Northallerton - the Yorkshire market town that’s proud of its high street
19:21 12 February 2016
Are a mix of family firms and popular chains the recipe for a healthy high street? Jo Haywood finds out in Northallerton
For centuries, Northallerton has enjoyed the spoils of a plum location on the old Great North Road between London and Edinburgh, attracting passing trade as well as a steady feed of shoppers from local farms and villages and from further afield across North Yorkshire and Teesside.
It could be forgiven for relying on past glories to fuel its future, but that isn’t its style. Like other modern Yorkshire market towns – Helmsley and Malton are examples that immediately spring to mind – Northallerton appears to be on a continual path of reinvention.
Its wide and consistently busy High Street is a particularly striking case in point. Even on days when the market isn’t in full swing, it’s never less than bustling.
‘Northallerton is holding up very well indeed,’ said Charles Barker, whose family has run its eponymous department store at the heart of the town for more than 100 years. ‘It helps that our High Street is so generous because, I was led to believe, the old coaches travelling the Great North Road needed to be able to turn around, and that we have ample parking that means you don’t have to walk far or pay much.
‘But it’s more than that. We don’t have a castle or a river or an abbey, but we do have our shops. It’s great to have a mix. Our popular multiples do very good business and bring a lot of people to town, but I think it’s our family stores, like Barkers and Lewis & Cooper, that act as an anchor for trade. Independents are what have helped Northallerton retain its distinct personality.’
Charles grandfather, William Barker, took on an apprenticeship with draper John Oxendale in 1882 at the age of 14. His career progressed apace, he became a partner, the shop became Oxendale & Barker and, eventually, just Barkers. The company, now run by Charles, his son Guy and nephew Ian, remains a major employer in the town with 250+ staff and a major presence on the High Street with its 40,000sq ft department store and on the outskirts with its recently expanded Home Furnishing Store, one of the largest in the north, and distribution centre.
‘My grandfather had to sign a contract that he wouldn’t frequent gaming houses and that he would go to church every Sunday,’ said Charles. ‘If we tried that with our staff today, I don’t think they’d be keen.’
He believes it’s their dedicated staff as well as their family roots that help keep the customers satisfied. A great many employees have been with Barkers for years – one lady recently retired after 55 years of service – giving shoppers a consistency they find comforting.
‘It’s all part of building a good relationship with your customers,’ said Charles. ‘We know a great many by name and they feel they can approach us because we’re like old friends.
‘We decided a long time ago that we were going to focus all our energies on one town and we have no regrets whatsoever on that count. People in Northallerton like the idea that we’re their shop – and we like it too.’
Barkers is not the only family shop in town. Bettys has a teashop just a few doors along on the Georgian High Street and Lewis & Cooper – renowned for its hampers, fine foods and wines – is just a short stroll away.
In fact, the Lewis & Cooper story is not dissimilar to Barkers as it began as a partnership in 1899 and has since blossomed into a flourishing family concern with a direct lineage back to the original Mr Lewis.
Pop in today – and you really must if you find yourself in Northallerton – and you’ll find literally thousands of rare treats lining the shelves, with Russian caviar, Chatka crab and quails’ eggs sitting comfortably alongside fine York ham, North York Moors honey and handmade plum puddings (the kitchen team make around 50,000 a year for sale in their own store as well as major retailers like Selfridges and Harvey Nichols).
‘Lewis & Cooper is a lovely shop,’ said Charles. ‘It’s a mini Fortnum & Mason but, because it’s a family concern like us, it remains very grounded and close to its roots.’
And it’s not only his fellow retail pioneers who come in for fulsome praise – he has nothing but good things to say about his home town too.
‘One of the things I particularly like about Northallerton is that it never rests on its laurels,’ he said. ‘It’s constantly refreshing and improving itself. People here know that you can’t rely on loyalty to keep people coming back; you have to offer them something new.
‘This town means a lot to my family. We’ve been here on the High Street for more than 100 years. After a while, it feels like part of you.’ w
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