‘One does not simply walk along Sidwell Street…’
Josh Cole on the trials and tribulations involved in marauding through Exeter’s main street.
Whether you have finished pre-drinking and are heading to Arena, or have breached the confines of the university campus to grab a much-sought-after Nestle product, a trip into town will invariably involve a confrontation with the dark land of Mordor – a.k.a. Sidwell Street.
But as students, it is a place which we cannot do without. Many of us would be lost without the 24hr Subway, the Raj India kebab house or Sainsbury’s Local. I hesitate to mention the Odeon as the ludicrous seating arrangements have strained my poor neck muscles.
I myself have joined the ranks of Orcs queuing up to buy milk in Poundland.
The area is rich in its history too – the patriarchs Henry VII and William the Conqueror have both been welcomed (or not) through the street’s gates, and its positioning has made it a centre for historic popular disturbances such as the Catholic rebellion in 1549. But its necessity for the average citizen does not justify the lack of attention paid to it by the City Council.
It is its history that has made Sidwell Street into the Black Land we see today.
According to exetermemories.co.uk, the place has always been considered ‘overcrowded and unsanitary’ due to Exeter’s rapid urbanisation in the Victorian era – adjectives whose validity can hardly be contended.
The deprivation of the (largely working class) occupants in the area, both then and now, has resulted in the largest concentration of places to get drunk – the web of such establishments ranges from the Black Horse on Longbrook Street to the infamous ‘Mount Doom’ that is the Duke of York.
Now I am not one to criticise a long walk between pubs on a night out, but the availability of vodka represents something similar to 17th Century Russian peasant communes.
The aesthetics cannot be praised. The Blitz of 1942 devastated the Sidwell Street area, causing an eyewitness to describe the buildings of the road to topple ‘like a pack of cards’.
But what they were replaced with in the 1950s and 1960s gave us the bland brick and concrete structures we see today. Add that to the fact that the businesses they house include the majority of betting and ‘value’ shops, such as Betfred or Pound Stretchers, and what you get is an area similar to that of Victorian times, of working class segregation.
While it is undoubtedly much easier to grab a cheap and outrageous costume for your sports social along Sidwell Street than any other area of the city, its various historical circumstances have isolated it from the others, as the home of Sauron in Exeter’s Middle Earth.
The question remains over what is to be done. The problem lies in the type of shop you can find in Sidwell Street – low budget food stores and gambling centres – which in turn focuses the working class and under-privileged population of Exeter, not of their own volition, into one central area.
Although proposed plans from the Conservative-led City Council (the arrogant Elves of the piece) will make the area look nicer for a period, they will not change the level of class segregation in the city and Mordor will remain.
The real answer – a revamp of the space and the dissemination of the aforementioned establishments is needed, to diversify and desegregate the city centre.
In effect, Mordor needs a makeover in the style of Rivendell, and its Orcs need to go on a gap year round the Shire.