Hunting the Beautiful Bugs of Bedminster

30 Mar

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How can an infestation of insects save an ailing shopping centre? Festival Chronicle donned pith helmet and binoculars to undertake a bug safari around south Bristol.

In 2011, the Government realised Britain’s town centres were going to the dogs.

A combination of the low prices offered by supermarkets and online players like Amazon, combined with the fact that we all had less money to go shopping with, was having a devastating effect on traditional market places.

David Cameron’s solution was to wheel in Mary Portas, TV’s Queen of Shops. And Portas’ level-headed response was to help town centres play to their strengths: creating “destinations for socialising, culture, health, wellbeing, creativity and learning.”

The retail guru wrote: “High Streets must be ready to experiment, try new things, take risks and become destinations again. They need to be spaces and places that people want to be in.”

And, with that, the concept of the Portas Pilot Town was born: town centres across the UK were invited to bid for grants of £100,000. Nearly 400 applied, and a bid by the South Bristol suburb of Bedminster was one of the lucky 12 finalists.

You can see the original bid video on YouTube. It was backed by George Ferguson – owner of the Tobacco Factory, the theatre and restaurant complex credited with almost single-handedly reviving the Southville end of ‘Greater Bedminster’ – who has since been elected Mayor of Bristol.

The film also features Steve Hayes, organiser of Europe’s largest street art festival, Upfest, and owner of a gallery of the same name.

And it’s thanks to Steve that Bedminster is now crawling with insects.

Part – not all – of Bedminster’s £100,000 has been spent on manufacturing and installing 82 insects: bees, ladybirds, butterflies, caterpillars, stag beetles, bed bugs, earwigs and shield bugs.

Steve has used his considerable clout with the great and good of the graffiti scene to commission a number of professional designs. Cheo, SPZero76, Mr Jago, Andy Council and Copyright are among the big-name artists roped in.

But many of the bugs have been decorated by local school children, fostering both community involvement and a natural audience in the shape of proud parents.

Festival Chronicle spent a chilly but sunny Good Friday afternoon trawling the streets on Bedminster, looking for the 82 bugs.

We started at the Upfest gallery in Southville; the gentrified end of Bedminster, with its cool coffee shops, organic butchers and veg shops and yummy mummies, and headed in the direction of the Tobacco Factory.

But Bedminster is very much A Tale of Two Cities, and the art trail soon led us across the virtual barricades at the derelict former Gala bingo hall – now a roost for dozens of pigeons – and into Cannon Street and East Street, the run-down semi pedestrianised precinct, with a whopping great Asda at its heart.

It’s fair to say that East Street doesn’t get many tourists (although we once saw Snoop Dogg’s minders frantically searching for the star after an unscheduled stop on the way home from Glastonbury Festival – but that’s another story).

Some locals were bemused to see me snapping away at their community, but happy enough to chat about the initiative, which seemed to be going down well enough.

I loved the way that insects seemed to emerge from the cracks – and in some cases, holes – in the walls of some of the shabbier premises.

But the bugs worked equally well on the better frontages, and one unexpected effect of the art trail was that it got me appreciating some of the beautiful Victorian architecture that can be found above eye level along the street.

Particularly pleasing was the art nouveau styling of the London Inn, and Smiley’s Plaice, a former pub turned fish and chip restaurant, with ornately carved column plinths and a bowed front door. It looked lovely, and if I hadn’t already eaten I think I’d have had lunch here.

It was in East Street that we decided to spend some valuable tourist dollar at Grounded, a very pleasant cafe bar at the city centre end of East Street, and at Crazy Candy retro sweet shop, where six-year-old trainee Chronicler Milo burned his pocket money on a liquid sweet you spray into your mouth (don’t ask).

If the Beautiful Bugs can attract more out-of-towners like me – or even those better-off residents of Southville – venturing down to East Street, it could make all the difference to the independent retailers who are bitterly fighting the economic downturn in that forgotten corner of Bristol.

And that, I reckon, will paint smiles on a lot of faces – Mary Portas’ included.

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One Response to “Hunting the Beautiful Bugs of Bedminster”

  1. Jake Davis 1st April 2013 at 9:11 am #

    Great feature – Thanks for sharing.

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