Ten minutes in Billingham town centre

Former Woolworths - and former Ethel Austin - in Billingham (28 Jun 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Former Woolworths - and former Ethel Austin - in Billingham (28 Jun 2010)

Until a few weeks ago, Billingham on Teesside had been one of only three former North East Woolworths – out of the 33 that closed following its 2008 administration – that I hadn’t yet visited. Finding myself down that way recently, I therefore took the opportunity – if that’s the right word – to check the store out.

Perhaps it was the drizzle, or the fact that it was quarter-past six in the evening, but Billingham town centre was truly one of the few places I’ve visited where I’ve immediately wanted to leave again.

Billingham town centre (28 Jun 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Billingham town centre (28 Jun 2010)

From the bus stop on The Causeway, a passage at the side of Asda led me through to the main thoroughfares of Town Square and Queensway. Immediately I was faced with a large group of youths hanging around outside the Iceland store; round the corner, others were lurking on the high-level decks that surround Queensway.

Groups of youths are not necessarily a problem in their own right, but the almost complete absence of anybody else in the town centre gave the place an eerie and unpleasant feel. This was compounded by the lack of any visual stimulation at street level – with most of the shopfronts hidden behind metal shutters, there was nothing to engage the senses. Indeed, one of the worst things about metal shutters – apart from outlawing window shopping – is that they make it difficult to distinguish shops that are closed for the night from those that are closed for good.

Billingham town centre (28 Jun 2010). Photograph by Graham Soult

Billingham town centre (28 Jun 2010)

One store in the latter category is Billingham’s (former) Ethel Austin. The town had the sheer bad luck to have Ethel Austin move into its former Woolworths store, only to then see Ethel’s collapse into administration as well. Having got the photo I was after, I turned on my heel and retreated back to the bus stop – after all, there was little other reason for me, or anyone else, to want to stay around. [UPDATE, 17 November 2010: It seems that Billingham's Ethel Austin hasn't, in fact, closed down.]

Followers of this blog will know that I try and look for the best in any of the town centres that I visit – no mean feat, given some of the places I’ve been to. Billingham, however, was a challenge indeed. I’ve already resolved that I must return in the daytime when the sun is shining, in the hope that I might yet see the town’s retail centre in a more positive light.

6 Responses to “Ten minutes in Billingham town centre”

  1. Jonny Rowntree said:

    Jul 22, 10 at 23:36

    I’ve always seen Billingham advertised either on the front of the bus destination screen, or in advertisements in newspapers but I’ve never seen what it is like around there. The photos featured in this post remind me Whitley Bay, before the nightlife lifestyle kicked off down there and Wallsend after hours. It looks deserted and a place that you don’t want to visit.

  2. Adam said:

    Jul 24, 10 at 00:35

    Sadly Billingham town centre is such a dire place, it will never attract the bigger brands but the entire concrete jungle atmosphere just makes it a million times worse. You noted the youth hanging around and add the fact that there are so many shady corners and dark tunnels and you have a really uninviting place.

    The problem is that with Middlesbrough, Stockton and Hartlepool all 10/15 minutes away and easily accessible by car, bus and train then it really doesn’t stand a chance. With Boyes open in the town centre there isn’t even room for an Alworth’s type store to open either.

    In response to the Whitley Bay comment, Billingham town centre makes Whitley Bay look like Bond Street.

  3. Soult's Retail View» Blog Archive » Stockton’s original Woolies – and the current state of the town’s High Street said:

    Aug 20, 10 at 19:00

    [...] was finally able to pay a visit a few weeks ago – the same day that I went to Billingham – and felt fairly embarrassed to have missed it the first time, given that it conforms to all [...]

  4. Annie said:

    Sep 08, 10 at 19:32

    I hope you do go back. Sadly Billingham Centre has fallen on hard times. ‘The Square’ as it is known locally did have it’s design heart in the right place originally. In the 50s when it was built, its pedestrian layout – passing through an arch into a broad open space, with underfloor heating, bird aviaries, fishponds, childrens’ playground and Pram Ramp to the shops on the upper level, were cutting edge. Not to mention the later Forum and Art Gallery. Kingsway, the covered two storey addition always was a mistake and remains a dim cavern. Unfortunately, when the ICI money left the town, so did the ability to renew. Please don’t condemn it. In my experience the people are really nice, and youths love to hang around and lurk in all towns, not just ours.

  5. Soult's Retail View » Blog Archive » Back to Billingham said:

    Nov 17, 10 at 13:42

    [...] of this blog will be pleased to hear that I went back to Billingham yesterday, following my earlier underwhelming visit, back in June. The homogeneity and datedness of Billingham town centre’s design mean that [...]

  6. Simon Lott said:

    Aug 15, 12 at 23:16

    Sadly, I live in Billingham and try to avoid visiting the town centre as much as possible! It is an extremely depressing place to go unless you want to visit one of the many charity shops. With the addition of a brighthouse store it shows how the town is moving backwards! It is still stuck in the 1950′s and the best thing to do is demolish the whole place and start again.

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