REGIONAL REPORT: The Medieval magic of York

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With a tourist footfall of 7m each year the city is a retail hotspot.

For Harrods it’s the Middle Eastern big spenders, for Topship the overenthusiastic American teenage girls, but up north it’s all about the domestic tourist. Rachael Taylor talks to the jewellers of York about business in the city.

With its romantic tangling streets, picturesque buildings and the mighty York Minster, York offers tourists looking for a cultural city break the ideal location. The city attracts an estimated 7.1 million tourists each year – that’s about 36 tourists per full-time York resident.

And once they’ve taken in the delights of the Shambles, the dungeons and the Yorvik Centre, there’s usually time for a bit of shopping. Visit York estimates that the flow of tourists to the city generates an annual income of £443 million, with £51 million spent at the city’s retailers.

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And that’s just the tourist market. Retail has been a growing sector for the city, with an array of high street and luxury brands setting up shop in recent years. So whereas in years gone by many of the city’s residents would head to nearby Leeds or Sheffield to do their shopping, there is now no need to leave York.

But it is the domestic tourist market that is really floating York’s river boat; daytrippers, weekenders and week-long staycationers travelling to the city from within the UK for a peaceful retreat.

This domestic tourist market in York has a special meaning for me. Joining the 7,099,998 other York fans, my mother and stepfather are regular visitors to the city, travelling from Aberdeen in Scotland for up to a week at the time. Typical domestic tourists, they stay in a central York location, walk the historic city wall and hit the shops. And like so many other domestic tourists, they did something very special in York – they got engaged.

After dragging my mother up the 275 spiral stairs to the top of York Minster, the largest Medieval cathedral north of the Alps, my stepfather turned, somewhat out of breath with the slightest mist of perspiration, and asked my mother to marry him.

She said yes, and after navigating the perilous stairs on the way back down they found themselves in Fraser Hart on the city’s Coney Street, a haven for high street retailers. After overcoming a potentially disastrous credit card malfunction, the happy couple left with a yellow gold band with two 0.5ct diamonds nuzzling a 1ct diamond that my stepfather assures me was worth at least a month’s wages. Unfortunately for him, he was contracting at the time and had enjoyed a particularly fruitful month.

Mark Houghton has managed the very same branch of Fraser Hart that my parents bought their engagement ring for 23 years. In that time he has seen the city go through some major changes, such as the pedestrianisation of 35 of the city’s central streets 22 years ago, making it one of the largest pedestrianised areas in Europe. But despite upgrades, downgrades or stagnant periods, he says that York is always a place people want to visit.

“York itself is not huge but it pulls from a big area,” says Houghton. “There is always some function or other. The council are good like that, always creating a reason for people to come.”

Council initiatives to attract tourists include a literature festival, vintage car rallies, food and drink carnivals, accommodation promotions and the famous York horse races.

The York race season runs from May until October, with up to two race weekends a month. As well as the ideal excuse for a little wager, it is the perfect opportunity for a bit of dressing up.

Sarah Newton runs independent contemporary retail jeweller Ashberry of York, which is located on Swinegate, one of the city’s charming winding central backstreets. The store has been trading from the same location for the past 12 years and Newton says the investment in the city from well-known retail brands, such as Burberry, has helped keep the York Races market spending on their attire within the city, including splashing out on some race day jewels.

“We do get people coming in for race jewellery, mainly statement pieces such as coloured pearls,” Newton says. “It was always Sheffield or Leeds that had the shopping but now people don’t need to leave York. Over the past three or four years we’ve had a lot of shops opening.”

While the well-known high street brands are creeping into York, the city is very much home to the independent retailer. Over on Coney Street, Fraser Hart stands alongside other multiples such as Beaverbrooks and Ernest Jones, but if you pass by the famous Betty Tearooms and wander on to Stonegate you find a street that is jam-packed with independents, including a very strong selection of jewellers.

Stonegate is one of the oldest streets in the city, with the name appearing in records as far back as 1118 and many of the buildings dating back to the 14th century. It is also one of the city’s busiest shopping streets.

Walking down Stonegate you pass a variety of jewellers from big brand Links of London to independent mini chains Berry’s and Bradley’s, and antique jewel treasure trove Cavendish. Also tucked into a tiny premises is TCJ Designs.

The shop is not much to look at – something the team at TCJ is addressing with a major refurb planned in the next couple of months – but inside hides a truly talented jeweller, James Powell.

Powell is one of this year’s Lonmin Design Innovation Award winners, entering with a three-piece platinum hair slide. The design stood out from the other winners as the only piece of non-jewellery and Powell believes a similar unique streak has helped TCJ Designs stand out.

“We are definitely individual in York,” says Powell with a smile. “We do everything from repairs to full restorations to one-off commission work. People come to us for that unique service.”

TCJ Designs was founded by Carl Johnson in 1987 and has gained a lot of its business through word of mouth, with people travelling from as far away as Scotland to visit the shop.

Powell joined the business as a Saturday boy after doing his work experience at TCJ when he was 16. He then went on to study at Central Saint Martins in the same class as jewellers Ana De Costa and Hannah Martin. But London wasn’t for him and after two years he gravitated back to his hometown, which he says deserves its recognition as a tourist hotspot.

“It’s the charm of York that people come for,” says Powell. “There is a really good community of jewellers here, especially on Stonegate as there are so many.” And there is soon to be one more jeweller joining the bustling community in York.

About 20 miles outside of York, retailer Ogden of Harrogate has been doing a good trade in the spa town since the Ogden family opened up a shop, originally called The Little Diamond Shop, in 1893. The family business continued to grow throughout the years and at its height had five shops, but then it started to dip and in the mid 1980s Jack Ogden closed down the only other Ogden shop outside of Harrogate, in London, leaving just the original store left standing.

Now the family is starting to rebuild its empire, starting with York. In a nod to its history the new shop – which it is planning to open by November 15 – will be called The Little Diamond Shop.

The Little Diamond shop will be located on a street in the city called Lendal on the previous site of a jewellers called Hoppers, which closed this year after 100 years in the city and 60 years at the Lendal location. Hoppers, which was bought by Yorkshire jeweller Fillans after owner John Hopper retired in the 1990s, had been a favourite for jewellery shoppers in the city but went downhill in its final years, running sale after sale.

Ogden of Harrogate director Robert Ogden said he considered opening under the Hoppers brand but believed the store might face an uphill struggle to convince the people of York that it has changed. However, he does believe that opening in a location that is well-known for hosting a jewellery shop can only help.

“They will gravitate towards it and once inside they will realise it’s a wholesale change instead of just a cosmetic change,” says The Little Diamond Shop store manager Richard Cummings, who has worked at Ogden of Harrogate for three years and has had a 15-year career in the jewellery industry at retailers such as Preston & Duckworth and Signet.

The merchandise at The Little Dia¬mond Shop will be truly mixed, with brands such as Stephen Webster and TechnoMarine sitting alongside pre-owned watches and jewellery, as well as a range of silverware. Price points will also be diverse, starting at £50 for a silver photo frame to high-end watches that run into the tens of thousands of pounds.

“The market in York is quite diverse and it’s very affluent in pockets,” says Cummings. “It’s a younger demographic than in Harrogate, and there are a lot of foreign students with a lot of money.”

But it’s not international clientele that The Little Diamond Shop will focus on. “The overseas tourists are not a key market, it’s more the domestic tourists,” explains Ogden. “People come in and out of York and the sheer footfall is incredible.”

Away from the two main shopping streets, Stonegate and Coney Street, one other jeweller in the city described the Lendal location as “10 minutes in the wrong direction”, but Ogden believes the shop will get “two bites at the cherry” catching morning and evening foot traffic between the town centre and the train station or park and ride bus stop.

Along with the opportunities domestic tourists bring come fresh challenges. “You have to be flexible as people can only be here for two or three hours,” says Houghton. “You have to be able to get things sized pretty quickly.”

Back at TCJ Designs, Powell echoes this. “A lot of tourists want that quick buy,” he says. “A lot of the time we ask them to come back for their jewellery the next time they are in York, or we can post their designs to them.”

Another challenge of trading in the idyllic surrounds of York is planning permission. City of York Council is very keen to make sure that York continues to embody the charm that keeps its tourists coming back, but this can raise one or two security issues for the city’s jewellers.

“You can’t touch the front of the shop,” complains Newton. And it’s a tale told by every jeweller in York. While most would not want to compromise the historic buildings it does mean that security features, such as sturdy shutters, are banned by the council. “Planning restrictions are tight, as they should be,” says Houghton.

For The Little Diamond Shop this has meant compromising on security measures. Rather than having a strong pull-down shutter covering the front of the shop, the retailer instead has to put up internal shutters that are more in-keeping with the 1960s-style shop front. “It’s very hard to balance the needs of a jeweller in the current climate [with the planning restrictions],” says Ogden.

But these are small sacrifices compared with tapping into a potential annual footfall of more than 7 million people, while at the same time setting up shop in such an idyllic location. Rarely do the two mix; the biggest opportunities for retailers are usually found at the heart of vast metropolises, but in York jewellers can enjoy the country lifestyle while cashing in on the lucrative domestic tourist market.

From H Samuel to Azendi to Cavendish, the jewellers of York are all competing with each other, but the pie of which they are vying to take a slice is enormous. And with 2011’s tourist schedule already planned and the gong for City of the Year in the Couch Tourism Awards 2010 under its belt, York is continuing to attract the sky-high footfall that makes this historical city a very appealing prospect indeed for retail jewellers.

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