Photos: Julian Preece
Alan Bryant points to an old map of East Bristol. It’s marked with little red dots that show where boot factories were located on this side of the city in the early 1900s. In Kingswood, from half way up Warmley Hill to half way down Two Mile Hill, there were about 50 or so, making it one of the largest centres for boot making in the country.
Local manufacturers made football boots for England’s 1966 World Cup winning team, and ice skates for former olympic and world champion ice dancers Torvill and Dean. “But manufacturing is almost invisible now,” the 73-year-old, curator of the Kingswood Heritage Museum, tells the Cable. “There’s only one or two companies that actually make things.”
He says the decline of the town’s industry and, later, its high street, means what was once a buzzing and lively place to live is becoming something of a “dormitory” for home-workers: “It isn’t the same as when I was growing up. Everyone gets their stuff from the supermarket, and that’s wiped out all these family businesses that made Kingswood what it was.”
And the Bristol-South Gloucestershire border town is about to undergo another radical makeover, at least politically. Kingswood voters will at this year’s general election find themselves going to the polls in one of four new constituencies – with their current one set to disappear altogether under boundary changes being made to the political map of the UK.
The area’s local MP, Tory minister Chris Skidmore, has also disappeared – he stepped down over the government’s climate plan – triggering a by-election in the constituency where the winner will hold their seat for only a matter of months before it is erased. You might ask: who would fight for a prize that will be so short lived, or even, who would bother voting?
Alan, like many Kingswood residents, isn’t too enthusiastic about Thursday’s vote, nor is he a fan of the boundary changes that will follow shortly after. He says tampering with the political map, as well as a lack of investment by South Gloucestershire Council in the high street and local services, is an existential threat to his home town’s identity.
Butchering the high street
On Regent Street, Kingswood’s main shopping street, we stopped Brian who’s lived in the area for 30 years. Asked how he think’s the area’s changed in that time, he says: “It’s a bit of a dump, and it’s got worse… It’s all charity shops… there’s the supermarket but that’s it. It’s rubbish.”
But what would you like to see change? “There needs to be something to bring people in, you know, make [something] more interesting than sandwich shops and takeaways… They’re supposed to be rebuilding the entire centre… They keep talking about it and never doing it.”
South Gloucestershire Council outlined its key aims for improvement to the area in a masterplan first published in May 2022. Among the proposals, which are currently up for consultation, the biggest and most ambitious are plans to improve Regent Street.
The nearby King’s Chase Shopping Centre is also set for a revamp to the tune of £5.5 million, but work on that is yet to begin. The complex is home to a Sainsbury’s, Costa Coffee, Boots, and, on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays, a mobile butchers, which recently won a licensing battle with the local authority to continue operating there.
Fears for the complex were heightened with the closure of Wilko: the latest sign for the area that the high street is losing out to trends towards shopping online, eating out and going to pubs less, making the building and maintenance of a thriving town centre more challenging. But, as a local retail worker put it, there’s got to be ways to fight back against the desertion of the high street.
“People go online to buy things, they go online to socialise, and so local high streets aren’t going to be what they were in like the 60s, 70s and 80s,” says Anna Perry, co-founder and director of Share Bristol, a repair-reuse shop near Kingswood Park. “There needs to be coffee bars, nail bars… High streets have to adapt.”
Proposed upgrades to Kings Chase include a new leisure centre, cinema, and the pedestrianisation of parts of Regent Street – but there isn’t a clear timeline for the project. The authority, when it published the initial plans almost two years ago, said it was working with the community to ensure the shopping complex is full of businesses and organisations “that people want to see”.
Easier said than done, though, when there are conflicting ideas about people’s wants and needs for town centres and shopping districts. The same goes for pubs, bars and restaurants, which elsewhere in the city are at the forefront of gentrification – something Kingswood, without a Bristol Loaf, isn’t tussling with like some of its neighbours nearer the centre where house prices and rents are rising faster.
Out of touch
Here, rather than sighing at the price of their pint or posh coffee, local businesses are fighting to stay open. As Tony Tardio, who has run his shoe repair and key cutting shop on the high street for 35 years, explains: “The footfall isn’t as great as it used to be. When I first started, there used to be a market next door, where the Wetherspoons is, and on a Thursday and Saturday the place would be heaving – the car park would be full.
“When I first started, there wasn’t Longwell Green. People tend, maybe the affluent people, tend to go there as opposed to Kingswood, you know. A lot of older people come here, for charity shops mainly,” Tony adds. “I’m still open, but I’m doing half of what I was doing about 12 years ago,” he says, adding that this has something to do with a competitor – a chain he didn’t want to mention the name of – opening nearby.
“It’s a throwaway society, so for me personally, I don’t think the good old days will come back. I’ve got to be happy with it, just ticking over and making a moderate living,” says Tony.
Bristol burr or London twang?
Heritage museum volunteer Alan says the boundary changes are going to further damage his home town’s identity. Previous boundary changes in 2010 saw the consistency, a former mining community with strong working class roots, take in the leafier, more Tory areas of Hanham and Bitten.
Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg is set to stand in the newly drawn up North East Somerset seat, which will include parts of the Kingswood constituency area. “He doesn’t know what Kingswood is. He doesn’t know what Warmley is, and being who he is, he probably doesn’t care,” Alan says of the former Leader of the House of Commons, who divides his time between a 17th-century mansion in Somerset and a £5.6 million townhouse in Westminster.
Rees-Mogg was out on the campaign trail with the Conservative candidate in the Kingswood by-election, Sam Bromley, who is the leader of the Conservative group at South Gloucestershire Council. He’s defending the seat following the resignation of Skidmore, who last time out, in 2019, secured a healthy majority of about 11,000.
His competitor, Labour candidate Damien Egan, grew up in Kingswood but cut his teeth in politics as mayor of south-east London borough Lewisham. It’s a job he stepped down from to launch his campaign here. He’s also been chosen by his party as the candidate for the new Bristol North East seat, which will include Kingswood, beating Bristol mayor Marvin Rees in the contest.
Egan told the Guardian he wasn’t expecting to run in the by-election but that he’s really excited about it. “I grew up in Kingswood. I really know the area. Once you’re on the streets, you get the feeling you have the chance to give a voice to those people you grew up with,” he told the newspaper.
The Labour candidate has, on social media and then in news articles by other local media, been accused of putting on a Bristol accent in his campaign video for the campaign. Whether voters give a shit about how he sounds remains to be seen. But if he wins, will he spend his short time in power trying to save Kingswood high street, or will it suffer the same fate as the constituency he’s standing in and become extinct?
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