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SAVING THE SHOPFRONTS

Published by the Society in the Ripon Gazette, 4th September 2009
Shopping has changed – and so have shop fronts in residential streets, says David Winpenny, Chairman of Ripon Civic Society

There was a time, before supermarkets and the internet, when shopping was very local. You went with your basket to the shop on the corner where you were served by the owner (often a chap in a brown overall) from what today would seem a very limited choice of goods. There were lots of tins (Batchelors processed peas seemed to feature strongly), biscuits were served loose from large square tins and sugar was weighed into blue paper bags. The shop smelled of a mixture of paraffin and dried fruit.

Ripon, too had its fair share of such shops – and of more small, specialist establishments that could be found scattered around all the streets. Jim Gott’s book of Ripon reminiscences, ‘Bits & Blots of t’owd Spot’ is full of them and of their often-eccentric proprietors. In St Marygate, for example, where today there are no shops at all, he notes a sweetshop, one selling ‘bobbins, pins, laces and so on’, a peg-legged taxidermist, a fish-and-chip shop, a builder-and-plasterer’s showroom and another haberdashery. Round the corner in Allhallowgate you could buy more sweets, fizzy pop, fruit, joinery and more fish and chips, as well as get your boots mended.

Today Ripon’s retail quarter seems to be ever-contracting. North Street and Westgate are problem areas, despite the welcome opening of one or two new shops. High Skellgate still has plenty of empty properties. And even Kirkgate is not as flourishing as it might be. More centrally still, Woolworth’s is still empty.

And what of the shops that once served the local communities? Many of the shop premises are still there – and a few are still in use for commerce, though probably not of the original kind. Mostly, though, they have been converted into houses.

They are easy to spot. They have (or have had) larger windows than their neighbours. There is a fascia board above the window where the name of the proprietor once went. And if they are at the end of a terrace, the doorway is often on the angle where the terrace meets another street. They provide character to a street – but it is very easy for that character to be lost if care is not taken over the conversion.

The most difficult to deal with is the angled doorway. While it was undoubtedly useful for shopkeepers to be easily accessible from two streets, a doorway into the corner of what is to become your sitting room when you convert the premises into a house is not always very practicable. So the doorways are blocked, not always in the most sympathetic way, and with unmatching bricks. This gives a rather dead and uncomfortable feeling to a building – especially where the former doorway is beneath the jutting corner of a fascia board.

The large windows, too, are often a problem. Here, too, changes are not always sympathetic to the building. New frames that do not match the others in the terrace (or even the surviving upstairs windows of the shop itself) are inserted and bricked around. The effect is neither subtle nor pleasing.

Many of these conversions took place quite a long time ago – but shop fronts are still vulnerable. The Corner Store in Bondgate Green Lane has recently closed. This is a shop that still has its angled door and original windows – probably from the late 19th century – and it should, if at all possible, be preserved. Oddly, if it had been an earlier shop front, its preservation might be easier; mid- and early-Victorian shop fronts seem to be easier to live with – there are good examples in Bondgate and Blossomgate.

The best way of preserving shop fronts, of course, is to continue to use them as shops – even if the shop these days will need to supply some sort of niche market, like the cake decoration suppliers in Bondgate Green, the florists at the end of Westbourne Grove or the hairdressers on King Street.

Our shopping habits may have changed, thanks to the car and the internet, but we still have some of our original shop fronts away from the steadily-shrinking main shopping area. We need to make sure we don’t lose all trace of them.

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