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Dartford Waitrose closure

In July last year I wrote this post posing the question, “Is the decline terminal?”. Today, sadly we found out that it is.  After dithering for 11 years and demolishing a handsome parade of period shops Tesco announced that they are pulling out of their proposal to develop a new store and housing on the Lowfield site. Historic Dartford is left as a wasteland. Tesco also announced plans to close 43 unprofitable stores across the UK, although the locations of these have not yet been revealed.  We wait and see what is to happen upstream at Woolwich.

Dartford may well thrive again but a walk through the historic market town leaves the distinct impression that the decline is terminal. Arriving by train one of the first sights is the abandoned Waitrose supermarket, continue through the Orchard shopping centre where there appears to be more vacant than occupied shop units. It’s a ghost town with little footfall to boost sales for those shops still clinging on.

Orchard Shopping Mall Dartford

Lowfield Street is awaiting demolition. Notices on the hoardings all along the street proclaim to residents and visitors that “it’s been worth the wait” and “not long to wait”.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Well the townspeople of Dartford have been waiting eleven years for this planning scheme to come to fruition. A new Tesco is coming to town bringing jobs and affordable homes. It’s good to know that there will be new jobs for the many retail staff who have recently lost their jobs, but is this a net gain?

Lowfield Street Dartford

Most historic market towns celebrate their heritage and try to preserve their fine buildings. Now, not all market towns can be preserved in aspic like Stamford in Lincolnshire but most find a way of balancing new development with the old. The buddleia growing out of the decorative brickwork of the remaining heritage buildings doesn’t fill you with confidence about their preservation.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Can Tesco regenerate the town? At the turn of the millenium that may have looked like a possiblity but since then Tesco has been losing market share, austerity kicked in and people have changed their shopping habits. Architecturally it will do nothing to make the place worth visiting. Its neighbour upstream at Woolwich has been shortlisted for the carbuncle prize. The former chair of Planning at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Alex Grant, has stated that it’s a flawed project; a blight on the regeneration of the town and he regrets his role in its progeny. Oh dear it doesn’t bode well for Dartford.

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Hedley Vicars Butchers shop

Hedley Vicars Butchers shop

The news this week was gloomy: austerity at 1930s levels, food poverty and accusations that the working class could no longer cook.  A trip to Borough Market didn’t lift my spirits as I found out that a lamb’s kidney cost £6. When did this reversal of fortune occur; a staple of the working class now only found on the menus of top end restaurants and in the shopping bags of the well off.

1951 celebrations Powis St Woolwich

Culinary differences between the different social classes have existed for a long time.  During the 2nd World War the government equalized the food supply through subsidies on items consumed by the poor and the working class.  Cheap cuts of meat such as offal, breast of lamb, ox tail and cheek were available at the local butchers shop.

Earlier in the week I had come across this photograph of Hedley Vicars butchers on Powis Street in Woolwich. The year was 1951, Britain was beginning the recovery from war, some rationing had ended but it would continue for another three years on meat. Hedley Vicars were celebrating 100 years of service on the high street. In keeping with the optimism of postwar Britain the shop came up with a new slogan:

“In all ages Hedley Vicars are at your service”.

Shops such as a butcher, a greengrocer, a fishmonger and a bakery were standard on any high street and had been so for decades. No wonder Hedley Vicars thought they would continue to provide a service to the people of Woolwich for another century.

Early C20th Powis Street

Early C20th Powis Street

Powis St Woolwich

Then in the 1960s supermarkets appeared changing shopping habits. Mass food production techniques meant that the less well off no longer needed to depend on cheap cuts and they disappeared from the supermarket shelves.  There was a corresponding  decline of small independent shops.  These vintage photographs of Powis Street show a vibrant high street with an extensive range of shops. There is no longer a butchers shop on Powis Street although fresh fruit and vegetables are readily available at the daily market.

Market Hill 1925 Mr Thomas The Pawnbrokers

Market Hill 1925 Mr Thomas The Pawnbrokers

Now the supermarkets are in trouble undercut by the German no frills chains and changing shopping habits. As we brace ourselves for a few more years of austerity what changes will we see next in our high streets, our eating habits and how will our culinary skills develop?  Well who can say but  one thing I would be willing to bet on is that the increase in pawn shops will continue.

Stamford Lincolnshire

The curious visitor to Stamford may wonder how this town avoided the sprawl and squalor of the industrial period. Preserved in aspic it’s the perfect location for a Jane Austin drama.

View from The George

View from The George

Situated close to the Great North Road the town was a natural stopping point for coaches traveling between London and York. Today you can still see the great coaching inns like the George with its iconic sign which crosses the street and the Crown in Red Lion Square. Each have repurposed their old stable blocks to meet very different client groups. Football fans who like a fag can enjoy the large outdoor screen at The Crown whilst shoppers with an eye for luxury goods can visit the boutique shops at the back of The George.

The Welland centre of Stamford

The Welland centre of Stamford

 

The town dates back to the C5th, situated on a hill above meadows rising from the River Welland. The river remains an unspoilt focal point with dramatic views at dusk. The town’s development was restricted by the open field system.  What held development back more than anything was the Lammas Pasture rights – the right of the burgess to graze their cattle and sheep over the open fields after the  harvest had been taken in. The fields could be in private ownership but the burgess still had the right of Lammas over any man’s land. Towns in the midlands were particularly affected by the system.  By C19th the population and risen and the town needed to expand. It was a problem and one that the local aristocracy, down the road in Burghley House, wasn’t going to lend a hand in solving.

Stamford

The town returned two MPs and only householders had the franchise. The Cecils owned 200 houses in the town so had a huge influence which they weren’t going to relinquish by allowing open fields to be enclosed and possibly developed. Fearful of Chartists they also ensured that the town didn’t get caught up in industrialisation.  In 1846 there was a good chance that the London to York railway could pass through.

Stamford Lincolnshire

People of Stamford were anxious to get the trade because of the decline in the coaching trade. Lord Exeter (one of the Cecils) successfully prevented the railway coming and it went through Peterborough instead. Stamford’s  development was choked off and it fossilised into the stunning Georgian town we see today.  Good for today’s tourists but not for those living there at the time as from 1850 the population started to decline.

The Market

The Market

Today the town is still overshadowed by Burghley House and the public school situated in the heart of the town.  Market day on Friday is a lively affair with vendors chanting to sell their fresh produce. The townsfolks’ spiritual and social needs are well catered for as there are several churches and numerous public houses.  Sadly, not many of the pubs have survived as traditional boozers but have been modernised into restaurants or late night drinking holes with bouncers.

 

I know this has little to do with the Thames but it’s good for a visit.

Dartford Waitrose closure

Dartford may well thrive again but a walk through the historic market town leaves the distinct impression that the decline is terminal. Arriving by train one of the first sights is the abandoned Waitrose supermarket, continue through the Orchard shopping centre where there appears to be more vacant than occupied shop units. It’s a ghost town with little footfall to boost sales for those shops still clinging on.

Orchard Shopping Mall Dartford

Lowfield Street is awaiting demolition. Notices on the hoardings all along the street proclaim to residents and visitors that “it’s been worth the wait” and “not long to wait”.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Well the townspeople of Dartford have been waiting eleven years for this planning scheme to come to fruition. A new Tesco is coming to town bringing jobs and affordable homes. It’s good to know that there will be new jobs for the many retail staff who have recently lost their jobs, but is this a net gain?

Lowfield Street Dartford

Most historic market towns celebrate their heritage and try to preserve their fine buildings. Now, not all market towns can be preserved in aspic like Stamford in Lincolnshire but most find a way of balancing new development with the old. The buddleia growing out of the decorative brickwork of the remaining heritage buildings doesn’t fill you with confidence about their preservation.

Lowfield Street Dartford

Can Tesco regenerate the town? At the turn of the millenium that may have looked like a possiblity but since then Tesco has been losing market share, austerity kicked in and people have changed their shopping habits. Architecturally it will do nothing to make the place worth visiting. Its neighbour upstream at Woolwich has been shortlisted for the carbuncle prize. The former chair of Planning at the Royal Borough of Greenwich, Alex Grant, has stated that it’s a flawed project; a blight on the regeneration of the town and he regrets his role in its progeny. Oh dear it doesn’t bode well for Dartford.

The blighted shops Lowfield St Dartford

The blighted shops Lowfield St Dartford

The sign on the road into Dartford welcomes you to “Historic Dartford”. Unfortunately this market town is about to have its historical heart ripped out and all to make way for a new Tesco superstore. The shops in Lowfield Street are about to be demolished. Richardson’s butchers is one of the few shops still opened but a notice went up this week. After 104 years in the same shop it will be closing down 8th February.

Richardson's Butchers

Richardson’s Butchers

Let me tell you a little about this small family butchers. It has been selling locally sourced meat to the Dartford community since 1908. When I ordered a goose, this Christmas, Ray Richardson (the current owner) advised me to walk around the back of the shop where there is some open land. There I could see the geese roaming freely. The chickens they sell are raised on local farms and are more flavoursome than anything Tesco could provide, even from their “Extra” range. At one time there were other shops in the street each with their unique offer but a planning process that’s taken eleven years as blighted the area.

There are two reasons I am dismayed about events. Firstly, the thought of every town looking exactly the same and with the same dull offer is just limiting. There’s little point in visiting different places. Secondly, we should cherish old buildings especially in an historic market town. They are probably better built than anything planned. Take a look at the drawings for the new Dartford Tesco here dull and from the same architectural stable as the Woolwich store. Note the claims that the anchor store is going to drive business in the rest of the town. Well not according to one of the leading retail academics and Government adviser Professor Alan Hallsworth:

“I categorically do not accept that any superstore of any size can be dumped into a small market town and no damage will ensue.” Read full article here.

Dartford is an old market town and its charter dates back to James ll. The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel dates back to 1703 and it is still a pub with accommodation. There is a space further down the High Street where the Le Bell public house stood which dated back to 1507 but was sadly demolished in 1962.

Mural at Bell Corner

Mural at Bell Corner

An information board here titled One Town that Changed the World cites interesting facts such as Dartford was the first town to use gas lights. All that needs to be added is that there was once a fine parade of Victorian shops in Lowfield Street.

The RAC Department Store

In 1999 the RACs department store featured in a television movie The Greatest Store in the World. Up until the 1980s it certainly would have been the greatest store in South East London but in 1999 it was closed with no future prospects.

Powis Street today

Powis Street today

Membership of the RAC had been steadily increasing since its formation in 1868 and at the outbreak of the Second World War 1939 it was 382,000. In 1937 they planned a second large emporium in Woolwich. It was opened in stages 1939 and 1940 but it was not brought into full use until after the war. The streamlined building with horizontal lines and faience tiles makes an interesting architectural contrast to its sibling across the street.

RACs Department Store

Throughout the 1960s membership of the RACs increased. This transformative period saw a major re-fit of the store to make it up-to-the minute and reflect changing cultural values. On the third floor was a large bar and restaurant area plus a roof terrace

Restaurant

Restaurant

Bar

Bar

A travel bureau was a new feature reflecting the increased accessibility of foreign travel.

The Travel Department

The Travel Department

Post Office Counter in the store

Post Office Counter in the store


Hairdressing Department

Hairdressing Department

Sweet Department

Sweet Department

By the 1970s the membership of RACs reached half million but from this highpoint they began to suffer from the competition from the supermarkets. It was forced to merge with the Co-operative Wholesale Society in 1985. They used the upper floors as regional offices up until 1999 when it finally closed. In 2006 it was again used as a film set, this time for the dystopian science fiction film Children of Men. The abandoned store helping to conjure up an urban landscape of despair. After a period of uncertainty and threat of demolition there are plans to convert this important historic building into new residential accommodation.

A stranger arriving in Woolwich may look aghast at the brash and over sized Tesco that now dominates General Gordon Square but just over a century ago it was a different retail store, with a very different business ethic, that dominated the town. The Royal Arsenal Co-operative (RACs) was formed in 1868 and moved to the store at the end of Powis Street in 1873 rebuilt in 1903. This building and the later department store opened in 1939 are still standing. Plans have been agreed to convert the Art Deco building into flats with retail on the ground floor. The older building is now a Travel Lodge and with its proximity to London City Airport is a favourite resting place for cabin crew.

RACs Stores Powis Street

RACs Stores Powis Street

Powis Street today

Powis Street today

11 Eleanor Road home of William Rose

11 Eleanor Road home of William Rose

The society was formed by workers from the Royal Arsenal and began trading in the home of William Rose at 11 Eleanor Road (renamed Castile). By 1934 they had 275,000 members and 200 shops across South London and beyond. RAC boundary stones can still be seen in the pavements of Greenwich.

RACs Boundry Stone

RACs Boundry Stone

The shop in Powis Street became known as the Central Stores. It had a turnover of £7m of which £6m was distributed to its members. The cost of joining was 1/- ( five pence) towards a share in the capital and 6d (two and half pence) for a copy of the rule book.

RACs Charlton Branch

RACs Charlton Branch

One of its values was to sell cheap unadulterated food. In 1900 George Arnold addressed the annual conference celebrating the fact that bakeries across south London had gone out of business because they could not compete with the quality of RACs unadulterated bread.

RACs Coal supply

RACs Coal supply

RACs stores on the Dockyard

RACs stores on the Dockyard

To support its retail activities it bought Woodlands Farm on Shooters Hill. There was an abattoir on site and close by a preserving factory. The farm still exists and is now the Woodlands Farm Trust. It could teach Tesco a thing or two about provenance in the food chain. It diversified into housing, fuel supply and food production.

Dick Patching Meat & Poultry manager inspecting barley crop 1971 Woodlands Farm

Dick Patching Meat & Poultry manager inspecting barley crop 1971 Woodlands Farm

The Abattoir Woodlands Farm

The Abattoir Woodlands Farm

Woodlands Farm Trust today

Woodlands Farm Trust today

It built the Bostall Estate in Abbey Wood paying a “bonus to labour” by paying tradesmen a halfpenny an hour above the Trade Union rate. In 1925 it purchased,from the Government, the estate built for munitions workers in Eltham Well Hall and renamed it The Progress Estate. Living up to its ideals for world wide co-operation it housed Basque refugees during the Spanish Civil War.

Progress Estate Well Hall

Progress Estate Well Hall

The society had an extensive educational programme and 2.5% of its surplus went into this and social activities. Comrade Circles were available for young people 15-24 and Women’s Co-operative guilds extended to Southwark, Lewisham, Bexley, Bermondsey and Earlsfield in SW London. Student lead learning underpinned each study circle with each student selecting their own tutor with whom they would jointly plan the syllabus. In 1879 RACs opened the first library in Woolwich. It had two choirs conducted by Sir Michael Tippett. Joseph Reeves the Education Secretary 1934 said this in his introductory pamphlet for new members,

“Without co-operation no progress can be made in human affairs. Working together for the good for all is the keynote and meaning of co-operation. Mutual aid in the home, in the workshop, in the municipality and in the state will lead to world wide co-operation.”

There are echoes of the RACs in abundance in the Royal Borough of Greenwich. They helped the co-operative movement to develop in the South of England. Last year was the United Nation’s Year of the co-operatives confirming the lasting legacy of the movement.

More about the department store in my next post.

Faversham Market Kent

Following the Love your Local Market campaign in May I have been visiting markets along the Thames and its estuary. Faversham is one of the oldest markets in Kent dating back at least 900 years. As I approached the town centre there were bright orange banners celebrating that this was a market day. It is open Tuesday, Friday and Saturday.

Faversham Market Kent

For hundreds of years the market has been the hub of their community. Faverham’s market is quintessentially English centered around the Guildhall which dates back to 1574. Nevertheless there are signs of diversification as I spotted, for the first time ever, a mobility stall on the market. I have, however, since seen a similar stall on the Thursday market at Dartford. Does this trend reflect the baby bloomers decline? There are stalls selling clothes, hardware, fruit and veg, artisan bread and preserves and some bric-a-brac. The local cherries, strawberries and Kent new potatoes were particularly good.

Faversham Market Kent

The mix of shops and market stalls leads to a lively and vibrant atmosphere. There are several pubs and cafes with many people making the most of the sunshine and dining alfresco. At the other end of the market is the Shepherds Neame brewery. Opposite this I saw a local blue plaque on a house. It was the former home of Michael Greenwood 1731-1812 who was press ganged into the navy 1748. He was wrecked off the coast off Morocco 1758 and enslaved by Moors for 17 months. He was later ransomed and returned to Faversham. Quite a life story and a reminder of the town’s maritime past. Henry Vlll’s fleet, which was made at the Royal Woolwich and Deptford Dockyards, lay anchor in Faversham Creek. So as well as the market, diverse range of shops there is an interesting heritage here.

Faversham Market Kent

Dartford Market

My exploration of ancient markets along the Thames took me to Dartford and what a pleasant surprise that was. The walk from the station is a bit daunting as the road lay-out is designed for cars rather than pedestrians. I visited on a bright sunny Saturday and the market was vibrant and busy. Situated on the High Street it offers both shops and market stalls.

Dartford is an old market town and its charter dates back to James ll. The Royal Victoria and Bull Hotel dates back to 1703 and it is still a pub with accommodation. There is a space further down the High Street where the Le Bell public house stood which dated back to 1507 but was sadly demolished in 1962. An information board here titled One Town that Changed the World cites interesting facts such as Dartford was the first town to use gas lights.

Mural at Bell Corner

Mural at Bell Corner

The market stalls extend the full length of the High Street and sell clothes, plants, bags, housewares, fruit and veg. The range of local produce was impressive and the Kent new potatoes I bought was the best I’ve tasted in a long time. Richardson and Son butchers provides an impressive range of locally sourced meat. A French couple was in the queue before me and pleased with the excellent local produce I’d bought; momentarily I thought I was in France.

The town received a lot of publicity when it came to light that they had spent some of their £79,000 of Government cash to revive the High Street on a Peppa Pig character. Now, and then you will see a stall in a blue tent. One of the stallholders explained that these are the Portas’ bursary stalls. He had been a stallholder for over 40 years and was less than complementary about the Portas’ scheme claiming it was gimmicky and not sustainable. His view was that it should have addressed the fundamental problems of parking and business rates. Some of the new stalls were offering different things such as Mexican food and it will be interesting to see if they survive once the bursary runs out. The town that claims to have changed the world still appears to be divided.

Woolwich Market Beresford Square

Woolwich Market has a charter going back to 1618. It wasn’t until 1887 that the space at Beresford Square became the official site of the market. It had previously been located on Market Hill and Market Street. At the New Road entrance is a metal portal with a notice informing of the town’s Saxon past.

Portal Beresford Square Woolwich

The open space outside of the Royal Arsenal Gates, Beresford Square, became an important meeting and social place in the early 19th century. There where no market tolls here so traders moved into the space to keep down their costs. Despite being evicted several times they always drifted back. By 1866 the unofficial market had become so successful that the shops close by objected to further removals as it would damage their trade. So it got its official designation. Being located so close to the Royal Arsenal it had an enormous “footfall” of workers on their way to and from work. The new residents of the Arsenal now pass on their way to the station. But is there sufficient to tempt them to buy?

Woolwich Market

The market still opens daily (except Sunday) and whilst the official information says there are 100 stalls I couldn’t see that many. The stalls sell fruit and veg, clothes, bags, cases and shoes. There must be quite a demand for suitcases as there are several stalls that sell them. It is lively and interestingly doesn’t seem to have been affected by the Tesco monolith. I spoke to one of the fruit and veg traders who explained that because people are “feeling the pinch” they are shopping more frequently and thinking twice about the one stop shop. This pattern seems to lend itself more to market trading.

Woolwich Indoor Market

The covered market in Plumstead Road was opened in 1936. Outside is a steel sculpture The Woolwich Ship by Tom Grimsey. A commentator on this blog suggested I visit the indoor market to raise awareness of it. The indoor market is in a sorry state of repair although some stalls are still trading. The fact that so many are closed makes it an uninviting trading area. I did venture inside and thought that the industrial light shades would be of interest to a salvage dealer. There is little else to entice you in. It is inconceivable that it remains as it is being located across the road from the new Crossrail station. This is the second year of the Love Your Local Market campaign and Woolwich market could do with getting involved and developing this space into something far more fitting to the rich heritage of the town. The winner of the best Council run market this year was Oswerty and their website gives you a taste of what is possible.

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