Monday, 28 February 2011

All I want is a cup of coffee, damn it!

We got back from our little weekend in the Oxford area last night, and I have to (sadly) report that the previously featured Eyensham Hall was not quite as pleasing as it was on our first visit. The last time, the food was excellent, and served mainly by friendly Polish waiters, but this time it was not so good, and I didn't recognise one face in the place from our previous stay last summer. That's the problem with big chains, I think - unlike family-run establishments, the staff don't hang around long enough to build up a reputation for what they do best, and corporations are constantly pulling the plug on individual effort.

Talking of big chains and corporations, it's high time I had another moan about the globalisation of historic town centres, as demonstrated by the photo (taken on my new, toy camera-phone) above, of one of Oxford's oldest surviving buildings.

If you look closely at the picture, you will see that it is occupied by two of the biggest chain shops in the country (a mobile phone dealer and an expensive coffee outlet), and the rest of the main street where this picture was taken is row upon row of all the retailers that have taken over every town and city in Britain, and probably most of Europe and North America to boot.

Before you say that this might not be a bad thing, since theses huge companies are the only ones that can afford the upkeep and maintenance of historic buildings like these, bear in mind that it was the local councils who have been forced by organisations such as English Heritage to actively preserve the buildings in their trust. Prior to that, most councils were quite happy to tear them down for the sake of a few million pounds from a property developer - look what happened to my town, Bath, in the 1960s.

In order to obtain the sort of revenue into the public coffers in the longer term, every single council in Britain has fallen for the advances of the multi-national companies who have forced town centre rents and rates through the roof in the name of competition, choice and free-trade.

The irony is that the 'choice' is now so wide (have you seen how many different types of coffee that these places sell? - of course you have), that there is effectively no choice at all, aside from wether you want to buy your coffee from Starbucks, or Nero's, etc. etc. Individual traders can no longer afford to run shops in the middle of town, so we have lost all the quirky little businesses which used to sell individual nails, etc. - maybe for ever. Here and there, a few loss-making but charming shops survive, thanks to the owners of the buildings who refuse to cave in to the demands of greedy town councils.

There could have been a coffee-house on these premises about 300 years ago - about 200 years after it was built - but you can be sure that it was owned and run by a local individual. That local individual was, however, sowing the seeds of globalisation by having to deal with the importers who supplemented their incomes and built vast fortunes by also importing black, African slaves - the very same group of people who were forced to produce the coffee in the first place, along with the sugar we put into it.

I don't believe there ever was such a thing as the 'good old days', but I certainly remember when every single town in Britain and Europe had it's own distinctive character, defined by the traders who lived and worked there. Now it is the same old criminals, everywhere you go.


  1. I am proud of the fact that I have never either eaten at McD's, or drunk coffee at Star-Nero's. Nor have I ever carried a styro-cup around the streets, or eaten chicken nuggets from a printed news-print cone!!!

    I'm also pretty safe in saying that I never will.

  2. I hate those coffee shop chains. You either end of with a bucket of boiling hot, milky, insipid coffee or an Expresso that is horribly strong and so small it barely stains the cup. And all the different names confuse me. And soooo expensive. Oh, you've set me off now. (I thought Eynsham Hall was a police training centre.)

  3. We have our coffee chains as well and it seems like smaller, individually owned places just can't compete. We had such a nice shop not far from us but it only lasted a year... Why do folks prefer the big chains? I think they must put something in the coffee.

  4. I 100% agree with you Tom. I want the charm and authenticity of our local high streets back.

  5. what about the stocks?
    Thatis a nice old fashioned pastime!
    every town square should have one!

  6. Sorry your weekend wasn't up to expectations Tom.That is a beautiful old building but I hate the green logo on the front. I can see what your saying and agree entirely.

  7. Ask John why folk prefer big chains, MBJ - he wants to be a Mayor.

    It was a police training centre once, Sue - as well as a maternity hospital and hospital for WW1 soldiers. It's a hotel now, though.

  8. We are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Our little town has a chains on the high street...all very lovely...however (isn't there always an however!) we end up with our own mafia running the town with stupid, stupid stores in town that you know could not possibly make enough money to afford the rent so what is going on!!!
    Just heard that St***b***s may be arriving in the summer...can't believe it myself as the most recent addition to town is a franchised coffee shop! What is going on??

  9. P.S. I like the way you use asterixs' as if Starbucks was a dirty word, J - I suppose it is.