Bracknell used to be a place shopped by some of its locals and almost nobody else. But now a regenerated town centre and a winsome Fenwick have put this one on the list.
Not very long ago shopping in Bracknell was confined to those who came from Bracknell.
Even allowing for its wealthy hinterland, Ascot et al, this was a town with a run-down mall that dated from the 1970s. It felt as if nothing had changed in the intervening period.
Then, in September, all of this changed with shoppers getting their first taste of The Lexicon, a £240m shopping centre in the heart of the town.
At last, shoppers have a reason to visit somewhere that was previously a location one would have driven past.
The major anchor for the mall is Fenwick, which provides an aspirational environment for what is a determinedly mid-market retail assortment. But this is not to say that the shopping centre is in any way lacklustre.
There is much that can be learned from visiting Bracknell’s newly regenerated town centre; an object lesson in keeping faith.
There’s been a Waitrose in Bracknell for some years and in a way, it was the precursor to all that has followed.
According to the grocer’s head of store development Anthony Wysome, when the store opened in 2011 it was designed to be “totally generic”.
It was also touted as the retailer’s greenest store up to that point, with a ‘living’ roof, a wood-chip burner and higher-than-normal levels of natural daylight.
Nothing much has changed since then, although the cafe has had a revamp and an additional seating area has been added to the exterior.
The real point is that since the opening of The Lexicon, sales at the store have been up by more than 10%, indicating perhaps that additional foot traffic equates to increased turnover.
A generic store is, in the case of Waitrose, a good thing.
It is testimony to the strength of what was done six years ago that the store can continue to grow without a huge amount being done to the building and its interior.
There has been a Fenwick presence in Bracknell ever since 2001.
The former store, Bentalls, was actually demolished and the retailer relocated to The Lexicon this year, rebranded as Fenwick.
Now, with Bentalls in Bracknell just a memory, shoppers in the town have a very well designed new store that probably vies for the title of best-looking in the Fenwick portfolio.
“This is a store for those who want to treat themselves or others and is quite the best thing in Bracknell”
Standing at the entrance, the vista is, of course, the beauty department, but unlike many rivals, it is possible to see almost the whole of the floor at a single glance, thanks to generous walkways and a sense of it being uncrowded.
The pillars, designed to look like palm trees, add a touch of glamour to the whole and the patisserie on the right-hand side is the same as the Newcastle flagship’s food hall.
Upstairs room to move is evident once again and a good-looking restaurant, Fuego, with an external terrace affording views out over the leafier parts of Bracknell, makes it an appealing destination.
Highlights on this floor include a faux tree in the kids’ department with a face on its trunk that talks to children and a wall of Le Creuset pots and pans that would put most Le Creuset standalone shops to the test.
Also worth noting are the screens, planters and lightboxes on the wall facing the escalator on the way up to the first floor – they make shoppers look.
This is a store for those who want to treat themselves or others and is quite the best thing in Bracknell.
Marks & Spencer
Of course, there will always be a store that doesn’t quite make the grade and in Bracknell it is the Marks & Spencer branch, which has an architecturally arresting exterior, but which really doesn’t make the cut within.
“Visible along the way are a series of mono-level pieces of display equipment that would make a German department store, where such things are the norm, look interesting”
The problem with this store is the feeling of all-round flatness.
There may be graphics to draw the eye along the walkways, but visible along the way are a series of mono-level pieces of display equipment that would make a German department store, where such things are the norm, look interesting.
Even the cafe on the first floor has more than a slice of canteen about it, albeit there is a lot of natural daylight.
Like Waitrose, this may be a generic M&S, but in this instance there is a considerable amount of work to be done.
It’s a fair distance from west Cornwall to Bracknell, but Seasalt has opted to take space in The Lexicon and is one of several mid-market smaller retailers, including Flying Tiger, that help to keep things interesting and prices under control.
It’s hard to say what keeps things maritime at the Seasalt store, other than the white anchor suspended above the logo just above the store entrance.
That said, the combination of plain, unvarnished wood for the mid-shop display fixtures and ropes or threads, depending on how you interpret such things, does somehow manage to bring a touch of the briny to downtown Bracknell.
This is a clean, unfussy store where the passing shopper can see straight to the back of the shop thanks to an off-white colour palette and a lot of white track spotlights.
It is also part of a mix in The Lexicon that makes it an appealing destination.