Bowl Central, Caversham Road

A new tenant has been announced for the former Dawson’s Music shop on Caversham Road. Subject to licensing and planning, “Bowl Central” would be the third venture for the south-coast operator and would feature “Pins & Prizes” – aka bowling and arcade games.

I spoke briefly with the owner Tracy Standish who explained there would be seven lanes of bowling, shuffleboard, electronic darts, and a modern version of the paper token-based games emporium with credits and rewards loaded to a card. There would be a bar and food offering, with intent to transition the venue from family-friendly daytime fun to an adults-only evening setting.

This section of Caversham Road, from Chatham Street to TGIs, can’t really decide what it is. Retail has died out, following the loss not just of Dawson’s, but also Wickes, Multiyork, Drews, and Carters. Shurgard wastes a very central and sizeable plot with long term storage units, whilst this latest site, and its semi-detached twin occupied by PureGym, retain their inexplicably large car parks. The area seemed headed for the same mid-rise city centre apartment boom that’s taking place around much of the IDR, but this was stopped in its tracks. The council, encouraged by local community and heritage groups, suddenly decided Drew’s was the 8th wonder of the ancient world and rejected a residential redevelopment – a decision they surprisingly (in the view of a property insider who spoke to me recently) managed to defend at appeal. With the developers shooed away, we’re left with some low-rise utilitarian sheds, and fortuitously that opens up a commercially viable opportunity to make some small inroads into the town’s lacking family leisure provision.

The ex-Carters buildings, which have – in my view – a much stronger case for retention than Drews

I think this venue will make a bigger success of its daytime persona than its nighttime alter ego. Speaking personally, having ferried kids over to Wokingham for bowling / laser quest parties, I know there is a huge market for family-focussed entertainment more locally. If they could have bought out PureGym next door, they might have been able to take advantage of the stalled Oracle Hollywood Bowl plans by offering a much larger venue. (Rumour has it The Oracle has now decided to keep House of Fraser and is looking at possible leisure use at the ex-Debenham’s end instead). Whether as an evening venue, custom can be lured away from the core town centre is more questionable. However, being so close to the station, it certainly has a chance. And redevelopment of the former sorting office (now approved) would boost its connectivity into the centre.

Timescales of the new venture aren’t clear. The new owner was at pains not to preempt the licensing and planning process – although with only new signage envisaged the latter should be a formality. Early 2023 was the best guess. By which time, who knows, we might have a clearer picture as to whether leisure is the new theme for Caversham Road, or whether the developers might strike back. In the meantime, a warm welcome and best of luck to Bowl Central – I’ll be sure to give it a visit.

Image from Bowl Central, Bournemouth

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Bowl Central, Caversham Road

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