A YEAR ago, things were looking bleak for traders in Wath-Upon-Dearne.
The small South Yorkshire town once dubbed the “Queen of Villages” was struggling. The last two remaining bank branches had closed six months earlier, and the result was abundantly clear - less people were coming into town, which meant less people spending their money in the local shops and businesses, and the traders themselves were faced with lengthy trips to do their own banking.
But traders are fighting back, and on a cold and frosty market day last week, business owners were optimistic. They have to be, they say.
“We can't just sit down and do nothing,” Cate Ward, whose parents opened the Value For Money Indoor Market 30 years ago. “We are trying to fight back.
“Once the banks shut, it had an impact but since then we've now got a new travel agent, a hairdressing academy has opened, and in the indoor market we've got a new mobility shop and a beautician.”
Wath previously had four bank branches, three on the central square, and one just off it. But that ended when Yorkshire Bank and HSBC shut up shop in 2017. And some feared it was a death knell for the town’s centre.
Raymond Boddy, who has ran a butcher’s shop in Wath for 30 years, noticed “an emptiness” in the centre.
“But we had to keep plodding on,” he said. “We’ve got to be positive.”
For him, this meant buying his own premises for the first time, next door to his old shop. Ray’s of Wath has a strong, loyal customer base and he is going nowhere.
A few doors down, it is a week since the official opening of Kayne Travel. The bright, modern travel agents is “lighting up the High Street”, and the interest in the shop was so high it actually opened a month early.
Owner Emma Kayne, who is from Wath, said: “I had wallpaper covering the windows but people were banging on the windows to get in, so we opened early, before Christmas. We didn’t even have the brochure racks up but the demand was there and everyone has been really positive about us opening. All the local businesses have been really supportive.”
The old Yorkshire Bank building now houses Adrian Allen’s Hairdressing Academy. Just a few doors down from the exclusive salon he’s ran in the town for 20 years, he’s now training the next generation of stylists.
For Mr Allen, things aren’t all rosy in Wath. In November, his front windows were smashed, and that combined with other recent acts of vandalism has put a £25,000 cost on the business.
He believes the spirit of self reliance and positivity isn’t enough to keep Wath thriving. He wants greater support for local traders, with CCTV and a crackdown on the anti-social behaviour that comes with gangs of youths hanging around after dark being made a priority.
“It shouldn’t just be about business owners making all the investment,” he said. “We need support. The town needs a greater night time economy but that won’t happen with the gangs of youths hanging around.
“It’s an amazing town with an amazing community. The local businesses here are proud of what they do, and have plenty of ideas, but there is so much red tape. We need a leg up.”
Another problem working against Wath has been cuts to local bus services.
But back in the indoor market, Bill Jones and Anita Bissell have both started up in the past year.
Mr Jones, owner of Care 4 You Mobility, moved from Doncaster Market, where his stall was closed during the historic market’s refurbishment.
“It’s only been six months but trade is starting to build up,” he said. “I'm doing a bit more business here than I would have been doing in Doncaster. We're going from strength to strength.”
Ms Bissell’s beauty salon, Tan and Go, opened up purely to do spray tans but has since taken on two beauticians to expand.
She said: “We've got to offer as much as we can, as there's lots of beauticians in Wath. But we're in a great position. There's 2,000 people working in the Capita call centre nearby, and we've got access, we've got two big free car parks, they can pop into town after work, and we’re open until 10pm.
“The thing that's missing with the banks going is the chance to talk to people. There would be queues of people waiting outside the banks, everybody would be chit-chatting but that's all gone.”
For Miss Ward, whose parents opened the indoor market “to put things back into Wath”, the closure of the banks has made its mark - but Wath, like so many other small towns, is resilient.
“Small businesses are the backbone of places like this. And we are not going to be beaten by the banks,” she added. “But we’re showing that things can rise from the ashes. We have no choice to be positive.”