The second of my 'Taunton' posts.
It had been an unpleasantly chilly day when I last visited Taunton in November 2011, and it's a telling thing that I kept only one photo of my time there, of which a little more anon. Basically I wandered down the main shopping street, checking out the shops (without being very impressed), going as far as the old bridge over the River Tone, then returning via back streets that led me past a big old church, then, shivering, back to the car park. I know I took a few snaps with my camera - it was actually the little Leica, then only two years old - but none of these wintry snaps survive. The light must have been terrible, for me to delete them all. But then I'd written off Taunton as a place blighted by unimaginative, tired, post-war rebuilding, that had lost most of its older and more interesting buildings in Luftwaffe fly-byes. I hadn't discovered some of the nicer parts, such as Vivary Park.
One bright (and warm) spot I found was the quite large Debenhams department store. I bought a beige snood there, which I instantly wrapped around my neck once out in the cold again. (It's long gone now, but at the time it met an urgent need)
The store was very busy. Clearly the locals made a beeline for it every time they visited the town centre, just the same as any other Debenhams I knew. There were a lot of Debenhams stores around, in every large town. They were often the 'anchor store' in a shopping centre, the big one that drew the customers in. And at the time, back in 2011 - and indeed for many years before - I had always made a point of going in, often buying something while there. (I really spent too much, too often, on these visits) At the very least, I'd have coffee and a cake, sometimes a late cooked breakfast or a more substantial cooked lunch, and most certainly tea and cake in the afternoon. Debenhams was a reliable place for a pit-stop. It wasn't fancy, as John Lewis might be, but it was perfectly acceptable, and I always enjoyed dropping in for some refreshment. In Sussex, I could do that at the Debenhams stores in Brighton, Crawley, Worthing, Eastbourne and Hastings. Plenty of choice.
And in fact there were few places in the entire country where a Debenhams store couldn't be found. Their main direct rival was the House of Fraser store chain. In big towns and cities you might well find both. Some towns had a posh local department store not worth competing against, like Fenwick in Tunbridge Wells and Canterbury, or a one-off like Fields in Sidmouth, Goulds in Dorchester, Banbury's in Barnstaple, or Ely's in Wimbledon. These smaller local family businesses offered a different selection of goods, and a different atmosphere. They kept Debenhams out. But it was usual to find a Debenhams in most large places, either in a prime spot in the town centre or on a recently-built retail park.
Debenhams probably had upmarket ambitions, and may well have aspired to the elevated heights of John Lewis, or at least to emulate the particular appeal of Marks & Spencer. But the better-focused and superior John Lewis, and the super-reliable M&S (seemingly on every High Street, like W H Smith and Boots), were both beyond challenge. Debenhams knew its place. It remained ubiquitous but middle-market, a useful place to shop and stop for everyone, myself included.
Here's the one picture I kept from that previous visit to Taunton in 2011 - a roast chicken lunch at Debenhams, with the gravy boat on the upper right edge of the shot.