New lease of life for historic Weedon Depot

Manager Graham Kay and owner Michael Chittenden
Manager Graham Kay and owner Michael Chittenden

For decades, the high walls of the historic depot in Weedon did exactly what they were supposed to do – keep people out.

Now the former military site’s new owners are trying to open the site up to the public, and more importantly to businesses.

Royal Ordnance Depot Ltd, headed by Michael Chittenden, bought the depot nearly three years ago.

He said: “I guess I really bought the place with my heart rather than my head!

“It is a fantastic site. There is so much history to the buildings which anyone can easily see.

“What we discovered was that the place had been locked up, closed to the public. There were a few units rented out, but a lot of it was empty.

“Now there are 50 units being used in 20 buildings.

“The buildings themselves are sound which is a little surprising given their age – they were certainly built to last, and for much of its life it was run by the armed forces so they had money to spend. There are some issues with window frames in places and other bits like that which have come from age and maybe a lack of maintenance in the past, but we are working our way through the list of things that need to be done.”

In the recent past there were plans to redevelop the depot – to pour in money to build upmarket offices or shops, and recoup the costs through increased rents. That is not the path Mr Chittenden sees for the depot.

He said: “The units here are fantastic. They are full of character and some businesses really like that – classic car garages, or vintage furniture shops, artists or anyone who appreciates the history of the place. But we also have kitchen builders, and more modern businesses that appreciate the space.

“Because we’ve kept the units simple, it means the rent is affordable. We have people starting up businesses here now who might not have been able to find a unit elsewhere.

“We have people working in the ‘main buildings’ along the canal, in the bastion towers in the walls, all over.

“What’s key for us is to get people in, find out what people are using the units for, what they want from them, and work towards providing that.”

A second aspect of the new ownership has been increased public access to the site. Although the gates are manned by security 24 hours a day, there are still visitors.

Mr Chittenden said: “In the summer we were getting 20 to 25 people coming in every day. We get a lot of people who have come along the canal and stopped to walk into the village.

“We’ll let them come in and have a look, and tell them a bit about the history. Obviously we have to be careful – for one there is the canal running through the centre of the depot which isn’t fenced off.

“We’ve also had two open days for the depot where the public could come in and look around, with displays of classic cars and more.

“They were fantastic events and really showed just how much interest there was in the depot from the wider public.

“Talking of the canal, it is not stagnant, it has plenty of big fish, birds and plants. The water is clear. It adds to the character of the place. It’d be a great place for people working here to eat their lunches or take a break and meet other people working here.

“It’d be great to have a cafe or tea room here for the staff to use, and also for the public as well.

“That’s another special thing about the depot – it isn’t an industrial estate, there is a community here between the businesses and that is something we want to encourage.

“Although we want to use every part of the depot site, the buildings and the open spaces, we don’t want to transform it into something modern. The sense of history is important to many of the people hiring out units, and it is itself another source of income.

“We’ve already had the BBC and ITV filming here. One was for a documentary about the canals I think, and the other is for a drama which I believe is due to be shown near Christmas.

“There are not many places in the UK where a film crew can turn up and have a ready-made historic set that’s not been affected by being turned into flats or shops. There is also loads of space for them to store equipment and set up, there’s easy access not just onto the site, but also to get to the village from the motorway.

“We’ve started rejuvenating the depot – it’s a job that will take some years, but it will be worth it.”