My high street – #2

It’s a well known fact that UK high streets are only just ambling along; one in seven shops are boarded up and the pride we once had in our local high streets is dwindling, so we’re told.

This got the Velvet clan thinking. How are our own local high streets performing? and do we still have a strong social connection with them? They always say ‘look closer to home’, so here we are, stopping and observing, and discovering whether our local high streets leave us feeling proud or disappointed.

Each Velveteen will take it in turn to spend a bit of time window shopping in their local high street and diarising what they find, materially and emotionally.

Here with her findings from Crawley, home to the British and World Marble championships (bet you didn’t know that!), it’s our account executive, Natasha.

I’ve lived in Crawley pretty much my whole life (22 years of it) and my town centre has played a central role in much of that time.

Crawley Town Centre is divided into two attractions; the ‘high street’ and then across the road ‘the town centre’. The town centre is where you’ll find a hub of shops, some situated outside around the Queen’s Square, and some indoors – in the County Mall.

County Mall interior

My school holidays and weekends were generally spent in the Mall. It has all the usual attractions; Boots, M&S, Topshop, Miss Selfridge, Debenhams… and W H Smith – where I worked as a sales assistant, turned supervisor on Sundays for a very long time. During my time there I was always very aware of our store manager’s worry of meeting a couple of very specific targets. Firstly that we were classed within the Gatwick radius which meant we had to sell confectionery, drinks and tobacco at very high prices in line with the airport – 79p for a single pack of chewing gum back in 2009! Secondly, that rental charges in the County Mall were high.

This second factor is one even more evident today. There are around ten empty units in the County Mall and then more outside – one of which is a huge premises once home to T J Hughes which closed in August 2011, is still empty and saw the loss of 61 jobs.

Despite the closures, which have been a mixture of independent retailers and crumbled brands; Virgin Megastores, Zavvi and Game, the shops we have access to fulfill all shopping needs. Many a time I’ve headed off to Brighton, London or Kingston looking for an outfit for a big occasion (like a recent wedding), only to come home bitterly disappointed. By comparison, I visited Crawley town centre the following weekend and found everything I needed for the whole outfit and had much more fun during the process.

As well as the pretty good array of shops, we have Crawley High Street, home to our bars, restaurants and resident club, Bar Med. As I’ve grown older, returned home from university and had more money in my pocket, I’ve spent a lot more time here.

The thing I like about Crawley high street is the way that you can map a suitable evening for all demographics. Here is how I’d break it down:

‘The underagers’

A short walk from the high street is our retail park; here you can have a cheap dinner at McDonalds, Pizza Hut or Frankie & Bennys. From here why not sample some bowling or catch a film (although Cineworld is incredibly expensive nowadays, that’s not even including the ‘gold’ priced popcorn).

‘The boogiers’ – 18s to under 30s

On the high street there is a great selection of bars. A personal favourite is Octopus, based in the bottom of the George Hotel which has existed on the site since the 16th century. It has beautiful wooden timbers and white washed walls. A usual night on the town then takes us to Bar Med – always full of loads of people I know and playing the latest hits – so the perfect opportunity to have a dance. It also puts on band nights every now and again that a collection of my friends have played at and has ample space for doing so.

‘The eaters’

The Giggling Squid, Crawley high street – image from Local Data Search

There’s a full array of places to eat including chain names Prezzo, Ask and Pizza Express, alongside curry houses, Chinese restaurants and traditional pubs. The three well-known names all offer ongoing promotional codes and are always a hive of activity no matter what day of the week you go. They are particularly well placed for local businesses and workers who go there for lunches, dinners and even Christmas parties.

The Giggling Squid is great if you’re eating out with a big family because it’s a fixed price, all you can eat Chinese style buffet – yum.

To my eye, despite the empty units, Crawley high street and town centre are still going strong and attract people from further afield like Horsham and East Grinstead way. How much money is being spent, who knows, but there’s not often a quiet day in the town centre unless the weather is howling. I feel optimistic about the future of my high street. For me it’s part of home and there really is something for everyone.