Nearly all traders apart from butchers, bakers and essentials have been shut for months. Grants keeping them afloat, but for some with rent to pay or time to consider options in lockdown, it’s been the end.
When The History Press asked me to do a book about Bristol’s Gloucester Road – ‘The Great Bristol High Street’ – it was boom time. Busy, busy, busy. I was spoilt for choice when it came to unearthing stories of collaboration, entrepreneurship, community, hope. Some traders were always so busy I had to try for weeks to get them to stand in front of my camera lens. At first it seemed that with lockdown it would be an end for many of those I had met.
The Metro Cafe is one example. It didn’t make it past lockdown before the government had outlined the future for cafes etc - they handed back the keys weeks ago and one of the last greasy spoon cafes which was always buzzing is gone. Not a trace. There are three shots of this place in the book. One group calling themselves the Old Boys met there daily over brown sauce and banter. Where are they now?
But just as I was feeling a bit low about the future of Gloucester Road, I started to hear stories of how busy those essential shops were and what they meant to people furloughed at home. Heard rumours of restaurants opening kitchens to cook for the NHS and essential workers. Went to see this and was amazed. In Stokes Croft, the Jamaica Street Stores opened their kitchen and cooked all the food and gave it away as it was the right thing to do, said the owner Charlie. And the Galli was doing this for doctors and nurses. Grants were being used well. Food networks were in action. A new enterprise and a change from the old. Local support groups set up were making sure those shielding had neighbours getting the weekly shop in. One friend told me they didn’t know their neighbour at all until they were in the supermarket getting them their tinned goods. Facebook support group to face-to-face just like that. Conversations have started in this street. Talk is big.
I felt hopeful reading about how people were shopping in the suburbs and avoiding the city centres now that so many are working flexibly from home. It may have been a COVID-19 necessity to stay put but suddenly having chats two metres apart in the queue or over the fence as you delivered food parcels started to feel like a new wave of localism. Change of a huge kind. The mind kind.
Seen the queues outside high street shops on re-opening day in the centre and felt like making your own clothes? You can on this road. Several businesses are in (or were in) growth in this trade. They were running popular crafting classes before lockdown – I wonder if there are a few Bristol Vivienne Westwoods about to emerge from the great Bristol lockdown sewing bee?
Office workers now working from home are spending their lunch money in local shops. Home-made gifts left by neighbours’ doors have started sparking the desire to continue this new craft beyond lockdown. Maybe get a stall, a shop. New start. Fresh thinking and plenty of it.
So many of the traders and people you will meet in my new book The Great Bristol High Street are businesses owned and run by very passionate people following their dream. Sharing resources and complimenting businesses a stone’s throw from each other. With over 2000 photos taken there are so many others that you won’t see in the book I could list. Chocolate and coffee lovers who had stalls in the market in town who pooled their resources to open a shop that does both. A hardware store with a blacksmith firing sparks just 20ft from their door. They are making all the tools and wares you ever wanted in a complimentary enterprise. And what an amazing opportunity for the street to remain fiercely independent.
One of the oldest traders on the street told me that the street had terrible collapses in trade in the past and it recovered. The collapse turned out to be the catalyst it needed. As he locked his garage for the last time in what used to be a cow shed, he told me ‘when it all got too much for the people with money round here, too much traffic and too many factories, too many workers marching down the road every day to work, they upped sticks and left. Moved to the suburbs.’ That was over 100 years ago, he remembers stories his parents told him. Hard times. Industry collapse. But now it’s partly the other way. Houses are expensive here because people want to be near this road. They call Gloucester Road home and are avid localists when it comes to shopping. We hope.
What happens next will involve the long-term residents and new locals supporting that ‘furloughed feeling’ and seeing if it sticks. I for one think the street after a few epic hurts of empty shops will see rents fall, opportunities rise, and new hope spring up in the patches where it has already taken root. Provided the premises aren’t sold and turned into flats. Keep it independent and growing.
COVID-19 has changed everything. It’s closed down nightclubs and some industries for good possibly. That’s a big concern. Footfall in city centre has tanked to below 15% of usual levels but in Gloucester Road it seems the figures are rising. From now on with a click of a mouse and the touch of a smart screen thousands of new localists are ordering local beer, wine, cheese, harvests and talking about change.
Watch this space.
By Colin Moody