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There's A New Circus In Town
Cabot Circus Shopping Centre (Bristol)
Member Name: plipplop
Cabot Circus Shopping Centre (Bristol)
Advantages: Attractive design, not closed in, higher end shops, cheap parking
Disadvantages: Only one set of toilets, some unopened units, no Selfridges!
Until late 2008, Bristol really struggled in the shopping stakes. Having lived there for several years, when I then used to come back and see friends from time to time, it was an even bigger shock to the system to remind myself just how badly shoppers were catered for in Bristol. Years earlier, an out of town development at Cribbs Causeway in North Bristol provided some additional shops, but aside from a large branch of John Lewis, it always seemed to have very little in the way of choice - and it's a significant distance out of Bristol too.
Cabot Circus occupies a large plot of land at the east end of the central area. A large section of the existing shopping area Broadmead was demolished at one end (no loss), the main trunk road through Bristol city centre was diverted and the approach from the M32 into Bristol was widened in preparation for the work. This was a significant project with a total budget of £500 million and it's safe to say that the finished product has, literally, transformed Bristol city centre.
The centre piece of Cabot Circus is a large glass-roofed complex that occupies several floors of retailers, restaurants and entertainment. The name 'Circus' was quite purposefully chosen to reflect a centre piece of community activity and under the glass roof there is an infectious bustle of shoppers and visitors coming together in one place. Unlike other shopping centres, however, although shoppers are protected from the elements by the glass roof, the principle of the main shopping area is that it is effectively 'outdoors' so you don't have that horrible claustrophobic feeling that other, more traditional shopping centres suffer from. Moving away from the Circus, however, the development extends into the existing Broadmead development, creating an entirely new series of shops and streets that are intended to blend seamlessly into the existing development. Such is the quality of the new development, however, that I'm afraid it's immediately apparent where the old stuff starts and no end of cladding and new pavements will disguise a tired and traditional shopping area.
Transport to the site is pretty good. As this occupies a prime central location, bus services are extremely frequent. It's probably 15 or 20 minutes' walk from Bristol's main train station (Temple Meads) but there is a shuttle service that runs every couple of minutes. A large new car park was built as part of the development, which is very well lit, generously proportioned and reasonably priced. This is good but it does rather defeat the environment objectives of encouraging people out of their cars. With discounted parking rates at weekends, there is little incentive for shoppers to the Circus to abandon their cars and it's clear from the constant stream of pedestrians in and out of the car park that this is, by far, the preferred means of travel for most. Curiously, at peak times, congestion into the car park seems worsened by decisions to keep the top floor(s) of the park closed, which seems to cram everyone in lower down. Disabled parking spaces are extremely plentiful (and probably excessive if the low occupation is anything to go by). Indeed, the entire development is wheelchair friendly. Within the glass-topped part of the circus there are lifts to all floors and wide walkways on each. The other parts of the development are entirely step-free.
The core shopping hours are from 10:00 to 18:00 Monday to Wednesday, with an additional two hours until 20:00 on a Thursday and an additional hour to 19:00 on a Friday and Saturday. Sunday shopping hours are 11:00-17:00. From my visits, it would seem that stores operate different policies on these hours, however, and some close later than others. Understandably, at Christmas, most of these hours are extended throughout the week. Needless to say, the cafes and restaurants open far later, and the cinema on the top floor runs late screenings at the weekends.
The architecture of Cabot Circus, notably the glass roof, means that it's a very different place according to the time of day and the weather. On a sunny day, it's a very upbeat place, bathed in light, but not in a claustrophobic manner and it's actually quite pleasant to stroll around outside of peak shopping hours. On Saturdays or Sundays, however, it's pretty chaotic and unpleasant and if you want to wander and shop at leisure, I'd try and do so at quieter times. Of an evening (or late afternoon in the winter) the darkness gives it a more intimate feeling and this is certainly my favourite time to shop. The lighting isn't overly intensive and there's something mysterious and almost romantic abut parts of the development. This was particularly the case at Christmas where some impressive decorations made the place come alive.
You can see a full directory of the shops on the Cabot Circus website. The development opened just as the economy was starting to dip badly and even now, there are a number of unoccupied units. This doesn't seem to have curbed the centre's appeal, however, and there is a good selection of shops. Where the older part of town (Broadmead) has tended to retain the mainstream high street shops, Cabot Circus has picked up a selection of higher end and luxury shops and as such, has positioned itself at the better end of the market. Outside the main complex, a series of high end fashion chains such as Hugo Boss occupy individual units around one of the development's flagship stores - a new Harvey Nichols department store. This kind of retail presence was exactly what Bristol needed and it's nice to have the store here, but it's actually only a 'boutique' style store and therefore carries a much smaller range than its London or Leeds counterparts. There's a tiny food hall, for example, and very few eateries - and the menswear department is very small indeed.
Interestingly, there's a real focus on fashion and clothing throughout the development. Occupying the central position within the main development, there's a large new House of Fraser store (one of the largest I've seen, in fact) which is dominated by fashion concessions and a large beauty and perfumery section. At one of the entrances there is now a large Hollister store (the little brother of Abercrombie and Fitch) and throughout the development you'll find plenty of branded clothing stores (including All Saints, Bench, Fred Perry, Henleys and loads more). It seems that as we migrate to buying certain things online (particularly books, CDs and DVDs) shopping centres are becoming dominated by fashion and impulse retail. Indeed, rather tellingly there are no book shops or music stores in the new development at all (with a cursory branch of HMV and a Waterstones left in the old part of town). There has already, however, been one high profile closure, with the loss of fashion retailer Cruise opting not to renew its initial lease. The unit has been taken over by John Anthony, but it's clear that trade isn't 'easy' yet.
There are some other welcome additions. There's a good-sized Apple store (Bristol previously only had a third-party reseller out at Temple Meads, which was a nightmare to get to). There's a lovely Patisserie Valerie, largely seen in London, but now bringing their fresh cream cakes and pastries out to the provincials. There's also a gorgeous silver jeweller, Thomas Sabo, with some really beautiful and unusual gift ideas. There are some welcome absences too. The likes of TK Maxx and Primark don't fit in here and they're relegated right to the other end of town.
The selection of places to eat is OK, if not a little mainstream. There's a nice Asian place called Tampopo (founded in Manchester) that's fast, fresh and tasty and probably better than Wagamama, but it's still part of a chain the same as pretty much everything else. By the time you've spotted the likes of Nando's, Gourmet Burger Kitchen, Giraffe and Carluccio's you could be forgiven that you'd wandered into any similar complex, and it's a little disappointing that more variety and independent restaurants weren't encouraged here. The restaurant in Harvey Nichols is nice, if not a little pretentious for the location but the emphasis seems to be more about catering for cinema-goers rather than anyone else. The Cinema De Lux on the top floor is part of the Showcase chain and offers luxury seating, food and drink. It's certainly a good cinema and even better means that the film watchers don't need to travel out of town.
Unlike most shopping centres, the toilets are always really clean, but the decision to only have them on the ground floor seems a bit limiting. There's a large information desk and staff members are also contactable as they wander round the development. Later on, there is a strong security presence; the streets are walkways are accessible throughout the night so they're keen to prevent vandalism and other crime. Notably, this isn't a good place to bring young children unless you can really keep an eye on them. The layout, noise and general volume of customers at peak times makes this quite stressful.
Nonetheless, the Cabot Circus development is one of the best I've seen in a long time (the new Liverpool One development is good, but not on the same scale) and has really made its mark on the city centre. Indeed Cabot Circus is SO good that it kind of puts the old bit of town to shame, leading many shoppers to question the merits of turning intentions of re-development in that direction also. For local shoppers, this is a great boost to the area and is also a worthwhile day trip from slightly further out locations like Swindon and Gloucester. But it still can't match the big three - Birmingham, Manchester and London still, clearly, leave the place standing.
Summary: The shopping centre that transformed Bristol