Fossgate is one of York's most interesting streets. But would it be improved if cars were banned? STEPHEN LEWIS and CHARLOTTE PERCIVAL investigate.

IT'S a normal Tuesday morning in Fossgate. There is a builder's skip outside the old Stubbs building and, further up, a line of parked cars - making this narrow street seem even narrower.

A couple of cars are nosing slowly across the cobbles of the old Foss Bridge, suggesting their drivers might not be sure of where they are going.

There are several people on foot, too - most of them hurrying, rather than stopping to look in shop windows. Which is a shame. Because for those in the know, Fossgate is one of York's most interesting and colourful streets.

It has some the city's finest restaurants, eateries such as the Blue Bicycle, J Baker's, Mason's and the new Loch Fyne.

There are great second-hand bookshops - Stone Trough, The Barbican and Lucius books and gallery among them. These sit shoulder-to-shoulder with quirky shops which are not found anywhere else. Shops such as The Miniature Scene, which has one of the biggest stocks of dolls houses anywhere in the country; or Mor Music, which is packed with acoustic and electric guitars.

To top the lot, halfway along this old street is the back entrance to the Merchant Adventurers' Hall, and further up the legendary Blue Bell, York's smallest pub and one of its most famous.

Despite all of this, many visitors to York scarcely know the street exists, and even locals are more likely to use it as a short-cut rather than a place to visit in its own right.

Many people stand at the top of Fossgate where it leads off Pavement, look down, and assume it is a street that goes nowhere, admits Blue Bell landlord Jim Hardie.

The street's narrowness, combined with the parked cars, contribute to this impression. But all that could be about to change.

Fossgate could become the latest city centre street to be pedestrianised. As revealed in The Press last week, almost 800 local businesses, residents and shoppers have signed a petition calling for the street to be closed to traffic. City councillors have now asked officers to investigate whether Fossgate could be included in York's pedestrianised zone.

That could, in theory, ban all traffic other than emergency vehicles from using in the street between 11am and 4pm. Shops would have to take deliveries outside those hours.

The benefits are not hard to imagine. Just think what the street could be like if there were no cars. It could be paved over, with tables outside the pub and the many restaurants, giving a Continental feel.

Pedestrians could wander at will, stopping for a coffee and enjoying the shops without having to look to see if a car was coming. The shops could have displays out in the street.

There would also be the potential for festivals. The Festival Of Angels in The Quarter is a big success: so why couldn't there be a Fossgate Festival, celebrating the quirkiness of this local street?

There is a precedent for the street being used in this way. The Blue Bell's annual beer festival sees the street closed to traffic, and it attracts hundreds of people every year.

Supporters of pedestrianisation point to all these possible benefits. There are some unique shops in Fossgate, Mr Hardie points out.

"It would be so nice to be able to wander around without having to constantly look over your shoulder to see if there is a car," he says.

"And we've got some of the best restaurants in York. It would be great for them to have two or three tables out on warm evenings."

Dean Benson, manager of J Baker's restaurant, agrees that it would be "fabulous" to have a few tables outside.

"There are so many good restaurants down here," he says. "It is building up to be the best restaurant street in York, and I think there would be a real buzz about the place."

In good weather, adds James Hallgate of Lucius books, Fossgate minus the cars could become a real European-style caf street - and everyone would benefit, not only the restaurants.

"I think if they did pedestrianise it, maybe people would hang around a bit longer - and that might draw people in to come into some of the shops," he says.

Great as the idea sounds in principle, however, there would be some problems to pedestrianising Fossgate - and some businesses would be against the idea.

Steve Morrison, who runs Mor Music, believes Fossgate has to remain open to traffic during the day in order to allow deliveries, and also to for those customers who buy bulky and heavy items.

Then there would be the problem of access for emergency services vehicles. What if there were a fire at his shop and fire engines tried to get down the street, only to find it blocked by diners sitting at restaurant tables?

Maria Hutchinson, who runs Craft Heaven, is equally against the idea. "I do a lot of craft shows, wherever they come up, in places such as Harrogate and Leeds," she says. "I need good access during the day, to pack things up and drop them off."

Guildhall councillor Brian Watson agrees that while there may be many benefits to pedestrianising the street, there would also be problems - not least the issue of deliveries, and access for emergency vehicles.

"So I think there a lot of questions to be asked and answered," he says. "Whatever we do, in terms of having things out on the street, would have to be done on an experimental basis."

There would be problems, agrees David Cox, who runs The Miniature Scene and is chairman of the Fossgate Traders Association. But they wouldn't be insurmountable.

A couple of years ago, the majority decision of his association members was that they would be in favour of pedestrianisation - subject to certain conditions.

These were that there should be 24-hour access to businesses on Franklin's Yard and to the Merchant Adventurer's Hall. "They have weddings there and conferences and they need cars to be able to get there all day," he says.

The Fossgate Traders' Association's solution was to suggest closing the top two-thirds of Fossgate, from The Merchant Adventurer's hall up to Pavement, to traffic during the day: but having two-way access to the bottom of the street, from the Merchant Adventurers down, to allow deliveries.

During the day, businesses in the top two thirds of the street would be unable to take deliveries by van.

If Mr Cox did have customers who made large purchases during the daytime, he says, he may have to use some form of trolley system to cart them down the street. "It wouldn't be ideal, but I would manage. It would make the street more attractive, and would increase the footfall. It would be worth it."

The pedestrianisation of York

WHEN Stonegate became York's first fully pedestrianised street in 1971, most traders were in favour.

The same was not true when York's pedestrian zone was extended in 1987 to include other city centre streets such as Parliament Street and Coney Street, because they worried about a lack of parking spaces.

Since then, however, pedestrianisation of York's city centre has continued apace.

Now, Blake Street, Castlegate, Church Street, Colliergate, Feasegate, High Petergate, Lendal, Little Stonegate, Low Petergate, Market Street, Ousegate and Swinegate are also pedestrianised, from 11am to 4pm Monday to Friday and between certain times at the weekend.

Shambles is closed too between 10.30am to 4pm, and Deangate/Minster Yard is shut to traffic 24 hours a day, seven days a week.

Most traders are happy with the arrangements, believes Tim Curtis, manager of The Little Apple Bookshop, in High Petergate.

"In the old days we used to have a lot of cars parked outside that made a lot of noise and a lot of smoke used to come in the shop and they weren't always people who were coming in the shop either.

"We used to get a lot of cars whizzing up and down the street too.

"Our deliveries can still get through and we're quite lucky here because it's pedestrianised until four and then they take the barrier down and customers who might want to just drop in very quickly can get through, so we've got the best of both worlds really."

Sally Marshall, restaurant manager of El Piano, in Grape Lane, agrees. Deliveries can be awkward, she says, but if you organise your time well it is not a problem.

"People wander down the street more, which they might not be able to do if there was traffic," she said.

"It would be nice for more streets to be able to do something such as The Festival Of Angels and it would be nice for there to be more tables and chairs and a more European-style in the streets, but it will take more than pedestrian-isation for that to happen."