I walked down the High Street of the town I was born last weekend. I wish hadn’t.
It must be about 30 years since I walked from one end to the other and it has changed out of all recognition and not in a good way. Maybe it’s just me getting old and sentimental, or maybe it’s a sign of the more significant malaise in British towns.
When I was growing up, when both my grandparents had shops in the town, it was a proper, functional, sustainable place. We could walk from my grandad’s hardware shop, past the place where they sold dog meat where, if you were very unlucky, you could see some old pony being walked in the side gate. The other grandad managed a pharmacy, where he dispensed drugs from an upstairs dispensary and sent them down in a dumb waiter. Brilliant fun.
Turn the corner and the High Street still had traffic in it. Given that it was the A4, the main road from London to Bristol, this was a busy route and one which needed to be diverted, but the traffic did bring life to the street. You would walk past the large Post Office, with WH Smith on the opposite side. I would buy Airfix models and Matchbox cars from the toy department upstairs.
There were small supermarkets and local shops. There were the shoe shops with the x-ray machines where you could see the bones in your feet. There was the coffee shop where a man with a thick black beard roasted his own beans to your specification. There was a small department store with Father Christmas who was a woman.
Further on, there was the shop where we bought the school uniform and The Bear Hotel – a significant, white rendered place that was far too posh for us and then the Berni Inn and the Chinese take-away.
All this has gone, or changed beyond recognition. Shoe shops have been replaced by coffee shops. Independent retailers have been replaced by national chains or, a real sign of the times, pound shops and charity shops. McDonalds is there. The Bear Hotel is now a Wetherspoons.
The cinema was pulled down years ago and replaced by an office development that is vacant and boarded up. The place has no life. No character. No attraction.
No wonder people shop elsewhere. What or who is to blame for this? Out of town retail for sure. Poor town planning. Buying on-line is no doubt contributing too. None of these are going to go away anytime soon and the demise of the high street, my high street, will continue. Maidenhead has turned into a very unsatisfactory town and I am somewhat depressed about it.
On the other hand, our small town now, much smaller than Maidenhead, has a deli and a butcher. It has a wide variety of shops, hairdressers, shoe shops, clothes shops, a gallery, restaurants (not chains), a jeweller, florists and a number of interesting pubs. The contrast between the “affluent” South East (Maidenhead is in the silicon Thames Valley and only 25 miles from London, so is a commuter town) and the North West (our town is an old mining town) is striking.
I know where I’d rather live.