Stonebow House: Locals have their say – ‘It’s about the content, what’s inside’

York landmark: Stonebow House. Photograph: Richard McDougall
Locals’ landmark: Stonebow House. Photograph: Richard McDougall

Stonebow House: what now?stonebow-house-square

With the future of Stonebow House in the balance, YorkMix is running a series of articles from different perspectives on this York landmark. What do you think? Comment below, Tweet us @theyorkmix or go to our Facebook page

helen-graham-headshotHelen Graham talks to Stonebow House’s regular shoppers, coffee drinkers and gig-goers


I can’t lie. In all the many conversations I’ve now had with people through running a stall outside Heron Foods, talking to regulars at the Jorvik Café or to people queuing to get into Fibbers, the most regularly used phrase was, “it’s a monstrosity” followed close behind by, “it’s a eyesore”. Yet if the building itself is not widely appreciated, what you can do in Stonebow House is.

The Jorvik Café’s lifeblood are its regulars. Some of whom have been coming for a morning cup of coffee, six days a week for over twenty years – beginning when the cafe used to be call Cleopatra’s.

One of the group said, “We all congregate here. Most people come here. We sit out here every day, come hail or snow.

“This is our smoking area. We don’t want this part to go.”

Handy and friendly

The building as a whole is thought of by the group as “handy”, as it means they can go shopping at Heron Foods and then come round for a coffee.

“We need our Heron shop. And we need our café. We go shopping and then come here.”

One aspect which makes a difference is that the “the owners are very friendly” – which was seen as increasingly unusual with the loss of The Danish Kitchen and other traditional cafes: “There are now all these Costas. This is the place I would come. A place to eat and drink”.

The shoppers outside Heron Foods were also pretty disturbed by the idea that the building might change at some point in the future: “Heron Foods – I always do my shopping here.

“The same stuff would cost twice as much in Sainsbury’s.” Another shopper enthused about the price of scampi, and listed the difference in price from other places he shops.

And although I did explain that no decision was imminent, another shopper, also praising Heron’s affordability, immediately suggested a petition to keep Heron Foods open.

Part of music heritage

Another memorable night for music lovers at Fibbers in Stonebow House. Photograph © deargdoom57 on flickr
Another memorable night for music lovers at Fibbers in Stonebow House. Photograph © deargdoom57 on flickr
Outside Fibbers on a Sunday a pretty similar tale of use over aesthetics was being told: “it’s not a great building to look at – it’s about the content, what’s in it”.

Fibbers was seen by its gig goers as – along with The Duchess – a crucial part of the city and its history.

One person waiting for his mate to turn up commented, “Fibbers is part of the city’s heritage”.

Fibbers was seen as offering something unique to the city, “York’s got a lot of small venues. The Barbican’s there for larger groups. But Fibbers and The Duchess are the middle bracket.”

But if lots of people don’t value the building as a building, across all these conversations there was also another theme – that development would not help theses shoppers, coffee drinkers and gig goers carry on doing what they like doing.

Outside Heron, one shopper was pretty scathing about recent developments in York. If they got rid of it, she said, “it would just be another Tescos, coffee shop or block of student houses – York’s for tourists not locals”.

In the Jorvik Café outside smoking area, sceptism was also expressed. “They’d knock buildings down and make them into flats. But how can anyone afford to buy or rent, it’s so expensive?”

Stonebow is ‘locals York’

This, perhaps, is the Stonebow House problem.

It’s not that people might not be happy with the building looking different but there is a wide recognition (given what’s happening elsewhere in the city) that economic investment in the building would be likely to endanger the ways in which it is currently used.

The Jorvik Café regulars show that there need not be a simplistic “tourist v locals” divide and happily speak of welcoming tourists to their café, chatting with them and offering them advice and directions.

Yet there it is no doubt the case that Stonebow is a locals York. Except for outside Fibbers, in these hours hanging around Stonebow House I’ve not ended up speaking to anyone who didn’t live in the city; it’s the other way round if you run a stall on Parliament Street.

Something about the building being low status, uncelebrated and off York’s gentrification and tourist trail has over the years created an enclave of affordability which in turn has cultivated regular use, friendliness and viable city centre live music venues.

All of which demonstrates clearly that any future decision must take into account not just what people think about the visual appearance of Stonebow House but also what Stonebow House makes possible – affordable food, social lives, friendly faces, handiness, live music – and the only way of doing this, of course, is to actively involve the buildings users.

One shopper I met when asked what he thought of Stonebow House immediately said “you want to put a bomb under it and blow it up”.

“It’s not well used up top,” he said pointing to the “To Let” signs for the offices in the tower.

Then, taking a second’s pause before heading into Heron Foods in his hunt for scampi, he added, “but it is down here”.