Balancing act as Tesco comes to town

In 1874, the railway came to our South Pennine market town. It was the Last Big Thing for Penistone. Now, in 2010, we have the Next Big Thing. Tesco has arrived.

It's a quirky little town, a big village in some respects. Perched on a hill, it began life as a place where drovers brought cattle and sheep to sell. It had a brief expansion during the last war, but then sank back to being a farming community, a place of butchers and bakers, one tiny co-op and one little Spar. People liked it. People moved in. No-one could park, no-one could shop, and no-one could deny that a supermarket was needed. That was more than 10 years ago.

The long delay finished off the livestock market. But on Thursdays there were stalls selling everything from organic olives to fruit and veg. On Saturdays you could trade rabbits and hens at the fur and feather, or bid for a bundle of holly and some spuds.

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The main event every year was the Penistone Show, bringing people from far and wide to a proper, old-fashioned agricultural show – with added pizazz. Penistone is known for exotic entertainment, from racing camels to acrobatics on horseback.

This year it's the 138th show on September 11. But slap bang in the middle of town, blocking old entrances and taking up lumps of green that used to host the show, is Tesco.

The speed of change has been unbelievable. Gone is a huge stone wall that loomed over the entrance to the town and in its place is banking, hoardings and chaos. Traffic stands motionless, parking has gone from bad to impossible and every Sunday the roads have been closed while they dig out underneath the railway bridge. From now on, and for the first time in its history, Penistone is open to lorries.

One resident, Mrs Sue Lockwood, said: "I tried to get to my hairdresser on Wednesday. I ended up climbing over heaps of rubble, in my good shoes, while some man in a hard hat looked on and sniggered."

The market is hanging on by its bootstraps. Dave Robinson, an engineer, is worried. "They've made a hell of a mess of the market. The fruit and veg man wasn't there last week and he's been coming for 20 years. I hope he doesn't just give up."

He shouldn't. One amazing development is the oak cruck barn going up over the marketplace. Pushed through by the town council, it is scheduled to be finished before the Penistone Show. But with Tesco across the car park, will there be stalls to fill it? No-one knows.

But it is exciting. The store is built of stone, which no-one expected, and the frantic work is part and parcel of getting everything finished before the show. Tesco opening day is on Monday, the Bank Holiday, which is going to be a considerable achievement.

Dorothy Clegg, who has been involved with Penistone Show for over 50 years, said, "I feel they've taken the heart and heritage out of Penistone and our showground. And they haven't played fair. We need to know how the entrances will work, but we won't until almost show week. We had 20,000 visitors last year. It's our town and our show and it just isn't right."

Nick Hoyland, the show manager, agrees. "They've been pretty high-handed in the way they've gone on. But we needed a supermarket, and like it or not we'll all use it. And to be honest, the show's been planning for this for the last three years. We've re-organised the layout and moved back towards the hill. We haven't lost ground. We're running out of time, though. Show Week's going to be frantic."

Local businesses have faced problems. Clark's Chemist is a mainstay of Penistone and on a recent Saturday Tesco cut off the power, not for the first time. What's more, having agreed not to apply for a pharmacy, Tesco have tried again. So far they've been refused, most of us believe they will be back. The newsagents are under threat and the mini boom of the sandwich shop from the construction workers' custom could well turn to bust once the store is open.

Then there are the butchers. Paul Schofield says: "I've been in Penistone for 27 years, on my own for seven. I sell good local meat and award-winning pies. I hang my joints for two weeks and steaks for three, no bullocks, no boars – quality.

"My customers can't get to me just now, the parking's that bad. When Tesco's is open and they can use the car park, they promise they'll come back. I've got to hope they do, that's all."

Michael Somerset, the new Tesco manager, thinks he has little to worry about. "Any business that offers the customers what they want will always survive," he says. "We're creating 140 new jobs here, and bringing 30 Tesco people in as well. We're appointing a community champion too. We want to work with the town."

And that is the thing. Penistone people feel at the mercy of the bureaucrats that run Tesco, yet they will be given more choice. Linda O'Connor, of Silkstone Common, shops on price. "I think this Co-op's expensive. It's more of a convenience store, and if Tesco are cheaper, that's where I'll go."

She isn't alone. Everyone's waiting for the big opening, much as they waited for the first train 136 years ago.

It is up to the people who live here to keep Penistone alive. If they support the shops and the show, if they keep on taking a stroll round the market, then shopping at Tesco won't be the end.

Residents will be able to find all that they need near home and people are going to come to Penistone who never came before. Is it going to be a high street empty of everything except litter and charity shops? Or will it be a new beginning? It is up to Penistone.