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How London Street in Norwich went from polluted to pedestrian paradise

PUBLISHED: 12:46 11 July 2017 | UPDATED: 12:46 11 July 2017

London Street before pedestrianisation. Dated August, 1966. Picture: Archant Library

London Street before pedestrianisation. Dated August, 1966. Picture: Archant Library

Archant

It was half a century ago – on July 17 1967 – when the first “foot street” in the country opened in Norwich and the people took over London Street.

London Street looking at the National Westminster Bank which was pereviously the National Provincial bank. Dated: August, 1988. Picture: Archant LibraryLondon Street looking at the National Westminster Bank which was pereviously the National Provincial bank. Dated: August, 1988. Picture: Archant Library

Yes, Norwich became the first city in Britain to ban traffic from a main shopping thoroughfare and turn it into a pedestrian precinct.

This was the brainchild of the pioneering city planning officer Alfred Wood who said in 1966: “This has not yet been attempted in Britain but it has been done successfully in at least 100 places on the continent.”

“It would make what is possibly one of the best shopping streets in East Anglia much more pleasant than it is at present because the conflict between traffic and shoppers in acute,” he said and went on work on the plan with city engineer Ron Binks.

It all came about because London Street – a polluted place where motorists and shoppers fought for space – had to be closed to traffic for six weeks so sewers could be repaired about 18 months previously.

London Street. Picture: Archant LibraryLondon Street. Picture: Archant Library

At first traders were not happy – fearing business would fall away and people would avoid London Street when in fact the opposite happened and this was a sign of times ahead.

Our respected journalist and business writer Ken Holmes wrote in 1966 how members of the London Street Traders’ Association had been won over and asked what was stopping it becoming the first main shopping street in Britain to be turned into a pedestrian precinct?

It was still a bold move and a year later traffic was banned from London Street for a three-month trial period – at a cost of £3,500 - to see how it worked and it would tie in with other “isolated traditional foot-streets” such as Davey Place, Swan Lane, Bridewell Alley and the Back of the Inns.

Half a century ago the Evening News and Eastern Daily Press reported the day after the closure how the “sound of a thousand footsteps rang out in London Street yesterday.”

London street shoppers. Dated: 21st July, 1967. Picture: Archant LibraryLondon street shoppers. Dated: 21st July, 1967. Picture: Archant Library

The Lord Mayor of the day, Cecil Sutton, made a short speech. His wife, tired a ribbon across the street and they walked down the middle of it...followed by the great and the good!

Mr Sutton stressed the closure was a three-month experiment and if people didn’t like it and it hadn’t worked then the traffic could return.

It never happened.

The street was soon packed with shoppers – and it has been ever since.

The roar of the traffic, the fumes and the dust were becoming a nightmare but now the shopper and the worker had taken over.

Seven days on the traders had their say:

• Mr E Keasey, manager of Moss Bros., outfitters, said business was good and he hoped the scheme would be kept. He was hoping for more shoppers from St Stephen’s.

• Mr R W Skinner, a director of A. E. Coe, photographic dealers, said there had been an increase in the number of people using the street.

Newspaper vendor Harry Larwood, who had a pitch on the corner by Opie Street for 20 years, was a happy man: “I’ve never been busier than I am now.”

• Edward Wragg, a partner at the Carving Knife restaurant – remember that? – loved it and said he put two tables on the street outside.

• Mr R F Hudson, manager of the famous jewellers Winsor Bishop, said shoppers were tired of being chivvied by the motor car. They welcomed the freedom of the area where the car no longer king.

• Mr C A Sparrow of Willerbys, John Lloyd, of Freeman, Hardy and Willis, also loved the new street where they could speak to people without shouting at the top of the voice and where prams could be parked in the middle of the street.

By August planning officer Alfred conducted a survey which said between 11am and 12noon on a Saturday more than 5,800 pedestrians were counted using the street. Traders and shoppers loved it.

He was not a man given to talk about himself but he told us: “I think, in all modesty, it has been a reasonable success.”

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