I've got a vision for the centre of Heavitree, our very own Fore Street. Picture this:-
You stroll to the centre, the heart of our community, to meet some friends. You're going to hang out in the wide and spacious boulevard and share a lunch of home made soup and freshly baked bread. The heavenly scent of fine pastries escapes from the bakery's ovens and drifts over the pretty groups of tables with their brightly coloured umbrellas. So you decide to extend your stay, chatting to more friends as they arrive, drinking hot chocolate and enjoying freshly made delights of all kinds.
There's a band (Dakar Audio Club) playing on the corner and people are dancing. More people come to join you in the late afternoon sun. Together, you watch it settle over Livery Dole, turning the huge open sky pink and lilac. The stall holders start packing away their wares:- surplus from the local allotments, beautiful photographic prints (Fiona French Images), paintings (Kath Hadden Art) locally made jewellery and handmade soaps Soap Daze). And because Heavitree has always been the home of artisans, there are stalls with woodwork, leatherwork, basketry and needlework too. Everything a community needs, all locally made. All this, happily spread out across the grand boulevard and vast pavements of our Fore Street. That's what we could have …. without the traffic.
Compare that with how I find Fore Street now. Everyday I stand patiently, forced to breathe fumes whilst waiting endlessly with my Heavitree fellows for the right to cross our own street. There we stand like second-class citizens giving reverence and priority to the roaring traffic, to people who just want to use our centre as a rapid way through to somewhere else.
Does that first vision sound completely unattainable -
because of the traffic,
because of the weather,
because change is just too hard?
Maybe not. Just maybe, it's not as hard as you think.
We could, as a community, ask for a small, time-shared piece of our own centre. Say, for just one Sunday a month we get to shift the priority back so that Fore Street can be the kind of centre for our community that it was always meant to be. No real infrastructure change, just diverted traffic for just a small portion of time.
Ok, you say, even if that were possible, what about the great British weather? Pavement cafés and stalls are all very well on the continent but not in our unpredictable climate. Well, maybe it doesn't have to be all outside. How about this? Maybe there's room for our local craftsmen and skills-based artists to “buddy-up” with existing Fore Street businesses. Sharing floor and display space for just some of the time. Running workshops maybe, readings, presentations and events to bring people in as well as selling their own locally produced goods. Bringing custom, extra income and interest to our centre in a mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationship with existing retailers. How many empty units, spare back rooms and under-used spaces are there, in our main street, just because no one really likes spending time in that traffic-torn place? Looking at it that way, there's no need for things to always be outside – but we can still spread out, like the vision above, when the weather lets us!
That's all very well, you say, but how do you get people to change? That's an interesting one too because actually what I'm describing here is not so much of a change as a reversion to how things used to be. Den Perrin, in his excellent Retailing in Fore Street, Heavitree 1851-1999 quotes the Trewman's Exeter Flying Post for 1851 which describes the Heavitree Annual Fair. The Fair was held over two days and featured donkey racing in Fore Street, climbing a pole for a leg of mutton(!) “and in the evening the dance was enjoyed and entered into with great ardour”. Same place, just no traffic.
And what I'm suggesting is not a gentrification of Heavitree, with lots of little stores of over-priced knick-knacks but a return to what Fore Street always was. A centre for real artisan skills. In 1851 retail outlets in Fore Street included drapers, dairies, saddlers, blacksmiths, tailors, ironmonger, shoemakers, bakers and butchers – all with rooms and workshops at the back where things were made, mended and repaired on the spot. Things that normal, everyday people need.
We all feel it don't we? That something is missing from the heart of our place? Maybe there is something that we could do about it.
The Heavitree Squilometre project and Interwoven Productions CIC now have two separate websites but JoJo has left this Fore St blog discussion here on the landing page because it continues to receive attention ... so please do feel free to comment.