Quaint revolution to save ‘dying’ town

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Last week, Rotherham was portrayed as a town centre on its knees. It was revealed it has more boarded up shop fronts than any other town in the UK. Some 28 premises in every 100 stand empty. The town may be down, but it is determined to stand proud once again. And going back in time could be the way forward...

If the national media had its way, someone would be erecting a tombstone at the bottom of High Street.

“Here lies the remains of Rotherham,” it would say in Gothic script.

You can see why. This once prosperous shopping street does look as if it has suffered a lingering death.

It’s a million miles from the description of Rotherham on the council’s website: “The Town Centre is an attractive, compact location... A bustling and vibrant place to shop with over 400 businesses including a mixture of high street favourites, small independent retailers, cafés and restaurants,” it boasts.

When was it written? Back in the Sixties?

Rotherham born and bred, I’m back in town to see for myself what has become of the place I knew like the back of my hand.

In my childhood, High Street was the place to shop. At the very top, where Hamby’s shoe shop now sits, stood Mason’s, jewellers and watchmaker’s since 1822. With its beautiful old Hastings clock from the Daily Express in Fleet Street above the door, it looked down over High Street like a paternal grandfather pocket-watch in hand, reminding all that time was a precious commodity.

It had two family-owned department stores, Speeds and Muntus. It had a Bootses, as Rotherham folk were wont to call it, a glass-fronted Art Deco building with its own lift. And a British Home Stores. My mother used to warn me I’d end up on its cheese counter if I didn’t work hard at school.

It was Speeds I came to for my Ladybird vests and my first school uniform. My Christening bracelet came from Mason’s. When my mother wanted a new coat, she went to Muntus.

All have vanished. There are no posh shops here any more. In fact that are few shops at all. A ramble of floral artwork is meant to make the boarded-up windows look more attractive, but it emphasises the emptiness instead. Only when you glance high above the hoardings do you glimpse signs of the town’s faded glory. There is the Muntus turret, with real flora and fauna sprouting from its brickwork and guttering. There are the pitched roofs of what I knew as Wakefield Army Stores, but in fact belonged to the Three Cranes, a listed building, the timber frame of which dates back to the 15th century.

It’s a crying shame, is High Street today.

But while I’m mourning at the wake of Rotherham, I suddenly realise how hypocritical my pity is. It’s people like me who are to blame.

I live just four miles away. Yet I haven’t walked up High Street for donkey’s years. I don’t come to Rotherham to shop. I go to Meadowhall, where I can park for free and browse a stack of stores without need of coat or umbrella. Which, as Rotherham Borough Council’s research has proved, is what the modern-day shopper wants.

“Shopping habits have changed. People want more convenience,” says the council’s retail investment manager Bernadette Rushton resignedly.

Us Rotherham folk got what we thought we wanted – Parkgate’s shopping centre to one side, Meadowhall to the other.

But now everyone – public and council officials all – realises that the consequence, the decimation of the town centre, was too high a price to have paid.

They – and me – want a quaint little town centre with quaint little shops. In effect, just what Rotherham used to be.

Says Bernadette Rushton: “We have asked people what would make them come back and they said; something different. specialist shops owned by local people. So that is what we are striving to create.”

Until the late medieval times, Rotherham was richer than Sheffield.

In the 15th century, ancient trading routes converged here, a community sprang up and as the centuries rolled by, generations made good livings from their trades.

At the turn of the century, High Street was a shining example of the town’s prosperity. Specialist shops stood cheek by jowl; there was an Oriental cafe at No 9. Smith Brothers’ ironmonger’s at No 14 sold all the parts you needed to assemble your own “bone-shaker” bicycle.

A couple of doors up was Fawcett’s, grocers and tea dealers, and an Anglo-American tailor, who made suits for the town’s gents.

The hope is that the business Vitality Grants Scheme will bring those purveyors of fine goods back again, that the Rotherham Townscape Heritage Initiative, which gives grants to businesses occupying buildings of historic importance, will result in the restoration of so many beautiful old buildings and that shoppers like me will be persuaded streets like High Street are worth wearing a bit of shoe leather for.