Bishopthorpe Road has bucked the decline which has afflicted many high streets to become one of the best in Britain. But how did it do it? A new book has some of the answers. STEPHEN LEWIS reports

BACK in 2014, The Press ran a story with the headline: "Is Bishopthorpe Road the best High Street in Britain?"

There was good reason to ask. Just the year before, the street - with its parade of quirky, independent shops, and its plethora of cafés with pavement tables - had been voted one of the top 10 hippest places to live in Britain. Bishy Road, as locals affectionately know it, was dubbed the 'Notting Hill of the north'. The Pig and Pastry café became so popular it was almost impossible to get a seat. And to top the lot, just a few weeks before that Press article, the Tour de France peloton had raced up the road, sparking yet another party in a street that had become famous for them (there has even been a pet show in the street's own dedicated car park).

The question posed in that Press headline was quickly answered. In 2015, Bishy Road was officially named the best high street in Britain in the Great British High Street Awards. "We are absolutely bowled over!" admitted Johnny Hayes, now an independent city councillor but then chairman of the Bishy Road Trader’s Association. "To win in our category of Best Local Parade of Shops was delightful but for Bishy Road to be named GB High Street of the Year is staggering!"

York Press:

Bishopthorpe Road today. Photo: Anna Gowthorpe

It hasn't always been like this for Bishopthorpe Road, however.

The road has been a local shopping street for the last 150 years or so. The buildings on the west side of the street were mainly private houses with bay windows until well into the 20th century. But elsewhere there have been butchers, bakers, greengrocers and other small businesses around for more than 100 years - often in the same shop all that time. By 1851, according to the Clements Hall local history group's new book 'Bishy Road: A York shopping street in time', there was already a 'general provision' dealer at the north end of the road - and by the 1870s there were three 'provision dealers', a chemist, a druggist, a grocer and a beerhouse on the east side of the street. "In the 1880s the Swan was a grocer, provision dealer and beer retailer, and the current antique shop was a china and glass dealer," the book adds.

So much, so ordinary. In Victorian York there were countless little shopping streets just like this.

After the Second World War, however, the street's fortunes declined. Plans for a new inner ring road put a blight on the area. The road was to have run from Heworth across to Blossom Street. On the Fishergate side of the Ouse it would have run along Sandringham Street, before crossing the river, running between Vine Street and Charlton Street/ Anne Street, then crossing Bishopthorpe Road and continuing along Scarcroft Road.

Thousands of houses were threatened, and the proposals for a dual carriageway running right through the heart of South Bank hung like a 'sword of Damocles' over the area, according to the book.

York Press:

Bishopthorpe Road in the 1960s. From Bishy Road: A York Shopping Street In Time

Nothing ever came of the proposal, which was officially abandoned in 1978. But the impact on the area was profound.

At one point, probably in the 1960s, Bishopthorpe Road had developed a reputation as a bit of a 'shady area', admits local historian Susan Major, who did some of the research and much of the writing for the Bishy Road book. In what way? "There were apparently quite a few prostitutes around..."

Even more bizarrely, in the 1980s the street seems to have been a favourite haunt of Teddy Boys, who used to flock to the gentleman's outfitters Leeming & Salisbury (today occupied by Trinacria) to get their tailoring done.

By the time of the economic crash of 2008, Bishopthorpe Road appeared to be going the way of many other local shopping centres. An unhealthy number of its shops were empty, and others were just about hanging on.

The real upturn in its fortunes seems to have come about partly as a result of the increasing 'gentrification' of the area, and partly through the formation of the Bishy Road Traders Association in 2010. The idea of the association was to unite all of the businesses and shops under a single 'banner', with a street party to launch the association and a single website to promote the street. Street parties (such as that for the 2014 Tour de France) and regular 'winter lights' have since become a part of the street's identity.

You only have to walk along Bishopthorpe Road today to see how successful it has become. Earlier this year, its fame even enticed a writer from The Guardian newspaper to write a feature about it. Kevin Rushby's piece was headlined 'How to bring a high street back from the dead'. The street, he noted, was one of the few in the country to have bucked the trend of high street decline. "A stroll down Bishopthorpe Road reveals many of the elements that are on everyone's wishlist for a decent local high street: a handful of excellent cafés and restaurants, hardware shop, chemist, baker, two greengrocers, a brace of small supermarkets, pub, bike shop, deli and butcher," he wrote.

Crucially, as the Bishy Road Traders Association points out on its own website, most of the businesses are small independents. "Of the 80 or so businesses in the Bishy Road area, 90 per cent are independent', the traders association says. "This gives us variety and interest, as well as some top quality businesses." It also means more money being ploughed back into the local economy. "Research shows that when money is spent in local independents, 65 per cent is returned to the local economy. For chains or multiples it is only 34 per cent," the traders association says.

The contrast with poor Coney Street - once known as York's 'Golden Half Mile' - could hardly be more stark. But other York streets, such as Micklegate, Fossgate and Front Street in Acomb, do now seem to be following Bishy Road's lead.

So perhaps, as that Guardian article suggested, Bishy Road really does hold the secret of how to being a high street back from the dead.

The key, as Susan Major points out, is the way local people have taken ownership of Bishopthorpe Road.

"Local people take a pride in the street and see it as a community space," she writes in Bishy Road. "Acknowledging that local councils no longer have sufficient funding for adequate street cleaning, in 2018 Frankie Hayes (from Frankie and Johnny's Cookshop) founded the Bishy Road Scrubbers, a group of local volunteers who carry out regular litter-picking exercises."

The Bishy Road scrubbers? With a group like that, how can this street possibly fail?

  • Bishy Road: A York Shopping Street in Time is published by the Clements Hall local history group. It is available, priced £5, from Clements Hall in Nunthorpe Road and from local shops on Bishopthorpe Road: Frankie and Johnny's Cookshop, Pexton's, Trinacria and the Pig and Pastry.


York Press:

The fortunes of Bishopthorpe Road may have ebbed and flowed over the years: but it has been a proper high street with local shops for well over 150 years.

Bishy Road: A York Shopping Street in Time follows the changing fortunes of many of the buildings on the street.

No 35, which now houses the Pig and Pastry, is a good example. In 1881 a music teacher, Joseph Sherwood, lived here: at some point he began trading as a newsagent from the building.

By 1911 it had become a Post Office - and there may even have been a whiff of scandal. "There is a 1907 newspaper report of a York sub-postmaster at Bishopthorpe Road, Arthur Owen, who was convicted of embezzlement," the book notes. It isn't clear whether he was based here, at No 35, or in another Post Office at No 2, however.

The building remained a Post Office until 2005, when it was closed under Post Office reorganisation plans. It was bought by Steve Holding in 2008, who opened the Pig & Pastry.

The shop at No 29 Bishopthorpe Road also has an interesting history. Today it is part of Sicilian restaurant Trinacria, but for much of the 20th century it was a gentleman's outfitter: first Tom Dixon's, then John Shillito Piercy's and then, from 1965, Leeming & Salisbury.

It was to Leeming & Salisbury that Teddy Boys began coming for their tailoring in the 1980s.

"Although it was a very traditional shop, with high quality tailoring, it had a particular reputation for Teddy Boy drapes," Susan writes in the book. And just what were Teddy Boy drapes? In the book Susan quotes Kate Radley, who was the 'alteration hand' at Leeming & Salisbury, in explanation: "There were drainpipe trousers, really tight, and there were all different coloured jackets, hip length. They were very, very smart, with creeper shoes - brothel creepers - with the very thick soles, and bootlace ties. Outfits weren't off the peg, they were made to measure."