After months being cooped up and locked down, it was wonderful to be walking through the fresh air of Cambridge market this week, meeting traders, city ambassadors, and shoppers face-to-face – well, space-to-space – to ask how they’re doing, what they want, and what we can all do to help them.
Up close(ish) and personal.
A few weeks ago I was on a similar fact-finding trip in Peterborough, and I’m incredibly impressed at how our brilliant cities and market towns are clawing back from the edge of darkness. But the truth is, they need our help.
I don’t just mean a hand from the Combined Authority, or from the local councils, or even from central government, come to that. All those groups are working in partnership with volunteers and agencies of every hue to make the re-opening a success. I mean loyal, long-term support from all of us as neighbours, patrons, and beneficiaries.
Our cities and market towns don’t sustain themselves. They grow up over centuries as honeypots of commerce, learning, culture, leisure, entertainment, and worship, and they rely on their ability to draw in visitors from outside – from the villages, market towns, the rural spaces, from other cities, and from the most faraway reaches of the wider world.
Residents. Shoppers. Students. Tourists. People meeting and eating, walking and talking, earning and learning, staying…. and paying!
And this is where you and I come in. Money’s tight, things uncertain, but there couldn’t be a better time to visit. Shops are welcoming, there are enticing bargains on offer, and the government’s meal-deal will make a sit-down family lunch pretty good value. There’s an old-fashioned Sunday-morning feel and anyone can take the air and see the sights whilst maintaining the one metre - or two metre - distance between walkers and shoppers.
The Cambridge and Peterborough that I visited are open for business but certainly not yet operating at full throttle. We’re all still rightly cautious about Covid, but, having been out and about in Cambridge and Peterborough myself, I’d say it really is worth dipping your toes back in the water.
Be a tourist in your own backyard. Start slow - a controlled experiment to see old haunts and check out the post-Covid cityscape. Grab an outside table for a coffee. You’ll gain confidence – it’s fantastically well-organised. I have to say, it’s also much easier than you’d think to keep the Magic Metre – and everything is super-sanitized, the loos are sparkling, and the deep-cleansed buses offer metres of cold-shouldering worthy of First Class in a wide-bodied jet.
Stay safe, stay distanced, stay well - and how better to do that in Cambridge than by bike?
Ultimately, we will get the world we build. High streets were under threat long before Covid, and the virus has intensified that threat. If we want our neighbourhoods to enjoy a mix of shops, pubs, restaurants and cafes, nearby supermarkets in the future, we must buy from them. Otherwise, they have no purpose, and they will close.
Use it or lose it. The buzz and bustle of a flourishing city is what attracts people and makes that city fly. Busyness attracts business which makes more busyness…and so on.
In a world where popular giants like John Lewis, Boots and Pret have taken a hit and are shutting shops and losing jobs, we absolutely have to cherish our smaller businesses or they don’t stand a chance. We can’t live on the internet for everything – so let’s not leave returning to the shops so late that we kill them off and have none to return to.
I’m personally hugely thankful that John Lewis is keeping its stores open in Peterborough and Cambridge, two mighty ‘destination’ stores, showing their confidence in our two centrepiece cities and their citizens.
They haven’t failed us – so let’s not fail them.