Stepping out in Street, Somerset
PUBLISHED: 15:19 11 January 2019 | UPDATED: 15:58 02 November 2020
It may be famed for its shoemaking history and a certain discount shopping outlet, but there’s a lot more going on in this Somerset village
Over the last couple of decades Street has achieved fame as the location for the country’s first outlet shopping village. Clarks Village is set around the former factory buildings of shoemaker C & J Clark, and is an attractive shopping centre bringing thousands of visitors every year. But there’s far more to Street than just bargain shopping.
Take a turn down one of the paths leading out of Clarks Village and you’ll find the High Street, at one end of which is a collection of striking architectural buildings.
Crispin Hall and nearby Wilfrid Road are both examples of Arts and Crafts design created by the architect George Skipper. Opposite are the original Clarks headquarters, which boast a clock tower, also designed by Skipper.
Much of the look of the village is down to Clarks. Founded in 1825 by Cyrus and James Clark, the shoemaking business followed its Quaker principles and gave back to the village, by building comfortable workers’ housing – Wilfrid Road – and providing leisure facilities, like the open air swimming pool. The Greenbank heated outdoor pool was given to the people of Street by Alice Clark in 1937 and is a charity and a listed building. Set in landscaped grounds, and supported by the parish council, a trust left by Alice and entrance fees, it is hugely popular to this day. The Clarks legacy and a fascinating look back at the history of shoemaking can be explored at the nearby Clarks Shoe Museum and also the Alfred Gillett Trust.
Strode Theatre sits on Strode College campus, opposite the Grade I-listed Church of the Holy Trinty. Again, it was a result of the Clark family, built in 1963 through a donation from the Clark Foundation Charitable Trust. When it opened it was billed as the ‘finest small theatre in the west’. The launch included a concert by the Bournemouth Symphony Orchestra and a live broadcast of the BBC’s Any Questions. In 1994 a £1million lottery grant enabled the building of an extension to the theatre which won an architectural award for its Taunton-based architect Stephen Blackley. As well as hosting professional performances the theatre has provided space for local amateur dramatic companies and dance schools. It has also become a respected cinema venue, drawing audiences from many miles away with its programme of both arthouse, foreign language and mainstream films as well as transmissions of live opera, plays and ballet from major London and UK theatres.
Up the hill at Millfield school the Atkinson Gallery is open to the public and hosts a changing series of contemporary art exhibitions. There are also a number of sculptures set within the grounds, including work by Glynn Williams and Peter Randall-Page. Gallery exhibitions have featured national and international names such as Marc Quinn, Sophie Ryder and Anthony Caro. From February 25 to March 23 there will be the annual exhibition of work from MA and other postgraduate students at art schools and universities across the UK.
Street has a strong creative strand and artistic projects flourish. Create Space 2 is a collective of artists, all living locally, which stages pop up exhibitions and events. Founder Dylan Thomas says there had been various pop up shows for a while but the idea really took off two years ago when he was offered the use of the empty Tesco shop, tucked in a mini arcade in the centre of the village.
It ran for six weeks and ended up attracting 76 artists and displaying 3,000 artworks.
“We have an amazing community of artists who mostly live within 10 miles of Street and have a connection to the village,” says Dylan.
Many are professional artists who have work exhibited across the world, “but they call Street their home,” he adds.
They took over the redundant shop again from May to July with another 56 artists showing work which has ranged from enormous steel sculptures to surrealist painting and barge art.
There’s more creative talent to be found at Crispin Hall which after having a major renovation last year now hosts local craftspeople who use the space to sell their goods. It also contains the Street Food Café which serves fabulous coffee and a range of seasonal, wholefood dishes.
Every Thursday the High Street is closed for the weekly market, which includes the very popular Naked Pantry stall, selling every plastic-free item you could wish for.
The village has an eclectic range of eating places too, like Tamburino Village Italian restaurant and Somerset Life Food and Drink Awards runner up Thai Elephant. Longstanding traders seem to be withstanding the pressure of internet shopping, like baker Burns the Bread and Living Homes furniture and electrical store – which initially started as a mail order business but moved to its Street location in 1977.
Clarks dominates as Street’s major business success story but the village is also home to more recent innovative achievements, like Isla Inspired, which sells new and pre-loved organic baby clothes, and also offers a clothing subscription service.
Owner Fiona Burrows first heard about the subscription idea from her son who was organising a Ted conference in Denmark. One of the speakers talked about the idea of parents paying a monthly subscription for which they receive a pack of clothes for their baby which, when grown out of, they can exchange for a new set.
It’s a simple idea which has seen extraordinary success for Fiona and her daughter Gabby who launched the scheme first at home, then moved into the shop premises. Parents pay £25 a month, for which they receive a pack of clothes for children aged 0-3. The number of items in each pack, and the length of time kept, varies according to the age of the child. Every item is made of organic materials, all from British companies. Once used they are returned to the shop which launders the items ready for use again.
“Until last year we were the only people doing this,” says Fiona, who sends packs all over the country. “Within the last few months it has really taken off, which is just fantastic.”
Dylan for one is convinced that, although quiet on the surface, Street provides the perfect conditions for creative and entrepreneurial adventures. It has “an air of possibility”, he says.
“In most communities, if you tell people it’s possible, some will say it’s not worth trying but others say let’s give it a go. Street is very definitely somewhere people say, ‘let’s have a go’.
Every Saturday at 9am Street hosts a Parkrun. Part of a national movement to help people keep fit, Parkruns are regular and open to anyone. They cover 5km and the Street run attracts an average of 151 runners – who can visit Strode Theatre afterwards for coffee and cake!
The Street Heath nature reserve is on the neighbouring Somerset Levels and belongs to Somerset Wildlife Trust. It’s a rich wildlife habitat covering around 30 acres.
Just on the edge of the village there are the Walton and Ivythorn Hills; much of these protected Sites of Special Scientific Interest are owned by the National Trust and offer woodland exploration as well as fantastic views. Located in the heart of this land, Street Youth Hostel is also worth a visit. The chalet-style building opened in 1931 and is the oldest YHA in operation today. It has 28 beds in private or dorm rooms or people can camp in the grounds or try one of the bell tents or camping pods for a spot of glamping luxury.
• Harry Patch, ‘the last fighting Tommy’, moved to Street in the 1940s where he ran a plumbing company before he retired.
• Gustav Holst conducted an orchestra in Crispin Hall in 1922.
• Street is the birthplace of the photographer John Wilfrid Hinde.
• The village is famous for its ichthyosaurs remains which were uncovered in the 1800s and are now in the Natural History Museum