Kerry Murphy goes beyond The Broadway and asks if there's a babe waiting to blossom in Bradford
Bradford is a City I’ve long seen as having the potential for dazzling its naysayers, like that guy from school who got proper fit in in your early twenties. A bit of investment into one or two killer “destinations” could do to the town what some occasional chest presses and discovering the right cut of trousers did for - er, nobody in particular...
I don’t mean to sound superficial. It’s what’s underneath that counts. And underneath Bradford lies a bit of a secret. Nestled behind the neon blandness of the chain restaurants and coffee shops in Centenary Square lies a newly refurbished diamond in the rough.
It seems Bradford is playing it cool...
Sunbridge Wells, a seemingly innocuous building on Sunbridge Road, is a warren of underground tunnels, nooks and crannies ricocheting from a central industrial staircase descending from street down through storeys below. It culminates in a tunnel which was once used as jail cells for the nearby court.
Where this secret is concerned though, it seems Bradford is playing it cool. A lot of people do not even know it exists, or what is there. I’m all for a bit of marketing by intrigue, but it is almost like the city doesn’t know what to do with its new protégé.
It currently houses a few drinking establishments – the best of which is the snug gin bar. Exposed brick and dimly lit, it offers a 25+ selection of gins in glasses as big as your face for a price so reasonable it makes you buy another (dear reader, I bought 3). Click your heels and repeat after me – we’re not on Call Lane anymore. My personal favourite was a Mason’s (Yooorkshire!) lavender gin with Fever Tree elderflower tonic. Subtle, soothing, and - as I like to pretend - the lavender will ease you off into a nice slumber.
It would be a perfect cosy date spot or (as they intend to start doing soon hopefully) get the gang together for an exclusive gin tasting session. As far as retail space is concerned, there’s a real mix of independents, selling baked goods, gifts, candles and artistry.
A shop belonging to Bradford artist Glenn Hustler houses an assortment of clever social commentary and pop culture pieces, alongside work paying homage to the city around him. He also stocks a selection of prints by local photographer John Cade, charting the stark realities of the city as he finds it. The pieces are often bleak, but oddly inspiring.
Could a development like Sunbridge Wells be Bradford’s saving grace? It’s certainly a step in the right direction. Its potential is huge – bringing back memories of old Leeds favourite Granary Wharf and of the Corn Exchange back in its heyday, before its derailing gentrification by Anthony Flinn.
More strong and diverse vendors are needed to move it away from just being a place for a drink and into a real retail attraction. And it needs to be managed properly – at present their online branding, website and social media is a bit sloppy, to say the least. Fewer hashtags, more strategy, guys.
Bradford seems to be trying, but always falls just short. The saga of the Broadway Centre (the huge, gaping, underutilised hole; a metaphor for the city’s issues if I ever did see one) culminated in somewhat of a damp squib. The design, the ambience, the shops; it all feels like something Leeds would have had a decade ago. An experiment in “if we build it, they will come” which seems to have backfired somewhat – and in the period since they decided they would build it, both Trinity and Victoria Gate have come to Leeds.
The eleven miles between the two cities seems to harness some sort of time warp: as the bars of North Parade continue to flourish with shy trepidation and a nod to what Leeds was doing about 2 years ago; Leeds prepares to roll the red carpet out to dozens of new venues. Once again, Bradford is playing catch up.
It would be lovely to think Sunbridge Wells will help turn Bradford into a day out destination for Yorkshire. I know the council are looking at regenerating other parts of the city centre, and encouraging business into its City Centre Growth Zone; likewise, they are keen to grow events like a craft market this Spring. And I’m sure there is a plan, but from the outside it all seems very disjointed.
Bradford has some beautiful buildings, a rich, industrial history, and a multicultural diversity to be proud of; but you don’t feel it when you go into the city. It should be alive and vibrant, but the spark’s not there - It’s living it up in Leeds and Manchester and won’t be back until the evening trains roll in.
For a while, new developments have seemed to carry the burden of trying to salvage a city left so long abandoned - less post-pubescent blossoming, and more middle-aged divorcee ceremoniously dolling themselves up for date after ill-fated date. Like Leeds, Manchester, and so many late-developing awkward teenagers, all it takes is a bit of confidence. Kerry Murphy