A year in the life of Sevenoaks Town Centre – in pictures

Organiser Victoria Granville in front of the wall of photos

Sevenoaks in a time of change is both a photography exhibition and a photobook.

It was conceived initially as a celebration of all the commercial and non-commercial activities forming the town centre of Sevenoaks by exhibiting them to its visitors and customers, as well as to the people who make it work.

However, from the initial idea by Victoria Granville, the scope of the project (in terms of both of its aesthetic and documentary dimensions) grew as its wider significance became apparent. The working title adopted by the project was Sevenoaks 2020 as the decade marks the 900th anniversary of the first written record of the town.

Town centres are especially important in sustaining the sociability of localities as well as offering a wide range of retailing and hospitality alongside professional, financial, scientific and health services. Like other high streets, Sevenoaks has long been under threat from online retailing and out-of-town shopping.

Under these circumstances, Sevenoaks 2020 evolved to become a portrait of the value, diversity, vitality and complexity of the town centre.

The plan was to photograph all the people working in the town centre outside their places of work. Given that there are over 250 different activities located within it, the extent of the town centre had to be very carefully circumscribed and defined. A database of all the activities was compiled by Victoria and Elizabeth Purves who then took on the Herculean task of keeping it up to date with details of all contacts and consents.

Roger Lee joined Sevenoaks 2020 as the project photographer. All the work throughout the project was undertaken voluntarily and was largely self-financed. The photography began in October 2019 and carried on throughout the winter until brought to a stop by the first Covid-19 lockdown in March 2020. Each of the activities which agreed to be photographed also agreed to pay up-front for their print so enabling the financing of continuous printing.

In order to try to ensure visual consistency, all the photographs were taken by a single photographer. Decisions were taken at the outset to shoot in mono (thereby removing the distractions of colour) and without lens filters so allowing reflections and other apparently extraneous clues to reveal the interactions between individual activities and the rest of the town. Pleasingly, comments in the Visitors’ Book at the exhibition showed emphatically that these decisions were spot on.

The inclusion of the proprietors and staff in the photographs was an especially happy feature as their pride and pleasure in what they do are immediately apparent in the photographs. Their enthusiasm and support were major factors in carrying the project forward. It transformed what might otherwise have become a mammoth and overwhelming task – shooting around 2000 images – making it a delight from start to finish.

And then came Covid

Suddenly, the threats to the town centre were made far more acute as the very concept and practices of sociability themselves were severely challenged. And, of course, this challenge did not exclude the photography involved in Sevenoaks 2020.

Fortunately, work on most of the activities agreeing to be photographed with their staff had been completed before lockdown. Only 21 activities (8 per cent of the total) remained unphotographed as a result of Covid, whereas 68 businesses such as chain stores, banks, building societies etc (27 percent of the total) were unable to obtain consent from their headquarters.

Author and Photographer Roger Lee

By contrast, local activities that did not participate fully amounted to only 9 per cent of the total. At the same time, fully participating locally-managed activities represented over 31 per cent of the total, whilst retail chains not managed locally accounted for only 7 per cent. However, all the ‘excluded’ activities were subsequently photographed whilst locked down – and so without personnel. Thus was created an unique and complete portrait of all the activities in the town centre at a particular moment in time. 

The initial objective of Sevenoaks 2020 was to produce an aesthetically well-designed and challenging exhibition. This was held in the Kaleidoscope Gallery in Sevenoaks, home of Sevenoaks Visual Arts Forum whose generosity in providing Galley space free of charge was immensely supportive. On the evidence of the almost 200 comments made in the Visitors’ Book during the residency of the show (17 September – 17 October 2020) the exhibition was very successful.

The many comments which reveal a strong emotional response to the photographs are especially pleasing. They reflect the great value of the sociability of the town centre. It is perhaps this aspect that will be of greatest significance in the use of the photographs in on-going campaigns to sustain and enhance the town centre.

Although it is difficult to estimate the number of people visiting the exhibition, observations of the response to the Visitors’ Book by people visiting the show suggest that the 192 comments made represent only a fraction of the total number who came to see it. So an informed guess would be that perhaps as many as 1000 people visited the show but certainly at least 500.

Not only does the pandemic further endanger the commercial viability of town centres – Sevenoaks included – but it undermines a crucial component of social interaction, vital in a healthy community. Not surprisingly, the consequences for urban design and policy-making are currently under wide and intense discussion across all towns and cities in the UK and well beyond. Sevenoaks 2020 responded to this by deciding to produce a book of the project. As with the exhibition, the book was designed by Victoria Granville.

It contains all of the photographs and so represents the whole of the town centre. It also includes a set of commentaries on urban change as well as a framework for town centre policy and planning in a post-Covid world. A short historical appendix illustrates some of the history of change in many of the activities in the town centre. Grants from Sevenoaks Town Council, the Sevenoaks Society and Sevenoaks District Arts Council were very supportive in easing cash flow and enabling the project to meet the costs of printing the book.

The final and ongoing stage of the project is the production of an archive. The information contained in the photographs – styles of dress, contemporary branding, modes of behaviour, for example – is immense. As the use of photography in urban histories and projects like Mass Observation testifies, Sevenoaks in a time of change will be of significant historical value in the future. .

The last word on the value of the project should, perhaps, be left to one of its subjects. She collected her print from the exhibition on the very day on which she decided to cease trading – one of the very few independent retailers who did so. She then wrote:

I collected this gorgeous photo on Saturday 17 October. Actually it’s much more than a photo. It is a wonderful memoir. Thank you so much. A gift I will cherish for ever.

The book Sevenoaks in a time of change is available, price £10.00, online or directly from Sevenoaks Bookshop

More information is available on Sevenoaks 2020 website, including two short videos on the making of the project.