The first interesting thing to happen in 2016 was a car colliding with a barrier as it exited Tesco’s car park on Frodsham street. The incident sent social media into overdrive as users shared pictures and anecdotes of the incident. The area was disrupted for hours but luckily no one was hurt.
January blog interviews included chats with new businesses Hopper Coffee, Soda (taking over the old dungeon premises on Watergate street) and established independent Roly’s Fudge. In other business news the popular Central Perk cafe closed down on Bridge street , originally under cover of a refurbishment and then attacking increased business rates. The chain’s other 2 units in Liverpool carried on trading but dumped the “Friends” branding.
The innovative Share Shop opened on Northgate street in a blaze of publicity and positivity. The Town crier launched the venture with over 100 people queuing to get in the combined charity/coffee shop founded to support homeless people and refugees. Co founder Adam Dandy commented that there was ” so much love, generosity and kindness in Chester ”
The anti- fracking camp in Upton was evicted by police on January 12th. Days later a crowd of 400 people marched through Upton complete with a giant dragon puppet, protesting at the plans to test drill for shale gas. It was all in vain as after a hugely expensive eviction IGAS withdrew their plans for a drill meaning the whole police exercise had been a waste of time and money.
Photographer Bob Hadfield made a great interview subject for our blog as he spoke about his memories of working in the Odeon cinema from 1998 to 2004. Nostalgia for the Odeon remained high as the city awaited news on the new theatre opening date. Housed inside the old Odeon building and featuring a small 100 seat cinema, the unnamed £37 million development was scheduled to open in the autumn.
The well respected judge Elgan Edwards passed away, as did Sir Terry Wogan who won many hearts last summer whilst recording a TV show in the city. 2016 was quickly labelled as a bad one with a series of high profile celebrity deaths throughout the year, including David Bowie who also passed away in January.
In lighter hearted news The Chuckle Brothers checked in at Rosies. The month ended with a popular interview with Rev Graham Shaw, the Vicar of Newtown. “As I walk and meet the wonderful people of Newtown, I catch glimpses of God here.” he said.
The now customary ( in its 7th year) Chinese New year celebrations bought some colour and excitement to the bleak winter. Firecrackers, and traditional Chinese dancers were joined by a new addition a 100ft dragon which weaved its way along Eastgate and Bridge street.
The “One chair” exhibition devised and photographed by Sam Ryley launched in a vacant unit on Watergate row. The project celebrated Chester creatives and aimed to recognise and praise forward thinking rather than dwelling on the past. Steve from Minerva Lodge Tattoo who was one of the occupants of the chair noted the change in Chester culture over the last 2 years and the growth of an independent spirit. “We had slight reservations when we first came and we were hoping it was on the up, and it is. I think it goes without saying that its moving onto bigger and better things.”
Examples of the independent spirit included photographer Kat Hannon who moved to Chester in 2013. She was involved in Februarys “Love in Chester” campaign photographing kissing couples across the city as part of a marketing campaign to promote Chester as “the city of love.” Supported by an exhibition at the Grosvenor Museum the campaign received national attention.
On the blog we featured interviews with the Panini Press, another thriving independent business. Owner Benjamin Redwood commented that “I think more and more people are a bit bored of the big chains. I think people like a bit more personality. I’m sure they do a great job but I think we can offer something a bit more.!” Later magician Simon South visited the shop to show off his magic skills
Passionate Ed Abrams of Chester Civil War Tours. During a historical walking tour Ed told me that the city failed to make enough of its Civil War heritage, but was firm in his view that Chester was on the up..”What we don’t do well, is we don’t sell it very well. There needs to be a committed task force of people that go out to the country and say “this is a hidden gem, you’re missing a trick here!”
Some inspirational words from ex soldier Peter Bowker followed in our blog as he reflected on losing his right leg and going on to cross the Greenland ice cap. His team raised over £100,000 for Help for Heroes in the process.
We took a ride in the Deva Tuk Tuk, which had recently gained permission to operate for private hire. The Tuk Tuk team were keen to stress that they were not in competition with the city’s taxi companies. Riding in the colourful Tuk Tuk with the horn beeping , and noting the puzzed smiles of passers by was an early highlight of the year. Deva Tuk Tuk went from strength to strength in 2016 featuring in the city’s Pride and Diwali parades.
So Rahman was full of praise for his home city as he reflected upon his 25 year career in broadcasting in a talk at a packed Grosvenor museum.
Meanwhile in council business , the Conservative group walked out of the full council meeting over a row over council tax. The walk out over allegations of debate being stifled by Labour led to some comedic scenes on the webcam.
Chester Passion was a huge success bringing the TV cameras to the city as the Easter story was played out live in the streets. A collaborative effort by local churches and theatre groups featuring music by Matt Baker , the Good Friday event was the best of Chester on show once again and will return in 2017.
Gregg Wallace returned to the Food and Drink festival on the racecourse and repeated most of his jokes from the previous year. Over 25,000 people attended the event over the Easter holiday.
“Storyhouse” was revealed as the name for the new theatre/library/100 seat cinema. The response to the name was mixed with an extensive online debate favouring a more traditional name, but with the name revealed the future seemed a little bit closer.
Chester was branded a “fictional city” by the ever accurate Daily Mail leading everyone to double check they weren’t inside The Matrix.
The new branch of Wilko opened on Foregate street as the company moved into larger modern premises. Excited shoppers queued up to receive gifts including a free hand mixer.
The enigmatic Busking Lady, a well known busker spoke of her love for Chester. “Its very diverse and I like the juxtaposition of modern with the past. You have the fact that people perform in the street, its a quite theatrical city, it has that artistic atmosphere. Its one of my favourite places.”
Top British sculptor David Mach’s giant pin men on a cross sculpture “Golgotha” was installed in the Cathedral and was a big hit with visitors. The striking and haunting depiction of the crucifixion looked suitably eerie in the south transept of the Cathedral.
Steph Brocken of Minerva Arts was interviewed for our blog, the youth drama group founder spoke of the ending of the so called “cultural desert”. Praising groups like Chester Fringe, Chester culture and others she said that “Things are getting a lot better. A lot more people are doing things themselves. One of the things we have benefited from in the “cultural desert” period, as it will go down in the annals of Chester history, is that people have picked themselves up and done things themselves…with the cultural centre, that will then start to provide more paid opportunities and more placement and development opportunities for young professionals. ”
The Boat House opened their new hotel in a £1.5 million development. The 21 nautically themed rooms with a convenient river side location tapped into a new spirit of development and optimism around the city, and built on the success of the floating beer garden which was opened the previous summer.
Blogger Rachel O Kelly interviewed the Lord Major, Cllr Hugo Deynem at council HQ. His passion for the role and city was evident, and he expressed concern at the role being split from chairman of the council. Asked about the changing face of the city over the years he replied that :
“I don’t personally miss Woolworths.. I did miss, and continue to miss the Gateway theatre. That was a tragic loss. We should have maintained it. But we have the exciting prospect of the new cultural centre, that will be a huge asset to the city. That would be my biggest regret having lost that , but its tempered somewhat now we have a new one coming onboard. I’m just a little regretful that I won’t be in a position to open it” He also stated the city lacked an must see paid attraction, Chester’s equivalent of the Yorvik centre…More of that later.
Access through the Roman garden was restored , using recycled Roman masonry to rapir the damaged wall. Work also began on the running joke of the Northgate walls, with work due to be completed by the end of the year. The scaffold over the wall at the entrance to the city had been in place since 2011.
Paddy Ashdown visited to warn about the dangers of leaving the EU in the forthcoming vote. In contrast to the visit of John Prescott in 2015 the visit was low key with Paddy mainly chatting to activists at the Cross before heading into St John’s Church to charge his phone. Paddy feared that a leave vote would trigger the break up of the UK
We visited the office of the Police and Crime Commissioner John Dywer for an interview about the forthcoming election. Turnout for the previous election had been just 14% and few seemed engaged. A debate at the town hall organised by Liberal candidate and cyber crime expert Neil Lewis was attended by a handful of activists.
UKIP candidate Jonathan Starkey believed his free thinking nature and concert pianist experience qualified him for the role, whilst Neil Lewis’ warning about cyber crime led to John Dwyer labelling him a “one trick pony”. Quiet man David Keane (Labour) won the subsequent election with an increased turnout of 23.85%.
“Rooms Quest” opened as a new attraction for the city located inside the railway station buildings. Chester’s first escape room offered something fun and different to do in a convenient location, a welcome boost to the night time economy for people who didn’t want to go for a meal or get drunk in a trendy cocktail bar.
Another new addition to the city was the part EU funded renovation of the Carriage Shed next to the train station. Serving as a gateway to the new “business quarter” and offering a link between Boughton and the city centre (via the Waitrose bridge) , the Shed was used throughout the year for a successful monthly artisan market.
Film crews were once again in action on 2 consecutive days. A BBC crew filmed links for “On the money” featuring Town crier David Mitchell. The next day John Prescott and Paddy McGuiness were spotted examining classic cars on Northgate Street. The ex phoenix nights star landed a black mark for a snide theft of a photograph that I tweeted.
Despite poor weather , the first Hoole May Day festival was a huge success, full credit to the organisers and businesses who came together. The event was so popular that a second festival took place in the autumn, and looks to be replacing the apparently defunct Brook street festival in the Chester calendar of events.
A mini renaissance took place in Chester market with 4 new traders opening up, with 2 occupying the former long serving Pet Shop. A cake shop, book stall, jewellery and collectors shop all opened , with a 5th “Nice Bites” run by professional chef Stuart Fenney followed.
As work progressed on Storyhouse we toured the site evoking memories of the Odeon and were impressed by the progress and scale of the project. Alex Clifton, artistic director of Storyhouse gave a supporting interview and praised the cultural activity of the last few years but felt that Storyhouse would serve as a supporting “mothership”. Questioned about the programme he said that the 800 seat theatre allowed Chester to host “some very big productions, the kind of stuff you see at The Lowry. That sort of programme of work, in terms of dance, opera, theatre, drama , comedy, music. If you look across the country at other 800 seat venues, the work we’ll be bringing in will be comparable to these venues..” The opening date was still to be revealed but an Autumn opening appeared unlikely.
Controversial Conservative Leader Mike Jones stepped down to concentrate on business affairs. Jones blamed a poor election campaign from the local associations for the 2015 election defeat and regretted the way the council handled the student village affair. Lynn Riley took over as leader shortly after.
The 6 month long closure of Frodsham Street was announced to allow for modernisation of the street including a “shared space” for pedestrians and vehicles. The work led to a temporary road surface being built in front of the Disney shop to maintain access, as well as all Frodsham street buses being diverted to other stops. Work eventually began in August.
The Goat and munch opened in the Garden quarter, with the small pub being a friendly addition to the community. Owner David Wilson, alongside son Harry (AKA hip hop performer This is Vil) said that the welcome from the Garden Quarter had been great :”I like it, its very vibrant, it just needs a bit more investment. Its food heaven for students, all it needs is a curry house! Nice people, very friendly!”
As the EU referendum drew closer , Chester was visited by several politicians on the campaign trail including Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, and ex Conservative Minister Edwina Currie. Carrier bag wielding Tim Martin of pub chain Wetherspoons passionately orated to the Chronicle about his hatred of the European Union. A debate also took place at the university with the “leave” side seeming to swing it. The UKIP bus parked outside the Grosvenor hotel on polling day…
A horrific mass shooting in Orlando killed 49 people and galvanised the Chester public into a moving show of support. 200 people turned up for a vigil at the Town Hall to reaffirm the belief that love was stronger than hate.
Moules a go go announced they were moving from Watergate row to a new home on Cuppin street. Owner Duncan Ryles was excited about “moving home” but warned that retail in the city was “dead” saying that “there’s a whole generation coming up who never intend to shop. What used to be the high street is now heavily restaurants and food. Pepper St has no shops left, Bridge st is more food than retail. Gradually the high street has changed, the rows are not sustainable..”
A celebration of the Queen’s 90th birthday lit up the city with a parade and musical performances in Town Hall square led by Theatre in the Quarter’s Matt Baker. A giant queen paraded gracefully from the Eastgate before observing the proceedings. As a BBC journalist commented “We’ve certainly had entertainment fit for a queen and though she’s been fairly static throughout the proceedings its clear from the look on her face that she’s ecstatic.” The feel good event was in stark contrast to the conflict ahead, locally and nationally.
The country voted by a narrow margin to leave the EU. Weeks and weeks of political intrigue and backstabbing followed …
Chester was haunted by a phantom Plague Doctor which seemed to be stalking the walls and streets, even attracting coverage in international media. Many suspected that it was either a student prank or a clever publicity stunt…After weeks of Plague Doctor “sightings” the doc was unmasked as a promo for “Sick to Death” a new history of medicine themed attraction in the mainly inaccessible Water Tower.
The debate that was to dominate the summer began when the council revealed that the long derelict Dee House was to be leased, thus ending hopes of the amphitheatre ever bing excavated. Adam Dandy was quick off the mark telling us that a lease of the listed building would remove the “possibility of any of us or our children ever seeing Deva’s Roman Amphitheatre in our lifetimes.” Fearful of future generations laughing at us he called for Dee House to be demolished and the soil removed so the full space could be exposed and utilised as a tourist attraction…
Continued in part 2