Monday, 7 January 2013

Greenwich: farewell my favourite high street

Greenwich Park and the equestrian events were arguably the jewel of our Olympic summer. The beautiful parkland setting with the Palladian architecture as its background was magnificent.

Yet few visitors who came to Greenwich to watch those unforgettable Games were able to enjoy Greenwich's other 'pull' - the historic markets and boutique shops. The organisers set up the flow of Olympic visitors such that the Georgian-fronted shops were largely inaccessible, blocked by sturdy plastic barriers. Nor did it help that months before the Games arrived, Greenwich Council waved through the installation of four prominent chain restaurants adjacent to the ferry embarkation point. Nando's, Zizzi, Byron Burger and Ben & Jerry's now dominate the waterfront, spoiling the vista over to the Docklands from the newly restored Cutty Sark. Judging from the queues on New Year’s Day, they’re pulling in a lot of Greenwich trade too.

In my week as a London 2012 Ambassador, my volunteer partner and I stood by the gates to the Old Royal Naval College valiantly trying to tell visitors that the Greenwich they wanted to see - and where they could get an authentic local meal or coffee - was just beyond the Cutty Sark in the lovely old buildings and market back streets.

Unfortunately, the protestations of Greenwich shop keepers and locals did little to prevent what should have been a bumper summer for Greenwich becoming a damp squib. As Greenwich Phantom argues, the Olympics were more of a tipping point than anything, but poor Greenwich is being increasingly 'blandified'.

Bullfrogs clothes emporium closing 15th February due to building demolition
Economic pressures up and down the land are hurting every high street. The internet and out of town retail parks don't help. But New Year's Day brought a terrible surprise: the excellent Bullfrogs clothes and accessories emporium - a stalwart of Greenwich Church Street for 23 years - is being forced to close. (Its footwear shop is at least staying.)

In this case, it’s because the building owner is demolishing the block and rebuilding it as something else. A row of shops in the heart of Greenwich adjacent to the main covered market, including the swish Chelsea upholsterers, is being forced to close. Speaking to the understandably upset shop owner today, I learned that there’s nothing they can do, as there’s no preservation order to prevent the building’s demolition, and the fact there’s a branch of Bullfrogs in Clapham probably precludes the Greenwich outlet reopening elsewhere. Sales are in decline everywhere and this forced closure means relocation just won’t happen. 

High rents have always been a problem for Greenwich shopkeepers, but in this case, a much-loved shop is going to the wall seemingly needlessly.

Given the recent closure of also long-established Bar Du Musee and its neighbours on Nelson Road, with signs stating Jamie Oliver’s Italian chain is coming soon, I suspect a similar reinvention will befall Bullfrogs’ former home. Italian restaurant Sotteri’s threw in the towel in September (the cheeky food champ’s arrival on the same street can be no coincidence), while our favourite Thai restaurant, Kuang Luang on Creek Road is now boarded up.

Costa Coffee has opened up where the old newsagent used to be, and has further expanded upstairs in Waterstones – book sales are in decline too, of course. And I couldn’t bear to ask the three people in the process of removing the ice cream cabinet and other items from the now bare Beachcomber Fish CafĂ© whether the clear-out is in preparation for a refit. I think I know the answer and it’s just too sad to hear.

The final fittings were being removed from Beachcomber Seafood Cafe this lunchtime


  1. This is all very depressing. Would you know of a chocolatier in Greenwich by any chance?

  2. Rosie, I understand the sentiment of your post but Greenwich's problems are very definitely 'first world' - in terms of retail it's one of the luckiest places in the country with thousands of people passing through every day.

    I spent Christmas in my home town of Dudley before returning to London - it is the most depressed town in the country in terms of retail. Nearly 2 in every 5 shops on the High St are boarded up or derelict - if only it had Greenwich's issues...

  3. Oh no, I used to love going into Bullfrog when I was a student at Greenwich! That is such a shame.

  4. @Londoneer: One of the reasons I find it such a shock is that Greenwich had so much going for it - and yet still it's buckling. I visited some of the places in SE London championed as part of the Portas Pilot scheme and they were fighting geography and being so spread out from each other; in Greenwich the surroundings are fantastic and the transport links great, and still it's losing some of its best shops and its unique character

  5. @Londoneer - but of course other places have it even worse...

  6. I commend you and your volunteer partner for suggesting to the Olympic visitors that they take a gander at the high street area of Greenwich! The loss of one-off shops and restaurants in that area is very sad, indeed. I should also think that the strip of businesses along G'wich So. Street (think: Junk Shop, Bert&Betty...) could do with a bit of 'tlc' as the Equestrian Events seemed to do little more than harm their custom as well.

  7. Beachcomber is closing for good. The lease has been changed to retail from restaurant.
    I ate in there on the 5th January and they told me it was shutting for good on the 6th.

  8. Thanks for the info, Mark. What a sorry state of affairs

  9. On my last visit back I saw that Stitches and Daughters has finally closed. It is to be replaced with an estate agents. -just what Greenwich needs! Ugh.