As chains take over the high streets, one city is going against the tide. With cobbled streets, flint buildings and Dutch gables, Norwich has used its Medieval architecture to build a modern hub of independent shops, bars and even theatres, firmly set in a passionate community determined to see it succeed.
Laz Damon sits astride one of the benches in The Wallow, which he co-owns with his partner, Kane. “Having our own business was our dream from the start, and we materialised it. The Wallow came up at the right time for us. It was meant to be – we first saw it on my birthday!”
Damon’s passion is clear to see when talking about the self-service wine bar and its customers. “It’s a cosy place for get-togethers or chats. We offer a unique service with wine dispensers, and we’re different on a day-to-day basis because our menus and wine lists are frequently updated,” he explains, determined to see it succeed.
The Wallow is one of 600 independent businesses in the winding and largely pedestrianised Norwich Lanes; 300 of these are part of the Norwich Lanes Association, which was founded in 2005. “Originally, Norwich Lanes was formed of local shopkeepers who were worried about a large shopping mall being built,” explains Jonty Young, the association’s marketing manager. “They spoke with the regeneration arm of the local council, and they designated the area.”
While other city centres are struggling with empty shops, Norwich is bucking the national trend; space here is so in demand that one restaurant waited 18 months for a property in the area. “Retail vacancy as a whole is down at 5.5 percent. It shows the positivity for the city when the rest of the country is around a 13 percent vacancy rate. The city is faring a lot better than that,” says Stefan Gurney of Norwich BID, an organisation that enhances the city’s environment for its businesses. “A lot of that comes down to our mix on offer. The value of the independents, like the Lanes, Timber Hill and other businesses add to the vibrancy, and that’s what makes Norwich one of the top retail destinations in the country.”
Damon attributes Norwich’s vibrancy not just to the independent retailers, but also to the city’s events and cultural offerings. “It’s a growing economy, and people potentially prefer independents over chains, where there’s a different atmosphere with a bit more care. It’s a beautiful city, and I think it caters for all demographics. I’ve lived here for 10 years now, and there’s constantly something on.”
One organisation that ensures there’s always something on to entertain Norwich’s residents is the city’s independent theatre, the Maddermarket. It’s been based in an 18th-century Catholic chapel since 1921, after producer Walter Nugent Monck made the city his home and needed a stage for the Norwich Players. The theatre isn’t limited to plays; it also hosts live music, adult pantomimes and the improv comedy group The Intellectual Hooligans – even Sir Ian McKellen has trodden the boards here.
“I moved around the country and then came back to Norwich for the vibrancy of the cultural scene and the sense of community and belonging that I felt here,” says the theatre’s general manager, Alice Wright. “We are a community theatre by definition. All our plays are fully produced and staffed by amateur performers, technicians, designers and directors. They’re all people from the Norwich community who come together to produce plays. We have people who have been selling ice creams here for 40 years.”
Norwich’s independents stand out from other cities because of their diverse appeal to people of all ages. Residents come out to see the Norwich Lanes break out of their shops and cafés and into a street party during their Summer Fayre each year. Similarly, the Head Out, Not Home campaign hosts a summer of free live music and street performances.
These events showcase new and existing businesses, so new players can quickly get their customers’ attention. “That’s one of the reasons why I’ve always liked the Norwich Lanes,” says Wright. “They’ve obviously changed a lot since I first came here, but I love the ever-changing landscape of the city centre. New businesses change a lot and they evolve, but others have stood the test of time and remain here.”
Part of the city’s constant evolution, Young says, is due to Norwich’s architecture, with the tightly packed shopfronts lending themselves to re-invention. “When the Industrial Revolution happened, the River Wensum was too slow to power mills, so the buildings from then still stand,” he says. “Norwich is the most complete Medieval city in the UK, and the buildings are small enough so that if something goes out of fashion, something else takes its place and they morph quickly. A restaurant becomes a shop which becomes a restaurant again.”
The success of Norwich’s independent venues speaks to the liveliness and entrepreneurial spirit of the city and makes it the ideal place for a weekend break when you’re looking to escape the big chains. “The amount of independent businesses is staggering and worth seeing in itself,” says Jonty Young. “We have an independent cinema, theatre, arts centre and so many shops and restaurants. It’s just a perfect place to visit if you’ve never been before.”
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