Tumbleweed Towns


The horror film 28 Days Later depicts a (fictional) post apocalyptic UK in which our protagonists struggle for survival following the release of a deadly virus and the collapse of society.  When the protagonists reach London they find a ghost city – the empty streets around well-known landmarks looking eerie without people.

The scenes were laboriously filmed early on Sunday mornings during the long days of summer – when the sun was up but Londoners were still in bed.  The early morning light adding a gritty cinematic feel to the vacant streets.

The film would have been much easier to shoot – though less cinematically arresting – if it had been filmed in any provincial town in Britain where shops routinely shut up shop at 5:30pm – and town centres soon after take on that empty abandoned quality in the film.  

The photo above was taken at just after 6pm on a Saturday afternoon – a time when town centres should be buzzing.  The photo was taken in Eastbourne – but it doesn’t really matter where it was taken as the scene is played out across the country.

I was looking for nothing more than a coffee and newspaper. But the streets were so barren I began to fear the zombies were coming and the break down of society had already begun. And we wonder why we have a problem with the decline of highstreets in this country.

When the shops close there’s no reason to come into town. And the problem is that there’s no incentive for one shop to extend their hours as no one bothers to go into town after work, or on a late weekend afternoon because they know everything’s closing. 

But imagine if provincial town centres were routinely open for business untill 9pm. Cafes and restaurants could spill out onto the pavements. People could pop into their local shops for the odd last minute dinner ingredients and wind down with a drink –  rather than face the hassle of a vast soulless hypermarket and sprawling car park. 

As businesses close so early, what remains for local youths to do? Bored youngsters are a recipe for trouble. Empty streets encourage crime and antisocial behaviour as the moderating oversight of others vanishes.  The zombies really do come alive when the streets are empty.  

What’s required is for one brave town centre to take a punt. Perhaps to cut business rates for shops that are prepared to help add some life to town centres after hours.  Shops that only open whilst most people are at work have never struck me as a recipe for retail success. 

In 28 Days Later it was a virus that wiped out the population and laid the capital low.  London’s now buzzing late(r) into the evenings with shops and cafes routinely open till 10pm.  And the economy is doing better for it. 

It’s a simple cure. But there’s no one left to hear it.