Purfleet-on-Thames: The town that changed its name to attract visitors

By Kate Scotter & Phil Shepka
BBC News

Published
image captionPurfleet-on-Thames has plans for a £1bn regeneration project

It is positioned next to the M25, neighbours one of the UK's biggest out-of-town shopping centres and, for years, has been a spiritual home for darts fans.

But now the Essex town formerly known as Purfleet is looking for a future based on a new image - one that makes the most of its proximity to the world famous River Thames.

As of Saturday, for Purfleet, now read Purfleet-on-Thames. The people behind the two-year campaign for the switch hope it will make it a "destination of choice".

In its Victorian to late Edwardian heyday, about 1,500 tourists a day would arrive by boat or train to enjoy the sights, according to Purfleet-on-Thames Community Forum.

The thinking was that if the town adopted the 'on-Thames' moniker, paired with plans for a costly regeneration, the future could look equally as bright.

But what do people make of the change - and will it make any difference?

Sisters Juliet Obata, 49, and Elfrida Dada, 46, were both resoundingly in support of a change to something "posher" sounding.

"It's just a way to attract people because there's a lot of attractions here," said Ms Dada.

image captionJuliet Obata and Elfrida Dada moved to Purfleet from London

She said the town's Heritage and Military Centre and the nearby Rainham Marshes, which she enjoys with her family each summer, having moved here from London in the mid-2000s, underlines what the area has to offer,

"It's more of a community, everything is just around me," she said. "I can't remember the last time I drove to London.

"It was that homely life, so that's why I could leave London for Purfleet."

image copyrightPurfleet-on-Thames Community Forum
image captionThe new Purfleet-on-Thames signs were unveiled on Saturday

Purfleet-on-Thames sits on the northern bank of the river, is home to about 12,000 residents, is close to the Lakeside shopping centre and its chalk pits are a site of special scientific interest.

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Plans are in place for a £1bn regeneration project, which would bring a film and TV studio facility along with a new waterfront shopping area, up to 2,850 homes and community facilities.

image captionPurfleet-on-Thames is home to a Royal Opera House workshop where sets and scenery for productions are created

Claire Asplin, who has lived in Purfleet for 38 years and is part of the community forum, believed the name change "reflects who we are".

image captionClaire Asplin is a member of the forum which led the campaign to change the town's name

"To be honest, at first I was unsure about it but then as time went by I thought actually it was a new start for the place and links the old with the new," the 63-year-old said.

"You're not just thinking of some town name, you're thinking of a wider sense of 'oh there's a river there, that must be pleasant and nice'.

"Years ago, it really was a place where people used to come and visit for the day. It's got a lot of history to it so if that regeneration can attract people here again and make it a vibrant place where people want to be I think it's all good."

But not everyone seems convinced the name change is such a good idea.

image captionNicky Thompson is unsure whether a name change will attract people to Purfleet

Nicky Thompson has lived in the area for 18 years and calls the name change an "absolute waste of money".

"It doesn't make any difference whatsoever - I just feel like they've changed it to poshen up the area," she said.

Ms Thompson enjoys living in the area for its proximity to the river and the marshes, but is unsure whether a name change will attract people to Purfleet.

The 47-year-old, who uses a mobility scooter, also feels there are more pressing concerns in the area, such as accessibility for those unable to drive.

Purfleet-on-Thames

image captionPurfleet-on-Thames wants to capitalise on its riverside location
  • The town is mentioned in Bram Stoker's classic novel Dracula as the site of the fictional Carfax House, to be purchased by the Count
  • Its Circus Tavern was the venue of the PDC World Darts Championship between 1994 and 2007
  • The song Amazing Grace, by the Rev John Newton, was inspired from his near-death boating accident in Purfleet
  • Artist J.M.W. Turner made sketches of the town which are now a part of the Tate Britain collection
  • It boasts two Sites of Special Scientific Interest: Rainham Marshes and Purfleet Chalk Pits

Source: Purfleet Regeneration/Natural England

The town has followed in the footsteps of another that sought to reap the benefit of the Thames - Staines in Surrey.

After becoming synonymous with Sacha Baron Cohen's spoof rapper Ali G, councillors voted to change its name to Staines-Upon-Thames in 2011.

Tony Mitchell, portfolio holder for planning and economic benefit at Spelthorne Borough Council, said the move had raised the profile of the town's closeness to the river, which he said was not previously well known.

"The council is now focused on fully recognising the untapped potential of Staines-upon-Thames and is looking to ensure future developments embrace the opportunities of the riverside setting," he said.

"Changing the name has changed the mindset and acted as a springboard for bringing about a step-change in the town and the quality of its developments. So it's definitely worth others considering."

image copyrightLAWRENCE LUSTIG/PDC
image captionDarts player Wayne Mardle reached the semi-finals of the World Championship on three occasions at the Circus Tavern

While Purfleet-on-Thames tries to attract new people, in many sports fans' minds the town will always be synonymous with darts.

The Circus Tavern held the Professional Darts Corporation's (PDC) first World Championship in 1994 after its split from the British Darts Organisation and continued to host the event until 2007.

PDC Chairman Barry Hearn said: "Purfleet played an important role in the early days of the PDC, and the World Darts Championship helped to spread the Purfleet name globally.

"With the Circus Tavern hosting the World Championship from 1993-94 through to 2007 there were thousands of fans visiting the town each year and it's a place so many people have fond memories of."

image captionGerry Bittaway and Eddie Northrop are regular visitors to Purfleet's view of the Thames

Two visitors already attracted to the area before its name change were Eddie Northrop, 73, and 72-year-old Gerry Bittaway.

Twice a week they cycle from Rainham in east London to sit near the river and grab a cup of coffee.

"People say 'why do you keep coming to the same place all the time?' and we say 'because it's really nice'," said Gerry. "You can see a lot of London, there's a lot of activity on the river with the boats going up and down.

"It's quite literally a breath of fresh air for us," he added, before joking: "Sometimes too much fresh air when it's windy."

Asked about the change of the name, Gerry said: "It's on the Thames and it is Purfleet, so why not?"

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