A rescue mission has been mounted. The plan is to bring back the Rotherham of old, turn the Mason’s clock back half a century or more, to the days of Brookeses, the fabulous grocers and delicatessen which wafted the heavenly aroma of ground coffee into All Saints’ Square every time its glass doors swished.
People still talk about Brookeses, where produce polished to a gleam was neatly set out on grassy tablecloths and shelves were stacked with epicurean delights. They reminisce about the parlour palms and afternoon tea at Davy’s cafe across the square, the toys at Cooper’s and the posh china at Denhams.
Those are the shops and the cafes they want to have again – and they are precisely what a Business Vitality Grants Scheme is busily striving to put back. Already it has funded 11 independent specialist retailers. Ten are already up and running – just a stone’s throw from dilapidated High Street, at the town’s newly repolished old gem, the Imperial Buildings.
Formerly the Edwardian meat market, it’s as pretty as anything you’d see in Harrogate or York. It boasts intricate ironwork and a glass-domed inner courtyard, boutiques selling on trend fashion to rival anything you’d see in Meadowhall, a vintage shop, a one-stop wedding shop, an old-fashioned sweet shop, artists’ galleries and Saya’s, a mahogany-panelled cafe, opened five weeks ago.
Cappucino-suppers gaze out at the Rotherham Minster and its gardens, one of the prettiest spots in town.
Beyond the church is the other – All Saints’ Square, created in the 1930s as a bus terminal, then pedestrianised in the Sixties. A fountain gurgles; there’s still the scent of fresh coffee catching the breeze, only now it’s from Jamie Oliver’s Ministry of Food, the cookery school and takeaway the famous chef opened after highlighting the town’s unhealthy eating habits.
I rediscover the centuries-old Red Lion Yard, a narrow lane where the stagecoaches used to stop overnight. At the entrance, a blackboard proclaims: ‘Devil Bitch Tattoos, two names for £28’ and the Red Lion tap room has racing blaring, but there’s also a quaint little cafe called Pantry Green and, wonder of wonders, the Lennox sewing machine sales and repair shop is still there.
Owner James Lennox, whose father set up the business in 1928 over in Effingham Street, admits trade isn’t what it used to be, though. “Ebay is hitting us and there aren’t enough people coming into town to shop,” he says.
College Street, where in the 1480s Rotherham-born Archbishop of York, Thomas Rotherham, built The College of Jesus, a rival of the colleges of Cambridge and Oxford, also looks pretty bleak; M&S and Woolworths went long ago. There are scores of phone shops and an amusement arcade. A new shop is being fitted out but it’s a pawnbroker’s; surely a sign of these recession-struck times.
The pedestrianised paving on Effingham Street is empty, save a solitary children’s roundabout wistfully playing Jim Reeves.
Wellgate, though, which is still a main thoroughfare and has parking a plenty, is still bustling and bristles with shops – 20-20 and Ks, boutiques selling designer fashion, nestle next to what must be the oldest florist in town, the Posy Bowl. Peter Bird hairdressers a few doors down has been in business over 30 years and shows not a trace of grey. And Staniforth’s the bakers are still making custard slices and birthday cakes that look like Disney princesses.
At the other end of town, Friday lunchtime shoppers aplenty are busily flashing cash and Rotherham Shop Local discount cards – a scheme 100 stores and 10,000 residents have signed up to- at College Walk Interchange. It’s what we used to call the bus station. They didn’t have to walk very far.
But undoubtedly the busiest place in town is Rotherham’s indoor and outdoor market. Just as it was when it founded 500 years ago, it’s where you can buy anything and everything, at the right price – and it’s still the true heart of the town. Proof, indeed, that old-fashioned values still thrive in Rotherham.