Monday, 17 August 2015

Magdalen Street - Norwich's very own Brick Lane?

I love Magdalen Street, and have done ever since I moved to Norwich thirty years ago. I was living in Lowestoft during the time of the 1970's re-develoment that created Anglia Square and the notorious flyover, so cannot recall the old Stump Cross junction where Magdalen Street and Botolph Street once merged, apexed by a branch of Barclays Bank with the famous Frank price department store behind. What I do remember when moving to Norwich in 1982 as a qualified pharamacist was discovering that Anglia Square housed one of the city's two Sainsbury supermarkets, the other being in St Stephens Street. As car parking was so much easier and cheaper, we soon made Anglia Square the destination for our regular grocery shop.

Back then it was a bustling cosmopolitan shopping centre with modern stores, including Bejam (remember them?) and a thriving customer base of office workers from the HMSO, as well as local residents. An interesting selection of independent businesses snaked up both Magdalen and St Augustines Streets, and in the opposite direction the cathedral and pubs and bars of Tombland were only a short walk across the river. I remember choosing both a dinner service and a canteen of cutlery from Loose's store,

It brought back memories of teenage drinking pilgrimages to The Golden Star at the end of Colegate. In the late 70's it was one of the only pubs we knew in Norwich that served real ale - an oasis in a desert of Norwich Brewery controlled establishments. Walking from the city centre bus station, we would find our way to the market, along London Street and down Elm Hill aiming towards the Maid Marion Hotel, then taking a left at the Army recruiting office. Our sense of direction was not good, and finding our way back always seemed to lead us across the river via Duke Street and through the Lanes. On more than one occasion we lost one of our number as they disappeared into the maze of side streets and market stalls to relieve a bursting bladder never to return. There were no mobile phones to assist re-grouping in those days.

The opening of new supermarkets around the city perimeter with free parking forever altered our shopping habits, and with the closure of HMSO it was not long before the Sainsbury at Anglia Square closed, and the doom merchants were claiming that Magdalen Street, having survived the flyover, was now set to die a slow painful death. Fortunately, that did not happen.

Today, even though the empty HMSO offices still dominate the skyscape, and the multi storey car park has closed, awaiting demolition, the shop units in Anglia Square are all occupied, and mostly by national chains. Complementing these, Magdalen Street has a thriving eclectic mix of private businesses, charity and vintage shops, as well as a doctor's surgery, music venue and several pubs. Local family firm Roy's took over what used to be the indoor market, and the stores that used to be Loose's and the Norwich Camping & Leisure Centre have become flea markets and collectors' centres. What comes around goes around. The blend of cultures and the ethnic food stores and restaurants certainly maintain a tradition dating back to the arrival of the Strangers in the 16th century, but it is my eye for a bargain that now draws me back to Magdalen Street, thirty years after those first Sainsbury shopping excursions.

These days I start my visit with a trawl through my favourite charity shops for secondhand CD's and DVD's - Barnado's, Sense, RSPCA, and Oxfam. Discount retailers Poundland and 99p Stores are always a must, and if time permits, a browse in Roy's, Poundstretcher, Savers, and QD completes the experience. A Sunday will often find me stopping for a drink in The Plasterers or The Blueberry in Cowgate, especially if live music is playing, or an evening will find me at a gig upstairs at Epic Studios.

Whilst the re-development of Anglia Square is arguably long-overdue, it would be a shame if the removal of the brutalist 1960's architecture is achieved at the expense of the larger retail units currently occupied by the discount retailers. The area is still home to a lot of people who rarely visit the city centre, and are reliant on public transport. To replace that variety of shops with just one massive supermarket would be a travesty. The whole reason why the independent stores in Magdalen Street have not only survived but thrived is that they complement the multiples without being dominated by them. This creates that unique shopping experience that has prompted the Brick Lane comparisons. Although one likes to see any area prosper and move 'up-market', attracting young couples and families along the way, it would be tragic to see the area 'trendify' and fill with expensive boutiques and wine bars.

In the meantime, I would encourage you to take a look at 'This Is The Place', a photographic portrait of Magdalen Street traders by Katherine Mager. Currently on show at The Forum in Norwich until August 21st, or available to view online at , these pictures are an absolute delight, as they capture the many faces and facets of the independent traders that make up the Magdalen Street area. There are also some beautifully composed and lit shots that highlight the eclectic range of merchandise on offer at some of these speciality stores.

Admittedly Katherine has allowed her artistic licence to extend the catchment area to extend North beyond the Artichoke pub as far as Sharp Cuts in Magdalen Road, and South to Philips Cameras in Wensum Street, but this is nit-picking on my part. She has (either deliberately, or perhaps because of restrictions imposed by company policies of national chains?) chosen to leave out 'team member' portraits from some of the corporate traders, even though their staff, too, often supplement the ethnic diversity of the area, and form an integral part of the local scene. Whilst the focus of the project is certainly on the independent businesses, as a pharmacist who has spent time working for national chains, I would like to think that I and my staff were still a legitimate part of the local community, even if the profits of our labour disappeared elsewhere. However, what we can see is a cross-section of the character and diversity of those who work in, and are a part of, the Magdalen Street scene. And, as someone who already recognises many of the faces it is lovely to now be able to put a name to some of them. There are also some beautifully composed and lit shots that reflect the eclectic range of merchandise on offer at some of the speciality stores.

Another opportunity to celebrate all that is Magdalen Street comes in the Autumn with the sixth annual 'Magdalen Street Celebration' on October 10th a community-led extravaganza that claims to be the city's liveliest street fair. Taking full advantage of local musicians, dancers and performers, and using spaces along the length of the street (including the cavernous 'under-flyover' stage), as well as the businesses themselves, this is a chance to really get behind and get involved with this unique business area. For further details check out . You can even volunteer if you want!

Together, let's keep Magdalen Street special!

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