The sun is shining, the snap dragons are swaying in the breeze and the air is rich with the nutty smell of freshly ground coffee, billowing out of the open hatch at Mercers Cafe.
In the street, a teenager is texting, a baby is yelling and good old “Bumble” the window cleaner is putting the finishing sparkle on Duckling’s shop windows. At a time when High Streets across the country are staggering to get to their feet, let alone stay standing, Marlborough’s Hilliers Yard is as vibrant as ever. Here, things could almost be normal.
A refreshing change then to the more recent retail picture. For a while now competition from out of town shopping centres, a rise in online retail,
and perceptions of Brexit have compounded to spell trouble for the High Street. As if that wasn’t enough, then coronavirus came along to further accelerate a decline in town centre trading.
There is no clear, articulate answer to solving the High Street crisis in the UK but, if the small independent traders in Hilliers Yard are anything to go by, it looks as though there may well be some chinks of light on the horizon. In fact, could it be that local retailers may stand a good chance of defying nationwide negative predictions? Could they actually recover relatively quickly and even go on to flourish and enjoy a post lockdown boost this summer, as shoppers gradually come out to indulge in some much-missed retail therapy?
Many shopkeepers may, doubtlessly, struggle at first with stock issues, the costs of implementing stringent safety measures and the drain of the labour-intensive demands of working with skeleton staff. That is understandable, but by their very nature, Marlborough’s small and unique traders have one big advantage – that of being able to adapt better than the big chains, show agility and inspire loyalty. Certainly, the Have a Go heroes in both Hilliers and Hughenden Yard are not going to let any opportunities pass them by.
With every single outlet now open in Hilliers Yard, traders have gone a step beyond being just a collection of shops and become a local community. They have clubbed together and got hand sanitisers, put up bunting, planted flowers, even created an agreement to give desperate shoppers 20p if they don’t have the right change to use the loos. By pulling together, these shops that line the yard have created a social and commercial hub where people can meet – albeit socially distanced – run errands and make use of the small shops and services. Above all, they have understood that drawing people back is not just about commercial activity but about creating a place that promotes enjoyment, creativity, learning, socialising and, in turn, wellbeing and health.
Way back in March when all this began, Hayley at Mercer’s café took the bold decision to keep going by making cakes for delivery. “While I was in my shop baking, people would walk past and bang on the window asking for coffee,” she says. “So, I pushed my table against the entrance door to act as a server and I opened up even when everywhere else was still shut. John from the bike shop has probably been my biggest regular.” Following on from coffee she moved up to Friday night Fish and Chip delivery and plans to re-open fully further down the line.
Jo Heaven, next door, at the Emporium of Loveliness was the first charity shop in town to reopen. To celebrate, her first priority was to gather local buskers together. Now a regular event, local artists include @59, The Hub Caps and Eddie Witcombe – all of whom are prepared to turn out to perform under the arches at Ducklings every third Saturday in the month. “Not only does their music give the yard a great atmosphere,” she says, “but it draws people in. Can you believe I had several local Marlborough customers last time tip up and say they had heard the music but didn’t know we were here?”
Stalwart of Hilliers Yard must surely be Janice at Ducklings Toy Shop. Upbeat as ever she says trading is “nicely busy”. Fridays and Saturdays are the only days queues need monitoring. “I am lucky because I get a lot of children who are very biddable and wash their hands as told. I also get quite a few older people, many of whom are dressed in masks and gloves and are terrified of all the kids, so they are easy to manage too”. Janice has opted to skip on stickers and one-way systems, “We are more Jane Austen in here,” she says. “We socially dance rather than socially distance – the kids are better at that. I tell them forwards, backwards, go round in a circle and they do it.”
Patience and friendliness is echoed across the High Street in Hughenden Yard. The iconic Mrs Upton is back in her leather shop. “My children make me wear a mask and I am not as busy as I normally would be at this time of year since not many people are travelling and needing bags, but Marlborough has always been a place where people come from North, South, East and West to meet up – they will come back,” she says, with the faith of a true old-timer.
Further round the yard, new-timer Hayley from Packaging Not Included is equally optimistic. She managed to keep going with click and collect during lockdown and currently runs an “At the door Service”. With clever use of social media, she has kept up with her customers directly, stayed in touch with their needs and played her part in adjusting her services to cater for the neighbourhood. “We small independents are lucky because we can adapt” she says. “ Consumers are likely to feel more of an allegiance to shops like ours where they have built up a special relationship with the staff or owners and will assume large retailers will be better able to cope with a drop in sales. I have been bowled over by the loyalty my customers have shown me.”
So perhaps coronavirus need not be the coup de grace for this already struggling sector? Perhaps, by following the lead of our fabulous offbeat offerings in the Yards, and re-establishing the role of our High Street as a hub for social connection, we can reinforce Marlborough’s unique character and successfully encourage people to stay local and spend their money where they live? Perhaps, with the same faith and courage of our town’s shop keepers, we can all do our bit to help the small, flickering lights of today, become the bright stars of tomorrow?
Belinda Richardson, Tourism Officer for Marlborough Town Council