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Sheeranville: how Ed Sheeran took over a town

This summer, Sheeran ended the biggest tour in history in the town of Ipswich, complete with pop-up merch shops and a museum dedicated to the life and times of the global superstar.

This summer, Ed Sheeran came to the end of a global tour that lasted 893 days. It broke records as the longest and largest grossing in history, surpassing U2’s two-year record by 133 days. The tour, which played songs from his Divide album, opened in the Italian city of Turin to an audience of almost 50,000 people.

Over the next few years, he would play at almost every major city in the world, sometimes multiple times, with each show earning an average of $3m. His largest series of shows in London sold almost 300,000 tickets over four nights. Eventually, on 26 August, Sheeran ended the biggest tour in history in Ipswich, a waterfront town in the well-to-do county of Suffolk: a town whose entire population wouldn't fill those gigs at Wembley.

Ipswich isn’t notable for much. To the lament of its locals, the centre bears the scars of redevelopment. The once quaint winding streets filled with early timber-framed buildings were demolished in the 1960s to make way for a nondescript city centre and a large multi-storey car park.

Still, it’s a nice town – in 2017 the Royal Mail named it the 7th most desirable place to live in the UK and back in 2007 it even won the cleanest town award. But like the mundanity of its prize shelf, Ipswich is not much more than nice. It could claim Aspall cyder as its biggest cultural export but that’s about it. Then came Ed Sheeran.

Although he was born in Hebden Bridge, Yorkshire, Sheeran’s childhood was spent 200 miles south, in the small market town of Framlingham, approximately half an hour's drive from the relative noise of Ipswich. Framlingham is the type of town that people want to visit: overlooked by a castle on a hill and sprinkled with tiny red-bricked cottages with pastel-painted doors.

Here in Framlingham, with a population of just over 3,000, Sheeran’s influence is everywhere. The village has three pubs: the most rustic of the three – The Station Hotel – celebrated as the chosen Sheeran local. A small framed picture of Ed cheersing a pint hangs quietly on the far wall. Behind the bar is an even smaller framed picture, this time Sheeran poses with more punters.

In 2012 Sheeran bought a house in Framlingham and over the past few years it has become his main home. Since then, his neighbours have frequently made noise complaints. His running solution has been to buy out all the other large houses nearby. Now he owns a mini estate, complete with five houses and a small pub.

Regardless of his seemingly feudalistic desire to own the local real estate, the local East Anglia Children’s Hospices charity shop in the centre of Framlingham honours Sheeran earnestly. He has donated hundreds of items to the small store: a Burberry suit he wore to the Grammys in 2013, a Guinness hoodie, a T-shirt with a drawing of him hugging a guitar, a pair of his old Nike trainers. The shop raised £2,650 through the sale of his old drum kit.

“People started coming about four years ago, after the “Castle on the Hill” song came out,” says manager Rachail Pollard. “People come to buy his clothes, and they take lots of photographs and selfies,” she says. “I've got a cut-out of Ed in the window. One of my volunteers even made a pom-pom head of Ed which we also hang in the shop.” Most of his donations to the shop are sold online, and every year volunteers hold an auction. In 2018 the shop raised over £65,000. The more popular Sheeran becomes, the more money the shop tends to make.

Over the bank holiday weekend in August 2019, Sheeran would play two huge shows in Ipswich’s Chantry Park, selling over 300,000 tickets at £82 each. Taxi ranks were fully booked and entrepreneurial teenagers charged upwards of £60 to drive visitors into the centre. Over a thousand kids from the nearby Thomas Mills High School were given free tickets and superfans travelled from Japan and Sydney for what they anticipated to be Sheeran’s most remarkable performance. Sheeranmania took over as his homecoming dawned. Hundreds queued outside his pop-up shop, which only sold merchandise made by Suffolk clothing brand Hoax. Typically, Sheeran never passes an opportunity to remind fans of his authenticity.

Alongside tour posters and hoodies, the merchandise shop sold Ipswich Town football shirts with his album title Divide emblazoned on the front. Usually, the online casino Magical Vegas advertises its sponsorship of the team in this spot, but, for one weekend only, Sheeran was the club’s self-anointed sponsor. Ipswich may not have asked for a patron, but Sheeran made his claim.

If you were born in Ipswich in the mid- to late-Nineties, then you probably witnessed Sheeran’s rise. Teenagers filled the waterfront bars, where Sheeran was a regular performer. “If you went on a night out everyone would see him playing in the pubs, that was before anyone really knew who he was,” says Lorna McGhee, 23. When Lorna was 14, her then-boyfriend showed her a YouTube video of a shabby-looking ginger boy. “My boyfriend just introduced him as, ‘oh this guy is from Suffolk’. I think he was playing ‘You Need Me I Don’t Need You.’ A guy at school then played it in assembly, before anyone really knew who Ed Sheeran was.”

And so, these four super-shows were the logical outcome of a decades-long courtship between Sheeran and Suffolk. An affair that, slowly, has become synonymous with Sheeran's personal brand. His marketing has a soft pull: he’s a Suffolk boy, innocent, naive and where Ipswich lacks cultural identity, Sheeran offers himself.

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In February 2019, six months before Sheeran’s Ipswich performances, Max Stocker, a press officer for Ipswich council, received a call from Sheeran’s father. John Sheeran used to be an art curator in Dulwich and is a well-known character among long-time Ipswich residents. He wanted to chat about a potential project.

“John has long thought about a cultural legacy for Ipswich. Ipswich has undersold itself, it's undervalued,” says Stocker. John wanted to do something that would contribute to the future of Ipswich, something he believed would complement and even outlive the buzz of Sheeran’s tour. John wanted to create the Ed Sheeran Museum. Stocker leapt at the idea. “Although we have a National Dance centre, eight portfolio organisations and theatres everywhere, Ipswich isn’t recognised. We thought something like this exhibition will help put our town on the map.”

So, with the support of the council, the Ed Sheeran: Made in Suffolk museum opened its doors to the public in August. Entrance to the museum is completely free, although you have to book a viewing slot. “In the months leading up the exhibition, Ed started giving his dad more and more items saying, oh I think this would be good, or I'm happy to give you this,'' says Stocker.

The focal point of the two-roomed exhibition is an oil painting of Sheeran. The portrait is by Colin Davidson, an artist with a portfolio of powerful clients: Bill Clinton, Angela Merkle, the Queen. Next to this painting are artefacts from Sheeran’s childhood.

His art GCSE entry hangs on the wall – a self-portrait – along with pieces of his coursework and school reports. Move along the cabinet and a bust of Sheeran’s head sits proudly. His music awards are all set aside in another display: the Grammy envelope which delivered him the award for best song, his Brit awards and his magazine covers.

Move through the room and a box of his childhood Lego is nailed to the wall. In the centre is a cut out from the first article ever written about him, published in the Norfolk Life magazine in 2006, titled “Talent-Ed”.

The exhibition is accompanied by a 150-page book cataloguing the museum's contents. In it, Sheeran’s father John writes a loving commentary. There is a foreword by Sheeran himself, detailing his love of Suffolk. “I love walking in the countryside,” he writes, “the open skies, the light, the coast, fish and chips on the beach, or a pint of local beer in an ancient pub.”

There is nothing outwardly wrong with the Ed Sheeran museum. There is a lot of public interest in the displays. By the gift shop there’s a contactless card portal asking for donations to a teenage hospice. And yet, walking through the two large rooms, looking at Ed Sheeran’s baby drawings and the newspaper cut-outs, something about it all feels cynical. It is the logical extension of Sheeran’s unrelenting brand: the type of marketing that says he is more than just a multi-millionaire with a guitar. He's simultaneously your friend and an icon.

“Ipswich has not had as much money as other places,” said Amelia Knowland, communications officer at Aspall Cyder. “It’s fallen on hard times. It doesn't necessarily have a brilliant reputation, but it should do. So we started looking at what we could be doing.” Around the same time that the Ed Sheeran museum opened, the council and the Suffolk cider company Aspall were quietly working on another project.

The Swan pub in the centre of town had recently closed, left largely neglected by its previous owners. But, years previously, it was a modestly popular music venue. Sheeran had played there numerous times before he was signed. 

Aspall Cyder sought to reopen the Swan, to coincide with the incoming Sheeranmania. “It was an opportunity to regenerate Ipswich,” says Knowland. When asked whether the pub’s historic links with Ed Sheeran were the primary motive behind the pub’s reopening, Knowland was clear: “Absolutely it was.

“Things are changing,'' she says, “Ed Sheeran is one of the biggest stars in the world. Ipswich can be a cultural force.”

For Ipswich then, Ed Sheeran isn’t simply a tourist attraction, but a sponsor. Over the years since his rise to fame, Sheeran has become synonymous with the town’s identity. But his monopoly was crafted slowly: through charity, through self-aggrandising and through the soft pull of his personal marketing.

This wouldn’t be so difficult to swallow if Sheeranville wasn't the logical extension of an unrelenting brand. He announces innocence and authenticity while carefully distributing his cultural influence. By clinging to his roots, we are sold a confusing personality: an average guy with millions in the bank. A marketing ploy so convincing that its narcissism is almost forgotten, but not quite.

Eleanor Peake is the New Statesman’s social media editor.