PUBLISHED: 10:08 21 October 2014 | UPDATED: 10:08 21 October 2014
Chelmsford's profile has been raised since becoming England's newest city in 2012, but with privilege, comes responsibility. Petra Hornsby learns how the city has risen rather well to the challenge
The city of Chelmsford is equidistant between London’s Charing Cross and the former Roman capital of Colchester. The city covers around 130 square miles and is surrounded by many picturesque villages, most of which, like the city’s own residential areas, house many commuters taking advantage of a convenient 30-minute journey into the metropolis.
Like Colchester, Chelmsford was prominent during Roman times and was known as Caesaromagus, which translates as Caesar’s Market Place. Following the departure of the Romans, the town’s status faded only to fully re-emerge much later during the Middle Ages.
In 1199, Bishop William of London was granted royal permission to hold weekly markets which encouraged craftsmen and merchants to come and live in the town. Later, in 1201, an annual fair, a big event indeed, was also given the King’s blessing and attracted buyers and sellers from even further afield — Chelmsford’s profile as a retail centre had begun.
Medieval Chelmsford also established some industrial success, prospering through its leather tanning and wool industry, and trade in cloth. Centuries later, however, it would be known as an agricultural town, benefitting from its rural location.
Disease has threatened the population of Chelmsford over the centuries, with the Black Death wiping out almost half the people during the 14th century and the plague made several visits throughout the 17th century. Despite various fluctuations, at the turn of the 20th century, Chelmsford’s population stood at nearly 22,000.
The previous century had seen major development in the town’s economic welfare thanks to the arrival of the railway and improved communications paving the way for the engineering industry to thrive along with the manufacture of electrical equipment.
Hoffman engineering, making ball and roller bearings, and communications pioneer Marconi were just two industries to bring success and status to the town. Due to the contribution of these industries to the war effort during World War II, Chelmsford was a key target for the Luftwaffe and the town, particularly the houses situated near the factories, suffered substantial damage.
Chelmsford today has a population of around 170,000 and, thanks to the new developments shaping the more central areas and surrounding boroughs, this is set to rise significantly.
Centrally, there is development in residential, retail and business too. The former Marconi Works site, a key part of the heritage of Chelmsford situated in New Street, has been converted into houses and apartments — a great sign that England’s Jubilee city is on the up, attracting both investors and new inhabitants keen to enjoy the many features and facilities available.
Another area that has seen major change is Springfield, situated a mile northeast of the city. A semi-rural village until the 1950s, the area is now home to many homes and complementary services as well as being the HQ for Essex Police.
The forthcoming Springfield development, Greater Beaulieu Park, will provide a further 3,600 dwellings along with a business park, retail area, schools, and hotel and leisure facilities. There is a new railway station planned along with a relief road which will connect to Junction 19 of the A12 making it a perfect location for the commuter.
New residents coming to the area should be reassured by its safe reputation. In 2010, Chelmsford became the first borough in the UK to be designated an International Safe Community by the World Health Organisation — all thanks to many years of hard work by the Safer Chelmsford Partnership which works to reduce crime and fear of crime across the area.
At the time of the award, Chief Inspector Joe Wrigley said: ‘Chelmsford had seen significant crime reductions over the last two years and remains one of the safest places anywhere.’
Families moving to Chelmsford can also be encouraged by its outstanding schools, especially the high-achieving King Edward VI Grammar School and Chelmsford High School for Girls. Anglia Ruskin University now has a campus in the city and Writtle, on the outskirts, has its own agricultural college, both providing an impressive range of courses to students from across the country and from abroad.
The city has a great variety of activities to offer from cultural events to sporting opportunities for both participant and spectator. Essex County Cricket is located at the Ford County Cricket Ground and the city is home to Chelmsford FC, who compete in the Football Conference South Division. And we must not overlook the Chelmsford Chieftains ice hockey team, who play at the only ice rink in Essex — the Riverside Ice and Leisure Centre.
Entertainment is alive and well in Chelmsford with as many as five festivals taking place throughout the year, starting with the teenage musical mecca that is the V Festival in Hylands Park. Then there is The Fling Festival, a festival of assorted amusements, and the 3 Foot People Festival, which is aimed at children. There is also the CITYdiversions Festival offering a free weekend of international street theatre.
Building on its historic reputation for trade, the city is still a great shopping venue with a thriving, fully pedestrianised high street and two shopping centres — the High Chelmer and the Meadows Shopping Centre — attracting many visitors keen to find high street brands and who are also looking for a unique boutique experience.
Michael Wray, the council’s city centre marketing manager, explains why he feels Chelmsford is enjoying something of a boom at the moment: ‘Our city really does seem to be bucking the trend at the moment; the city is thriving and on a daily basis the number of people commuting out is matched by equal numbers coming to work and use the facilities. The retail vacancy rate, that can be a big problem in many high streets, isn’t a concern here with empty premises being swiftly snatched up.’
And the city is very much looking forward to the arrival of the new John Lewis store set to open in 2016. ‘The council will be spending £1 million resurfacing the half-moon square. Renovating this public realm as a contribution to maintaining the area that we hope will attract more visitors, who perhaps otherwise might have travelled elsewhere for their shopping experience,’ adds Michael, who has grown up in Chelmsford and still lives there.
‘I have witnessed many changes over the years, including the High Street becoming pedestrianised, and now with all the new developments, restaurants and stores arriving on the scene, these are indeed very exciting times for the city of Chelmsford.’
The future certainly looks bright for Chelmsford — Essex should be proud!