A personal view from Alan Povey
“Chester has no culture” . Or so the saying goes.
Since the Gateway theatre closed in 2007( with a basement studio remaining ) and Odeon decided they were no longer interested in having a cinema in the city, the first sentence of this blog has been heard and written by many of Chester’s residents over the past decade. Commentators in both, the local papers and on social media, have poured scorn on the lack of culture and things to do for residents and visitors within the walled city.
The reality however was different. On the back of the Gateway’s main auditorium closing, Tip Top Productions took up home in the smaller studio theatre and continue to perform to highly praised shows today. As far back as 2010, Chester Performs introduced the Grosvenor Open Air Theatre to the city for the very first time. Today this is one of the best of its kind in the country and performing to 25,000 people over the summer months.
Many events have adorned the city centre long before Storyhouse became more than just an idea. Apart from those mentioned above, we have enjoyed: Chester Literature Festival, Moonlight Flicks, Chester Music Festival as well as various parades throughout the city during the year, including the Mid-Summer Watch parade and the lantern parade that brings in Christmas. There is of course Theatre in the Quarter, who themselves have been performing shows for several years now, including their much acclaimed and current show, The Lost Boy. We can also look to smaller groups like Chester Film Society who utilise several buildings across the city to put on film showings. They even have their own International Film Festival, which is held every March. All of this has been going on for years now, yet rather than trying to search out these wonderful organisations and their offerings, the trend was instead to criticise the “lack of culture”. As we can see, the realities were very different – Chester city centre has long been the stage.
Thankfully, rather than admitting defeat, a group of people realised Chester deserved better, and while many others were calling for the Gateway to be renovated, after it became clear that its closure was premature given the stalling of the Northgate Development, the decision was eventually made to give Chester the cultural home it DID deserve. Sites were looked at, and eventually it was narrowed down to two: The Roodee Car Park and the empty Odeon building. In the end the Odeon building was decided upon, and after the Council had purchased it back from Brook Leisure for £3 million, the ball was now rolling. Of course, many took the news with a pinch of salt, but in 2014 plans were finally unveiled. The plan was to re-house the library within the new building, that included the demolition of Commerce House and an extension added in its place, that would house the 800 capacity theatre. A cafe/restaurant and 100 seat boutique cinema would also take pride of place. Still the plans were treated with scepticism, myself even doubting whether the library should be relocated. At a cost of £37 million, many doubted if it would even be built and so the trend of criticism and mocking continued.
In 2015, demolition of Commerce House had happened and work was well under way. As part of the Open Doors initiative, I put myself down to tour the site. The vision outlined by the developers, Kier, was one that really sparked the imagination. They knew that what they were creating was going to be very special. I was excited. Others on the tour was excited. We were finally going to see this happen – but still, some doubt continued to linger for many.
Fast forward to 2017 and all of that doubt has now evaporated. We have been given a real treat and what can only be described as a marvel of architecture. A 1930’s Art Deco building has been brought back into life, with a modern and inviting extension. Where many buildings of its type have been demolished in other cities, or converted into bingo halls, Chester’s is instead now the cultural and social heartbeat of the city. When I look back at how people have talked about Chester’s culture, how the development was lambasted for being a waste of money; £33 million has been put up by Cheshire West and Chester, or how it would never even happen, I now look on as a proud Cestrian. I am not afraid to say either, I was wrong about the library. Despite the theatre being what will generate income, the library for me is the true centrepiece of Storyhouse.
Everywhere you go, there are books. The stuffiness of the old library is now a distant memory. The children’s library is bright and airy and children are encouraged to be children. Drawing is allowed on the windows fronting Northgate Street, there are arts and craft at the weekend, and no longer are they pushed into the corner of a glorified basement. The true wonder of Storyhouse, is that we can now socialise amongst the culture that it provides. The ground floor is an inviting hub of activity. People of all ages enjoying a coffee or light snacks. They can sit quietly in a corner with a book, or they meet with friends to just chat and take in the wonder of what we have. The cinema, whilst not a multiplex, brings both world, art and blockbuster movies back into Chester. Positioned above the cafe, it is a real trip down memory lane. The boutique cinema, with it’s entrance met by the distinct curved stairs that so many Cestrians have walked up. It’s these touches and these nods to our own personal memories, that makes you realise that this wasn’t about filling gaps in the space but utilising them with care and thought. Then there is, what in my opinion will become iconic, is the distinct red staircase that leads people up to the top floor bar and of course, the theatre. People still stand in awe of the scale of the place. Eyes looking up, photos being taken. That is the true sign of success.
Storyhouse truly has been created with people in mind. Yes, it might not sale locally sourced real ale, the bookcases might not be everybody’s cup of tea, heck some may even question why a library needs to be open until 11pm. But many of those who were critical in the beginning are now realising what we have. The superlatives expressed across social media have been amazing and praise must go to everybody involved in making this happen. This building will truly be the benchmark for similar developments in the future. Many cities have lost basic amenities like libraries, we have been given a far bigger and better one. It’s probably the most accessible building I have ever been in; my Mum can’t use stairs, but we easily found our way to the top floor as I showed her round. Gender neutral toilets, disabled toilets and baby facilities grace the whole building too. No matter who you are, everybody is welcomed with open arms. The staff are relaxed and chatty. There are no large barriers impeding our movement round the building. We are trusted to check in and out our books using self service machines, but there is always somebody on hand to help. That is what makes this a true community and people focused environment.
For too long, Cestrians have chosen to be, in my opinion, unfairly critical of culture in Chester. We had the failed bid for Capital of Culture, however In my opinion that is not what we should be looking towards. We don’t need titles like “Capital of Culture”. Storyhouse has shown what drive, vision and a clear end goal can achieve and that for me is what as a city we should concentrate on being more like. It is now our job to ensure we support all culture in Chester, and those who making it happen for us. Culture has always been a part of Chester, what Storyhouse now provides that culture is a beacon that shines as bright its sign that sits proudly where the words “ODEON” once sat. We have all been given something that we have craved for so long.
Not only is Storyhouse for us, but it’s also for the future generations who will hopefully create their own memories as the Odeon did before it.
Written by Alan Povey