Gloucester Quays finally opened for business last Thursday (21 May) after a wait of ten years and a cost of £400 million. I have mentioned before my dismay that, rather than being welcomed with enthusiasm, this huge investment in the city it has largely been met with cynicism, criticism and ridicule.
Of course, much of this comes from the city’s usual detractors in the surrounding towns, particularly Cheltenham. They are like the neighbours who, because they have invested in stone-cladding and a doorbell that plays the 1812 Overture, get a superiority complex and delight in looking down their noses at the poor inadequates next-door. This can easily be shrugged off and ignored. What is really damaging is that Gloucester people themselves often seem to take some perverse, masochistic delight saying the same things: often vociferously.
However, as the opening date for the Gloucester Quays Outlet Centre approached I was delighted to find that some of this cynicism started to fall away. Of course there were the usual comments on thisisgloucestershire.co.uk from people keen to point out that Gloucester is rubbish whilst saying that anything attempting to alter the situation should be frowned upon and resisted at all costs. Now though there were other people writing in telling them to stop being so negative and miserable and to give it a chance. Already then, without even having visited the outlet, I got a warm feeling that the Quays development will go a long way to improving Gloucester.
So it was with unusual enthusiasm that I set off shopping with my wife on Saturday to see for myself. Being the outlet centre’s opening weekend, and a bank holiday at that, it didn’t take a genius to work out that the traffic around the Quays would be terrible, so we took the bus. For many people, it seems, this wasn’t so obvious, and the predictable traffic chaos ensued. This seems to have been the major criticism of the day.
Incidentally, whilst on the subject, I have been getting a fair few hits on my blog lately through the search term “Gloucester Quays Parking.” I therefore mention it again partly as a cynical ploy to get yet more hits, but also to offer a public service: for details and charges see http://www.thisisgloucestershire.co.uk/news/guide-Gloucester-Quays/article-1005710-detail/article.html.
Anyway, back to my visit. One of the main criticisms of the Quays is that it is so far out of town, being at the Peel Centre rather than the docks. This is simply not true. Approaching from town you walk through the docks, across the newly pedestrianised Llanthony Road and you are there: the outlet centre is actually in what was High Orchard Street.
The look of the place is very impressive with marble floors and well laid out stores. As for the shops, I’m not really into shopping (I’m a man!), but my wife loved it and there seemed to be a good mix. At the one extreme you had the beautifully laid out, high-end fashion boutiques, where a pair of ladies shoes cost about the same as a small car. One of these even had glasses of champagne by the till: I’m not sure if this was for shoppers or so that the commission-based staff could celebrate when they made a sale. At the other end of the scale you have the more normal high street M&S, Next and Gap-type stores, only cheaper because they are outlets. Even I bought something (shoes if you’re curious – very reasonable!)
There are still empty units, but most of them promise named companies ‘coming soon’, many in the next few weeks. Phase 2, with restaurants & bars, is still to come, scheduled for completion in July with openings before the end of the year. This will take things to another level again.
The outlet centre was packed with shoppers and seemed to have a real buzz. By the time we left at around lunchtime the Docks was busy too and Coots Café Bar was packed. Hopefully it will have a positive knock-on effect to businesses and museums there, especially the Waterways museum, which is far more prominent from the Llanthony Road side of the Docks than from the main basin.
Town itself was perhaps a little quieter than usual, although I think that is inevitable, at least initially. As time passes, hopefully people will start to drift up into town even if they may previously not have gone there. Because it was so busy around the Docks this is what we did, and whilst there we not only had lunch but also did some more shopping (groan!) – money that Gloucester would not have seen if we hadn’t gone in to the Quays.
This drift into town won’t just magically happen though – work is urgently required to facilitate it. The first quick win is put up signs in and around the Quays pointing visitors to the city. Even the way to the Docks may not be obvious to people from out of town who have driven in from the Peel Centre side. It would also be nice if the surrounding shops and bars could also be included. There are some excellent bars that could benefit from the extra day-time trade: the Whitesmiths, Fosters, Baker Street, Tall Ships, Nelson and Inn on the Docks are all convenient to the outlet centre. I know that this would compete with the bars and restaurants coming to the outlet centre, but it would be good for Gloucester as a whole. Having said that, I wouldn’t want these pubs to lose their individuality and merely become an extension of the Quays.
The bigger problem is immediately apparent as you set off to walk back into town: something has to be done about the route. The bottom end of Southgate Street looks more like a war-torn third world country than something that would entice the affluent Quays shoppers to visit the city. The Blackfriars development will help with this, but it can’t wait – something needs to be done now to capitalise on the early enthusiasm for the new outlet centre.
However, these few (hopefully constructive) criticisms aside, I think Gloucester Quays is a great boon to the City, and I hope my fellow Gloucester residents will give it their full and vocal support.