Bishop Auckland bustles, despite its empty Woolies
The recent focus upon all that’s been happening in Newcastle means that I haven’t had as much time as I would like to explore some other topics of interest – there are at least half a dozen on my ‘to do’ list.
One thing I’ve been meaning to write up – and now finally am – is a report on my visit to Bishop Auckland, in County Durham, a few Saturdays ago. Other than skirting around the edge on my way somewhere else I’d never been to Bishop Auckland before, but I was generally quite impressed by the town centre. It has a nice range of independent shops (like the 150-year-old Gregory’s bakers[broken link removed], above) and big-name multiples (such as M&S and Topshop), some attractive streets and buildings, and its main shopping thoroughfare – Newgate Street – had a nice buzz about the place on the day that I visited.
On the downside, I was disappointed by the rather gloomy Newgate Shopping Centre, and by the small and sad-looking cluster of market stalls in the Market Place. Rather like in Tamworth, the look and feel of the market was rather disparate and ad hoc; however, where Tamworth’s market suffers from being shoehorned into too small a space, Bishop Auckland’s seemed to be floating in a public square that was much too large for it.
Overlooked by the imposing Town Hall and the entrance to Auckland Castle, Bishop Auckland’s Market Place is undoubtedly among the North East’s most impressive public spaces. When I visited, much of the area was being dug up as part of improvement works that will include new paving and “extra space for events and market stalls”. Once complete, these enhancements will hopefully allow the Market Place to be used to its full potential.
Given what I’d seen on the Bishop Auckland Town website at bishopauckland.org, I’d also expected more of Fore Bondgate: a narrow and historic street off the Market Place that is full of character, but seems to be suffering from a lot of empty units at the moment. However, Fore Bondgate has scope to be a great location in which to build an interesting cluster of independent shops and cafes, and with the right investment and promotion could really be a distinctive and successful retail destination.
Unsurprisingly, a highlight of the visit was being able to tick another North East Woolworths off the list, meaning that there are now only nine left to get of the 33 that closed down in December 2008 and January 2009. I hadn’t seen a photo of the store prior to visiting Bishop Auckland, but even without the giveaway of the red Woolworths fascia, it is instantly recognisable as a Woolies building, with all the familiar architectural traits. Indeed, of all those former Woolies I’ve seen so far, it’s the most similar to the mysterious is-it-an-old-Woolies-or-not in Byker.
Just a couple of doors up from Woolworths is another property that could very easily have become an empty blight on Newgate Street – the Co-op department store, now run under the Westgate Department Stores brand by Anglia Regional Co-operative Society (ARCS). As I’ve mentioned before, Bishop Auckland’s Co-op department store was one of three North East shops rescued by ARCS when the Co-operative Group decided, in 2005, to exit non-food.
It’s easy to see why ARCS stepped in to save the store, as it really is at the heart of Bishop Auckland town centre, and its only department store. Its street frontage is vast, and it sells all those types of products – such as toys, furniture and electricals – that would otherwise be difficult to find on the local high street. Pleasingly, the store seemed to be doing a decent trade on the Saturday afternoon when I was there – long may it continue.