The last great British high street

From the park and the pier to the lido, Britain's traditional sights are fast disappearing. In the first of a summer series, Mark Rowe rediscovers shopping as it was before the mall

"I'm sorry," says John Webber, as he rummages among boxes of home-brew beer kit, looking for a plastic barrel tap. "I really don't know how much these cost. I think they're £1.99. If it turns out to be less than that I'll give you the extra change next time you're in."

Welcome to Gloucester Road, Bristol, one of the last traditional high streets in Britain, where shop staff such as Mr Webber at the wine, spirits and beer shop, Brewer's Droop, smile and bend over backwards to help. That may come as some surprise if you read last week's market report from Yellow Pages, which suggested that the old-fashioned high street is all but dead and buried.

Yellow Pages totted up the number of times each trade was listed between its covers and compared the tally with 1992. Fruit and vegetable shops have suffered the greatest decrease, down by 59 per cent, followed by butchers (40 per cent), hardware shops (34 per cent) and bakers (20 per cent). In contrast, the number of aromatherapists increased by an extraordinary 5,000 per cent.

Gloucester Road is not officially the high street, but that's what locals call it. The shops there serve the community in much the same way that they did half a century ago or more.

The superstores that have obliterated similar retail communities all over the country also lurk nearby (there are two branches of B&Q, for example). Gloucester Road is half a mile from Bristol city centre and the same distance from Broadmead, a Sixties shopping complex. Cribb's Causeway, a vast shopping mall and retail park by the M4 and M5, is four miles away. All these places are busy, and yet somehow the increasingly anachronistic Gloucester Road continues to go about its business.

"It is still essentially little shops," says Mr Webber. A few doors from Brewer's Droop is one of the few art shops in Bristol. Across the road is that rarity: the toy shop. Are bakeries and butcher's shops dying? Gloucester Road has two of each, and three greengrocers. The Breadstore was hugely popular during the Euro 2004 football competition in Portugal when every day it baked a national bread from one of the competing teams, from Latvia to Bulgaria.

There is no Dixons, WH Smith or Top Shop. The one small supermarket, Somerfield, does its best to fit in, prizing diversity over bulk selling. Opposite the Victorian edifice of Bristol North Swimming Baths is Murray's the butcher. Every Saturday, customers form long queues, while organic burgers and sausages sizzle on the shop's pavement barbecue.

"You can buy pretty much anything you need here," says Peter Browne, honorary secretary of the Bishopston Traders Association. "How often do you see a butcher's on a high street nowadays? The baker's has people queuing out of the door, more like a French bread shop. The street has just evolved. I don't know how you could ever replicate it."

Gloucester Road survives because there are middle- class residential areas on either side, he says. "They provide a constant feed of people who would be critical of supermarket shopping and who don't want to travel miles for things. They want a personal service and are willing to pay for it. There's a reaction against the big out-of-town shopping centres where the staff aren't often well-trained and look bored."

Len Griffin of the Alliance of Independent Retailers, which represents 18,000 traders, says their future across most of Britain is uncertain. "More than 85 per cent of grocery sales now come from the main chains. You can't stand in the way of that if you are a local retailer. It's not really about doing a good or a bad job. It's the power of economics."

However, there are a few places where old-fashioned shops still thrive, for idiosyncratic reasons, he says. "In Bristol's case it may be that the small shops have survived because by the time the planning laws were relaxed the big chains had found out-of-town locations."

And Mr Griffin gains hope from the belief that our habits are changing. "People are shopping more like students," he says. "They don't plan so much and don't go out once a month to fill the freezer. That favours the independent traders."

That, and the fact that they really will let you have the extra change next time.

The ironmonger

Bishopston Hardware & DIY, no 211

"Service and expertise are crucial," says Bryan Wiltshire, a partner in the shop, which has operated for the past 40 years. "If someone wants something then we go out of our way to get it." Like cutting wood to individual sizes and charging less for it than the big stores, for example. "We're very proud of what we do."

The butcher

T & P A Murray, no 153

A butcher's shop has stood at no 153 since the start of the 1900s. "Customers often say the flavour of our meat is how food used to taste years ago," says Barry Graham. Organic beefburgers from local farms are a favourite. "We can tell people exactly where our products come from."

The greengrocer

Gardner's Patch, no 159

Fruit'n'veg have been for sale here since the Sixties, says owner Phil Gardner. "Personal service is key. Mothers can come in here with their buggies and shop without hassle." Bunches of locally grown kale are said to be good for their children's brains. "Old ladies who are frightened of going to a big supermarket come here."

The bakery

The Baker's Basket, no 179

"The key is product knowledge," says Philip Fordham. The family-owned shop has fought off supermarket bread for more than two decades. "We change our products every couple of weeks. If we get bored making something, we guess the customers will get bored eating it." Garlic and tomato bread is selling like hot cakes.

The victualler

Brewer's Droop, no 34

"We're the only people around offering home-brew kits," says John Webber, "and we sell organic beers you'd never see in the supermarkets. People just come in for a chat. It makes them more relaxed, and I see that as good business sense."

The art shop

Art Bristol, no 44

"We aim to meet the market for both professionals and residents," says Peter Probyn. "Every inch in our store has to count. We have to be price-competitive but offer choice. The key is to be a niche market. There is no other shop like this locally."

The family solicitor

The Law Shop, no 48

The ground floor of Peter Browne's practice offers a unique service. "The shop helps people who don't want to hire a solicitor. We have a law library with information on dealing with public authorities. This way people don't land themselves with a huge bill."

The toy shop

Totally Toys, no 109

Jan and Paul Carpenter are proud to have survived when others have gone under. "You don't see many toy shops any more," says Mrs Carpenter, whose shelves are full of Meccano kits. "There's still room for a toy shop, and this is a thriving business."

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