a massive vote of confidence”.
Castlegate for example, one of its two main shopping centres, was already 96% let. Meanwhile a massive £38m injection of redevelopment and refurbishment for the town centre, under a five year plan - £20m of it for the High Street - has also been making impact.
One of the outstanding resources for Stockton’s recovery is, of course, the people – people like the enterprising foodie Lorna Jackson, who has consciously or otherwise, taken a leaf out of Mary Portas’s recipe book for high streets’ renaissance.
Having successfully organised a farmers’ market in the lovely old Victorian seaside resort of Saltburn a few miles away, she has introduced the same asset for Stockton – and annual food festivals too. Her research suggests the two attractions together bring around £660,000 into Teesside’s economy.
With 20 markets a year held at the two venues, Saltburn’s average of 35 traders make around £600 of sales each through 10,000 or so people attending, while Stockton’s 20 traders draw slightly less. In addition, the regular food festivals she organises feature around 70 traders each making average sales of £800 – generating an extra £56,000 of value for local residents and businesses.
As these figures refer only to the markets and festivals, it can be assumed that thousands of visitors actually create a wider annual economic impact – more than £1m through the farmers’ markets.
All the organisation needed sounds taxing enough. But in addition Lorna, a 42-year-old mother of two young children, is also a hands-on co-director of the family owned Real Meals Café and Delicatessen, on Milton Street near Saltburn railway station. A local lass, educated at Huntcliffe School, Saltburn, then Sir William Turner Sixth Form College, Redcar, Lorna went on to study ecology at Liverpool University and later became a farm manager at White Waltham near Maidenhead in Berkshire.
Her experience there, coupled with childhood memories of her mum, Sheila Beswick, cooking and working in the garden, drew her back to the North East where Sheila, 65 now, and Lorna’s stepdad Tim, 68, had set up Real Meals 17 years ago on taking early retirement from teaching.
One day a local resident suggested a regular food market for Saltburn. Instead of seeing this as potential competition for the family business, Lorna considered it a potential propagator of locally grown food, enticing enough to bring many more visitors into the town.
Using her contacts with producers from a 50 mile radius, she set about instituting the market seven years ago. Two years later she took up Stockton Council’s invitation to establish the Stockton market, and last year the Saltburn venture was a finalist for national title of Farmers’ Market of the Year.
It’s believed it brought 100,000 more visitors to the town last year, and there is now a waiting list to trade there. Saltburn Market has 35 stallholders and a waiting list that would only end if the local authority agreed to close the road on market days.
Meanwhile Real Meals enjoys £180,000-a-year turnover and employs 11 staff. Lorna’s confident the Stockton enterprise, too, will double in size before long, especially as supermarkets have been losing appeal and shoppers show growing preference to buy local produce.
Will she accept invitations received to open other farmers’ markets? She’s been invited to do so in Thornaby, Whitby, Danby, Guisborough and Loftus. “I honestly can’t take on any more but will consider further ventures when the girls are a little older. I only like to do things if I can do them properly,” she says.
Younger brother Dan Jackson, 36, helps run Real Meals. Lorna’s daughters Eirinn, 11, and Florence, six, sometimes help on market days, while Lorna’s partner Craig Hannaway, 45, often sells from the 60 varieties on the shop’s cheese counter. These come in equal proportion from the North East, Yorkshire and elsewhere in Britain.
Lorna finds there’s little the region doesn’t produce now in artisan lines, from the cheeses to breads, preservatives, organic meats, pies, pates, free range eggs, chutneys, seafood, spirits, cereals, cakes, biscuits and real ales. But vegetables, butter, cream and fresh milk could be better represented.
Using local produce whenever possible, Real Meals also prepares on the premises. It roasts its own Yorkshire beef, pork and poultry, makes its own pies and bakes its own cakes. A range of imported goods from Africa, France, Spain and Italy also feature, the latter including handmade pastas. For many visitors a shopping expedition with offerings like these adds to Saltburn’s original charm as a Victorian seaside resort with pier, the colourful Italian gardens and walks through Riftswood.
Saltburn market takes place (9am-3pm) on the second Saturday of each month. Stockton’s takes place on the last Saturday of each month except August and November on the High Street (9am- 2pm). Saltburn’s latest Food Festival was taking place on 2 August.
“I love running both the markets and the deli,” Lorna says. “We want to encourage people to have an appetite for good food. We’re succeeding at that.”