Historic town split on passing traffic: Different visions of life and the future of the High Street have led Glastonbury to the polls. Martin Whitfield reports

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The Independent Online
THE two ends of Glastonbury High Street are worlds apart; deeply divided on the meaning of life - and on pedestrianisation of the main thoroughfare.

At the top end, traders bemoan the disappearance of household name stores, the emergence of the town as the alternative religious and healing capital of Britain and Somerset County Council's plans to give pedestrians priority. They fear businesses will close and the town centre will become overrun by new age travellers and others attracted by Glastonbury's acclaimed spiritual energies.

Down the road, the growing number of fantasy painters, mystical tour guides, healers, candle makers, incense sellers and gallery owners cannot wait for the barriers to go up, the pavements to be widened and trees planted. They see tourists browsing among the craft boutiques and cafes as representing new life and replacing the gaps left by the multiple stores in their flight to out-of-town shopping centres.

Today the issue is to be put to the people in the Glastonbury's first town poll in living memory. All 6,132 registered electors will have the opportunity to cast their votes in an official referendum. As in the best election campaigns, both sides have decorated shop fronts with appropriate posters. The Glastonbury Ratepayers Group urges a 'no' vote, the conservation groups says 'yes'. A 'no' vote banner is strung across the road at the top of end of the street.

At stake is the quality of life following the completion later this year of an pounds 8m by-pass which is expected to remove a large proportion of the 13,000 vehicles a day which pass through the High Street on the A39. Heavy vehicles will be banned under all options. Successful pedestrianisations in York, Cambridge and Bath are cited by supporters of traffic removal but others say the town will become a night-time desert when all the shops are closed.

Mike Free, a Conservative town councillor and leading opponent of pedestrianisation, says it is wrong to go ahead before the impact of the new relief road is assessed. 'A lot of the trade is passing trade. The locals will go to Street and Wells, they will not bother to park in the car park and walk to the High Street,' he said.

Mr Free, a kitchen designer at the B & Q superstore on the edge of town, denies that his shop and two large supermarkets, Safeway and Kwik Save, had pulled business out of the centre and forced the closure of small traders. 'What is killing them off is the alternative society, the beggars and street musicians. We have got a street drinking ban but it doesn't work all the time.' He added: 'The High Street will not be safe without passing traffic.'

Opponents of pedestrianisation point to the pounds 30,000 needed for new railings around St John's churchyard. But Penny Butterell, owner of the Cafe Galatea, a restaurant and gallery full of images of the earth goddess, says there is no chance of the multiple stores coming back to Glastonbury. She believed the town had to exploit its position as a centre of pilgrimage.

'It should be recognised that Glastonbury is a tourist attraction and we should organise around that,' she said.

(Photograph omitted)