We visit Downend, an area of Bristol where locals continue to support independents

‘We did have a Costa about five years ago but it didn’t last and people didn’t use it - they like their independents’
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There is already a hint of festive spirit around Downend high street as strings of lights are put up in anticipation for the ‘Big Christmas Switch-On’.

Organised by Downend & Bromley Heath Parish Council, the switch-on takes place next Friday (November 25) and features a local choir. Many of the businesses, restaurants and cafes around the high street will be staying open later than usual, many serving glasses of mulled wine and mince pies to get local shoppers in the festive mood.

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Businesses also have a chance to win the coveted prize of The Best Dressed Window 2022. The winner will be announced by Parish Council Chair Jon Hunt in what is sure to be a hotly-contested competition.

Like all suburban high streets since the pandemic, Downend seems quiet on the Tuesday morning we visit but local traders are upbeat and hoping for a busy run up to Christmas. Gary opened Downend Cards and Gifts 12 years ago. As well as greetings cards, it sells helium balloons and a variety of items for parties.

He says: “We’re coming into our busiest period now because of Christmas and we’re just restocking and ordering. Last Christmas was our busiest in 12 years so we’re hoping for another good one.”

As for Downend generally, Gary says footfall is down from what it was but he thinks the shops are well supported by locals. He adds: “I think people who shop here are very local - it doesn’t tend to attract too many people who aren’t from Downend because there isn’t the variety there used to be.”

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Another reason for reduced footfall is, perhaps, the closure of another bank in the area. There were three at one point but only HSBC is open now, with the large Lloyds on the corner being the latest Downend bank to go. With fewer Bristol buses to and from Downend, many older locals now travel to Bath for their banking and shopping.

Mel and Pete Scragg have run Melanie’s Kitchen for the past 15 years. What started out as a delicatessen and small cafe has evolved into the food-focussed general store it is today. The shop now stocks locally made giftware and even upmarket dog treats.

Pete Scragg, co-owner of Melanie’s Kitchen in DownendPete Scragg, co-owner of Melanie’s Kitchen in Downend
Pete Scragg, co-owner of Melanie’s Kitchen in Downend

Pete says: “We started out just doing food but the balance has gone slightly towards the giftware since Covid. People now come in to buy a loaf of bread and then spend £20 on dog treats. We have to keep evolving and running ahead of the supermarkets. We get things in which are doing really well and then the supermarket will start doing them so we have to replace it so we’re always trying to find the next thing.

“Footfall is definitely down in the high street and the issue we have had is the banks closing as some people have to go elsewhere. But we’ve got a really good florist, the carpet and furniture shop is busy and we have a great fabric shop here. The cafes are thriving, too.

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“The pandemic actually did us some good because we could stay open and it gave us chance to refocus. People suddenly discovered us on their daily walks during the lockdowns - we were getting people who hadn’t spotted us before despite being open more than a decade.”

Downend high street continues to attract strong support from localsDownend high street continues to attract strong support from locals
Downend high street continues to attract strong support from locals

Although it has changed its name over the years, there has been a florists on the site of Hazel Holly for more than 30 years. When we visit, florists Kate and Charlene are making bouquets and tell me business is still strong at the shop. Kate says: “We’re generally a really busy shop and we’ve got lots of orders but we don’t get so many people coming in off the street. We are an Interflora shop as well so we get a lot of our orders that way.

Charlene says: “I don’t think people are spending any less on flowers. We’ve done some big bouquets today and we had a £140 one the other day.

“It’s more gifts these days - we don’t get too many people buying flowers for their homes but it has always been like that. I think people go to supermarkets if they want to buy some flowers for their homes so it has never been competition. It’s a different experience, we sell more luxury flowers.”

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And Kate and Charlene say that although one local restaurant has recently closed down, they haven’t really seen any signs of the cost of living crisis. Charlene says: “Downend is quite a busy high street. The cafes are always packed - I think people have always got money for a coffee and cake.

“You’d think that would be first thing people would cut out of there’s a cost of loving crisis. People aren’t skimping. We did have a Costa about five years ago but it didn’t last and people didn’t use it, they wanted to support the local businesses. They like their independent shops around here.”

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