Historic Alnwick’s original Woolworths – and a modern-day successor in Wilkinson
In the same way as Houghton-le-Spring’s Woolworths was originally in a different location to where it ended up, I recently discovered that Alnwick, too, has a long-vacated ex-Woolies site. Having enjoyed my previous visit to the Northumberland market town a couple of years ago, this latest discovery gave me a good excuse to go back.
If you read my January 2010 blog, you’ll recall that Alnwick’s most recent ex-Woolworths premises at 40-42 Bondgate Within were fairly rapidly taken over by M&Co after the chain’s collapse.
One must assume that the store is performing well, given that it’s the first I’ve seen featuring M&Co’s updated fascia: a skinnier version of the logo without a full stop after the ‘o’, on a background that is now black rather than navy. It looks OK, but I’m disappointed that the shopfront has been repainted too, with the white gloss replaced with what looks like – but presumably isn’t – a grey undercoat. Where the white created a visual connection with the paintwork of the upper-floor windows, that sense of harmony has now been lost – rather a shame.
Trading as store number 822 from 26 November 1953, Woolworths was a fairly late arrival in Alnwick; the store down the road in Ashington, for example, had opened nearly thirty years earlier. It must have been popular, however, as just fifteen years later, on 1 February 1968, it moved to larger premises along the road – today’s M&Co.
To find Alnwick’s original Woolworths location, you just have to go a few doors along to a building that I mentioned in passing last time: the rather ugly block that now houses Iceland and the Yorkshire Building Society.
Pinpointing long-closed Woolies can require a bit of detective work, but happily the company’s 1957 stores list makes things relatively simple here. It records the location as 32 Bondgate Within, which today is the address of the town’s Yorkshire Building Society. To the left, Iceland is badged as 32-34, while the longstanding HSBC branch on the right is 30. So, while I’m yet to find any photographic evidence of Woolworths in this location, it would seem – assuming there’s been no renumbering since – that Woolies sat next to HSBC, roughly where the Yorkshire is today.
From an architectural and townscape point of view, it’s hard to imagine why anyone ever thought the Iceland building was a good idea. While vaguely the right colour to blend in to its beautiful surroundings, it makes few other concessions to Alnwick’s historic character in terms of its scale, detailing or rhythm.
Judging from the current property’s 1970s appearance, my assumption is that Woolworths occupied the building that it must have replaced. A postcard view on the Francis Frith website, reportedly from about 1955, shows the earlier property (with an awning) on the far right next to today’s HSBC, though it’s not possible to make out whether the store was Woolworths at that time.
The property in question is shown more clearly in the c1906 postcard above (third building from the right), which obviously predates all of the UK’s Woolworths stores. Still, it gives us an idea of what the previous building looked like, and highlights – car park, trees and Iceland block aside – quite how little Alnwick’s historic core has changed in the century up to my present-day photo below.
Having said that, one way in which Alnwick does seem to have changed – even in the last couple of years – is in terms of its town centre’s retail health. Perhaps surprisingly, it’s a change for the better, too.
Alnwick has always had some wonderful independent shops, and the magnificent Barter Books – in the town’s old station – attracts visitors from far and wide with its warm atmosphere and astonishing range of secondhand and antiquarian titles. Though the roaring fires or overhead train set might not work in Waterstones, the chain could certainly learn a thing or two from Barter’s coffee, cookies, copious seating and overall instore buzz.
However, for all these retail attractions, I did spot some challenges for Alnwick last time I was there. I remarked, for example, upon “the quite large number of empty units” in the town, and also highlighted the gap in the market for “a footfall-driving variety retailer” following Woolworths’ departure.
In contrast, my impression on this latest occasion was of far fewer vacant shops throughout the town centre, with the former Threshers opposite the White Swan Hotel among the prominent units that have now been filled. It is, admittedly, now a Salvation Army charity shop, but it at least has a more pleasing impact on Alnwick’s streetscape than either an empty shop or the garish off licence that used to be there.
There’s also been progress on the variety retailer front, with the family-owned Wilkinson having signed up for Gentoo’s mixed-use Clayport Street scheme, close to Alnwick’s bus station and Morrisons store, a few months after my last visit.
Trading since August last year, the 12,000 sq ft shop is relatively compact by Wilkinson’s present-day standards, but the bright and clean interior – now rolled out across much of Wilko’s 360-strong estate – ensures that the store is uncluttered and easy to navigate, despite being well stocked. Next door, the only other occupied unit in the scheme is filled by the increasingly ubiquitous discount fashion brand Store Twenty One.
Before Gentoo’s development it would have been impossible for Wilkinson to open in Alnwick, as the town’s historic core has traditionally meant that large-footprint units were few and far between. Now, however, Wilkinson’s arrival with a product mix of homewares, toiletries, DIY, toys, stationery and gardening – as well as a growing focus on grocery – ensures that it goes a long way in filling the hole left by Woolworths’ demise.
Indeed, nearly sixty years on from Woolworths’ first presence in Alnwick, it seems that Wilkinson – with its appealing stores, eclectic ranging, keen prices and traditional values – is increasingly growing into the shop that the latterday Woolies ought to have been.