Ten minutes in Billingham town centre
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.
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.
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.