Bath Road and Suffolks: community spirit
PUBLISHED: 13:12 20 November 2016 | UPDATED: 13:12 20 November 2016
There's a tangible sense of belonging and being part of something special with the Bath Road and Suffolk communities as Tracy Spiers discovers
Butcher Danny Watts holds up two strings of sausages, made to the same recipe the shop has used for the past 60 years. One of his workers, his former boss John Rood, now 75, is still faithfully serving customers as he did when he started working here for the original butcher Mr VW Lane, at the tender age of nine. It’s stories like these which make this area of Cheltenham what it is. This traditional shop in Bath Road, Cheltenham highlights the legacy of hard work, loyalty and sense of belonging that exists in this part of the famous spa town.
Bath Road, once called South Town represents more than 200 years of trade. Built to provide services to affluent townspeople attracted by the rapidly expanding Cheltenham centre, the streets were created in the early 19th century using limestone from nearby Leckhampton Hill, brought down by the horse-drawn tram road. Today it is what many locals and traders consider their version of Notting Hill for its vibrancy, top quality personal service, originality and buzzing community spirit. I immediately think of the film namesake in the form of Hugh Grant, Julia Roberts and the featured wonderful book shop. I find a similar bookshop in Bath Road’s equally lively sister community in Suffolk Parade, The Suffolk Anthology, but the actors must be in disguise the day I visit.
Conversation flows freely as I meet various traders and shoppers. My task is to explore both the Bath Road and Suffolk business communities which collectively embrace locals and visitors alike with such a genuine warm, friendly welcome, they have to return. Although they each have independent long-established thriving trading associations, their mission is the same. Business folk are here because they are passionate about what they do, support one another and adore their customers.
Danny is chairman of Bath Road Trading Association and it is clear why he has stayed working in the same shop after three decades.“I love the people. I have worked here for 32 years and the reason is simply because of the people who shop here and the business owners themselves. It is very personalised and we like to think that people who shop here feel welcome. A lot of people have used the Bath Road for years, we have a car park that isn’t expensive and we have a heritage of retail which goes back years,” he says. “Some shops may have changed but the heart of Bath Road is still the same. We offer great service, great products which are affordable and value for money.”
David Theobald recognised this sense of community when he opened up Emporium - a beautifully designed shop selling a wide array of gifts, homewares, cards and toys - exactly three years ago. His wife Angela runs their sister shop in Winchcombe which celebrates its fifth anniversary of trading in November. They believe that the right products, realistic prices, great customer service and a friendly welcome are the recipe for an enjoyable shopping experience.
“We came here because the footfall is high, it does have the right mix of shops including charity shops which are good ones and attract people. We started looking for a shop in this road 18 months before we got the right one.People say it is like Notting Hill because of its vibrancy. There is a lot going on and those who don’t like parking in the town centre, enjoy coming here where they can get most things and having a post office is a big plus,” says David.
While I talk to him, a customer buys a gift for a friend and promptly exclaims, “I just want to tell you what a lovely shop you have.” I am sure David is used to hearing this, but it proves Emporium is ticking the boxes as far as the shoppers are concerned.
Bath Road newcomer Twig Clothing opened in May. Owners Lissy Coles and Sid Copp who have a successful Stroud shop, Eclipse, were looking for a new venture and say they have always been drawn to the Leckhampton/Suffolks area of Cheltenham. When told by a friend that a shop was available in Bath Road, their response was immediate.
“We went straight over for a look and put an offer in the same day!” says Lissy. “The Bath Road with its many cafés and variety of excellent shops was the perfect location for an ethical, lifestyle ladies boutique. We have been made very welcome by customers and other businesses alike and although we only opened a few months ago, business has exceeded all our expectations and we are delighted with the response.”
I pop into one of the many cafés Lissy mentions. I choose My Coffee and Co in Bath Road where I meet Andrew Coulter, who admits he was drawn to the area’s “community vibe,” and friendliness. I personally love the name of this shop, I think the words “my coffee,” enter my thoughts as soon as I wake up, usually preceded by “I need.” Andrew says he likes to take that extra bit of care over every individual cup of wood-roasted coffee. I must admit my cappuccino’s pretty good.
I spend three hours walking and talking my way from Bath Road to the Suffolks and back again, quietly observing and watching the community in action.
As an illustrator I am drawn to the creative street art which makes the usually unattractive metal boxes containing those all important wires and cables something special. Each has the familiar Bath Road lettering which extends to the roundabout near The Norwood. Incidentally many of the pubs which served the local community decades ago, still do so today including the Exmouth Arms which dates back to 1816, making it 200 years old this year.
Moving away from Bath Road, another familiar landmark in this part of Cheltenham is The Daffodil restaurant, on Suffolk Parade tucked inside a beautiful 1920s cinema and refurbished by Laurence Llewellyn Bowen, to create a “luxurious space with a touch of modernity and austerity.” In January this dramatic art deco venue shut, but reopened in March under new owners. For fellow traders in Suffolk Parade, it is an important part of their community and helps keep footfall high. Former GP Helene Hewett opened her independent bookshop, The Suffolk Anthology next to The Daffodil in February 2015. Surrounded by jewellers, florists, designer clothes shops, cafés and boutiques, the Suffolks is considered a destination shopping area. Set around the mid-19th century Suffolk Square, named after the Earl of Suffolk who briefly owned the area from 1808, is in the heart of Cheltenham’s chic, bohemian Montpellier district. Those walking from or to Montpellier Gardens enjoy the surprise finds in the Suffolks when they buy tickets for the Cheltenham Festivals in the booking office near Helene’s bookshop and café. Young and old enjoy the winning combination of a good read, direct trade coffee and homemade cakes. Helene also hosts a monthly children’s book club for two age groups (7-9 and 9-11) and many a guest author makes an appearance including writer Richard Francis on October 20. Locals are loyal to the shops and know they will receive a warm welcome. New to this area is retired art teacher John Hall, who has been running an art appreciation club for 20 years in nearby Broadway.
“For years I have had my eye on this area and I have always made a beeline to this part of Cheltenham when I visit. I have just moved here and I love the village feel about it. It’s all delightful, you’re in town but out of town. I feel in the hub of things here,” he admits.
A newcomer in the business sector of Suffolk Parade is Ann Simmonds, who after four years of running her on-line business Skandic Hus (meaning Scandinavian House) decided to open a shop showcasing her Scandinavian delights.
“Skandic Hus used to be in Montpellier and I used to manage the shop, but when the owner Marianne Stromback retired in 2013 I took it on line. This unit became available and I decided I needed to have a physical presence.”
Her shop reflects the simplistic beauty of the modern and traditional design classics she sells. Familiar 1950s objects appear with a modern twist such as a traditional simple kettle design with an elegant wooden handle. The Moomins are also a celebrated character in this shop too and appear on mugs, rugs, baby blankets, throws and even dishcloths.
“What customers can expect to see nearer Christmas time are our decorations and a little mythological creature called a Tomte associated with Scandianavian folklore. He apparently guards homes over Christmas as long as you feed him porridge!” Ann tells me.
The Tomte would be impressed with the gourmet ready meals, cakes and puddings on offer at COOK foodstore in nearby Bath Road. It is indeed a fantastic alternative to home cooking and takes the stress out of entertaining. Lizzie Donnan-Smith and her partner Sarah opened their business which includes adjoining Daily Bean Café six years ago. Last year Lizzie joined forces with networking group Cheltenham Connect to launch a loneliness club so that those who came along could make new friends in a relaxed safe environment - and no longer feel lonely.
“I think of Bath Road as my Notting Hill; it’s very much a community-based street, has a great traders’ association, which is a very active group of great people. We trade here because we love it. Most people who trade here live locally, we love our customers and they love us,” says Lizzie, who will be offering 15% off when COOK launches its Christmas range on November 5.
Lizzie’s passion, friendliness and generosity epitomises the whole ethos of Bath Road and Suffolk communities. It is what draws new businesses in and it’s what makes customers come back. There’s a tangible sense of belonging and being part of something special.