David Adamson asks if the town’s pedestrianised street is putting its best foot forward
When you mention Wilmslow many people’s minds will veer towards the image of a group of ‘WAGs’ brunching the day away in one of the town’s cafes and restaurants.
While it was this year given the honour of the first Gail’s in the North of England, the idea of Wilmslow as a destination for dining and social life is overstated.
Nowhere is this more apparent than Grove Street, the town’s more or less pedestrianised high street, currently boasting as many stationery shops as it does bars and restaurants.
We're on the doorstep of Manchester and we do have pulling power, that's what we want to try and encourage. You need to make these places as vibrant as possible.
While a mere eight miles down the road Altrincham enjoys a huge resurgence in restaurants, bars and nightlife and Alderley Edge remains a weekend hotspot for prosecco-fuelled rubber-necking, Wilmslow’s potential seems stunted.
Yes, there’s Unico Lounge, The Grove and above it Symposium (once-renowned for sightings of Wayne Rooney), and Konak Café holds up much of the weekend lunchtime fare at the other end of the street, but the remaining units are comprised of more than your fair share of phone shops and ever-more-redundant bank branches.
With high street retail sliding towards a solely online offering - and the pandemic showing us the horrors of a life indoors - socialising and somewhere to do it has proven to be crucial to a life well lived.
So with some residents having more spare cash to spend, restaurateurs keen to keep their foothold and the potential for the street to be fully barred to vehicles, why is more not being made of Grove Street?
Meeting me outside the now-closed Barclays at the top of the street, Cllr Mark Goldsmith, both a Wilmslow Town councillor for the independent Residents of Wilmslow and Cheshire East councillor for Wilmslow West and Chorley, explained a bit about the previous political difficulties faced by the idea of improving Grove Street, and how it could now be achieved thanks to a greater majority across local government.
“Grove Street was updated about 40 years ago to make it pedestrianised, and before then lorries used to trundle past with all the fumes and everything that comes with it. And nothing’s really been done to it since,” he said. “Partly because for the first 20 or so years it was Macclesfield Borough Council, who thought ‘It's fairly new, it doesn't need to be done’. And then Cheshire East took over, and with places like Crewe and Macclesfield then more socially deprived and in need of regenerating, politically it was never good for the big parties to revamp Grove Street because they were concerned they'd lose votes elsewhere.
“We now have an opportunity and I suppose the stars are all aligned for us in a way that we've got control of the town council, we've got all five councillors on Cheshire East and I've got the leading position in the part of Cheshire East that does business regeneration and development. So we’re able to go to Cheshire East and say ‘Look, Crewe’s got a lot of money from the government and is going through the regeneration process. Macclesfield has started on that as well. It's Wilmslow’s turn now.”
Gesturing to the eerily empty Barclays before we set off wandering down Grove Street, Mark talked me through some of his hopes for the street and, as a result, for the town as a whole.
“As we move away from being a cash-based society banks are generally pulling out of the high streets, and if the banks are going to disappear, what then fills the space?” he said. “Retail is changing, and we can't fight that. It's a question of ‘How do we support it? How do we get Wilmslow moving in the direction we want?’ We know the artisan market is probably the busiest day of the month and we want to see how we can get a bit of that happening more often. How do we help some of those people who have a stall go on to get a shop?
“One idea we had is taking a premises here on Grove Street and allowing about ten stalls in it, charge them pretty low rates with a view to having an independent market, which can get you over that tipping point. We did have a fishmonger but it didn't do very well because it was just a fishmonger. What we really needed was a butcher next to him and a greengrocer and a deli and maybe a bread shop and then you've got enough there for people to come in and use them."
He continues: “If we decide this street doesn't need any vehicle access anymore, then we can have a lot more seating in the middle and can make it a lot more interesting so people are able to dwell here a bit more. Cibo is expanding out onto the street and will be an all-day offering, and that’s just the sort of business that we want to attract. Something that will do well and will attract similar businesses because it gives the people what they want, which is casual dining.
“If we have the facilities in the street then that will attract the businesses and make it easier for them to come in and fill that gap, and fulfil the potential that it has. So we'd help with them outdoor seating and alcohol licences, which I don’t think would be a problem.
“We're on the doorstep of Manchester and we do have pulling power, that's what we want to try and encourage. You need to make these places as vibrant as possible.”
When Steve Leyland, otherwise known as “Steve the Flower Man”, moved into the former Claire’s Accessories on Grove Street in 2015, after sixteen years selling from the back of his van, he found a bricks and mortar store brought success to his business he’s still enjoying today. However as a former fruit and veg man himself, he finds it “strange” that independent produce businesses that have tried something similar just can’t seem to survive in the town.
“When I moved in I took a six month ‘pop-up’ lease and as soon as I was in there my turnover doubled,” he said. “80% of my business was local regulars who said they’d never buy flowers from the back of a van, and it’s just got better and better.
“I used to be in fruit and veg before I went into flowers, and I’d love to open a fruit and veg shop now but it seems you just can’t do it anymore, it just doesn’t seem viable. Years ago I approached the landlord of the building on Water Lane that was the electrical shop and is now the jewellers, and along with a butcher, baker and a fishmonger said I’d like to set up a market in there, and the landlord didn’t want to know.
“Whereas you go to Chelford and opposite the market there’s a butchers that’s been there donkeys years - it’s got a queue out the door all day long. You think to yourself, ‘That’d be great in Wilmslow’, but it just wouldn’t work. It’s strange how certain ideas just don’t stick here.
“I can understand what people are saying, that Grove Street needs more and more independents, but where are they? You go down to the Cotswolds in these little villages and it’s all independents. Where are they on Grove Street? There’s me and Mark Rogers the cobbler and key maker, and that’s about it.”
So while Water Lane enjoys the spoils of bagging a Gails, Grove Street remains uncertain, uninspired and underserved.
The arrival of Cibo Gran Café may yet prove to be a catalyst for overdue change, but in the meantime it seems residents will have to wait a little longer for something akin to what Altrincham has.
The next town over may have a flourishing food and drink scene, but can it say it’s got three stationery shops next door to one another?
I guess you can’t have everything.
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