Heather Warren of Oakes Barn backs our Love Local campaign to support Bury St Edmunds town centre
When Heather Warren co-founded Oakes Barn she wanted the pub in St Andrew’s Street South to be a community hub.
Five years on, the venue has become just as well-known for hosting a wide selection of groups as it has for its range of real ale on tap.
“We do lots of events and have lots of different groups and services,” said Heather. “It is all part of being a hub. It is a place for everyone to come together.”
This week Oakes Barn was scheduled to host an art group, a knitting club, a French class, a folk collective and an acoustic guitar night. Top marks for the open-mindedness of anyone who attended them all.
Heather was a nurse at West Suffolk Hospital before taking over the pub and is rightfully proud of the achievements of her team. After all, any venue that can claim to hold a monthly Texas Hold’em Poker session on the same night as unaccompanied folk singing clearly has the ambition to cater for a range of people.
It raises the kind of community spirit that would suit the whole of Bury St Edmunds. And that is exactly what Heather has in mind.
The Lincolnshire-born publican meets me shortly after she arrives at the Barn, and it’s still unfortunately a couple of hours before I can buy a drink.
She speaks openly about her vision for Bury, which she holds alongside her dreams for the pub. Her passion for the town’s betterment has seen her become a director of the town’s business improvement district (BID).
But Heather is under no illusion things are splendid in the town centre.
“It has been a tough year,” she said. “There have been lots of road works and gas works occurring. We have lots of empty buildings.”
Mark Cordell, BID chief executive, recently told the Bury Free Press that five shops had closed between November 2017 and November of last year. By the last count, 29 of the town’s 500 shops now stand empty. As Mark put it, things are not ‘disastrous’ but are ‘far from rosy’.
Heather is therefore delighted to join her BID colleague in backing this newspaper’s Love Local campaign – established to promote everything that is great about Bury.
Last week, Bury Free Press editor Barry Peters launched the campaign dedicated to safeguarding the shops, services and restaurants that make the heart of the town special.
High streets are coming under increasing pressures, with the recently announced closures of some Marks & Spencer branches and HMV stores around the country demonstrating how tough the climate is. However, both these brands will not be closing their shops in Bury, which shows a confidence in the town.
And many independent traders reported their Christmas was not ‘as bad as feared’, which somewhat contrasts to comments made by Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley that shops were generally being ‘smashed to pieces’ during the period.
“We need to work together to get people into the town," - Heather Warren
However, Bury is not immune to these challenges and Heather considers the internet to be the high street’s biggest threat.
Online shopping is a ‘big issue’, she said, and described it to not be on a level playing field with physical retail. But it is a battle worth fighting, as £10 spent in a local independent shop means up to an additional £50 goes back into the local economy. And for every £1 spent with an independent business, around 20p more stays in the local economy than with a national retailer. Bury has 20 per cent more independent businesses than the UK average, and Heather feels this is a unique selling point for the town.
“We encourage people to spend their money in Bury St Edmunds,” she said.
“We can attract people in with the Abbey, Cathedral and a variety of shops. We can spread the word through advertising and on social media. Word of mouth is a big thing and we have a group of staff who are supportive. I know a man who is going to launch a charity and will be based here (at the Barn) for his first year.”
The pub is also supporting the town by sponsoring local sports teams – but Heather is aware she cannot do it alone.
“We need to work together to get people into the town,” she continued.
“BID has been important. There needs to be more working together. A great example is the World War One trail, where businesses got involved with artists. It is a question of supporting each other and working together.
“Businesses should be encouraged to join in with events. BID advisor Mike Kirkham has been involved in that side. It would be nice to see Bury St Edmunds growing with more businesses making contributions to the town.”
Heather is proud that Bury has been able to hold its own with shoppers still choosing to come here rather than bigger towns in the region. She feels that lessons can be learned from Cambridge in how the city brands itself to encourage in visitors – and that other practical measures can make a big difference.
She added: “It would be nice to see parking increased for longer, alternative means to get to the town centre and facilities for storing bikes for longer.
“We want to attract new businesses into town to fill our empty units. We want actions to come from the council’s masterplan and collaborate with them further.”
Changing shopping habits is a tricky process – but, like creating a community hub, it is working together that makes anything possible.
Next week find out more about how you can get involved with Love Local.