In the first of a two parter, an influx of sole traders and restaurants move a suburban street forward
MOST who journey to Waterloo to witness Anthony Gormley’s iron clad army standing watch over Liverpool Bay, will never set foot in St John’s Road.
Probably never heard of it, unless, via Tripadvisor, they have happened upon Saffron, recently number one of its 1,385 Liverpool restaurant listings, or they perhaps caught baker Stephen Maddock’s confectionary creation, the “Maclair”, being drooled over on daytime TV by pop star Sophie Ellis-Bextor.
You can get your hair chopped, your dog shampooed, your kecks lengthening, your cough quieting, your holiday booking and your granny treating
If they come by train, they will first encounter its nearby sister street, South Road, the brassy boisterous one, the one which, frankly, with a few drinks down it can be just a little embarrassing. But that’s siblings for you.
As South Road parties to the early hours, St John’s Road takes a low-key approach, sometimes to the point, by night, of death-like quiet. Yet amble down St John’s Road by day and you’ll find a one-stop shopping street that could properly challenge the idea of the British high street in perpetual decline. And when trader Carol Dowd says “you can get anything you want in this road,” she is not far wrong.
A handbag or a sledgehammer; a new pair of shoes; a vintage dress; a ball of wool, any colour you like; e-cigs and lizards; a World of Flowers; a butcher; a baker, no, make that three bakers; an artist who’s also an engraver; four cafes, two restaurants, a Mexican fast food outlet, and a local institution in the form of Charlie Chan’s Chinese takeaway.
You can get your hair chopped, your dog shampooed, your kecks lengthening, your cough quieting, your holiday booking and your granny treating. And if you want a carpet shop, they’ve got one to spare.
While South Road’s appeal lies mostly in the mainstream, St John’s Road steers a more unconventional route. Alongside the laundrette and the discount furniture store, a raft of alternative sole traders have moved in, low rents giving each a fighting chance.
South Road has Boots the Chemist; St John’s Road has Barnett’s Wholefoods and Health Store, purveyors of herbal remedies, spiritual healing, and a nice line in native American Indian ear candle treatments.
Elsewhere, suppliers of the handcrafted, locally sourced, preloved and upcycled. These are, as one shopkeeper puts it, “the quirky indies that make the road really special”.
Among the myriad enterprises are those providing a shop window for local cottage industry. At Florence and Fox, Tracy Nichols sells the work of John Darlington who, at his home a few streets away, fashions formidable doorstops of English oak reclaimed from the dock wall.
At Barnett’s I’ve found chocolate made at a workshop in Sandhills, and at Williamson’s butchers, the fish counter features the weekly catch from one man and his boat somewhere off Formby point.
Gradually, the graph slopes upwards. The last couple of years have seen sturdy roots established by the likes of Stephen’s Little Macaron Shop (main picture, top), which generates occasional orderly queues on to the street, and Caz’s Kitchen, makers of cakes fabulous enough to have earned the custom of Delifonseca and south Liverpool cheesecake legend Dafna’s.
Shopkeepers club together to add splashes of colour in the form of blooms around many of St John’s Road’s trees, while local tree artist Roy Bouffler has carved his distinctive signature into the street (see gallery below).
The road’s too small for falling out; small enough for traders to have formed a loose alliance providing mutual encouragement and support.“Caz’ll send them here for bread,” says Stephen. “I’ll send them over there if they want gluten-free.”
One more push, you feel, and St John’s Road could be the one that finally takes the mantle of “the new Lark Lane”. Its eccentricity is its electricity, the spark that has, so far, never quite caught flame.
Why it hasn’t happened so far may partly be down to locals understandably fearful of losing what they have, nervous of being overrun by late-night bars.
Two years ago, plans for a micropub split the local community of householders and shopkeepers, a 48-name petition and 32 letters of objection against 79 letters of support.
Those in favour cited the prospect of more feet on the street. They embraced the micropub concept, with one correspondent anticipating “a calm and considered atmosphere where well-mannered members of the public get together and enjoy said environment”.
Others conjured stark images of “loutish behaviour and litter”, one suggesting the proposal contravened human rights legislation, “in particular, Protocol 1, Articles 1 and 8”.
Recommended for conditional approval by Sefton Council officers, the enterprise never materialised.
You’ll find some who are downbeat about the street; one trader talks of “too many browsers”. Even Stephen acknowledges: “People speak fondly of it, but God it can be quiet.”
But mostly an air of positivity prevails. One of the optimists is Carol, joint proprietor of accessory supplier Ruby Blue Lane. Handbags are, as it were, their bag. She tells me of the “local girl” who bought hers there after winning a TV competition to hold her wedding in the Shard. Now “half the women going to it have come in here to buy their bags”.
So what’s needed to lift St John’s Road to the next level, to allow them to genuinely compete with the web and the supermarket giants? Support from the council is crucial; go to Asda and park free, park in St John’s Road and after 45 minutes you start twitching at the prospect of a traffic warden.
Caroline Hill (below, right with Katy Johnson), she of Caz’s Kitchen, is keen to work with the local authority, suggesting a local task force to bridge the gap between independents and the council “to better understand each other and work more closely together for the greater good of the community”.
It might also take the surrounding community to take a leap of faith, embrace the micropub, see what riches they might have on their doorstep.