It’s fair to say that some things remain totally baffling to us here at twickerati HQ. How apples fell from trees before Isaac Newton invented gravity is one. The success of the television career of Nick Knowles is another. And, although it might seem strange to say it, the state of Church Street in Twickenham is yet another.
Do people love Church Street? They surely do. It’s everyone’s favourite Twickenham street, isn’t it? Al fresco dining in summer; French markets; Christmas lights; a couple of great pubs; some quirky shops, a smattering of local businesses and a decent selection of restaurants. All great. Is it a roaring success? Maybe, a bit. Sometimes the place is buzzing. And yet on the other hand we continue to see empty shops – Par Ici, Escape, Langtons, and Mercado to name but four. Complement to name five. Take a look around on weekdays and even weekends and you’ll see that it’s not exactly heaving. Where is everyone? As a shopper you’re more likely to have to step aside for a passing car than as a result of the press of fellow punters.
And yet, look at just about any promotional publication or website focusing on Twickenham and you can be pretty damn sure that lil’ old Church Street will feature. And rightly so. But where are the millers, the bustlers, the browsers and the leisure pursuitists? Some might be in the shops but the others are, well, elsewhere.
The state of Twickenham town centre is often discussed online – shops opening, shops closing, the Twickenham Action Plan, bus lanes, cycle lanes and traffic pains. Much of the Council’s TWAP efforts are focused on improving the town centre. The recently established Try Twickenham website (a rebranding of the Twickenham BID scheme) is also trying to raise the profile of the town. And then there’s all the good work of the Twickenham Town Business Association led by its tireless chairman Mr Bruce “Church Street” Lyons in organising events and galvanising support.
How can they – how can we – get a Church Street that’s busy all year round and becomes a destination in its own right? Is that state of affairs even possible? And if it is, what needs to happen to make it work? Like that puzzling question of which came first, the antique rocking horse or the grand bay window, this conundrum is about whether a critical mass of shoppers is needed to attract more viable retailers or whether more shops draw in more people. So, what kickstarts the virtuous circle?
Perhaps pop-ups can help? There’s certainly something to be said for the pop-up shops that have appeared – Lovers Lights in Mercado, the return of Monica Boxley to her former shop over Christmas, ARThouse open studios in the former Langton’s bookshop last June. How about making a permanent pop-up space? An oxymoron, you might think. Not necessarily, although it might take a benevolent landlord to make it happen. (OK, so perhaps ‘benevolent landlord’ really is an oxymoron). There is a rising interest in this idea of ‘pay as you go’ retail space. Rent a shop for a weekend, a week or a month and woo the locals with special offers. Combine that with a strong local online brand and perhaps it’s one way for local businesses to gain a high street presence without committing to all the overheads. What’s more, the pop-up industry is growing with the likes of Appear Here operating in city centres across the UK bringing landlords and short-term tenants together. Could that work here?
And how about a community angle to draw people in too? Twickenham Indoor Community Market took a lot of work to set up but after its run at Mac’s Diner on Mondays and Tuesdays last year, its future is now uncertain. The obvious time and place for it is surely weekends somewhere in Church Street. And hey, and why not do it outside when the weather’s fine? While we’re at it can we lose the cars and have more stuff on the pavements, please? Damn it, we’re going to go right out on a limb here to suggest the occasional busker too (of the very best, non-irritating kind of course!). As for shops, why not chuck in a florist and a cheese shop for good measure. One twickerati supporter has even suggested buying up the famous ‘twickerati ice cream van’ and sticking it in a Church Street shop as some kind of official community HQ. Or even fixing it high up on a wall. Now that is radical! Perhaps it could serve as a kind of ice-cream-van-cum-gibbet on hot summer days.
Ah, but what about the money and business side? Of course, that’s not so easy to fix. The evil twins of high rents and high business rates can’t be solved overnight, and certainly not by those fickle characters who go by the collective name of ‘shoppers’. As residents of Twickenham we’re not obliged to have a constantly busy and bustling Church Street but wouldn’t it be great if we could make everyone’s favourite Twickenham street into everyone’s real favourite Twickenham street? So what would you do? Where would you take things? Or to put it another way, whither Church Street?