We’ve got yellow duck ones, fab four ones and scary ghost ones. But SevenStreets has devised a tour that really gets to the soul of our city. You want to know where we’re at, right now? It’s inside a Tesco Express, mulling over a ready meal.
We take to the trail of the Ten Tescos Tour (there are actually 12 in the city, and a 13th on the way, but these ten form a nice morning’s walk). An easy 2.5 miles, a nice ascent in the middle, and ten fascinatingly similar points of interest along the way. And remember, wherever you see a Tesco store, it marks the spot where a Liverpool enterprise lived and died before it. Every little helps, eh.
9:00 I park up in Liverpool ONE and walk along The Strand. A fresh breeze is whipping in from the Mersey as we start our walk to Tesco #1. A large Spanish man is feeling up the bagels in mittened hands and mumbling something Iberian into his iPhone. Above us, a Travelodge breakfast buffet jostles into life. But I’m on a mission. I want to make a pan of scouse. Well, it is Tesco. Best be safe eh? Sadly, fresh stewing steak is off. Pizza count: 27. Fresh chunks of beef for a nice stew count: 0.
I’m standing close to where The Goree was – a row of merchants’ warehouses (named after the port in Senegal) which housed fruit and vegetables from around the world. Now I can’t even lay my hands on a cabbage.
I follow the river downstream and cut through to Old Hall Street by Beetham’s West Tower, doubling back on myself to reach…
9:30 Tesco #2. Old Hall Street. My hunt for a cabbage remains unresolved. But there is a stack of freshly printed Echos to greet me. They, too, have travelled from distant lands, for this Tesco stands above what was the Echo’s printing press, clanking away through the night to bring the city its made-in-Liverpool news. Now, like everything else in Tesco’s, it’s bought in from far and wide (and Oldham), clocking up the in a continuing fallacy of centralisation. And as the local businesses move out, Tesco moves in. There is one packet of cubed steak. A few trays of breaded fish flounder next to fish pies.
9:50 I walk down Old Hall Street, through the windblown emptiness of Exchange Square, continue down Castle Street and turn left onto Lord Street to Tesco #3. Here, at the top end of the city centre, Lord Street once bustled with life – local traders, food halls, even a Lord Street arcade – now the forlorn street’s only food outlet is this solitary, sorry looking Tesco Express. Two girls are arguing by the crisp racks. “She says I can have nuts,” one says to the other. “Yeah, but not ready salted. She means boring nuts,” her friend offers, pointing to a packet of cashews. A woman in a London 2012 jacket asks for vanilla essence and is told, vaguely, to try ‘the other Tesco’ (as if there is just the two) ‘on Hanover Street’. No cabbage. A banner flutters above ‘Love Lord Street? Tell Us Why!’ it screams- yeah, tell me too, while you’re at it.
10:15 I head to the ‘other’ Tesco, in Liverpool ONE; Tesco #4 is the largest supermarket in the town centre, opened with alarming fanfare by Keith Chegwin. Downstairs is busy enough, with a deli, a good range of fresh produce, and plenty of cabbages. Upstairs is an unloved and curious melange of confectionary and toiletries, cheap iPod docks and (cheaper) knickers. A woman asks SevenStreets if we’ve seen any paper plates. ‘I was told they were up here,’ she says, crestfallen. We manoeuvre her away from the Pampers and find the party aisle, complete with disposable plates, glittery stars and party poppers. The woman looks like she’s going to kiss us. We move on.
The store sits on a patch of land once given over to Mr Seel’s Garden, a tightly packed network of vegetable patches, orchards and market gardens – there’s a plaque on the side of the store (and you can find out more here). The fertile land has now grown an entire supermarket. Impressive.
10:45 The Bold Street Tesco (Tesco #5) is housed in a grand old banking hall, which once belonged to the Liverpool Savings Bank. More recently, it was the Rapid Furniture shop: two Liverpool businesses that have both since crumbled, as Tesco takes over the world. The store was a controversial addition to the top end of Liverpool’s bo-ho independent street (just opposite the place where there used to be a smashing locally-owned fruit and veg stall). There was a petition against its opening, in a Conservation Area, but it amounted to nothing, and even a drive-by exorcism by the Reverend Billy Shopocalypse did little to neuter its powers.
11:00 It’s a hike up Hardman Street to Tesco #6, in Myrtle Street, targeted and looted in the mini-me riots of 2011 by a handful of ten year olds seized with an insatiable desire to get their hands on family pack of basmati microwavable rice. The Myrtle Street Parade is a pocket-sized precinct which was once home to Irwins – a legendary Liverpool chain of grocers, with seven outlets in the city. Now it’s Irwins 0, Tesco 12. The Myrtle Street store has racks overflowing with fruit and veg. But, then, it is surrounded by student accommodation. A huge ‘What we’ve found, and what we’re doing’ notice is taped to the window. No one reads it.
11:20 I cut across the top of town towards the Knowledge Quarter. Tesco #7 stands in the shadow of the Catholic Cathedral, directly above Lutyen’s Crypt. Ah, the irony – Lutyen’s vaulted subterranean masterpiece now supports the city’s real place of worship, with its pews of Pringles, and the massed evensong of ‘unexpected item in bagging area’ (Crimond).
Inside, they’re running low on Nurofen (well, it is within the University’s campus. All that deep thinking). There is a commotion at the till. A woman asked for a Lucky 7 scratchcard and was given a substitute. She complains post-scratching. Good luck with that, we think, as we slip away.
11:40 Across Great Newton Street and down Pembroke place to Tesco #8, peeking behind scaffolding, and, for some reason, overrun with ‘Keep Me’ bananas. ‘Do you have any ‘eat me now’ bananas?’ I ask a man gingerly escorting a cage of reduced croissants around the aisles, as if to taunt us. ‘No, just Keep Me ones,’ he says. I could wait til Thursday, when the market sets up in Monument Place. Or make do with a starchy green banana. Choices, choices. This city’s full of them. In London Road, fresh food, of any colour, is very hard to find. Unless you fancy risking it in (£1 a pint all day) Durty Nellys. We don’t.
11:50 I switch back through Russell Street to Mount Pleasant and down to Tesco #9, close to the Adelphi. It’s a dark, labyrinthine sort of place, where backpacking tourists mill about, eyeing up a tumbled moraine of sandwiches as lunchtime approaches. Leaning towers of pizzas rise above empty vegetable baskets, and two old women chat idly next to an aisle-end gondola of jam: ‘I know you can’t always tell, but he doesn’t look like the type, does he?’ says one. I loiter awhile to discover they’re talking about Oscar Pistorius. No-one knows quite where to queue. A huddled mass of humanity, dithering by the self-checkout, juggling crisps, sushi and sandwiches. A woman with a brawling baby is screaming down the phone: ‘it’s under the fucking bin.’
12:00 Tesco #10 takes me back into the heart of the city’s shopping streets. It’s opposite the struggling St John’s Market. A generation ago, the market was a vibrant maze of greengrocers, butchers and bakers. Now complete lanes lie boarded up and silent, and we all shop over the road.
A youngish chap by the security tagged DVDs with two rolls of frozen pastry. He catches a female customer’s eye: “excuse me, love, have you any idea if I’d get shortcrust or puff pastry for a pie?” he asks. “I don’t know, sorry,” she says, like she’s never clapped eyes on frozen pastry in her life. Which, chances are, she hasn’t. I offer what little pastry knowledge I know. Puff on top. Shortcrust bottom. He throws both in. “Gonna make my own steak pie,” he says. “It might be shit, but at least I’ll know what’s in it.”
We’ve come a long way in the past few weeks – confidence, they say, is at an all time low. But it only takes a morning’s stroll to see we’re still a city ensnared with the monoculture of the Express store.
In isolation, there’s nothing wrong with a Tesco Express. They’re fairly well stocked, and relatively convenient. But en masse they present an illusion of choice. Like many large companies, Tesco uses its scale to squash smaller competitors. And when things go wrong, as they just have, spectacularly, it’s not quite so simple for us to revert to plan B. It’s all over.
Whether Horsemeatgate really has changed our buying habits it’s probably too soon to tell. All I know is this – if you work in the city centre, and want to buy fresh stuff for tea, if it’s not in Tescos, chances are it’s not going to end up on your table. One store, 12 outlets – oh, and the cabbage count 23. Not bad, until you realise that the pizza count is 380. As for Tesco Value Spaghetti Bolognaise, there was no sign.
Here’s the map, should you care to try it out yourself.