Express & Star

Why Tipton retains its charm despite sweeping changes to industrial heritage

Mark Andrews visits 'the Venice of the Black Country' in the latest of our Down Your Way features.

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Owen Street was once a thriving thoroughfare but remains at the heart of Tipton

The walls of The Fountain pub are festooned with black-and-white photographs of old Tipton.

The butcher, the baker, the sweet shop with the glass jars in the window, the pictures are a reminder of a bygone era when the town's narrow, winding thoroughfare of Owen Street was crammed with small independent retailers, their striped awnings keeping the sunlight off the deep windows.

Today, most of the shops on the one side of the road have been replaced by red-brick terraced houses set behind wrought-iron railings, while the headquarters of the Tipton & Coseley Building Society dominates the other.

The classic Victorian high street has been replaced by a slightly desolate looking 1980s shopping precinct, with 'to let' signs hanging above the shuttered windows.

Tipton Shopping Centre now dominates

But while the questionable redevelopment of the late 1970s and early 80s may have changed the fabric of the 'Venice of the Black Country' one thing that has not changed is the warm welcome this close-knit community still provides.

Ray Davies, relaxing over a pint in the lounge of The Fountain with wife Marilyn, sums up what makes Tipton so special.

"If anyone comes through the door here, and they need help or anything, they know we'll be there for them," he says.

"Tipton people all look out for each other."

Ray and Marilyn Davies enjoy a drink in The Fountain Inn

In many respects The Fountain, next to the canal at the top of the town, is one of the last bastions of the old Tipton.

Once kept by legendary bare-knuckle boxer William Perry, or the Tipton Slasher as he was better known, it was once in the heart of the town's bustling shopping street.

The redevelopment has left it it a little isolated, but the moment you walk through the door you can feel the warm Black Country welcome.

"I'm Tipton born and bred," says licensee Steve Bennett, who has kept the Fountain for the past 10 years.

Steve Bennett, landlord of The Fountain Inn

"This is a traditional local. If people come in here lost, somebody will end up taking them in their car."

A former engineer, Steve mourns the loss of the old town centre, and the days when townsfolk were employed in the numerous factories and foundries which were dotted all around the town.

Waterside apartments have replaced the old industries at the side of the canals, with swans the only occupants of the waterways once clogged with barges.

It is a different story when the town hosts the annual canal-boat festival, though, and Steve says in the summer months it does a roaring trade from the boating buffs and canal-walkers.

The Fountain Inn is one of the town's enduring landmarks

"There used to be factories on every corner," says Steve, who is 61. "People have to travel to work now, they used to be able to work in Tipton."

He also regrets the major redevelopment that took place in Owen Street between 1979 and 1982, which saw the old shops which had stood for generations swept away and replaced by houses and a smaller, modern shopping centre.

"They took all the shops away," says Steve. "They thought everybody would be going to Dudley instead. The shopping centre does not do well at all. It's mainly old-age pensioners around here now, and they all get the bus to Dudley or West Brom."

Pub manager Rachel Marsh also voices concerns about the lack of free cashpoints in the town.

"There used to be three banks in the high street, but they've all gone. It costs £1 a time to get your money."

Shopper Sue McHugh has lived in Tipton all her life

Standing outside the Nisa convenience store at the bottom of Owen Street is 66-year-old Sue McHugh.

Aside from a short period in Birmingham while doing her nurse training, Sue has lived in Tipton all her life.

"A lot of people say it's run down, but I've never wanted to live anywhere else," she says.

"The people are friendly, I feel safe here."

But like Steve, she feels the changes that have taken place since her youth have not been for the better.

Swans are the main users of the canals once packed with working barges

"This used to be a proper town, everywhere was shops, you could get anything," she says.

"I think it was better when I was younger, now to go shopping you have to go to Merry Hill or somewhere like that.

"I think that's a problem, there's a lot of old people who live here."

Sub-postmaster Paul Samra is a well-known figure in the community, having kept the post office in Union Street with his wife Amarjit for the past 10 years.

Paul and Amarjit Samra keep the Post Office in Union Street

He enjoys being at the heart of a close-knit community.

"The people are very friendly and very helpful," says Paul, 66.

But he is concerned about the lack of police presence, blaming cuts to the police budget.

"The Government cut down too much," he said.

A statue of Tipton Slasher William Perry in Coronation Gardens

"You used to see the police walking around in the morning, but now you don't see them ever.

"It's not safe for the elderly people, when they come here for their pensions, they always bring somebody with them, it's more safe for them."

He added that he had heard stories about people being robbed by youngsters on bikes.

His other concern is about the number of empty shops in the main shopping centre. He says the problem has become worse since Sandwell Council sold the complex to a private landlord.

"The trade is very quiet, the rents are too much, people can't afford it," he says.

Barber Chris Standing says Tipton is a great place to work

Across the road is Standing's Barbershop. Owner Chris Standing, 30, says business has been booming since he moved into the town centre 14 months ago, and is now looking to take on an extra barber.

"Like any high street, you get the odd 'character', but we never have any bother," he says.

Chris's one bugbear is parking – or more specifically parking enforcement.

"We've had a few customers done with £60 fines," he says.

The brightly coloured flower beds outside the Tipton Shopping Centre in Owen Street

"When I first came here, there were no traffic wardens.

"There's a two-hour limit on the car park, but sometimes the wait here is more than two hours.

"I have written to the owners, suggesting they make it a pay-and-display car park, so everybody pays, or alternatively they could extend it to three hours."

One change that everyone agrees has been for the better is the £22.5 million tunnel between the railway line, which opened 10 years ago last month – putting an end the traffic congestion at the infamous level crossing.

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