modern culture since 1991

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This is Bath

Posted on March 20, 2012 by RevStu

And so tick follows tock. Alert WoS viewers may recall a subscriber feature from way back in December 2009 in which we chronicled the grim retail decay of the Welsh city of Newport. But two years into the Tories' medieval bloodletting "cure" for Britain's financial woes, the evidence of the country's slow but inexorable economic collapse can no longer be contained in the ghettoes of the working class. Because this is Bath.

This compact city of just 80,000 or so is swelled all year round by swarming hordes of well-heeled tourists (because you have to be well-heeled to come here at all) who troop in in their literally-millions to admire the pretty architecture and spew money into a local economy that's already cherry-pink with high-earning professionals.

I've lived here, lurking unnoticed in one of Britain's wealthiest corners, for over 21 years now. In all that time, it's hard to think back and recall even a single instance of a city-centre shop that's been empty for anything other than a brief transitional period between owners. Not any more.

Things started changing noticeably in the latter third of 2011. Every picture in this set was taken yesterday (19th March 2012) in the heart of the city – no outlying suburbs, or even the outer part of the centre – within the red ring in this map, an area roughly 500 yards long by about 100 yards wide and taking in the main shopping "spine", running from the train and bus stations through Southgate, then up Stall Street, Union Street and Milsom Street towards the Circus.

(I didn't include shops that were empty but seemingly being prepared for imminent new occupants, or anywhere having a closing-down sale but still open for now.)

When you look at these shots, bear in mind that only around 10% of the coalition government's planned cuts have as yet been put into effect, and that we're all forecast to keep getting poorer for the entire duration of this Parliament. Ready?

A former Jessops, advantageously located directly facing the fancy new £360m Southgate Centre, which opened at almost exactly the same time as I visited Newport, and which saw all of Bath's poor-person shops (useful stuff like pound stores, bargain booksellers, cheap cafes etc, which were all located in the previous ugly 1970s Southgate) bulldozed to make way for the glamorous new development, populated almost entirely by pricey women's fashion outlets like All Saints and Calvin Klein.

This was a large two-storey branch of Habitat, one of a number of nationwide chains that have gone bust during the economic crisis and whose premises have not been reoccupied. Reflected in the window you can see Bath's Waitrose store, which recently bought out the entire "Podium" development to expand into, ejecting about 15 small businesses and sizeable restaurants – none of which have relocated elsewhere in town as far as WoSland can ascertain.

Within a few yards of the Podium, two famous Bath family-owned musical-instrument shops that had been in the town for decades (in fact, in the latter case an incredible 163 years) finally gave up the ghost in 2011.

This was once Shu-Han, a swanky Oriental-themed jewellery-and-trinkets shop.

50 yards the other way from the Podium, on a well-travelled street full of pubs, hairdressers, clothes shops and upmarket eating establishments (as well as the scruffy but excellent kebab takeaway on the right), this used to be Bath Galleries.

Despite an extremely upscale location on Argyle Street, we've lost count of the number of different failed restaurants that have occupied this seemingly ill-starred property. Liberty was merely another in a long and somewhat inexplicable line.

Similarly, real estate doesn't come much more prime in Bath than the pedestrianised Stall Street, but Dr China was unable to punt enough herbs and acupuncture to gullible homeopathy fans there to make a go of it, even following the demise of its main competition – Culpeper the Herbalist – a while back. (And if you can't sell homeopathy in Bath, you can't sell it anywhere.)

Taking what you might term the karmically-opposite approach on the other side of the street didn't work out any better either, for Bath's second short-lived Menkind gadget store in about 12 months.

A few yards away in the historic "Corridor" covered arcade, a milkshake bar evidently found the going less smooth than hoped.

While the branch of Blacks Leisure across the passage didn't survive the camping-equipment chain's administration.

On the nearby Upper Borough Walls, quaint furniture and gifts emporium Redwood Bay didn't manage the longevity of its arboreal namesake.

While across the road, designer babywear stockist Funky Bambini barely reached the lifespan of a pair of the toddler's shoes it fleetingly sold.

Eastex, whose Bath branch was located in the misleadingly-named Cheap Street, proudly boasts of having traded since 1951. But their 60-year run in the womenswear business came to an abrupt end here in 2011.

Across the road, a large National Trust store that was trading as recently as late January this year – I bought a present for my mum there when my parents came to visit – was curiously outlasted by the Christmas shop next door (still open).

In Bath's very snootiest environs – directly across from the Roman Baths and Pump Rooms – tatty discount clothing shop Unique lowered the tone for barely a couple of months before closing in the premises previously vacated by The Officers Club when they too bit the dust in 2011.

While next door, Past Times (having already downsized from another branch just up the street) found itself reflecting wistfully on better days, but no longer on a commercial basis. As best we can recall, this particular unit has had at least six different occupants in the last 18 months or so, including a shoe chain, the previous Menkind store, and various art, calendar and gallery shops.

I think this (still in Stall Street) was the female half of River Island.

A boutique newsagent, would you believe? Also sold coffee and pastries, but to no avail. As we've noted on WoSland before, newsagents have had a particularly bad time of it of late – on a quick unscientific finger count, fully 92% of the ones I can remember in Bath are no more, most of them lost in the last five years.

I know, right – who'd have thought you could go bust selling "bathroom environments" in this day and age?

You'd have thought there'd have been a decent living just in printing "TO LET", "CLOSING DOWN" and "FOR SALE" signs.

There's something quite sinister about that final section of the huge triple-fronted Wesley Owen's which sold all manner of Christian literature and paraphernalia on St James' Parade. Only the reflection of the handsome man lends it a flicker of humanity.

Just a few doors further down the Parade, this now-defunct coffee shop with original art deco detailing was previously a post office, until hero-of-the-people Baron Mandelson closed over 90% of Bath's sub-POs in the dying years of the last Labour government. The city's 80,000 people now have to share the single main one.

Even selling "pre-loved" designer gear couldn't save the oddly-named occupants of this sparkly-new unit in the box-fresh Southgate Centre.

We must admit we're glad La Senza didn't have a "pre-loved" section, though.

The Bath Model Centre is another shop that was here when WoS arrived in 1991, but couldn't hang on any longer.

Bath's last videogame arcade (incorporated into the huge laser-war arena Quazar) is situated just 50 feet from the front door of the main Future building, but still couldn't attract enough gaming fans to sustain a business and has sat empty for several years.

Do you believe in the (trendy skatewear outlet) Westworld? Not any more.

Also on Westgate Street, this was another newsagent many moons ago, but was ripped out and completely rebuilt. (It used to have one sunken door in the middle rather than two street-level ones at the sides.) What it actually became before it became an empty shell, though, is already lost to memory.

That's a pretty accurate message on the left-hand bus shelter.

One of the saddest sights in the world, on Monmouth Street barely 100 yards from the classic-era home of Future Publishing – a tiny closed-down sweetshop ("Humbugs").

Celebrated hippy restaurant The Walrus & Carpenter lasted 37 years before biting the big organic lentil in 2011.

While a few yards away on Barton Street, the much younger Magma noodles-and-sushi bar quickly became the latest in a long line of enterprises to have failed in its rather unpretty location.

Future also had an office on Trim Street at one time. Maybe it's a curse, and the bo.lee gallery is just the latest victim.

By the time I reached Milsom Place (a very fashionable high-end arcade expensively renovated and re-opened in 2008 just in time for the banking crash), my camera battery had given out under the sheer weight of empty storefronts it was being asked to record, and my iPhone had to take over.

Milsom Place is far too posh for scum like this reporter to normally even venture into (its plebbiest inhabitant is Jamie Oliver's restaurant), so I never saw this now-ironically-titled business in operation to know what it was.

Casualties are even beginning to appear outside on high-falutin' Milsom Street itself. (Local colour: I went into Jaeger last year looking for a nice waistcoat for John Walker's wedding. They quoted, I think, eight hundred thousand pounds.)

While over the road the aforementioned Culpeper the Herbalist sits empty again after a brief stint as a calendar shop.

Up on George Street (just across from the moderately famous Moles club) this used to be a rather nice little arty knick-knacks shop, and before that an estate agents. The lingerie store next door was a Juice Kitchen until recently. The pub two doors along has had three different names (and refits) in the last 10 years, and was previously a bank. You can't say people aren't trying everything.

By the time we took this photograph, the tense was wrong on most of the signs.

And that's that. With the cuts barely having started, the recession has come with a vengeance to even the very heart of the richest city in Britain outside of London. From 21 years with not a single empty shop to be commonly seen in the city centre, suddenly there are more than 40 all at once, some having been vacant for months.

We're not sure about you, folks, but we in Bath are looking at the future with fear in our souls. God help you if you live in Barnsley. Tick follows tock.

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29 to “This is Bath”

  1. Rodafowa says:

    (And if you can't sell homeopathy in Bath, you can't sell it anywhere.)
    It's an ill wind that blows no good.

  2. Irish Al says:

    God help you if you live in Barnsley.
    They've had this since the Tories knackered the mining industry – they're well used to it up there unfortunately.

  3. Cueball says:

    Good work. I don't live in Bath any more, but I did when they started building the new shopping centre. That was always going to be a disaster, with or without a recession (although obviously that's made things worse by several factors).
    Building such a vast number of new shop units in a city with strict physical limits on the number of people who can actually visit them was madness. Just another example of Bath planners' ability to piss everyone's money down the drain on vanity projects.
    If memory serves, building began almost the day that, ten miles away and with better parking for non-city dwellers, the even more expansive Cabot Circus had just been finished. It was always going to be obvious that anyone who actually wanted to buy stuff would go there. I was in Bristol at Christmas – as far as I recall there weren't many empty shops in Cabot Circus (although the rest of the city has taken a pounding as a result). 

  4. A serious question, but could this not be more due to the Internet coming of age as a retail channel than the recession/economic policies?
    While I'm sure that the recession has not helped, I think that the High Street is under existential threat from changing consumer habits. Are we still spending, just not in shops?

  5. RevStu says:

    Internet shopping has been with us for years, and Bath survived it just fine. Pretty much every store in these pics closed in 2011 or 2012. Bear in mind also that the feature doesn’t cover stuff that’s about to go bust, and which IS more likely to have been affected by the growth in online – it looks likely we’ll soon be able to add pics of empty GAME and Gamestation stores to the list.

  6. RevStu says:

    "They've had this since the Tories knackered the mining industry – they're well used to it up there unfortunately."

    Mm. But it chills the blood to think how they're going to cope when it gets even worse.

  7. Dan Lawrence says:

    I've found it's also helpful to document the number of recently opened pawn shops, betting outfits and pay day loan companies. 

  8. dave p says:

    game are going bust because of steam. Not because "the tories are evil". Get a clue.

  9. cheets says:

    Wigan town centre is the same, new shopping centre was built about 3-4 years ago, company that built even went bust just after it opened, so the town has the old shopping centre (Galleries) with just pound shops, all the major stores moved into the new centre, walking around it is like a ghost town

  10. George says:

    If Wesley Owen can't make it right outside one of the biggest churches in Bath they're pretty much doomed.
    Shame about Smooth Sensations though, it was a better version of Shakeaway in a nicer location that no-one knew about.

  11. RevStu says:

    "game are going bust because of steam. Not because "the tories are evil". Get a clue."

    You seem confused, Dave. Nobody mentioned GAME in the feature, and in the comments I expressly said they were more likely to be affected by online sales (eg Steam, not that a lot of GAME’s business came from the PC anyway). Try to pay attention, there's a good lad.

  12. Steve Smith says:

    Imaginary shopping?  Heaven forbid the public see the reality.  It's almost like the intro of Syndicate.

  13. Romanista says:

    Lots of imaginarystuff hee in utrecht.

  14. Anonymous X says:

    Was going to visually document the decaying effects of Tory Britain on local retail areas in a familiar photographically-orientated way. But I was concerned about being arrested on some kind of obscure terrist charges for taking photos of empty buildings, so, err, I didn't.

  15. Bad Ambassador says:

    The old River Island will shortly be a Schuh, and the boarded up thing by the bus shelters will be a new Tesco Express (just yards from both Sainsbury's and Co-op). So everything is looking peachy in Bath! Yep.

  16. David G says:

    Stores I think are on the slide include: BCH camping on Southgate, currently offering massive discounts, a sure sign that all is not well , On The Video Front, a veritable Bath institution being savaged by on line competition. The Yankee Candle store on Terrace Walk must be on trouble, I’ve never seen anyone in there! Retro To Go looks very run down and surely can’t compete with Gourmet Scoffs, a vastly superior eatery!

  17. So why are you folks putting up with this madness?  It's fairly obvious that "austerity" is nothing more than wholesale looting of the middle class.  Where are the protests?  Where are the marches?  Where is "Occupy Bath" in all of this?  It's not like you have to deal with the Confederacy as we do in the States.  Ach, thank God you don't have to deal with those stupid morons.
    John Lennon said it best: War is over, if you want it.  Less talk, more action, kids.

  18. RevStu says:

    For the answers to those and other questions, see here:

    http://wosland.podgamer.com/we-arent-the-99/

  19. Binnsy says:

    Hey Stu.
    Nice post. Some genuine sadness in here, like the Walrus and Carpenter and Duck, Son and Pinker. Every closed store is a miserable story for those affected. Town planning in Bath is mental – replacing a piss stink shopping centre for an empty one with an Apple store.
    Cheer up though.
    Some of these stores were selling crap people can do without. Chinese herbal cures, religious texts…
    Some were catastrophically managed businesses – Habitat, Jessops…
    Some have direct substitutes close by – two milkshake stores (one of which is thriving, one closed), two camping stores (one struggling, one closed)…
    Some are just shifting fashions, run by the same designers – Superdry for Westworld… 
    Some the internet is so much better at – movie rental, newsagents and sign makers.
    Hmm. Doesn't help make ours or other towns not look crap though.
    J

  20. John G says:

    People have given up spening money on life's diverse essential 'stuff ' in favour of one thing:
    During the January sales, every single shop in Bath had huge discounts displayed – all except one store that had no "Sale" or "Prices Slashed" signs whatsoever. The Apple store. It was also the one with a 200-deep queue outside at 8:00am a few days ago. Wake up people, support your local economy. There isn't an "App" to mend your city centre. You obviously have money to spend on frivolities – try spending it elsewhere!

  21. Dave C says:

    Very interesting post. I was directed here via the 'We Love Bath' Twitter account.
    However, some points. I don't think a lot of this can be directly attributed to 'The Tories' etc. Some of it has been just simple market forces. A DVD rental shop is going to struggle whatever happens. It's the march of progress and it's an outdated business model.
    As for the Podium – some shops have relocated. Bertinet are doing well in their new location you would have walked past down New Bond Street Place and 'Up to Seven' are opening up on Pulteney Bridge.

    Blacks was a nationwide thing and as someone has hinted at here, a duplicate shop down an alley with limited footfall will always struggle. I see the other branch seems to be doing ok. La Senza and Habitat were also nationwide.

    Yes it's sad that some of these have gone after long histories, but if you don't adapt to your environment then expect to be punished by the market. Look at HMV. People don't buy CDs anymore, they download. If you don't change your business model then you'll lose.

  22. Duncan says:

     
    Nice post, but there's a few small mistakes:
    You mentioned those shops are all within the red area on the map, but 7 of them aren't – those on St James's Parade, Ambury and Barton Street.
    You also have bo.lee gallery (http://www.bo-lee.co.uk/) on Trim Street listed as closed, but last time I checked it wasn't, and their website implies they have an exhibition starting next Tuesday. I'd guess they were just out for lunch or something when you walked past.
    I believe most of the shops in The Podium have also managed to relocate – to pick a few at random, The Bertinet Kitchen Shop has moved to New Bond Street Place, Up To Seven have moved to Pultney Bridge and My Small World have moved to Little Southgate. Inevitably some will have closed, but most haven't been hit too badly by the changes.
    There might be another shop you missed – Not Just Pets relocated to St James's Parade from opposite the Chapel Arts Centre, and I have a feeling their old shop is empty.
    Otherwise, that's a really informative post, and would be really interesting to see another in a few months to see how the situation has changed.

  23. RevStu says:

    Doh. In my head the Lower Borough Walls was St James’ Parade. It’s confusing when you’re not used to navigating the town by helicopter. Will redraw when I get a minute.

    I didn’t put the old pet shop in as a closed shop, because I knew it had moved – I buy my rat supplies there. I did know what’s happening to the building, but it’s slipped my mind.

    And sure, there are lots of reasons why certain shops might have closed. The point is, lots of shops closed in the past too, but the premises didn’t stand empty for months, 40 at a time.

  24. Lenny says:

    Not that I'm in any way applauding the collapse of the high street, but if I lived in Bath I simply wouldn't have gone in to any of those shops anyway. Maybe the model shop, once a year or something like that, but I doubt I would have bought anything.
     
    That, I think, has been the problem of the last fifteen years or so. Too much cheap money thrown around giving rise to niche businesses with no effective business model and consumers with access to expensive crap that they don't need, but want. Once the money dried up, this was inevitable.
     
    Sadly I don't see now how the high street can ever recover. The growth of supermarket chains into new markets, the expansion and adoption of internet selling, local councils constantly putting up the price of parking (and the various other things local councils do to ruin local economies), out-of-town retail parks and the growth in digital (downloadable) media are all conspiring against the high-street. The final nail in the coffin for practically all retailers will be when home 3D-printing becomes cheap, effective and mass-market.   
     

  25. Irish Al says:

    I don't think we'll be 3D-printing consumer electronics any time in the next 50 years.

  26. jerry says:

    Yeah, council greed over parking is unforgivable. The notices that get put up when they're forever raising prices implies the community has no say in the matter.

  27. Marc says:

    As the man above said, Wigan has an arcade barely 25 years old that is utterly abandoned for the most, and a new one I can't afford to step into. It's grim. 

  28. Stu says:

    Sadly Stu continues to pass off all that goes wrong with this country as soemthing to blame the Tories for. He fails to see that much of this modern problem to be caused by the previous labour government and of course potentially even previous governments (Tories included) to that.
    Lenny seems to sum this one up quite well. At some point the expansion of city centre shopping areas was going to hit the skids and it just so happens to have coincided with a Tory government in place. People seem to think that it is a shame that companies that have been around for centuries suddenly go bust with one of the most recent examples being 'Peacocks' back in January. Remember, this is a company that continued to make a 'Profit' up until it went into administration and just highlights what effect debt can do to your company. If the UK was a company we would have had to call the administrators in some time ago.



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