This week’s story, told to us by Chiara, comes from Karnak Travel agency.
I went to visit Meher in her agency in June, when the office was still located in a temporary premises in Station Road North. The agency has now come back to its original position, at number 5, The Precinct in Egham High Street. Meher is a very dynamic woman and always committed within Egham community. Every year she is part of the organisation for the Egham’s annual Magna Carta Day, and in those days, when I went to visit her, she iss busy with the last preparations of this year’s edition. But, despite this, she is very open and friendly, and I honestly think that she was actually very happy to talk to me about this place that she loves so much. Our discussion stretches from her business industry to Egham community’s changes and history. It was a very interesting meeting and it is impossible not to feel admiration for her.
“It will be 35 years this summer that I’ve been in Egham. We took over an existing travel agency in 5 High Street in 1982, and I have worked here ever since. It was already a travel agency since the early 70s. I bought the businesses itself, and I didn’t need to do many renovations as it was already in a good shape. At the beginning my customers used to say that they already knew the previous owner. It was when The Precinct was originally built, and there hadn’t been any other businesses there. The Precinct was built just after the war to replace buildings that were destroyed or damaged during the war.
It’s funny because all the other shops have changed, for instance at number 1, in the 35 years I’ve been there, it has changed at least 20 times. I can’t even remember all the people who had their shops there. There was once a company that did landscapes, like roads and pathways, then there was a saddler (although I don’t remember well if that was at number 1 or 3), then it was a gentlemen shoe shop, and then a gentlemen clothes shop. There was a hairdresser before the barber….so many, so many that I forgot! And for all these years I’ve been thinking that I would like to rent it myself to open a tea shop, but I’ve never done it because I already run a travel agency.
I think there are just 4 or 5 businesses that have been here as long as I’ve been, and just 1 for longer, the pharmacy Millman, that changes the owner sometimes but the business is still the original one, that’s it!
When I arrived, there were lots of independent shops, restaurants and bars, but there are no longer any businesses run by private individuals. I noticed partly because I’m involved in Magna Carta Day, which is this 17 June, it’s always been on a Saturday in June for the past 25 years. Every year we print posters and we walk down the High Street to ask the traders to put the posters in their window. But every year we print fewer and fewer posters, because the big chains always say “sorry, company policy says that we can’t put posters in the window”, and it has reached the point where there are probably 6 or 7 shops, plus some charity shops, plus restaurants, where the owner actually works on the premises and can make a decision. It really is that bad. Most of the people who are supposedly managing businesses in the High Street have no responsibility, and as a result they are totally non responsive to what’s going on in the community, no responsive to the needs of the community and even something as simple as posting an advertising about a fair in the High Street they have to refer back to their head office.
I know a number of business owners in High Street, but we don’t socialise that much. They are all very friendly, but they are fewer. It’s a pity. The town is beginning to lack in very distinctive shops. Things that can bring people into the town because of a specific reason. Now you find just businesses who provide services just for local people, but there are not many businesses that can bring people from further because they are distinctive.
I don’t think Egham has improved. When I first came here there was a community in the town as well as a community in the surrounding streets. And the residential community has been significantly damaged by the high number of students. Because if in the streets there are temporary residents in most of the flats and houses, it’s very difficult to create a spirit of community.
The problem of high rent prices is not just because of the students but due to the housing market’s structure. For many years now, it has become a good investment for people to buy flats to rent to students, and it’s very difficult for buyers with a standard income to be able to compete, not with the student, but with the landlords. I think that the financial structure should be changed for the landlords, so that it is not more profitable for them to buy a house and rent it to students, more than to buy a house to live in it. At the moment it is like this, if you go to the estate agent you’ll see very few houses to sell for living in, they are all student rental to let or to sell as an investment opportunity. That’s very damaging, because even if people want to live in Egham they just can’t afford it, because somebody else will pay more for that house because they look for a way to make a profit”.
Follow us next week for the next story from Egham High Street….
(Header photograph: aerial view of the High Street, with thanks to the late local photographer, Fred Parkin)