Yesterday I wrote about the Northampton arts scene and how it thrives through independence and individuality. Now let’s have a think about some good old shops! It isn’t easy being an independent trader. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle ran a pub for decades – in the old days where you were more likely to be a tenant of the brewery rather than a manager. I’m still in awe when I reflect on how hard she worked – and what long hours. Mrs C and I have observed a number of people going-it-alone in the world of retail self-employment; it can be a risky pastime for some. So anyone who makes a successful living out of independent trading is a pretty amazing person, I reckon.
Certainly one of the great things about living in Northampton is the wide range of independent shops, restaurants, cafes and businesses that are found everywhere around the town centre, alongside the big chains that you can find up and down the country. Things change of course; new businesses start, others close; and whenever Mrs C and I find out about an independent trader, who has had to shut up shop, our hearts go out to them. Internet shopping was a death knell for Church’s China store on St Giles Street, which closed its doors in 2011 after more than 150 years of trading – although kudos to them, because they developed an online presence instead. If you can’t beat them…! One man’s poison is another man’s meat as we now see the new Pamukkale Turkish restaurant occupying the same downstairs premises, which, in a few months’ trading seems to be gaining a very good reputation.
St Giles Street is actually jam-packed with independent retailers, including some of our favourite places to shop and dine. Bonds Jewellers at 41-43 St Giles Street is always a pleasure to browse through, and many of Mrs C’s Christmas and birthday pressies started their life here. The staff were also really helpful when I had to get something for the young Baron Brownhills’ 18th birthday. They create the perfect shopping environment – no pressure when you’re in there, you could spend as much time as you want; but if you need some help they give you their undivided attention and advice. We also love going to the Chata Restaurant at 58 St Giles Street. Here you can get fantastic hearty Polish food like goulash and dumplings although my personal favourite is the Bigos (Hunters Stew) and Mrs C always has the Golabki (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves) with a gluten-free tomato sauce. She also thinks the date, plum and bacon starter is to die for, and they also do a gluten-free cheesecake which is ace, and also a delicious apple cake. You can also embarrass your friends by getting them to try the “naughty dessert for ladies or gentlemen”, one of which leaves little to the imagination and has to be approached hands-free. Their wine is good quality but I recommend a Polish beer (Tyskie is my favourite) as the perfect accompaniment! The welcome and service is always friendly and attentive, and it really isn’t like any other restaurant I know this side of the Vistula.
I’ve been addicted to Peppertrees’ card shop ever since we moved here six years ago, for its bright, appealing atmosphere and entertaining selection of greetings cards and giftware; I’ve heard very good things about the Are You Being Served café, although we still haven’t visited it yet; and next door the Magic Bean Emporium looks fun too, running children’s storytime sessions as well as providing the more usual types of café fare. You wouldn’t get that in your average Costa Coffee. There’s also independent ladies clothes shops, the Seafood Café, Abraxas Cookshop (where I am sure we would visit more often if we didn’t eat out so much), Dreams Coffee Lounge, and even the little Sewing Studio for all your haberdashery needs. Once or twice we have been bewildered and entranced by the range and delicious smells from the St Giles Cheese shop at No 77, but if I so much as look at a piece of cheese I put on a stone.
There’s more to the town centre than just St Giles of course. On high days and holidays I meet up with my friend James-the-Poet and we put the world right over a cup of hot chocolate. Not any old hot chocolate mind, it has to be the frankly fabulous French hot chocolate at Leopold’s at 6 Abington Street. Whereas your average hot choc comes in a mug, this one gets served in its own two-cup-big pot, with a little tray full of whipped cream and another little tray full of mini-marshmallows. It’s just really fortunate that food you eat outside of home doesn’t contain any calories – I’m sure I read that somewhere. They’ve opened a second branch opposite Debenhams now, so good luck to them. Whilst on the subject of café experiences with friends, the other day I went out for a massive caffeine-fix with my friend the Doge of Dunstable. Being Italian, he suggested the Caffé d’Italia, a modest-looking place on Fish Street, which I confess I’d never visited before. But it really is like a little slice of genuine Italy. Delicious coffee, splendid desserts (I had a yummy Tiramisu and the Doge had a Rum Baba), a warm welcome from proprietor Manual and a relaxed atmosphere. A perfect place for a self-indulgent hour or so. Apparently Russell Crowe never goes anywhere else for his coffee.
For big celebratory meals our favourite restaurant in town is The Church Restaurant, at the bottom of Bridge Street, one of five excellent venues run by the Richardson Group, each with its own unique atmosphere and service. If you didn’t know (I’m sure you did) The Church really is a deconsecrated church, with stained glass windows and ghosts to boot. The service is professional but friendly, relaxed but smart, with top quality food and an atmosphere that can fit your own mood – it can be cheery, it can be romantic, it can be formal – however you want to play it really! It’s always our first choice for a special event. I’ve heard good things about Sophia’s but still haven’t got round to visiting them, and the same goes for Nuovo, a new Mediterranean restaurant on Abington Street – might make a point of going there soon. A little gem we did try recently is the Vietnamese Restaurant on Gold Street, Saigon. Two very welcoming and knowledgeable ladies there will take you through the menu minutely, suggesting meals that will suit your own taste buds’ preferences. Again it’s somewhere we know Mrs C will be absolutely safe with her gluten-free requirements. I remember not really enjoying Vietnamese food that much in Vietnam – too harsh and inharmonious for me – but the Northampton version is scrumptious.
Whilst I’m recalling happy yummy meals from the past – and plenty more in the future I trust – I’d like to recommend two other town centre eating places that we always enjoy. Saffron, at 21 Castilian Street, has been our Indian restaurant of choice ever since we moved to Northampton, with a lovely range of vegetarian and meat dishes to suit every level of spiciness. Inevitably we always order the same meals – to start, I’ll have the Assortment of Snacks and Mrs C will take the Saffron Mix, then we’ll share a Vegetable Coriander and a Vegetable Tawa, probably with some side veg stuff too. There are some smart wines on offer, which is definitely a plus. Naz and his team always make us very welcome and we’ve had a few memorable family gatherings here. Our other favourite haunt is the little Turkish restaurant, Marmaris, on the corner of Fish Street and St.Giles. You may think it’s just a take-away but they can seat a surprising number of people and the dramatic aromas of the freshly grilling kebabs are out of this world. Again, we always have the same food – Set Meal A – which gives you a tasty and varied meze starter followed by a seething mass of grilled meats with rice and salad. They also sell a splendid Turkish red wine, Yakut, which is full of flavour. It’s not a “fine dining” experience, but it’s fun, welcoming, friendly and tasty, which is good enough for me.
Pubs also, noticeably, fall into two categories: independent houses and national chains. We have our fair share of chains – O’Neills, Wetherspoons, Chef & Brewer, and so on, but none of them are a patch on places like the Wig and Pen, the Lamplighter or the White Hart. And if you’re interested in wine, there’s no finer place to visit than the Northampton Wine Connection on Derngate, where they have monthly wine tastings, an incredible range of wines that you won’t find in any supermarket, free local delivery and an unparalleled knowledge of their products and the wine industry. They can help you match the perfect bottle to a particular meal, and there’s even an art gallery to enjoy at the same time!
In an industry that seems to me to be dominated by a few leading brands and outlets, there are a surprising number of independent clothes shops in the town centre. Montague Jeffery could perhaps be considered the daddy of them all, having been established way back in 1901, and still offering that timeless, personal service and traditional, quality product for gentlemen. I bought my Union Jack waistcoat there (for Eurovision night of course!) and have also acquired some outrageous boxer shorts (not for public consumption) and flashy swimming shorts there too. At a more modern end of the spectrum, Mrs C always enjoys popping in to Voni Blu at 14 Castilian Street for a nice chat and a mooch around; she inevitably tries something on, which inevitably looks great on her, and inevitably is very good value.
I’ve only scratched the surface here, but there really is a huge variety of independent traders in the town centre. What sets them apart from the national chains is a quirkiness, a variety, and the sense that they’re interested in you the customer and your needs in a way that the chains frequently don’t have the need for. Let’s call it a state of independence.
So Saturday 4th July this year is not only Independence Day, but also Independents’ Day, with a Love Northampton Fair from 11am – 4pm at the Guildhall in heart of Northampton. A number of local independent businesses will have stalls to promote their wares and services, and you can meet them and have a chat about what they do. You can taste some food and drink, discover special offers, and much more. We’re definitely going to pop in and see what’s going on. There’s bound to be some companies or shops or restaurants that we don’t know about, and it’s important to support your local independent retailers – use them or lose them, and the ones we’ve got are too good to lose!