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How Notts Suburbs Have Seen a Resurgence Since the Start of the Pandemic

9 January 22 words: Lizzy O'Riordan
illustrations: Fiona Carr

From greengrocers to coffee shops, the pandemic inspired people to shop independent and support their local high streets. Almost two years on from the first lockdown, we investigate whether these shopping habits stuck and how they’re transforming Nottingham

2020 was, as everyone has said, an unprecedented time. COVID-19 swept across the world like a rapid wildfire, and soon came a summer spent inside, full of YouTube workouts and an onslaught of family arguments. 

While we were at home, the footfall in Nottingham city centre fell to basically zero, pictures emerged of an eerily quiet Market Square, and the high streets became empty, full of closed shops with old window displays. For many chain stores this was the beginning of the end, and we saw giants like Debenhams, Topshop and River Island leave the streets of Nottingham. 

Yet, for independent business owners, something strange was happening. Inspired by messages to shop local, the public began spending money closer to home. While overall UK consumption fell by 36.5% in April 2020, that same month saw a 37.7% increase in profits for local greengrocers, butchers, and bakeries, according to a study by Barclaycard. 

As non-essential shops began to open, posters appeared across Nottingham, encouraging the public to support their local high streets. ‘Shop local, shop safe’ read one poster from Rushcliffe Borough Council. ‘Love your hometown, shop local’ read another, found on Southwell High Street. Backing independent stores became trendy, and a popular topic of conversation among eager shoppers. 

Now, as we enter January 2022, we look back on the trend of shopping local, and investigate how our high streets are doing and whether COVID-19 did actually change our habits for good, as all the studies initially predicted.

I start by looking at Sherwood, a suburb sometimes (jokingly) referred to as ‘Sherditch’ for its quickly growing trendiness. For an area once defined by rows of charity shops, there’s now a series of cafes, independent stores, and even a vegan butchery. Full of artisan traders and a feeling of independence from the city, the parallel to a London suburb doesn’t seem too far off.

Stuffed with messages to shop local, the public began rallying around local business owners, seeing themselves as defenders of local trade

I ask Os, owner of Kraftwerks, whether he thinks COVID encouraged people to shop locally. “I do think what’s happened with the pandemic is that people are just going into the city centre less,” he claims. “I used to live in London and Bristol, and people stayed in their suburbs a bit more. Even though Nottingham isn’t a massive city, I think people are starting to do that. Everyone used to go into the city centre on a Saturday night and I think that’s certainly happening less so post-pandemic. Of course it’s not everyone, but I find it really interesting that a certain demographic aren’t so keen to plough back into the city. 

“Certainly, there seems to be a process of gentrification, where house prices are going up. There seems to constantly be new things opening. Sherwood seems to have turned into a real hot spot, which makes me feel mixed. I'm from the South and I’ve seen what gentrification can do, both good and bad,” Os continues. 

While by no means the only cause, it’s fair to say that lockdown drew people to the suburbs, partially from a fear of the busy city centre, but equally because the public grew to enjoy the feeling of supporting small businesses. It’s cosy to shop local - you see the same faces each time, you start to feel connected to the business, you like the feeling of being a regular.

“I feel that the pandemic reminded people of what is important to them,” says Shaima Swift, owner of the Crimson Tree Cafe. “More people realised the value of independent businesses in their local area and now think more carefully about where they spend their money. I have had the support of many regulars who just didn’t want to see their favourite local businesses fail. They made a conscious effort to spend their money with us, no matter how little the spend was.”

To take off my rose-coloured spectacles momentarily, it would be amiss to say that lockdown made life easier for local businesses. “We got through the lockdown because we opened an online beer shop. We obviously had to shut the bar and the shop,” Os says. Likewise, Shaima talks about having to shut the cafe in the third lockdown, after losing too much money in the first two. “When we reopened, we just took things steady,” she tells me. “Furlough and government grants saved us while we were closed.”

Nonetheless, as we quickly approach the two-year anniversary of the first lockdown, it’s evident that suburban high streets are looking like desirable areas of growth. Even with the city centre fully reopened, many people are opting for a weekend brunch on their local high street, as well as heading into the city. They are becoming desirable alternatives, rather than second-bests. 

In researching this piece, I caught up with Wade Smith, co-founder of Nottingham’s iconic Doughnotts. Commenting on their Beeston location, which opened in November, Wade says, “I think the smaller high streets are becoming their own little economies. You wouldn’t ever have to leave Beeston if you didn’t want to. It’s got a cinema, Tesco, gym, it’s got all the amenities you need. We’ve secured a site in Sherwood as well for the same reason.

For an area once defined by rows of charity shops, there’s now a series of cafes, independent shops, and even a vegan butchery

“People used to say that high streets were dying because of online shopping, but the vendors stuck to their guns, and local businesses are succeeding because they are selling great products. I’m hoping Doughnotts going onto these high streets encourages other local businesses to do the same. Beeston, for example, still has loads of empty spots that I can imagine Tough Mary’s or The Bakehouse in. I hope we can make every high street a really good place to be.”

Beeston, which has always been one of Nottingham’s busiest suburban high streets, seems to be in a state of constant expansion. Another branch of The Pudding Pantry cropped up in the spring of 2021, alongside their established locations in the city centre and Sherwood. Likewise, November 2021 saw the opening of Essen, an upmarket delicatessen run by friends Edward Graham Moore and Sam Skinner-Watts. 

Suburban areas like Sherwood and Beeston have become hotspots, with people from all over Nottingham travelling to have a nosy. Perhaps even more impressive, though, are the areas that had no trade prior to COVID and now have thriving communities. Wired on Wheels are an example of this. Previously located on Pelham Street, Wired are an independent coffee shop that completely changed their business model because of lockdown. With the landlord demanding 100% of the rent during the lockdown, Wired were forced to close their city centre shop and have a rethink. 

Now they serve coffee out of two trailers, one located at Highfields Park and the other at Colwick Country Park, both with a thriving community feel. “The yellow trailer down in Colwick was our first trailer, and it was beg, borrow, and steal to just get this site, really,” says Très, owner of Wired. “It was such a risk. I only admitted this to my partner the other day but when I came down to do a footfall tracker, I went home and said that I had counted eighty people an hour when I had actually only counted eight. But at the point of making the decision it felt like there were no other options.” 

As we’re talking, it’s a grey drizzly Sunday morning at Colwick Park, yet the chairs outside Wired are full of chatting coffee drinkers, many bundled up after a swim in the lake. On the audio recording of this interview, you can hear the buzz of the trailer's generator, the sound of background music, and the faint voices of people catching up over their weekend coffee. “It’s a really lovely little community now, and people come down because we’re here,” Très comments.

More people realised the value of independent businesses in their local area and now think more carefully about where they spend their money

Wired have taken over a whole stretch of Colwick Park, with chairs and tables scattered outside the trailer. If you turn a few inches to the left, you’ll spot Whole Health, the group which runs wild swimming at the park. Wired and Whole Health have formed a kind of symbiotic relationship in this spot, and many of the weekend coffee drinkers I see are made up of swimmers. “Being with Whole Health is kind of who we are down in Colwick Park,” Très says. “We’ve kind of grown up here together, and the community is amazing.”

Like with all the previous business owners, I trot out my question about shopping locally. Do they think people are more invested in supporting local businesses after lockdown? “That’s a complicated question,” Très replies, “because I do think that convenience is important, and sometimes there’s a difference between intention and convenience. But I do think that shopping locally in people’s consciousness does have an impact. I do really believe that some people have it as kind of a mantra, really, and that they will seek out local businesses because of the idea of supporting locals. The lockdown stuff did have an impact on that, people did want to support you.”

Talking to Os, Wade, Shaima, and Très, I get the sense that we’re in a time of transformation. The pandemic has changed the way that we interact with our local space and our local business owners, stirring up a culture of intentionality among many shoppers. It also forced local traders to re-evaluate their approach, opting to include new business practices or, like Très, overhaul their previous model completely. Slowly but surely, there is a shift happening, in which community is more important than ever.

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