One of the major differences as shops changed to supermarkets was the creation of shopping centres. Two in particular spring to my mind. The first was the building of the Merrion Centre in the centre of Leeds and the second was the opening of the Seacroft Centre.
The Merrion Centre opened in 1964 and it was a marvel at the time. I remember going to visit with my mother and it had a moving walkway and it was the first I had ever experienced. The walkway led up the slope from the front doors and was probably only about twenty yards long and, as a child of nine, the joy of riding it was immense. Most department stores had lifts and a few had escalators, but the walkway was innovative and spoke of the future where science would automate life.
To be honest, I am not sure that it served a great purpose, but it attracted shoppers to its exciting range of stores and supermarkets. The building itself was rather an ugly one. It was built during the era of concrete and later, concrete cancer, which led to many buildings being demolished. What it did offer was shopping sheltered from the elements and in a modern clean environment. Shops, pubs, a club and a bowling alley were all available under one roof. The complex housed a piece of artwork by Rowland Emmet – Featherstone-Kite Openwork Basketweave Mark Two Gentleman’s Flying Machine. It was very Heath Robinson and the moving sculpture used to attract crowds of children watching it in motion.
One of the features was the multi-storey carpark. I think it was the first I had seen and it was the response to the growth of privately owned cars. The centre allowed you to park and shop out of the rain and to take shopping to the car using trolleys. How modern we had become! My mother had got some vouchers for the Bowling Alley that was underneath the carpark, off Merrion Way, and so we were going to visit. This would have been around the same time she got them for the Ice Rink. I believe the vouchers gave you two games for the price of one. We had never bowled before and the nearest was watching my grandad on Chapel Allerton’s crown green in the park near his house. However, bowling alleys were on programmes and films from the USA and seemed so special and modern. They showed what life would be like and seemed to fit in with the programmes we watched, such as The Jetsons. The journey to the centre was exciting and we drove into the carpark. My dad struggled to get the Cortina around the bends and up the ramps as there wasn’t much room. Eventually, after a large amount of stress, he manoeuvered to find a place to park and we walked down the steep staircase to the bowling alley.
The first clue as to what you were to find came from the sound. The thunder of the rolling balls and the lightning strike as the balls scattered the skittles was magic to my ears. If this is what it sounded like what would the experience hold? To add to the sound of the balls was the deafeningly loud pop music that blared from the loud speakers. There was also a scent that was unusual, but inviting. It was a heady mixture of oil, ozone, and frying chips, and is a scent that you only find in the alleys. When we reached the foot of the stairs the sight was overpowering. In a world that seemed drab and grey, before me was a feast of colour, movement, people, sound and lights. It was a large venue with about twenty-six lanes. My parents had less idea about what to do than my brother and me, but the man at the desk was helpful. The whole ritual of taking off your shoes and trying on the two-colour bowling shoes was exciting. I realised what another element of the centre’s aroma was, sweaty feet. Shoes on our feet, we felt pretty special and proceeded to slip about on the carpet. The man told us which lane we were on and we made our way over.
It was just so exciting. We had to get balls and, after a check of the ones on the carousel, we headed off to the racks to find the lightest ones possible. We returned and had trouble setting up the scorer and so help was sought. The assistant sorted us out and we were ready to start. Dad must have given us basic instructions and I think he probably went first to show us how. He managed to hit the pins and our eyes opened wide as the remainder of the pins were lifted, the fallen ones swept into the dark space at the back, the pins replaced and the ball magically returned down the gutter, hopped up and was ready for the next turn. My brother and I were staggered. How did it all happen? Dad bowled again, but missed the remaining pins. My brother, Andrew, went next and he did reasonably well, but the ball bounced a little, but no one seemed to take notice. Again I think he managed to hit at least one pin, but he hit some more on his second bowl. Next was my turn. Wearing shorts, I walked to the where the balls were. I picked mine up. I was shown how to place my fingers, after drying them on the jet of air. I walked forward, stood still, raised the ball, skipped forward and let fly. The feeling of being in front of the whole world and everyone watching was marked, and in truth, the thunderous crash of the ball striking the lane from a height, did attract a sizeable attention from those present. There was also a jarring of my two fingers that seemed to grip the ball after I had let it fly. The ball landed and then barely moved forward, its gentle roll taking it into the gutter. Luckily it had just enough momentum to reach the back of the lane, otherwise an attendant would have had to march down between the lanes, like a fairground attendant on the dodgems, or waltzer with swagger and poise, and retrieve it. This would have caused me great embarrassment.
I turned, walked back, red faced. I was offered advice and words of encouragement from my brother and parents and I waited for the ball to return and then I prepared for my second go. This time I was determined to do better. I stood, ready and balanced and this time I managed to get it to glide down the lane without the great thump. That, at least, was an improvement, but I still failed to hit the pins and it went into the gutter. My mother was quite good and she managed to hit a few of her pins. After the first round we began to improve and towards the end I was hitting pins. I was completely baffled by the scoring and couldn’t understand why you had fewer goes if you got a strike. It was even more confusing with the last round.
After the first game we got some quick drinks and then we were off again. I was getting tired by the end and the final bowls were a struggle. It was a great experience and I was quite emotionally overloaded by the time we left and drove home. We went a few more times over the years and I have taken my boys on many occasions.
A couple of years later, another shopping centre was opening and that was the Seacroft Centre. The Queen was arriving to open the centre and I know for a fact that the building wasn’t quite finished and that most, if not all the shops, were still vacant. Posters and plants were placed in the windows to create the impression that they were occupied, but it wasn’t very convincing. The Queen and Prince Philip were coming to open the precinct and they arrived by train to Crossgates station and then drove in a Rolls Royce to the centre. It was a well publicised visit and my brother, Andrew, and I went to see her pass by. His best friend, Christopher Cawkwell, lived in one of the tall flats near Wellington Hill and she was to pass by at a certain time. I don’t remember how we got these little flags to wave, but we all had one and so did most of the crowds there. We knew the set time and we waited in the flat and then went down to a vantage spot on the roadside. Like most of these events, I would assume, it was running late and we waited patiently ready to wave our flags and cheer. Eventually the time arrived, the crowds were large and we were poised on the kerb edge as the first car shot past. Suddenly there was cheering and waving further up and then we joined in as the Rolls shot past. I caught only a quick glimpse and she was sat in the back on our side. She had, I think, a pale green, maybe turquoise coat and hat and she waved and looked at us all. I have a memory of her eyes meeting mine, but that could be wishful thinking. Anyway, it is my claim to fame and my only contact with the Queen. Brief indeed, but isn’t it quality rather than quantity that counts? She did visit my eldest son’s school in Wakefield shortly before we left for Australia, in celebration of the school’s 400th anniversary, Queen Elizabeth Grammar School, named after the queen that bestowed the charter to the school.
I have visited the centres since and I can’t say that the Merrion Centre has really improved and I think the Seacroft Centre was demolished eventually. Both were ugly and the Seacroft Centre was a bleak, dehumanising site that offered little to the local inhabitants. Thankfully, shopping centres have learnt a great deal and offer much more than they used to. They are now past their heyday and retailers are struggling with online shopping and out of city mega-centres. Added to this has been the isolation due to the pandemic and reluctance to be in crowded spaces. It will be interesting to see what the future holds for the next stage of shopping.