Context 171 - March 2022

24 C O N T E X T 1 7 1 : M A R C H 2 0 2 2 LUCY FAIRE and DENISE McHUGH Sensory and emotional histories of the high street In the mid-20th century, before the days of online and out-of-town shopping, users of the high street developed intense relationships with this important urban space. The provincial high street is an established town or city centre retail street distinguished by its high status, heavy footfall and pivotal relation to other parts of the city, traditionally being an important thoroughfare. For some people, the high street was experienced through an occasional shopping trip into or ‘up’ town. For others it was a social space or an integral part of their daily transit. This introduction brings to life people’s experience of the high street during the middle decades of the 20th century, a period of significant change that still affects us today. We examine this historic experience through the themes of urban material knowledge, identity, and sensory and emotional engagement, using sources that highlight both collective and individual accounts. Our research focuses on digital sources, particularly social media, to access user testimonies of this space. These memories can be corroborated with films and photographs which reveal the rich materiality and activity of these streets. Throughout we use ‘high street’ as shorthand for prestigious central retail spaces of British towns and cities. The user-understanding of the high street was built up through spending time in this space and developing a unique personal geography of it. Although traffic wardens and police, and material objects such as railings, crossings, bus stops and temporary signs directed crowds and mobility, people developed their own systems of negotiating the space through personal usage. Many families had highly organised and ritualised methods of negotiating the high street. Denise McHugh was brought up to go shopping in town; likewise Jean Basketts, growing up in post-war Coventry, recalls shopping in town with her mother every Saturday, visiting certain shops, from the age of six up to when she had her first child.1 The detailed spatial understanding built up by repeated activities was a practical advantage in the efficient navigation of the high-street area, helping users to meet the demands of work or transport. Marcia, catching the last bus for Kirkbandrews at 10.30, took a ‘shortcut… from the town hall to the Ribble bus station through the narrow streets of derelict houses