When I look out of the window of the cafe, I am surprised by how much this part of town has changed. While waiting for lunch to arrive, I think back to what Clover Street used to be like. It wasn’t so much a case of gangs of youths patrolling the street terrorising the locals, it was just empty.
Forty years ago, Clover Street was a bustling part of town, but it had lost its way. The supermarket on the outskirts of town had arrived and the independent traders dug in for the fight. The public, tired of traipsing from one shop to another to buy their goods, found the new store a wonder, a dream almost. First the butchers went to the wall, to be replaced by a chain store selling cheap goods. Next in the firing line was the bakery and the sweet shop.
I’m sure we can all recall the delight of walking into that shop as a child and being seduced by the sugared delights in every conceivable colour. But who wanted to wait your turn to be served by old Mister Garrington when you could get what you wanted elsewhere? A worse miser I could not imagine so it was no surprise he went too.
Over the years, as shops shut for good, Clover Street lost its appeal. It did not take long for the graffiti artists to move in. At least their artwork livened the place up a bit. But like all things, they went their way too, drawn by the expansive areas in the city. Only when they had gone did Clover Street’s abandonment become complete.
No more did the shopper grace its pavements. Barely a car came by, either. Only when the council resurfaced Fore Street did it see anybody, but that was due to poor direction marking.
Returning to the interior of the cafe, I take in my surroundings. The Drop In is a place dedicated to serving fresh organic, local produce and was established six years ago.
“So what was Clover Street like when you moved in?” I ask Maria, the owner of the cafe, as she sits opposite taking a break.
“Not the nicest place.”
I get the feeling it is her polite way of saying it was a dump. Maria, at the tender age of twenty four was the first to snap up a property under the council’s new scheme. Now thirty, she is a seasoned veteran.
“So may I ask, why did you come to Clover Street?”
While talking, our waitress has brought my lunch, a simple affair but full of flavour. A crusty roll stuffed with tomato chutney, topped with Camembert then grilled. It is served with a healthy portion of mulligatawny soup. Maria has a cup of tea, green, no sugar.
“My Nan used to live round the corner. When we visited, she’d tell me all about the old street. She had a shoebox filled with photos, taken when she was younger.”
Which nicely explains the photos adorning the walls of this picturesque eatery. Tucking into my lunch I ask “Starting a business at that age is very risky, don’t you think?”
Maria shrugs in an unassuming way.
“I had a vision of owning my own restaurant serving homemade food.”
“And you went out and did it.”
“Yes, just like that. It was a lot of hard work to begin with. There was a lot of renovating that needed doing. Once that was out of the way, I could start bringing the equipment in.”
“How were you able to afford that?”
“It’s all second hand. I couldn’t afford new stuff so I searched around and got what I could. The main oven comes from the kitchen of an old stately home.”
Visions of a Victorian cooking device fills my mind until she reassures me it dates back to the nineteen eighties.
“As you’ve been here since the beginning, you must have seen every step of Clover Street’s revitalisation.”
“I have. Every new store that’s opened up has added character and life to the place. People want to shop here now. The meat scandal has scared the public. They want to know where the meat is coming from, even if it means having to pay a bit extra.”
There’s more to it than that, of course. All of the shops on the parade have good reputations earned from the ground up. Sure they saw a gap in the market, providing organic food, but they delivered every time.
“What does it feel like to have the people you buy from on your doorstep?”
“It’s great. Frank, the baker, comes here at least once a week. I want to win Mike over but he’s a little distant.”
Maria is talking of Michael Harman, the butcher. Like the other shops, he is having a roaring trade.
“I’m hoping to speak to him at the food festival.” she adds.
The food festival, what a wonderful way to show how much Clover Street has changed. The first festival was three years ago and it wasn’t just a resounding success. It was like the heart had finally come back to the old street. The following years showed it was here to stay.
And so, as Maria returns to her counter to serve another customer, I am shown an example of the sort of person it takes to bring life back to an otherwise dead street. Hardworking yet cheerful, Maria Campanella is exactly what Clover Street needed. Along with her fellow shop owners, they have revived the street and given it a fresh start. The locals, as always, flocked back. As a former resident myself, I’m glad they did.
Report by Gavin Parr, one time owner of Parr’s toyshop, Clover Street.