Back to Billingham
Regular readers 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 it’s never going to win an award for the quality of its urban spaces, but visiting on a sunny afternoon – rather than a drizzly evening – certainly helped.
Boyes’ colourful (if rather dated) Christmas display – complete with animated Santa – was also having a very good stab at brightening up the dreary tunnel area at the side of its store. I suspect, however, that it would be possible to dig out a 1970s photo of the same window and not be able to tell the difference.
You’ll recall that Billingham’s old Woolies site (store #820) was taken over by Ethel Austin, only for it too to collapse into administration not long afterwards. After my last visit, I reported – based on what I saw, and what I’d heard elsewhere – that Billingham’s Ethel Austin was not among the 90 stores bought back by former owner Elaine McPherson, and had therefore closed.
However, it looks like I was mistaken – visiting Billingham yesterday the store was distinctly open, with a poster in the window explaining its imminent conversion to McPherson’s new Life & Style format. If nothing else, it demonstrates the hazard of a town centre, like Billingham, where almost all the shops are shuttered at night – creating a dead streetscape, and making it hard to identify the open stores among the closed down ones.
As a reminder of the days when Billingham town centre was rather better frequented by the area’s shoppers, I was interested to come across a couple of old photos, from about 1964, on the excellent Picture Stockton website. Woolworths, with its familiar red signage, is clearly visible in the second of the two photographs, having opened on 19 November 1953, alongside the now-similarly-defunct names of Dewhurst butchers and the footwear retailer Freeman Hardy Willis. Interestingly, the image shows the Woolworths store occupying only three bays of the building, rather than the five that it occupied – it would seem – from at least the 1970s onwards.
No doubt there will be someone out there who’s able to remember the store being extended – your memories, as always, are most welcome.