Bohemian Mojo had heard there’d been a political uprising in Frome (pronounced Froom) which claims to be Britain’s first sustainable town, so we went to find out what had happened. To be honest I’ve by-passed Frome many times over the past decade. Memories of my last visit to the town made me avoid it. Dilapidation, boarded-up shops and an air of social stagnation were the lasting impressions. No getting away from it, Frome used to be a town waiting for the next bit of bad news.
Well what came next was a remarkable transformation ending in a revolution so the past decade has seen Frome turned from a depressing failure into a switched-on, culture packed community.
Shops stuffed with interesting and innovative goods have sprung up along the winding Medieval lanes of Cheap Street and Catherine Hill. And you can eat well and find good coffee round most corners in Frome. Music and literature flourish, sustainable crafts and off grid energy projects abound too. There are two theatres and the big ‘Cheese and Grain’ project on the site of the old cattle market is home to regular concerts and workshops.
Crucially young people are no longer embarrassed to say they come from the ‘dump’ Frome had undoubtedly become. In fact these days the town is home to an innovative scheme to re-integrate lost youngsters back into the community. Twenty six thousand people live in the town with half the working population commute to jobs in Bath twelve miles away.
For centuries it prospered on the wool mills in the town and from foundries casting bells. But the 20th Century wasn’t kind to Frome and it took the new millennium to see the transformation. First came the Townscape Heritage Initiative which recognised the unique medieval street system in the town and poured government money into preserving its fabric.
Then came a re-seeding of new people and new ideas into the town. It was something no government agency could plan and began when a few shrewd Londoners looking for a different lifestyle realised Frome has a railway station on the Paddington line. They moved out and began commuting to work in London while their families colonised the town.That brought income as well as imagination into Frome and change was afoot. It was slow at first but it gathered pace and then came the revolution.
Fromites new and old had lost patience with the hackneyed, polarised policies of the national parties. They wanted something different. They wanted policies which responded to local needs. So they formed an alliance of people who were not affiliated to national parties and called themselves the Independents for Frome or IfF. Their group swept to power in the local council elections in 2011 and swept aside the red tape and obstructive jobsworth attitudes of council officials.
Frome has never looked back and, no longer bound by the strictures of party politics, the town is thriving. Typical of the new Fromites are Nick Greenwood and his wife Cheryl Lim who opened a sustainably sourced clothes shop, Hibiscus, on Cheap Street three months ago. “I was a graphic designer in North London, Cheryl taught business at the Open University.
But we wanted, actually needed, a change and so we moved here two and a half years ago. I have been back to London twice since and hated it. Now my mother has moved down to Frome too and we’re here to stay.""Hopefully the shop will be successful. At least the independent council is business friendly. I hear horror stories of the state Frome was in even a year ago from friends. Most of Catherine Hill was boarded up apparently. They say local businesses were killed off by the high council taxes."“Now it’s a gem of a place and Frome has an upbeat can do feel about it. Brilliant. I would never move from here. There is always something happening in the town.”
He’s right. 3D printing and new media businesses are sprouting in the town. There’s the 10-day Frome Festival, a Carnival, the Frome Christmas Extravaganza and on the first Sunday every month a huge street market takes the town over. Nick directed us to The Garden Cafe for lunch which was great. Integrated with the cafe is a grocery store where a young woman serving told us, “When I said I was moving here my mother asked me why I wanted to come to a dump like Frome. “But I knew there was stuff happening here and I told her it might have been a dump in her day but it isn’t in mine. In fact it’s been voted one of the top ten places to live in the UK.
”Which says it all nicely. Vive la Revolution!