A huge advocate for the Prudhoe’s versatile business community, Councillor Gordon Stewart is keen to point out just how thriving the town is.
And while other areas are blighted by the ‘Death of the High Street’, the rural town is very much bucking the trend, with new stores opening and investment committed to ensure it remains a tourism hotspot.
Gordon chatted to writer Leanne Fawcett about the past, the here-and-now, and the future.
Sitting down with Councillor Gordon Stewart, the Prudhoe councillor who is currently serving his second term on Northumberland County Council, you cannot help but smile at his passion and enthusiasm.
He tells me at the start how much he likes talking about the town which he serves, and he isn’t wrong, but with so much knowledge of the area I couldn’t help but be drawn in and could have happily spent the afternoon chatting to him, far longer than the hour we had allocated.
This is a man who lives and breathes Prudhoe – so I was genuinely keen to find out from him more about the town, its history and what the business community is like, both in terms of its flagship employers – we all recognise the Thompsons of Prudhoe lorries that are seen on roads in all corners of the region – and the smaller enterprises which populate Front Street.
Gordon says: “Prudhoe is an old town which is built on a hillside around its historic castle, close to the urban conurbation of Gateshead, but with lots of wonderful countryside around us.
“Historically the town was known for coal mining but like so many other areas, the mine has been shut for many years and new industries including engineering have replaced it.
“There are some real big hitting businesses located in Prudhoe, including Thompsons, and Essity – the toilet roll manufacturer. Both are hugely committed to supporting the town and are very active in the community, which definitely helps bring everyone together.
“Alongside industry, Prudhoe is home to a thriving main street, or Front Street, which has benefited from significant investment not only in the retail units themselves but the areas around it, to make it a location that people want to come to, not just somewhere that they pop to for essentials.”
Unlike many towns up and down the country, Prudhoe is bucking the trend for the ‘Death of the High Street’ and while in many a town around the North East you’ll find more units boarded up than trading, Prudhoe is benefiting from new shops opening on a regular basis.
In fact, as we chatted, a new sweet shop business was in the process of moving in on Front Street, and Gordon had been taking a keen interest in the progress of its opening.
And it’s units like these that are helping attract visitors to the area, not least a famous fish and chip shop which Gordon tells me people travel from miles around to eat at, and the award winning Caffè Ginevra, which has been so successful in Prudhoe that it led to its owners opening additional cafés at Blyth, Newcastle and Wynyard Park.
Gordon added: “Our Front Street is a real jewel-in-the-crown, with investment evident in all corners.
“There are small shops that people travel into Prudhoe to visit, for example there’s a knitting shop that is thriving which is pretty unusual these days. We also have an iron mongers and a TV shop run by a man who people are choosing to buy from rather than the bigger retailers because they know they’ll get that personal service. Prudhoe also boasts two banks and a post office.”
Of course, that’s not to say there isn’t a place for the bigger, national retailers, and in 2020 the Tyneview Retail Park, known locally as Prudhoe Retail Park, opened.
Gordon said: “Rather than become a negative addition to the town, the opening of the retail park has helped with great local employment opportunities and an increase in footfall, with people visiting it and then coming into the centre to shop on the high street.
“Money has been spent to make the high street more visually appealing, with plants, flowers and murals added to enhance the whole visitor and retailer experience. So, when people do visit, they come away feeling positive, that they’ve been somewhere they’d like to come again.”
The night time economy in Prudhoe is also thriving, with a number of bars and restaurants offering people a choice of places to eat and drink.
In fact, the hospitality sector in Prudhoe is – like its main street – booming and, despite tough global conditions, has managed to remain healthy and even attracting new eateries such as a fusion restaurant opening soon.
The town’s leisure facilities are also on the up, with the 103-year-old park recently benefiting from some much-needed investment which started back in 2017.
The Waterworld leisure centre is seeing large numbers of visitors to the town and major investment is being planned to update the facilities there.
Prudhoe’s castle, which is run by English Heritage, remains a focal point, while the riverside, a designated ‘Site of Scientific Interest’ has also been spruced up.
There are big annual tourism events which help bring visitors into the town, one being the fair which attracts hundreds of people and an arts festival, including music by the riverside which are organised by Prudhoe Community Partnership.
Plans are also in the pipeline for a band stand on Front Street and the building of a youth centre, and a hope that dementia care can be established in the town.
So, what does the future hold for Prudhoe, and what would Gordon like to see happen during his remaining two and a half years as a county councillor?
“There are several priority areas for me which I think will make a real difference to the town,” he said.
“I would like to see our bus services improved which would make commuting so much easier for people, as currently our offering is poor and I am keen to look at this to see if improvements to transport routes can made.
“I am also in favour of bringing new housing to the town, but these must be the right number, types and locations.
“Residents aren’t always keen on new housing developments but Prudhoe is now so popular that families want to remain here or move back after living away.
“I am hugely passionate about getting businesses and the community working together. This is happening to a certain extent but we could do better. Our bigger businesses are great for promoting this joined up approach, for example Thompsons and Essity support a wide range of community activities.
“Finally, I really do want to see more people working locally. If people work in the town they spend money in the town and that for me is a win-win.”
The Visit Prudhoe initiative, which Gordon is a part of, champions the investment in – and regeneration of – the town. While the Borderlands Deal, an agreement between the councils in Northumberland, Cumbria and the Scottish Borders, is committing investment into businesses over the next 20 years.
Gordon concluded: “Where once Prudhoe was looked upon as a ‘forgotten town’, with high unemployment and poor facilities, now there’s a real feel-good factor and I think people are genuinely proud to live, work, learn, visit and invest here in Prudhoe – a town with aspirations and opportunities for all. It’s an exciting time for the town and I am delighted that I am able to play a part in its continued development.”