Linda Colling: Miracle needed to save Seaham shops

Church Street, Seaham.
Church Street, Seaham.
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CONFOUNDED. That’s what the folk in Church Street were when I asked: “Do you know who Mary Portas is?”

Mystified by Mary, who could be the saviour of the heart of Seaham, I was told whoever she is she needs a magic wand or a miracle to save their shops.

Businesses must be hoping against hope that Seaham could become one of the 12 pilot Portas areas of retail guru Mary Portas to help halt the decline.

The Queen of Shops was tasked by the Government to come up with a national plan to halt the closure of local shops and bring shoppers back to our high streets.

What a challenge. What a lost cause it looks here with shuttered shops and so many going to wrack and ruin that they look ready to fall down – one did some time ago at the bottom of Church Street.

So what are the chances of revival when so many properties are privately owned and there is no incentive to spend money, since this once bustling thoroughfare was dealt a death knell blow with the opening of Byron Shopping Centre?

Everything is concentrated at the seafront – and that goes for the parking too. Since the bus station went from the top of the town, it’s taken on even more of a ghostly aspect, with forgotten facades that makes hearts sink when you recall how vibrant it once was.

Buffetted by the wind the other day, I sheltered in Valentes coffee shop. But unlike the stormy weather, the dire straits this street is now in, aren’t going to blow over unless a new vision and huge amounts of cash are blown in.

Could the Queen of Shops breathe in new life? Not without lorry loads of investment.

Seaham is more than a challenge for Mary, who tweeted to the businesses call to help Seaham: “Scary, bonkers, yet really quite fabulous.”

We need you Mary and not just in Seaham. She has already flagged up free parking and market days to kickstart trade. Seaham does have Friday markets in Church Street but then it reverts to being as dead as a doornail.

While Susan Duggan, 52, third generation of the Valentes family business, is confident of her customers keeping her afloat, she has her doubts about Mary: “It will take more than her to save Seaham. My mam would be absolutely shocked if she could see it today. They seem to have taken everything away from the top of Church Street.”

Nora Hood, 75, a gran of 30 and great-gran of 34, doesn’t hold out much hope. She’s lived in Seaham for 55 years, and this miner’s widow reckons: “You will need a miracle.”

She buys her meat, fish and fruit and veg from the shops in Church Street as she’s always done. She’ll go Asda for a bargain but she would never forsake the traders who know her by name.

That’s another of the great things about this street, the quality of service. It’s a real community and such friendliness and helpfulness, a rare bloom in shops today. And that’s another reason why like so many, who have a heart for the street, I would love to see the tide turn.

Born and bred in Seaham, Steve Wanless, 53, surveys the scene and says: “It’s dropping to bits. It’s an eyesore.”

Grans, Sylvia Duncan, 44, and Jean Mills, 65, of Dawdon, despair and desperately wish the council would do more.

Jean says: “ It used to be lovely.”

Brian Gold, 75, of Newbottle, and his wife, Margaret would love to see a revamp here. How do they rate Mary’s chances should she come?

“That depends on how much money she’s got to work on,” said Brian.

Leanne Cowell, 23, and boyfriend, John McCourt, 31, unemployed, of Seaham had just one wish: “If they could only do for here what they have done down the seafront.”

While Seaham’s seafront is definitely on the up and up, traders in Church Street will keep up their campaigning for Mary and her magic.

Ron Guidi, 39, who has invested more than £200,000 in his Crazy Clearance store, and whose wife Steph, 31, donned a Mary Portas-style wig to promote the campaign in the Echo, believes Church Street could still be brought back from the brink.

Hope springs eternal.

Businesses are suffering and the all-too common plight of this street, which still has so much to offer, is mourned by so many who reckon regeneration is never going to happen and have written it off. It would be great to see it rise like a Phoenix from the ashes but with or without Mary, I’m not holding my breath.