Bristol and the Myth of the British High Street

Posted by on Jan 17, 2013 in Bristol, musings | 4 Comments

The media wake of HMV’s demise features a lot of claims about the death of the British high street.

It prompted me to figure out why I stopped going to HMV. 

Thinking back, it wasn’t because the stock was overpriced. It wasn’t because I couldn’t find what I wanted, though I often couldn’t. Unlike Virgin, it wasn’t because they played godawful nu-metal so loud I couldn’t hear myself browsing for whimsical indie pop.

I think my reason was, in fact, that I got tempted away from the “high street” store by stores that were actually on high streets.

What the media call the “high street” is a real misnomer in Bristol. When people talk about high street shops on the news, in Bristol those shops are often to be found in Broadmead.

Broadmead is not high, and it’s not a street. Broadmead’s a 1950s concrete monstrosity (a gift from the Bristol Blitz. Thanks Hitler!) of grey crapness that’s looked down-at-heel since I first saw it in 1996.

In the daytime, it’s rammed with chuggers, preachers with bad megaphone technique wittering about eternal damnation, desperate-looking people trying to give you questionable lottery scratch cards and optician’s shills trying to drag you into Specsavers. 

As a retail centre, it’s a nightmare to navigate through if you simply want to buy things.

In the nighttime it’s a wasteland.

It’s got worse, if anything, since the development next door of the swanky £500m Cabot Circus shops.

Not that there’s much there I’d want to go to1, but Cabot Circus at least is architecturally impressive, modern and clean, with a funky roof and a lack of boring right-angles.

Broadmead, meanwhile, had a cheap facelift to try to spruce it up. The main result seems to have been some knee-height concrete spheres scattered around the place. I’m quite scared I’ll do a pratfall across one during some future chugger-dodging.

It’s definitely not what I think of when I hear the words “high street”.

High street” sounds like a nice place to walk to; Broadmead is mainly a place people sit in traffic to get to, to park in multi-storey car-parks whose stairwells smell of wee.

For me, a high street is something more along the lines of the Gloucester Road, or Bedminster’s North Street, say. The day before Christmas, I took my parents food shopping on North Street. Fab meat in Rare Butchers; lovely roasting potatoes from Ashton Fruit – along with great locally-pickled onions bought in a recycled coffee jar; booze from the Bristol Beer Factory; cheese and biscuits from the Southville Deli.

That’s a high street. The same kind of high street I used to go and buy records on, long before I’d set foot in an HMV. “Vinyl Village” on Barkingside High Street was owned and run by an actual musician, and sold me most of my teenage vinyl and cassettes. Who owns HMV? Well, shareholders, I guess, many of whom might not even know they own it. Who runs it? Oh. The bloke who used to run Jessops.

Don’t get me wrong. I believe there’s a place for big chain stores that offer a consistent experience throughout, which can only be offered by national or international firms, centrally-run, and big enough to be on the stock market. Where else can I go, safe in the knowledge they’ll stock a pair of jeans that fit my entirely un-lithe form? Not the hipster indie shops. No, Marks & Sparks.

And where else can I get the kind of mundane plastic electronic crap that sometimes, let’s face it, we all need? 

The last time I went to Broadmead, it was to go to Argos and buy a BT answer phone.

That, incidentally, was a more dispiriting experience even than I’d expected. Using their automated checkout, I found they’d started paying a bloke to stand next to the automated checkouts, trying to get people to press the button to buy the extended warranty.

Christ. Nice going, Argos. Making a crap experience worse since 1973.

But I’d have been no better off buying an answer phone anywhere else. Argos is fine for that kind of mass-produced plastic shite, which, let’s face it, we all need some of. For most of us, it’s the only way our lifestyle is even temporarily sustainable (though true sustainability fans wince at the thought.)

This is true culturally as well as economically. Sometimes I want to go see some anodyne Hollywood blockbuster and go to YO! Sushi afterwards, rather than watching something that’s actually good at the Watershed or the Cube.2

So, don’t get me wrong. I think there’s a place for what the British media call the high street. The place of mass-produced experience, owned by national firms who are, in turn, owned by multinational conglomerates, who are owned, through the stock market, often by us.3 The place of franchised sameness and familiar names. A place to retreat to when you don’t want a new experience.

I think there’s a place for it. I just think we need to reclaim the words “high street” for their original purpose – that street nearby, where the good shops are.

I wonder what we should call places like Broadmead instead? Any ideas?

  1. Cabot Circus is mostly chain restaurants, shops that sell clothes that are too trendy to come in my size, and a Showcase “Cinema de Lux” that, three times out of the four I’ve been there, has managed to bollocks-up the screening somehow; showing the new Star Trek in the wrong aspect ratio for the first fifteen minutes, for example. ↩

  2. I recommend The Master or Safety Not Guaranteed at the moment, by the way. ↩

  3. I imagine some of my two company pensions or my savings, through ISAs, might well have been in HMV. Oops. ↩

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  1. Liz Crew
    January 17, 2013

    I agree to an extent, Matt.
    I don’t think that Broadmead was ever really envisaged as a “High Street” in the sense you mean.
    In my living memory (which is a little longer than yours, and mostly Bristol-based) there were never butchers, bakers and candlestick makers — just department stores, electrical stores, clothes stores and all the other shops that have got more uniform and bland.
    Bristol has plenty of room for inner city shopping centres like Cabot Circus and Broadmead (and Broadwalk, and Kings Chase) but also to have High Streets like Gloucester Road, Stapleton Road, North Street and East Street. But they’re different things because I think they’ve evovled differently.
    We have the option of SO MUCH STUFF and we want more and more of it so that artisan dealers in small quanities simply can’t compete. This means, I think, that the shopping experience (eurgh) get polarised between different places and different media…
    We enjoy the stroll and the buying of nice bread and nice meat because, frankly, we are both time and money rich (relatively speaking). For other people, food shopping is a necessary evil that has to be done as quickly and cheaply as possible — partly through stretched finances and partly because children need to be “managed”.
    I believe it is possible for small, local, high streets to flourish — but it takes a special sort of place and special sort of people who aren’t always just beholden to the bottom line.
    Also it takes people who don’t take the easy road of blaming [insert evil conglomerate of your choice] for their failure because as you well know Gloucester Road has a dizzying array of supermarkets alongside thriving, high quality independent traders.

  2. Matt Gibson
    January 17, 2013

    Hi Liz,

    Yeah, I think that’s partly what I was trying to say — whether envisaged as a high street or not, it’s that Broadmead blandness of department stores, electrical stores and clothes stores that the media seem to be talking about when they say “high street”, and that it’s a phrase that jars with the reality of Bristol.

    I possibly should have mused about whether HMV might have survived on an actual high street (this recent, interesting response from the owner of Rise to a disgruntled customer is well worth reading, and seems to suggest that Rise, as a record shop, can only survive if it’s prepared to stop being *just* a record shop, at least…) 

    I certainly accept that there’s a place for Broadmead’s kind of shopping, indeed that our society as it is could never survive without it. (And I know I’m very privileged not to *have* to go to Broadmead if I don’t want to…) I wouldn’t speak of it as a “necessary evil”, say, because I know it’s an awful lot more necessary than it is evil…

  3. Paul Wick
    January 18, 2013

    I like Broadmead. The current planning laws allow the building of places like Avommeads & Imperial Park within the city ‑the type of location that I notice that didn’t get a thumbs down from you. They intercept many thousands of city centre customers on a daily basis, and unlike Broadmead, are impossible to reach without a car. Broadmead and the slowly declining Park Street would be much more dynamic and self sustaining places, if we stopped building more & more retail floor space away from the our city centre.
    Also, why is “local shopping” only for food? Where do you go for shoes, or a pillow or a saucepan? People seem now only to connect “local” with food, and are happy to drive many, many miles for anything else.

  4. Matt Gibson
    January 18, 2013

    Hi Paul,

    I think we’ll have to agree to differ about liking Broadmead.

    As for Avonmeads and Imperial Park, they got neither a thumbs up nor a thumbs down from me because I’ve only visited either of them a couple of times. As you say, they’re tough to get to without a car, and I prefer not to use mine if I can get away without it. I *had* to make a judgement, I’d probably have to give them a thumbs-down, though!

    Local shopping isn’t only for food. I just used the last time I’d been shopping on North Street as an example, and that happened to be for food. My post was already getting a bit long and unwieldy without cataloguing all my shopping habits :D

    As you ask, the last time I bought shoes, it was in Mastershoe on Park Street, the last time I bought a saucepan it was in Kitchens on Whiteladies Road, and I can’t remember where I got the last pillow from, but it was probably IKEA or John Lewis, for my (out-of-town shopping) sins…