Vale, adios, aloha, ciao, auf wiedersehen, au revoir and goodbye Waitrose

So, the final act as been played out and the Hertford Waitrose is no more. Some might say this is a sad day for the town but more of that later. I am reminded of Marc Antony in Julius Caesar Act 3 Scene 2

The evil that men do lives after them;
The good is oft interrèd with their bones.
So let it be with Waitrose.

Waitrose closed doors
Waitrose closed

I have seen hundreds, perhaps thousands of comments on social media sites from posters who have accused everyone from Council (pick one from three) to Waitrose to John Lewis to Diageo and Wrenbridge and Planners in general for the closure. Some of the comments have been at best uninformed and at worst pure fantasy. I do not claim to be completely ‘au fait’ with all the events leading up to today but if you read a selection of my posts on this subject (right) you will see that closure was inevitable and no one single person or company’s fault.

I have known Waitrose to have been a part of Hertford’s commercial and social life since 2001 when I first became involved in the town and right up to my retirement as Town Centre Manager in 2010.

They were one of the major sponsors of Hertford Fun Day. My abiding memory of the manager at that time Jim Brewin was seeing him in the middle of Old Cross standing by his collapsible chair, floppy hat on head, water bottle in hand directing the road closures. Jim was Chairman of the Fun Day committee until 2005; he organised his staff to help man the road closures and act as stewards and as seen in the previous sentence led by example.

Waitrose provided some of the initial funding for the radios for Hertford Town Watch; a town centre security initiative that with 50 traders, licensees and venues with radios and 19 CCTV cameras became the envy of many other towns. It might not have been that way had not a van parked in Salisbury Square on the morning of one Fun Day exactly where the stage was to be set up. The radio to CCTV control would not work and we discovered that when Waitrose closed at night and on Sundays as it did then, the power to the aerial was also switched off. Of course the aerial is now fully functional 24/7 and has been moved now that Waitrose has closed.

Along with Lloyds Bank Waitrose sponsored the food for the Hertford Town Watch members breakfast meeting at the Waterside until Michelle left. A free breakfast was extended to all town centre traders and you could get everything from a cup of coffee to a full English.

So it has always been. Nearly every organisation in town has cause to be grateful to Waitrose for a form of sponsorship or charitable donation; the Horticultural Show at the Castle, Hertford Food and Drink Festival and lunchtime Soundbites concerts at All Saints Church are amongst those too numerous to mention to have benefited and this does not include the monthly community matters also known as the green coin box.

As sure as night follows day the Hertfordshire Mercury has had an input in its own inimitable style – ‘Eleven things we will miss about Waitrose’.  I will mention a few.

First – Overheard in Waitrose – I was going to award an Oscar here but here are three contenders in reverse order; 3. When does the sale start? 2. I hear John Lewis will be moving in when you move out and my favourite of all time which would have taken the Oscar and the teatime biscuit 3. Wetherspoons have bought the whole of the shopping centre and there will be a bar on the ground floor and a beer garden on the first floor and be overlooked by the car park.

Second – Free coffee – yes, it was great to pick up your morning boost of caffeine at no charge along with the Daily News but as I have mentioned elsewhere Waitrose became part of the problem. Small coffee bars in many English towns suffered a significant loss of trade with this initiative. So now Hertford’s own independent coffee shops may see a small upturn in trade, along with the newsagents with newspaper and Lottery sales and even the dry cleaners.

Third – Employees own the business – they do not. Owners of businesses are not made redundant. ‘Partners’ as they are called have a contract of employment like any other company employee, they have to fight for their holiday entitlement against each other, they get disciplined for breaking company guidelines like anybody else and many are paid just above the National Average Wage. The company will claim that they offer a competitive wage which when the annual bonus and staff discount are taken into account brings the salary up to the level of the National Living Wage. That may be so but the level of profit sharing has been dropping over the last few years and with the supermarket pricing wars raging staff discount does not always compensate for the slightly higher pricing structure at the stores. This is not ownership.

To continue my theme of mentioning the good it should be noted that all staff that expressed a desire to remain with the company have all been found suitable employment within the group. Those that wished to leave have done so with a very good redundancy and/or retirement package. Throughout this experience since closure was announced in February there has been constant consultation and support from many Head Office departments for all the staff and you cannot say fairer than that. There is sure to be many a tear dropping from eyes when four o’clock chimes.

I don’t know if this will be the case throughout the town. Everyone who knows about these things knew that Waitrose lease expired in 2016. For many years previous County, District and Town Council members and officers have all stated that Hertford will collapse and die if and when Waitrose should leave. No one has done anything to lessen the impact such closure will now have. Retail units are already starting to become vacant.

A huge sum was spent on the Hertford Town Centre  Design and Vision Strategy. That did not offer any proposals either other than a rather extensive appendix as found in Rollercoaster Tycoon or Sim City to illustrate the varied and wonderful designs of street furniture that could be installed in Hertford Town Centre. They were a little light on where the finance was coming from.

I know that the fall out from the closure of Waitrose will be painful and will continue to talk about it here.

You can contact John Barber here: moc.r1516552603ebrab1516552603nhoj@1516552603tcatn1516552603oc1516552603

A walk through Hertford 2017 style

Wrenbridge have just submitted the final plans for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green Shopping Centre after months of discussion between themselves and East Herts Planning Department, local groups, residents and more than enough statutory consultant bodies such as the Environment Agency and the Canal and River Trust that you can throw a blueprint at.

If you really must read all about it then follow this link to the planing page and read as many documents as your brain will allow: Documents relating to application.

Bircherley Green Shopping Centre is located in the town centre bordered by Railway Street to the south, the River Lee (Lea) to the north, Bircherley Street to the east and Bull Plain to the west. This map explains it all:

Aerial view of Bircherley Green
Bircherley Green in blue (top centre) within Hertford Town boundaries

This small piece of real estate almost lost in the middle of twentieth century expansion has consumed the minds of the good and great since 2014. It is contained within the Hertford Conservation Area but as everyone admits it is not the most attractive group of buildings to grace this ancient, market town.

So why has it got everyone defending it and wanting to counter any change? Because Hertford is an ancient English market town. I doubt if anyone who has contributed to any report listed above has bothered to walk the streets recently. They might have a different opinion if they had; so I will save you the trouble of visiting the town yourself and explain how Hertford fits into this mind set.

Hertford has seen a return to the old traditional crafts of tattooing, vaping, nail polishing and video gaming. Many shops have adopted a simple Dark Ages colour scheme of black or dark battleship grey eschewing the more modern trend towards hand painted signage above the door applied with mahlstick and sable brush.

The inns and taverns that were found in almost every house the length of Fore Street and Back Street (now Railway Street and Maidenhead Street) have been replaced by bars and venues serving ‘craft’ beer from metal kegs and poured from bottles containing ales and stouts that were never brewed anywhere in the county or for that matter, the country.

The old coffee shops have given way to transatlantic coffee shops with even stranger sounding names where no face to face commerce takes place apart from a Wi-fi link and where a cup of coffee costs more than a pack of Java beans from a supermarket shelf. Thank Heavens for Rose Cafe which stands by the traditional methods and where you can still buy a traditional cup of Nescaff for under a pound and it is brought to your table with saucer almost as soon as it is ordered.

Unfortunately many staple mid seventeenth century meals such ‘boyle beef, porch, rost beef and cheese’ have been replaced by a growth of restaurants with a distinctive Italian flavour and a slight hint of Turkish. This type of Continental fayre is thought to have been brought over to this country by the growing number of Italian students eager for a sight of their Shakespearean heritage behind the modern facade of estate agents and charity shops.

Do seek out the commercial sector, many of the inns and stores that sold these hot and cold vittals are still there. Many are seventeenth and eighteenth century buildings; one or two are thought to be sixteenth century. The timber framing and plaster boarding have been protected for posterity by the application of twentieth century concrete. You cannot see the original design or view the interior as they are mostly private offices but they are all to be found in the Department of Environment List of Buildings of Historic or Architectural Interest being at least of Grade II standard.

As befits a medieval town the road system is all that you could wish for. The town centre layout has not changed much since the early seventeenth century as Spede’s map of 1611 shows.

Spede's map of 1611
Spede’s map of 1611

Fore Street and Back Street mentioned above can be plainly seen leading from Hertford Castle in the centre to the town’s eastern boundary.

Not only is the road system exactly the same as it was over four hundred years ago, so are the roads. The cobbles have no mortar to bind them, broken slabs on the pavements catch the unwary lady with high heels and pot holes peer though the thin tarmac on the surface of the roads to laugh at motorists. Hertford was built for the horse and cart and this is still the best form of travel through town although there are now no inns to stable your horses which is a bit of a stinker. But fear not, you can still park your car – for a fee – before the Beadle catches up with you.

Did I mention Hertford Castle? It did exist but the unwary visitor may find it hard to find. All that remains is the grassy mound on which the original Norman motte was built. What we call ‘the Castle’ is actually the gatehouse rebuilt by Henry VIII in the early sixteenth century and then parts of it were blown up by the Duke of Devonshire in the nineteenth century.

No medieval town could be without its castle; or its market. There is a Charter Market on Saturdays which struggles to fill the available space. No longer are cattle herded down Fore Street to be sold at market behind the old inns that stretched to All Saints churchyard at the rear. I suppose this might be a good thing as they might wander along Gascoyne Way and cause traffic to snarl up all along the A414 east and west, which of course never ever happens at all in these more enlightened times.

This is why report after report from agencies as diverse as Historic England and Waste Services have been damning the application to redevelop Bircherley Green Shopping Centre in a bid to protect Hertford’s heritage and architectural beauty from the ravages of the Twenty First century – and urge us all to continue to embrace the legacy of the Saxons, the Norman Conquest, the Plague and the Poor Law.

It is now all in the hands of the East Herts Council Planing department – we await their decision.

Everything changes, nothing changes

Welcome 2017. Me and Mrs B took a stroll around town last Saturday (31st December 2016) and discovered a few things.

In Depth Diving School in Bull Plain has closed. This was quite unexpected. I always highlighted them in reports as one of three independent traders that were unique to Hertford. The other two being Margaret Hart’s haberdashery shop (Harts of Hertford) once of Bull Plain but later Fore Street; and Botsfords the ironmongers.

Around the corner in Maidenhead Street the shop that was once Ashleys is now boarded up and has been for some while. The last time I looked the innards had been completely removed and a mini JCB was just visible over the rim of a very deep hole at the entrance.

What was Mr H the fashion outlet is now a shop which buys and sells and swaps computer games, games consoles and everything else in the gaming world. The Tourist Information Centre is now firmly ensconced in Mill Bridge and we enjoyed a very pleasant coffee and calorie busting cake there on the MacMillan Cancer Big Coffee Morning Day.

Our mini tour took us into Fore Street and a new Champagne and Cocktail bar has opened where the Sun Studio Tanning Salon once was. The old Bollywoods Indian restaurant is now a magnificently furnished Mediterranan restaurant.

Doubling back to Railway Street there was a small gathering of market traders and shopkeepers. Two young men with guitars on their backs asked me if they needed a license to start busking in town. I pointed them in the direction of the Tourist Information Centre who do issue licenses for such things.

Why is this is relevant? After so many years after having left the post of Town Centre Manager a local shopkeeper who had been asked the same question by our hopeful buskers saw me approaching and uttered those immortal words: ‘I don’t know but here comes a man who does’. Just like old times. It gave me a small sensation of utter job satisfaction to know that I was still considered the man to go to.

So Hertford goes on as it always has, shops close, new traders open new shops, old businesses fade away and new ones open with bright hopes for the future. But one large black blot still hangs over the rim of the horizon and the question is –

What is happening to Waitrose and when will Wrenbridge be submitting their application for the redevelopment of Bircherley Green? Actually that is two but they are totally entwined. As I have said before Wrenbridge mention Waitrose in the past tense so we must assume that some in the not so distant future if the planing application is successful Waitrose will actually leave Hertford.

Of course the planning application might not be approved and the ball thrown back into Waitrose’s court. However as we now stand with very wobbly feet on the first few days into the birth of a new year we await Wrenbridge’s next move; a move that was promised to happen about three weeks ago.

As I have said so many times in this blog; will someone somewhere please tell the people of Hertford what is going on.