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David Knight: Why does saving our high streets feel like an insurmountable task?

Despite hopes and promises, John Lewis is pulling out of Aberdeen - for good, it says
Despite hopes and promises, John Lewis is pulling out of Aberdeen - for good, it says

Hadrian’s Wall might not be as formidable as it was, but it defeated us on our little day trip.

We were unable to conquer the car park, let alone the almost 2,000-year-old wall and forts.

It was a slightly hilly walk up to the entrance which forced us to retreat from this magnificent world heritage site.

David Knight

Having two good legs is fine, but as there are only two fully working ones between the pair of us it can be a problem.

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We found out later that a badge would have taken us into a special car park much closer. If only we had worked out a plan in advance like William Wallace and Robert the Bruce when they stormed nearby Lanercost Priory at various times.

Hadrian’s Wall lives up to the hype

We were tailing our son and family on the M6 back to Scotland, but changed plans at the last second to join their diversion to Hadrian’s Wall.

The bizarre thing was that while we were stuck outside we phoned them on the inside to find out what it was like.

But, just like ancient Britons, we were not going to be knocked back that easily, so tested the wall further along the line. And we came across a lookout tower called Banks East turret; we could park right next to it.

The views from Hadrian’s Wall are stunning

What magnificent views. It was a beautiful day, and as a light breeze fanned our faces I could feel waves of history floating past.

I have to confess my ignorance because I thought it was going to be a bit like the Berlin Wall: a few graffiti-smeared bricks next to a supermarket or something like that, but the splendour took our breath away.

Waitrose shops are everywhere – except Aberdeen

Back on the motorway, we passed another British institution – Waitrose – which trades at a number of services. Waitrose has others tucked away in Shell petrol stations elsewhere.

But not in Aberdeen; I have never understood why.

The company managed to venture north across Hadrian’s Wall, with a motorway shop at Gretna and stores around the Central Belt. But, like “Longshanks” King Edward I, they did not go much further than Stirling.

Aberdeen has been clinging to the hope that a Waitrose might rise from the ashes as John Lewis reinvents itself

There has always been some demand for Waitrose in the north, and the Stirling store noted that curious shoppers were prepared to travel from the Aberdeen area, and Inverness I wouldn’t wonder, for posh groceries.

There was some research and trial deliveries to test viability of a northerly store, but I assume it petered out. Attracting and keeping major brands is a familiar challenge in these parts.

How to tempt shoppers back to the high street

The Waitrose issue came back with a bang after the catastrophic closure of parent company John Lewis’s Aberdeen store, but they stressed that the rot began earlier than Covid, with a general exodus to online shopping.

The city has been clinging to the hope that a Waitrose might rise from the ashes as John Lewis reinvents itself. It would offer impetus to Aberdeen’s own rejuvenation, as Union Terrace Gardens is reborn and a new city blueprint unveiled.

Concept image of the proposed new market in Aberdeen, on the site of BHS and the current market building
Plans for the regeneration of Aberdeen city centre have been proposed, but will they tempt shoppers back?

But the trick is determining how to prevent the blueprint from looking as tired and worn out as the streets it is supposed to be reviving. How do they titillate online shoppers into coming back?

Reduced parking charges might help.

I easily spend two hours in town on various shopping errands and having a coffee, but by then the parking charge at one of the malls is £5. Do that twice a week for a year and it’s £520; enough to buy something nice online.

A new strategy to conquer an insurmountable wall

If the tens of thousands who signed the petitions pleading with John Lewis to stay had actually shopped there regularly, we wouldn’t be in this mess in the first place. So something is obviously wrong with the traditional retail model and city strategy.

John Lewis national operations director Andrew Murphy has a strong connection with Aberdeen from his time at the store and a track record of working with business improvement districts (BID).

Adrian Watson, boss of Aberdeen Inspired which runs the city BID, said he was exploring “alternative options” to keep John Lewis in the city in some form.

There was speculation about the company turning the former store into flats for rent or leasing space for leisure uses to mirror its “social purpose” strategy.

A dinky little Waitrose would be nice, too, but is that now an insurmountable wall?

Let’s hope they can conjure something positive. Keep trying – it worked for Robert the Bruce.

David Knight is the long-serving former deputy editor of the Press and Journal

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