Baker Street and London Road

Argus article : Let’s revise London Road

When I first came to England I worked at Bedford College Library in Regents Park. Every morning I’d catch the tube to Baker Street tube station, then walk down Baker Street itself towards the park. It was magical.

I’d grown up on a diet of Sherlock Holmes and so every moment I expected to see the great detective strolling down the street or to hear the sound of his violin wafting on the breeze.

I knew very well that 22b Baker Street had never existed, but that didn’t stop me looking for it – much as nowadays Harry Potter fans surreptitiously look for Platform 9 ¾ at Kings Cross Station.

I have an especial affection for Baker Street. With Madame Tussaud’s at one end and the park and London Zoo at the other, it must be one of the most extraordinary streets in the world.When I came to Brighton I was amused to find another Baker Street, albeit one that was far less spectacular, stretching from the Level to the then Co op Department Store. At the time I thought it disappointingly mundane, just a rather boring route from Ditchling Road through to the London Road. How wrong I was.

Over time I came to love the street. Baker Street, along with the Open Market and St Peter’s Church, is at the heart of the London Road community. It is a mixed community, made up of Brightonians and incomers and dominated by small businesses – mostly retail outlets, cafes and small restaurants.

Foremost among them is Bardsley’s, probably the best known Fish and Chip shop in the city, which was founded in 1926. The business has recently undergone refurbishment and acquired a bar. The stuffed plastic seats and formica tables have gone and it’s looking seriously flash.

The ‘regulars’ are still there though. We grin conspiratorially at each other across the heads of the posh ex-Londoners who dominate, especially at weekends. We remember the days when the waitresses would dodge across the road through the rain to fetch pints of beer from the pub.

Here Roy and Muriel Brown and their son Neil reign supreme – down to earth, friendly and very serious about good food. Roy and Muriel claim to be moving towards retirement, but still seem to work a phenomenal number of hours.

It’s often said of politicians that they cope best with retirement if they have a “hinterland” – which is a fancy way of saying they have other interests. On this basis, Roy and Muriel certainly have a “hinterland”. Roy is a keen rider, who competes in dressage competitions. Muriel, a direct descendent of Benjamin Bardsley, the founder of the firm, is a violinist in her spare time and regularly plays with a local string orchestra.

Another person with hinterland is Mr Ghoshal, Indian-born owner of the Chilka House, a restaurant serving excellent Indian and Goan food. He and his Dutch wife Wil set up the business in 1985 in Brighton’s Preston Street, moving in 2002 to Baker Street. It’s rare now to see him on the floor of the restaurant, but in the old days he’d serve customers his delicious food while holding forth about politics, philosophy and life in general.

Mr Ghoshal’s front man is Abdul, who arrived here from Bangladesh in 1971. His smiling face has become as familiar a feature of Baker Street life as the shop sign of Benjamin Bardsley that hangs above the business he founded. Abdul is a Muslim, but he passionately supports the campaign to keep St Peter’s Church’s open. He rightly says we need to keep “our holy places”.

Mr Ghoshal and he are not the only incomers in the street. Another is Antonio Delgado who came to Brighton from Seville in Spain 13 years ago and now runs a successful hairdressing business. Antonio says he loves this area because its people are “so down to earth and friendly”.

Connie Cheung agrees, saying simply “This is a nice little street”. She is Chinese and came to Britain from Hong Kong in 1975, setting up her mending and repair service in 1992. She is a lifeline for parents with little time, elderly people who can no longer see to sew and youngsters who never learned to do so.

There are many family businesses in the street. The Arnold family, who own “Central Appliances”, have been selling cookers and fridges to local families for at least 17 years. Alan Parks has been mending shoes for almost 2 decades.

Some, like the jewellers David Alan & Son (formerly Sinnock’s), have been there for generations, though are now owned by different families. Linda Clark who works there, remembers her mother and grandmother shopping in the store, which is now managed by her son.

Coombes Pet Shop bills itself as the oldest pet shop in Europe and is certainly one of the friendliest. Founded in 1934 by Alan Coombes, it is still run as a family concern by Robert Harper and his sons.

Baker Street’s famous pie shop, “Bangers”, is yet another family business. Lyn Hemsley, who has worked there since it opened 17 years ago, bought out the owner, then passed the business to her son Darren. Their delicious pies are staple fare for local pensioners, students and families.

Despite the potentially catastrophic closure of the Co-op department store, Baker Street hums with life. New non-traditional businesses have opened in the street and are doing well. There are picture and antique shops, an internet cafe and a place selling tatoos. Throughout, there is a buzz and a feeling of optimism.

However, at the same time, business people and customers alike express anger at the apparent indifference of politicians to the plight of the London Road. They point to poor access and parking, ineffective community policing and a recent study by external consultants which failed to properly consult local people.

There is extreme concern at reports that London Road’s main post office, now based in the Co-op building, is likely to close in March. There is continuing frustration about the closure of the Co-op building itself and a widespread perception that little is being done to attract other large retailers.

People are aware that there have been negotiations to get Waitrose into the Lewes Road and cannot understand why similar efforts are not underway for their area. They point out that though people on low income use the London Road to shop, as they have for generations, the residential area around the London Road is being steadily gentrified. As a consequence, the shopping community is becoming much more diverse.

There seems little doubt that the area could sustain a far wider mix of retail outlets and restaurants. There is also a fair certainty that if the London Road is ever properly developed, with a properly equipped European style market, it would attract significant levels of shopping by people outside of Brighton – some of whom who are unwilling to fight their way through to an overcrowded Churchill Square and Western Road.

Marks and Spencer used to have an outlet in London Road and its decision to pull out is widely believed to have begun the area’s downward spiral. Given the revival in the shopping chain’s fortunes, many people argue it should be persuaded to return. However, stores such as this will not take a risk if the council itself appears not to believe in the area.

Local people are tired of hearing about regeneration projects which never seem to happen or which favour other areas. And there is widespread anger about the potential closure of St Peter’s Church which has become something of a symbol for the London Road community’s fight for life.

As Roy Brown of Bardsley’s said: “It’s the heart of the community. They should keep it open as a church and use it for concerts or community events. You could even have a restaurant there with people sitting out on the grass. That could pay for its upkeep.

“They could open up the road in front of it to pedestrians so it becomes like a piazza in an Italian or French city. You could imagine it after dark with people strolling down from the station and up the London Road do late night shopping. It just takes some imagination.”

It will take imagination. It will also take political commitment and a willingness amongst politicians to listen – not just to highly-paid consultants from London, but to local people, who have no axe to grind other than the fact they live and work here and love the area.

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