For more than a decade, one Yorkshire couple have put their heart, soul - and a lot of money - into transforming the fortunes of an East Riding’s town. Sarah Freeman reports.
On the A161 towards Goole there’s a sign to welcome visitors. It reads simply Goole - a haven of opportunities. It might well have been written by Howard and Julie Duckworth who have been quietly masterminding the regeneration of this often forgotten corner of the East Riding
The couple, who this week won an Historic England Angels Award in recognition of their efforts, bought their first property in the town just over a decade ago. Since then they have saved numerous historic buildings from dereliction, including the Georgian Lowther Hotel on Aire Street, an area once known as Blood Alley.
A magnet for trouble on weekends, come Monday morning the pavements were often covered with glass and police tape. So bad was its reputation that even the prostitutes had moved on. Today, things are a little different. The Lowther is now doing a brisk trade, up the road is The Drake Inn, the Duckworths’ popular real ale pub and in one of their renovated properties both an Italian restaurant and a chartered accountancy firm are doing good business.
“They say that if you are born in Goole you will eventually come back to Goole,” says Howard. “It’s that kind of place. The people here are very proud to be from the town. It’s got beautiful buildings, but what it lacked perhaps was someone to champion it, someone to say, ‘Look, this is what we can do with a bit of imagination and a lot of hard work’.”
“I remember one old boy who early on turned to me and said, ‘You must have more money than sense lad’. When I asked him why, he pointed to a mural on the top of the building and said, ‘How much have you spent on that?’ I told him we hadn’t spent anything, it had always been there and all we had done was clean the brickwork up. He couldn’t believe it. He said he had lived in Goole all his life and had never noticed it. After that he kept bringing people to have a look at the place. He wanted to show it off.”
It was serendipity which brought the Duckworths to Goole, but it is the community and the feeling they might just be able to make a difference which has kept them here.
“I happened to be in the Yorkshire Bank in York one day and heard what I can only describe as three spivs talking about a property in Goole which was being sold by an estate agent way to cheaply,” says Howard, who might be on the only person in town to own a bow tie emblazoned with jelly beans. “I did a bit of digging, found out who owned it and asked them what they wanted for it. They realised that we weren’t trying to rip them off, so all of a sudden we had bought our first building.”
The couple, who have always been self-employed, remortgaged their house to fund that first development and they have learnt the hard way about the perils and pitfalls of the restoration business.
“Of course we’ve made mistakes,” says Julie. “But over the years we have also amassed a huge amount of knowledge about historic buildings, stuff that you wouldn’t learn on any college or university course. Those first developments were our apprenticeship and because we have been so hands on with every project we can now walk into a building an instantly see when a fireplace is in the wrong place, when a false wall has been put or when an original ceiling has been covered up.”
One thing the couple have always been clear on is that where possible any original features they uncover should stay, including a set of sought after Victorian tiles in The Drake Inn which one buyer offered £70,000 for.
“A lot of people would have ripped rip them out and made a nice little profit from them, but that’s not our way of doing things,” says Howard. “We are in the business of restoration, we are not in the business of making a quick buck at any cost.”
They admit it hasn’t always been easy. After much agonising about whether they could make it work, in 2008 they bought the Lowther Hotel. Closed for some years, most of the lead had been ripped from the roof, the second floor was ready to collapse and most of the windows had been smashed.
It was going to be their biggest project to date, but when the bank pulled the funding part way through the Duckworths almost lost it all.
“The money was in place, we were going great guns, but then the recession hit and completely out of the blue they said we wouldn’t be getting the next lot of finance,” says Julie. “We’d already spent some of the money and we had 40 men on site. We had no choice but to make them redundant. We were in tears, they were in tears, but there was nothing else we could do.”
At the time they admit they went through some dark nights of the soul, but looking back they are now philosophical about the set back.
“Both our fathers were ill and they died within six weeks of each other,” said Julie. “Because the hotel was on hold we actually got to spend so much more time with them than we otherwise would have done. It was an incredibly stressful time, but it also showed us what brilliant human beings some people could be.
“We maxed out our credit cards to pay the most urgent invoices and then we called everyone we owed money to and were completely honest. We told them that we didn’t have the money right then, but we weren’t going to walk away and as soon as we had the cash we would pay what we owed.
“One of our suppliers turned to us and said, ‘Look, when you are back on your feet let me know and until then I won’t even send an invoice’, He wasn’t the only one and that made such a difference.”
Convinced they wouldn’t win and tired from another busy week at the hotel, the couple almost didn’t attend the Historic England awards ceremony in London. They are currently working out where to hang the certificate, but say it is not just for them, but for the whole of Goole.
“We are not the only ones doing good things here,” says Julie. “Goole in Bloom has been a huge success and the town’s civic society has created an art trail around the town celebrating the work of Reuben Chappell. He was known as the Pierhead Painter and during the late 19th century he painted many of the vessels which were used on the canal.”
While it may not be particularly glamorous, Goole’s inland port is key to the economy of the town and the Duckworth’s hope there will be a trickle down effect from the burgeoning wind turbine industry which is being established in Hull.
“This is a great place for business,” adds Julie. “It has links to three motorways, the property is relatively cheap and you can get anywhere pretty quickly. Sometimes you just need a bit of momentum and it does feel like things are changing - we’ve even just got a Costa Coffee which must mean that the place is on the up.”
That sign on the way into town might just be right.