The reopening of England’s shops and restaurants brought that Christmas-morning flutter of anticipation, even though my plans this week are no more ambitious than poking round a charity shop or three. But as the high street reopens, the gaps will become as glaringly apparent as missing teeth. UK chains lost more than 17,500 outlets over 2020, some of which were far more than just a convenient place to buy towels and toasters. The outpouring of sadness at the closure of Cole Brothers in Sheffield was a reminder of the way these places mark some of our most memorable moments: first homes, special birthdays, school shoes and funeral suits.
Independents have gone under, too: a yarn shop here, a cafe there, individual hopes and savings poured into businesses too fragile to survive a year’s disruption. But I surprised myself most at the grief I felt on hearing that the smallest outpost of the superlative Bettys tearoom empire would not reopen its cafe here in York, defeated by a combination of economics and logistics.
Bettys is my Tiffany: the place where nothing bad can ever happen. Every branch is a peaceful haven of toasted pikelets, fine china and muted murmurs of delight at the arrival of laden tiered cake stands. But “the Kiosk”, as the real stalwarts called it, was special: a semi-secret, with wildly sloping floors and a warren of small rooms that made it feel like a Dickensian relic (actually it opened in 1965).
I understand. A tightly packed queue on a narrow staircase is impossible in pandemic times. But I wish it could have been preserved in amber for ever, the scene of so many big celebrations, small treats and sneaky weekday breakfasts. My mum was a morning regular, perusing Yorkshire Life before work with a cup of “tea-room blend”, one eye on fellow customers and always up to date with goings-on in the waitresses’ lives. Losing it is losing a piece of her again. At least we’ll always (I hope, surely) have big Bettys: I’ll be collecting a consolatory box of their finest fondant fancies today.