Can the Acomb I knew and loved reinvent itself?

6 Dec 2012 @ 12.45 pm
| News
Front Street, Acomb, pictured in 1998. Photograph: Imagine York

Jayne Dwyer spent a lot of her childhood in Acomb. As the council considers plans to regenerate the area, she considers Acomb past, present and future

In truth, I am a Holgatarian, not an Acombite. I grew up near West Bank Park and from my bedroom window, on a clear night, I could see the bats sweep across the windmill.

The land our house was built on would at one time have belonged to Eliza Gutch, an outstanding woman and landowner. Living in Holgate was almost idyllic. However, the boundary that determines where Holgate ends and where Acomb begins is confusing, especially when Acomb Road itself is entrenched in Holgate, with minor roads that lead to West Bank Park or to the windmill, which has become our very own tourist attraction.

An information afternoon will be held on Saturday, December 8 from 2pm to 4pm at Acomb Parish Church Hall to look at the ideas for Acomb

My ex-husband used to joke that we had ‘crossed the border’ when we travelled down Hamilton Drive, on our way home from Tesco. I am ashamed to say, I never defended Acomb in the way that I should have.

Although I lived in Holgate as a child, Acomb was where I spent quality time with my mother and Acomb was the backdrop to the significant personal events of my teenage years.

It was in Acomb where I got my first fashionable haircut (in a salon above the Regent), where I had my first date (outside the carpet shop) and where I got my first black-eye (in the car-park of Safeway, before Safeway was built).

The old Regent building in Acomb. Photograph: Google Street View

When I was a small child, we used to walk to Acomb nearly every day. I have mentioned before the experience wasn’t all pleasurable: we had to pass the children’s home and the bunker, and were usually on the way to the dentist. (In those days, we rinsed our toothbrushes in blackcurrant squash and had our pop delivered to our doorstep.)

Our house in Holgate was nearly equidistant from Acomb and York, but I have very few memories of shopping “in town”. I am guessing, in the Seventies, Acomb had all the amenities my mum needed.

She would shop for groceries in Acorn butchers, buy vegetables in Metcalfe’s, and “other things” from Presto, which spanned the main shopping centre. There wasn’t a car park, but then we didn’t have a car. All the groceries went under or on top of the buggy.

We didn’t have a freezer, which is probably why mum shopped most days. Sometimes she would shop in the Co-op, on the corner of Carr Lane. I know she collected stamps there.

My mum would often arrange to meet friends in Acomb, and we would sit in Hagenbach’s, eating sausage rolls with tomato ketchup. Even when we started school, we often frequented Hagenbach’s on our way back from the doctor’s, for my brother’s wheezy chest, or from Mr Barker’s, the dentist, for strawberry gas and a sticker. If we had been at the dentist, we would have to sit patiently, with only the promise of soup later.

He sold little things for little hands to hold: toys that we would find in our stockings at the end of the year

Often a trip to Acomb would last several hours. One of the busiest shops was Strides, which sold Clarke’s shoes, nursery equipment and wool! We would flit around the shop whilst we waited for the shop assistant to measure our feet. I know that my mum loved this shop. She loved the personal service; she loved the wool. She would spend forever, looking over the patterns for balaclavas and tank-tops.

I don’t remember my mum shopping for clothes in Acomb, but then I don’t remember my mum buying clothes very often; just as we would spend ages in Strides, we would spend an equally long time in Fletchers the fabric shop, thumbing through Butterick patterns and choosing ribbons or buttons.

We would always visit Unit 5, in the days where the owner was a tall man who never forgot his smile. He seemed to have arranged his whole shop with the intention only of making people happy. He sold little things for little hands to hold: toys that we would find in our stockings at the end of the year.

These shops survived my childhood, though at some point Strides stopping selling shoes. My mum was mortified and I think that this was probably the catalyst for us visiting York more often.

These are the shops I miss.

An aerial view of Acomb from November 1956. The Regent Cinema is the large building towards the bottom left of the frame. Photograph: Imagine York

Once a week, my dad would take us to the library in Acomb. My love of books was born here. Even my brother was quiet and calm in Acomb Library as he loved to walk around the big glass window and look onto the garden. I think there were fish in a pond.

Apart from a brief spell, living in South Bank, I have always returned to either Acomb or Holgate. When my own daughter was little I continued to shop in Acomb, hanging shopping off her buggy, finding a place to drink a cup of tea, away from the housework that seemed never ending and would take her to the library every week until she was old enough to take herself for her Judy Blume’s.

Whilst I love Explore in York, I feel sad when I walk into the building that sits where Acomb library used to. Acomb Explore offers some fantastic services now with opportunities to update skills in English, maths and ICT. There is a busy café and when I do go in, I see the same faces, suggesting that this is a place where people socialise, still. I guess I just miss the books.

I stopped shopping properly in Acomb several years ago as the shops that had survived for generations slowly disappeared.

Everybody is feeling the pinch right now, but I felt as though Acomb reflected the hard times that people were facing long before the credit crunch hit. It is no coincidence that the last Labour Government placed a Surestart provision on Acomb’s doorstep in Hobmoor.

Surestart was originally set up to support families in “areas of deprivation”. Whilst Surestart strived to change lives, putting on free courses for parents and activities for families, empowering families and involving them in their community, the changes in Acomb Front Street did not seem to exude the same level of hope. I think Kirstie Allsopp and her pal would have said it lacked kerb appeal.

The shops in Acomb started to display their goods differently: stack ‘em high and sell ‘em cheap. It may be that they were also struggling to compete with Morrison’s and with the supermarkets that were expanding outside the centre, but I personally found it depressing.

Several of the shops that used to be grocers, selling good quality fruit and veg at a reasonable price, started to sell out-of-date food or food so close to the sell by date it would have turned before you got it into the carrier bag.

It felt a little insulting to be offered stale crisps and cans of mushy peas that looked like they’d been hauled from the Cold War bunker days.

Over the last few years, I have only scuttled in and out of Acomb Front Street, never planning to stay longer than is necessary, usually to pick up a prescription or to buy emergency tights. So I was intrigued to hear that the council have plans to rejuvenate the area by consulting with the people that live in the wards of Acomb, Holgate and Westfield.

On the table is a proposal to hold a market on Front Street and to make a regular feature of the summer fair

On the table is a proposal to hold a market on Front Street and to make a regular feature of the summer fair, which was held on Acomb Green this year (thanks to the Friends of Acomb Green). This, it seems, is what the people of Acomb really want.

So I thought I should give my old haunt a second chance and see if I had hung around to be asked, what I would like to see in Acomb and to think about what it would take for me to return. I chose a day that was about as sunny as it gets in November.

My 13-year-old was surprisingly excited about accompanying me, but then I remembered, he has a bit of a thing for Coopland’s yum yums. Although I don’t shop in Acomb, he often rides up on his bike and he never tires of telling me that four sausage rolls and four yum yums is a bargain in anyone’s library book.

We started off in the charity shops because although I don’t like stale crisps, I am actually always on the look-out for a bargain. Perhaps my lack of time has also been a factor in my deserting ship. I had forgotten how much I used to enjoy this and if you like charity shops, there are plenty to choose from in Acomb.

Peacocks – Jayne was pleased with her purchase

I didn’t pick up any bargains on this occasion, however, until I visited Savers to see if “my” shampoo was any cheaper than the place I pick up points. Surprisingly, it wasn’t but we came out with three (good quality) toothbrushes for a pound and, if I wasn’t recovering from a bad back, I would have picked up a couple of bottles of wine at £3.99!

And, if I hadn’t had a fridge full of vegetables from my last lazy trip to the supermarket, I would have enjoyed picking the seasonal produce that was in display in either of the greengrocers.

Based on my last real shopping expedition to Acomb, I expected to buy things because they were cheap, a second-hand book perhaps or some tea-towels. I didn’t really go looking for inspiration, but I was very pleased to come away with a pair of cherry coloured jeans on offer for £11 in Peacocks.

Tucked in a corner, in the area that has for too long been dominated by the betting shops, is a relatively new shop called All Wrapped Up, (pictured right). It is one of the few that is not a discount shop, and sells some lovely little knick-knacks and I even managed to cross a Christmas present off my list.

As a child, I may have been looking through rose-tinted NHS glasses but it took a long time for me leave. I didn’t abandon Acomb after my first bag of stale crisps, but maybe it is an image I have stored and a judgement I have unfairly held for far too long. I know that there are people, retailers and café owners and community workers, who are keen for Acomb to not necessarily be what it was, but to be a place that serves its community, and entices other people to visit.

I would not want Acomb Front Street to become another Bishopthorpe Road, bohemian and as lovely as that is. It is an example of a community that has evolved, is aspirational and proves what is possible.

When I lived in South Bank, Bishopthorpe Road wasn’t home to the cosmopolitan cafes and restaurants that it is now. That area now has a holiday-like feel to it. You don’t have to be a tourist to appreciate it. However, Acomb is not Bishopthorpe Road. It needs to find its own identity and build upon the positives that do exist.

The Acomb that I used to know was a place that my mum chose over the city centre and for me that was commendation enough.

I am so enthusiastic about the ideas for the market that I will be at the Holgate Ward Committee event on December 6.

I even have some ideas of my own, which shows that I believe it is a place worth investing in. In the meantime, I will try and look beyond my own nostalgia.