What makes York’s Bishopthorpe Road so special?

Will Pearce, Viv Pearson,Joe Farrow, Frankie Hayes, Ralph Major
Front: Bex Toppin, Beppe Lombard

Will Pearce, Viv Pearson,Joe Farrow, Frankie Hayes, Ralph Major Front: Bex Toppin, Beppe Lombard (new chair of the Bishy Road Traders Association), Richard Bothamley and Matthew Kneafsey of M and K Butchers come together for a group photo - Credit: Joan Russell

It’s commonly known as Bishy Road and it’s a popular destination for vistors to York. Jo Haywood (a former South Banker herself) revisits to find out why.

There is tremendous affection for Bishy Road

There is tremendous affection for Bishy Road - Credit: Joan Russell

Bishopthorpe Road on York’s South Bank is partial to a party. (That’s partial in the same way that Jeremy Clarkson quite likes cars and Elizabeth Taylor was a tiny bit keen on diamonds.)

The traders and locals first got the bash-holding bug in 2010 when they closed the street and opened their arms to welcome Greenpeace.

At the time, the street had reached something of a low ebb. The Terry’s factory had closed down, the post office had gone, there were seven empty shops and the recession had started to bite hard. At a bit of a loss as to what to do, a few of the traders went along to a conference hosted by Greenpeace in the city centre.

‘They talked about closing streets to traffic and throwing them open to community events,’ said Johnny Hayes, co-owner of Frankie & Johnny’s Cookshop on Bishopthorpe Road since 1999, when he left the house to buy a tin of undercoat and came back with a shop (ask him the details next time you’re in – he tells it better than us). ‘We were intrigued by the idea so we invited them to set up an event in our street. Frankly, we didn’t expect much, but we closed the street at 6pm and 15 minutes later there were 3,000 people on Bishy Road. That was our eureka moment.’

Helen Thompson and daughter Sophie make the most of a card making workshop at Olive's Nest gift sho

Helen Thompson and daughter Sophie make the most of a card making workshop at Olive's Nest gift shop - Credit: Joan Russell

Johnny, who doesn’t like to blow his own trumpet but actually deserves a full brass section for his efforts, went on to set up Bishy Road Traders’ Association, a tight-knit, supportive group hellbent on breathing new life into what could easily have become yet another grim parade of charity shops and broken windows.

Instead, they’ve transformed Bishopthorpe Road – or Bishy Road as it’s known to its many loyal friends – into a quirky yet smart shopping destination, with just the right balance of trendy to traditional, which is probably why The Guardian calls it ‘a Goldilocks neighbourhood where everything is just right’ and The Times put it in its top ten ‘cool list’ of places to live.

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But what was it that propelled the parade from being a nice row of shops run by nice people for nice people into a headline-grabbing high street?

‘I think 2015 was a major turning point,’ said Johnny. ‘The first Tour de Yorkshire happened and everything stepped up a gear. We waved the cyclists through and then had the most amazing street party. That’s when we really started making a name for ourselves as a street and as a community.’

The Tour de Yorkshire is only part of the story though because 2015 was also the year that Bishy Road was named the Great British High Street of the Year (and Johnny got an MBE in the New Year’s Honours List).

Since then, Bishy Road has hosted numerous parties, firework displays, food festivals and even crowd-funded its own Christmas lights (more people attended the South Bank switch-on in 2016 than the main one in York city centre).

But it’s not all about street parties and community events, it’s about shopping too. Bishopthorpe Road is a, sadly, rare example of an almost perfect parade. It’s not all coffee shops, although there are plenty, but they sit comfortably alongside a butcher, baker, greengrocer, gift shop, antique dealer, optician, bike repairer, gallery, pubs and restaurants. In fact, the only thing that’s really missing is a fresh fish emporium (but the traders’ association will probably have squeezed one in somewhere by the time you read this).

Matthew Kneafsey’s father set up M&K Butchers on Bishy Road in 1970 and he now runs it with his brother Simon. As a family, they’ve seen the community change beyond all recognition.

‘The area is completely different to what it once was,’ said Matthew. ‘When my father started the business, there were no coffee shops because people baked their own cakes at home and, if they wanted to go out for coffee, they went next door. Now people have coffee, breakfast, lunch and dinner on Bishy Road. It’s much more like London in that way now.’

People’s shopping habits have changed too. While there was a time when housewives would pop to the shops on a daily basis, now weekends are the busiest time as professional couples who both work full-time venture out for coffee, cake, essentials and treats.

‘Not many people want a roast anymore; they want something quick like a steak,’ said Matthew. ‘But business is good though, and we supply all the restaurants in the street, so we can’t complain.

‘There’s very much an eat-locally, shop-locally atmosphere here. People don’t want to have to get in their car, they want everything on their doorstep. And we’re happy to oblige.’

While M&K Butchers is one of the oldest shops on the street, Bare organic gifts and clothing is one of the newest, opened by Ellie Mcmanaman just over a year ago.

‘I grew up in this area and came back again as an adult as soon as I got the chance,’ she said. ‘I was a shopper on Bishy Road, getting my fruit and veg, my bread and my meat from the butchers, before I was a shop-owner, so I knew how valued it was by the local community.

‘When I decided to open my own shop, there was only one place for it: Bishy Road. I didn’t think I had a chance though because they get snapped up so quickly.’

In the end, she managed to bag a shop by taking on the house next door too, an unusual deal perhaps but one that got her the space she wanted in her ideal location.

‘People ask why I didn’t set up in the city centre, but why would I?’ she said. ‘There are so many loyal local customers here, we’re only five minutes from town and we get lots of people who make a special trip to Bishy Road to do their shopping and to soak up the atmosphere.

‘After a full year in business I can honestly say it’s more than lived up to my expectations. I’m good friends with other shop-owners and we’re all really supportive of each other. This area’s special because of its sense of community. It might sound like a bit of a cliché, but we’re like one big family.’

The ‘daddy’ of Bishy Road Traders’ Association is now Beppe Lombardo, owner of Trinacria café bar, who took over as chairman when Johnny stepped down in September 2016 after six years at the helm. Unfortunately (for us, not him) he was away in his native Sicily when we were let loose in his York neighbourhood, so we missed the opportunity to chat with him over arancine, coffee granita and cannolo (all specialities of the house and all delicious apparently).

So, we went back to the man who started it all, former chairman and now president of the association Johnny Hayes for his views on what the future might hold for this small but perfectly formed community.

‘I think the future looks very good indeed, but there’s no room for complacency,’ he said. ‘We can retain the street’s buoyancy and vibrancy for as long as we keep working at it.

‘Not so long ago, people starting calling us the Notting Hill of the north. If we work hard enough, there might be a time when Notting Hill is called the Bishy Road of the south instead.’