The 1967 step-change that gave Norwich a world first
PUBLISHED: 09:17 29 November 2017
Vanessa Trevelyan, Norwich Society Chair, says that the city has always been at the forefront of shopping innovation.
Traditionally, the annual Christmas shopping season has made December the busiest time of the year and the most important month for retailers. A greater proportion of annual sales among most store types takes place in December than in any other month. The Norwich Business Improvement District (BID) goes all out to make Norwich an attractive destination with the tunnel of lights, street entertainers and festive stalls.
Norwich has been a city of successful merchants and retailers since medieval times and this has shaped what we see today. Dragon Hall and Strangers’ Hall are two examples of high-end merchants, selling their wares from prestigious buildings. The many undercrofts throughout the city centre, some open to the public on Heritage Open Days, were constructed to preserve high-value goods in medieval time and were built so strongly that the have been preserved while the medieval buildings they served have been replaced in subsequent centuries.
For many years Norwich was in the top ten shopping destinations in the UK. But what makes Norwich so special? According to the Tour Norfolk website “Norwich is a shop-a-holics delight! It is one of the top shopping destinations on the UK, with a mix of small individual boutiques and large department stores. You will find two modern shopping malls, one of the largest outdoor markets in England and plenty of cobbled, picturesque alleys and lanes.”
I think the secret of Norwich’s success is in the high proportion of independent retailers, the preservation of attractive historic buildings providing a unique experience, the legacy of 19th-century entrepreneurs such as Jarrolds, and the investment in good modernist architecture such as John Lewis and, more recently, the extension to Marks & Spencers with the living wall bringing welcome greenery.
Central Norwich retains its medieval footprint making it a wonderfully walkable city with interesting features around every corner. The Norwich Lanes have an excellent range of independent and specialist shops with a concentration of medieval architecture that is arguably the best in the UK.
Norwich’s cityscape is enhanced by some iconic buildings. Jarrolds department store – built by George Skipper in 1903-5 – dominates the end of London Street the exuberance of the market is matched by the Royal Arcade a few doors further on.
In 1951 Bonds was designed and built by Robert Bond, a descendant of the founder in a sleek modernist style that is commanding but still welcoming. The store has since become part of the John Lewis family but I still recall the old Bonds name and the fact that it closed on both Sundays and Mondays, harking back to more leisured times.
Another feature that put Norwich ahead of the game was pedestrianisation. On July 17 1967 London Street in Norwich became the first existing shopping street in the United Kingdom to be pedestrianised, unleashing a revolution in the priority given to pedestrians over motorists in city centres. Within three years, 20 other streets in the United Kingdom had been pedestrianised, and even Perth in Australia had followed the Norwich example.
When pedestrianisation was mooted shop keepers were concerned that they would lose trade because shoppers couldn’t drive straight to their doors. However, after the trial period the response from traders was overwhelmingly positive. The majority of shops said that their trade and increased by between five and 20%. The six shoe retailers in the street all recorded increases of up to 10%, bucking the national trend of a general fall in business for shoe sales.
Pedestrianisation continues to be extended in Norwich with Westlegate and All Saints’ Green the latest to be given a makeover. But pedestrianisation has its detractors. While those on foot can go about their shopping more safely, drivers feel frustrated that car access to the centre of the city is becoming increasingly complex.
Which brings us that essential complement to shopping - the car park. The Norwich Society’s Design Awards, which were announced on October 18, remind us what a lovely city Norwich is. There were a wide range of buildings in contention and the strength of the Awards is in their inclusiveness. We were not just looking for good renovation of heritage buildings or significant statement buildings, such as the Theatre Royal’s Stage Two or the UEA Enterprise Centre, but for the buildings that are the stuff of life, such as car parks or care homes. As it turned out, the Rose Lane multi-store car park won the Civic Award, while the Westlegate pedestrianised public space was the runner-up in the Civic category.
A living, breathing city needs good design at all levels and, in many cases, good design means that passers-by do not notice it at all, whereas it would have been noticed if the design had been bad or inappropriate. The Norwich Society’s objective is to celebrate all contributions to building and design excellence so that Norwich remains a desirable place to live, work and play.