Down Your Way: How to unlock bright future for Willenhall

Mark Andrews visits Willenhall in the latest of our Down Your Way features.

The war memorial in Willenhall Market Place
The war memorial in Willenhall Market Place

Stepping into Roy Birch's DIY and hardware store is like stepping back in time.

Ladles hanging from the ceiling, screws of every size and description, barely room to move for all the tins of paint, garden tools, and packets of garden seeds.

"Some people call us Arkwright's because we have so many unusual things," says Roy's wife Cynthia.

Keith Mason keeps Willenhall Hardware and Ironmongers

"We serve people here, you don't have to look for things, you ask for them."

Roy, who is 89, has had a shop in Willenhall for 55 years.

He has a ready supply of anecdotes about how he has managed to source seemingly impossible-to-find items, ranging from 50-year-old screws needed by a clockmaker, to 1970s wardrobe motifs needed by a specialist wardrobe maker.

If you need something out of the ordinary, Roy is the guy to go to.

Willenhall is a town bristling with old-school shops such as his.

The ironmonger, the 100-year-old Muddy Pig butchers, the second-hand shop, the fishmonger's and fruit stalls around the historic market place.

Market day in Willenhall

Willenhall is the epitome of the traditional Black Country market town.

But while it has bags of olde-worlde charm, it is also a town with its problems.

Almost everyone you talk to speaks about its decline over the past few decades. Shopkeepers talk about how trade is getting harder.

While there are different views about the cause of the town's problems, and what should be done to improve things, the one thing they pretty much all agree on is that things aren't what they were.

Willenhall has some beautiful old buildings

Roy, says the best thing about the town is the people, and the sense of camaraderie between the traders.

"If one of the shops hasn't got what somebody wants, they will tell you where to get it," he says.

The ironmonger's looking for a crowbar, and he directed him over here. We do that for each other."

Willenhall, once one of the world's leading centres for lock-making, has seen considerable industrial decline over the past half century.

The former Bell Inn is one of Willenhall's oldest buildings

The same could be said for many towns, of course, but there is a feeling among shopkeepers that the town has bore more than its fair share of hardship.

A lack of parking, changes to road layouts, and a general lack of investment in the town are also cited as issues, as well as the growth of online shopping.

"I've got a lot of customers, but that's because I've got three generations of customers, from when the old granny would bring her little kids in," says Roy.

"But for most of the shops it's a struggle, and that's all because of the internet."

Just around the corner, Keith Mason keeps Willenhall Hardware and DIY Ironmongers in the Market Place.

Cynthia and Roy Birch outside their hardware and DIY store

The 55-year-old has kept the shop for the past 18 years, and says the town has suffered over that time.

"It's in a bad place," he says. "It looks run down.

"Some of that is down to pedestrianisation, it has meant nobody can come down here and pick something up.

"Personally, I would open it back up to traffic, I think it would be better, but you would need the traffic wardens then because people would abuse it."

Just opposite his shop, Martin Bowater, also 55, tells a similar story.

He has kept the fresh fish stall on the open-air market for the past 26 years, but says business has become much tougher over that time.

"A lot of factories have gone from here," he says. "There's still the people who live here, but the people who used to work here don't work here anymore.

"People don't come here anymore, because you can't park.

"They need to give us more free parking, and get rid of some of th

Fishmonger Martin Bowater

e traffic wardens."

One place where there is free parking in the town is at Morrison's, but Martin is not convinced that has been a great benefit to the town.

"If people park at Morrison's, they might as well do their shopping at Morrison's," he says.

Jiwan Gaind, who keeps the Golden Girl clothes store, celebrates 40 years in the town in July this year. Like many of her fellow shopkeepers, she feels the town has been neglected.

"The people are very friendly, but we need more support," she says. "There are a lot of tatty old shops, and we need toilets. I would say it has been going down for about 10 years.

"We need more police, you don't see them around enough and there is a lot of crime and thefts. If you need the police, by the time they get here the criminals have gone. The police station is closed."

Jiwan Gaind has kept the Golden Girl clothing shop for 40 years

Standing outside Jiwan's shop with their huge caucasian shepherd dog Charker are Terrence Thomas and Pat Moore.

Pat, who is 73, is Willenhall born and bred, remembered working in a chemist shop in the town in the 1960s.

"It used to be like and A&E then, we had a lot of lock factories then and there used to be a lot of industrial accidents," she says.

"It was a brilliant town. On the three market days, there was only room to walk down the centre because there were customers either side."

Terrence, who is 75, points out that there used to be several thriving pubs around the market place, but they have since closed.

Unlike some other people in the town, though, Pat thinks Morrison's has been a positive asset.

Pat Moore and Terrence Thomas with huge dog Charker

"I think it's much better since Morrison's opened," she says. "At least people are coming into Willenhall."

Beth Bates, 23, keeps the school uniform stall on the market. While she obviously cannot remember the bustling times of the 1960s, she is very positive about the place.

"It's a lovely town," she says. "The people are very friendly, everybody knows everybody, and everybody helps everybody.

"But we do need toilets, we used to have them, and then they closed. A lot of the old buildings need cleaning as well."

Willenhall town centre

Dave Williams, who keeps a fruit and vegetable stall on the market agrees the lack of toilets is a problem.

"There used to be toilets here, but there was anti-social behaviour," he says.

"Instead of getting rid of the people causing the trouble, they got rid of the toilets. A lot of old people won't come into the town because of this."

Market day in Willenhall

Dave, who has been working on the market since 1997, says it has become much harder in recent years.

"It's just a case of keeping my regular customers now, " he says.

"You never see any new ones. People just want a McDonalds or a sausage roll from Greggs these days, everybody has their food delivered."

Stewart Cartwright outside The Muddy Pig butcher

The Muddy Pig butcher in Cross Street is one of Willenhall's oldest shops, having been in the town for more than a century. But butcher Stewart Cartwright, 37, is critical of a change to the road, which saw the direction of traffic reversed.

"Since they turned the road around it's been terrible," he says.

"The trade is still good, but it's been better."

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