The year got off to a fun start with local data expert John Murray’s claim that Chester had the world’s steepest street , and not Baldwin street in Dunedin, New Zealand as the BBC claimed. A visit to St Mary’s Hill armed with a spirit level and a tape measure revealed the gradient of the street to be 36 degrees. However as the street is closed to vehicles the record breaking claim was dismissed.
Other hot news topics in January included revelations about Easter eggs being available for sale in supermarkets and a giant rat on the prowl in Boughton. Plus in the years first celebrity visit, Phil Mitchell off of EastEnders appeared at Rosies nightclub. Meanwhile Brutus the Morrisons Cat passed away at the age of eight.
Kash Bar hosted the 2017 Chester Beer awards organised by the Chester Beer blog. Winners included Craig Elliot from The Cross Keys as best bartender, and Goat and Munch in the Garden Quarter who won the best newcomer award.
Locals showed their opposition to the policies of President Trump with a city centre protest. A banner with the slogan “bridges not walls” was draped from the Eastgate clock and ironically from our own city walls. The protest was organised as a response to the Presidents controversial travel ban which barred nationals from seven majority Muslim countries from entering the USA. “You know its bad when Chester marches” proclaimed one sign holder.
In a blow the city’s independent retail scene , Becnicks Wonder Emporium announced they were closing their Brook street store after nearly 6 years. The closure was blamed on increased rates and changing shopping habits, with co founder Nicola Freer stating that the business would continue online and via community fairs. The unit was taken over by Woodstock vintage and 2 of the Becnicks traders returned to Brook street later in the year.
Controversial ex council leader Mike Jones was in the news again when it became public that his spending on a council credit card was being investigated. Including large amounts spent on food and drink at the city’s top bars and restaurants, Jones stated that he was wining and dining important clients to attract investors, diplomatically stating that “I don’t see why , for what is fairly pittance of an income I should have to pay”. Jones was cleared of all charges of wrongdoing later in the year but was asked to pay back some of the expenses claimed.
In its 131st year we enjoyed a privileged look into the vaults of the Grosvenor Museum with collections officer Liz Montgomery. With only a quarter of the museum’s collection on display at any one time , the vault holds finds from all over the city including weaponry, a Roman gladiator figurine recovered from beneath the old market hall in 1967 and a huge costume store. Hoping for a larger museum one day, Liz said that: “We have had various plans over the years to redevelop the museum and we are still working on it.”
In another great moment in Chester history, Ricky Tomlinson cut the ribbon at the revived Bull and Stirrup. Wetherspoons acquired the pub which had closed in 2014 and spent over £2 million refurbishing it. The ex Brookside star had attended trade union meetings in the pub in the 70s and spoke of his fight to clear his name over conspiracy charges. The opening was overshadowed by Ricky’s claim that Richard Whiteley, of Countdown fame was an MI5 spy…
A group of local creatives including photographer Sam Ryley, wine marketer Paul Caputo and graphic designer Kirsty Dalton launched Tortoise magazine. Given out free across the city the magazine was a celebration of the city’s independent scene. The name of the magazine served as a contrast to the fast pace of social media. “It’s slow news!” said Sam. “Its the opposite of click bait, all of the articles are pretty in depth,, all around 1000 words. ” The first edition, which was funded via advertising from independent businesses included features on a diverse range of topics including theatre, witches, wine and music. 2 other issues were published in 2017.
Panic spread across Twitter when an eerie pulsating red sky became visible across the borough. After a couple of hours of frenzied apocalyptic speculation, Cheshire Fire Service/Police reassured the public that there had been no incident and the unusual sight was merely a controlled burn off of excess gas at the Stanlow refinery.
Chester based fashion designer Matthew O Brien hosted a fashion show at Chester Cathedral raising £3000 for the Babygrow Appeal and the Meningitis Foundation. Marking the first anniversary of his Rufus Court fashion shop and studio. It was the first event of its kind to be held at the Cathedral. “I think its really important that Chester sees a real runway show” said Matthew.
In the city’s restaurant and bar merry go ground, Spanish restaurant El Sotano replaced the Mockingbird Taproom on Watergate street, and All Bar One opened in place of the Blackhouse grill on Pepper Street.
At the end of March the city library closed prior to the move to Storyhouse. We took a last look around the building which was scheduled for redevelopment as part of the Northgate scheme with Cheshire West’s senior libraries manager Rachel Foster. The much loved facility opened in 1984 and Rachel said that staff were excited about the opportunities offered by Storyhouse. “We are currently open 51 hours a week, we will be open for 71 hours, over 7 days a week. The library will be staffed until the early evening and outside of that, you will still be able to issue and return books and use the Wi-Fi ”
With the bus station delayed from its original “winter 2017” opening, claims were made that buses would not be able to navigate the new set up as well as that many bus companies would not be using the new interchange. However the bulk of online debate centred around the “grass roof” and how it would be maintained. The eco friendly setup was actually revealed to be a slow growing sedum that required very little upkeep, although in an April fools hoax the Town Crier was revealed as the designated grass cutter.
The second annual City Passion took place on Good Friday. Crowds lined the streets to witness the recreation of the last days of Jesus’ life. A collaboration between Theatre in the Quarter, Chester Mystery Plays, Churches Together and Link Up, the Passion was directed by Matt Baker, the music director and Mystery Plays composer since 2003. Performed on the streets by a community cast of over 100,the performance made great use of the city’s architecture and unique features with the action moving from the Eastgate clock to the Cathedral, via the rows and Town Hall square. This was the last Passion for the time being with the Mystery Plays returning in 2018.
Theatre in the Quarter also staged The Lost Boy at St Mary’s centre. A play for our troubled times the politically charged production focused on the plight of a Syrian refugee stranded in a Northern Town intent on “taking back control”. Showing the “human behind the headlines” about refugees the play was well received by audiences who noted its thought provoking emotional impact.
Polish dumpling specialist Pierogi was a very welcome new addition to cosmopolitan Brook street . Opened by husband and wife team team Katarzyna and Voytek Pachucy, the Polish comfort food on offer was an instant hit with Cestrians
In another new addition, Gustum took over the old book shop unit on the city walls. Experienced Sicilian caterer Marco Di Pasquale described his new business as recalling “a little bit of the Roman Empire” . He was philosophical about the delays to the Northgate walls, propped up since 2011 saying that the council was doing a good job.
Alexanders hosted a charity night in aid of The Samaritans organised by the @ShitChester twitter account to celebrate 4 years of coverage of the city. The event was compered by Gavin Matthews of Dee106.3 and traffic reporter Nick Arkell, alongside with a Chester themed quiz from Rob Jefferies. Local musical acts who performed at the event included Busking Lady, The Daymons, Dad rock, The Lovelies, Dai Banjo, The Glendale Family, Fiction Lies, Alice Byrne and This is Vil. The event raised £1600 for the Samaritans.
Frodsham street was completed after a series of frustrating delays, with large periods of inactivity and disruption to businesses. Initial reactions were not positive with the dirty Caramac street colour attacked as well as the controversial shared space scheme. Despite this, the benches that critics claimed no one would ever sit on because of “the fumes” were soon busy with tourists, and Greggs and Pound bakery customers. The row about the safety of the new system went on throughout the year, and yet no accidents were recorded despite multiple predictions of death and destruction. Observing the flow of traffic as buses crawl placidly down the street and the leisurely movement of pedestrians , repeated claims that the system was a Chester version of Grand Theft Auto seemed far from the truth. “An accident waiting to happen” claimed many online commenters. At the time of writing no accidents had happened.
In the defining moment of 2017 , the long awaited cultural centre finally opened, delighting most people with its fantastic facilities, state of the art theatre and loving restoration of the much loved Odeon. “Open for good times” proclaimed the signage, a chance to pause and reflect on a new era for the city. And yet some still found fault in the city’s moment of glory, with critics unhappy about the proximity of bookcases to seats in the library, the website, the ticket booking process as well as an ugly row about the non availability of draft beer. The historic opening show The Beggar’s Opera was a huge hit, adapting its tale of love triangles, corrupt officials, highwaymen, and prostitutes to 18th century Chester. “Why not fucking dream?” sang the Beggar at the end of the show, and after years without a professional theatre, Chester finally could, with a venue to be proud of, which soon received local and national acclaim.
With the Prime Minister calling a snap election, a thrilling battle was expected in Chester where sitting MP Matheson held a small majority of just 93. As election fever gripped the city, BBC Radio 5 Live and Channel 5 News broadcast from the walled city. The Conservatives had chosen Former King’s School pupil and now London resident Will Gallagher to fight the seat. An early campaign visit to Upton with pro fracking Minister Chris Grayling attracted the attention of campaign group Frack Free Upton who ambushed the visit with a protest. Gallagher, having previously stated he was opposed to fracking left hurriedly, with one letter writer to the Standard denouncing “self appointed King of Upton Matt Bryan ” for “swampy tactics”.
After this the campaign failed to ignite, despite the city supposedly being one of Conservative’s top target, with a subsequent ministerial visit confined to a behind closed doors chat with local traders in the Flower Cup . One notable clash was the Conservatives claim that Dee House had in fact been sold and not leased, leading to another social media row over the building which was still lying empty and derelict nearly a year after the council had announced that a national pub chain would be renovating the site. Despite this “Dig up Deva” and homeless campaigner Adam Dandy came out publicly in support of Chris Matheson. Labour brought out Steve Coogan who toured the Storyhouse saying he “wanted to live there” before addressing a crowd at the Town Hall.
In other exciting election news Labour held their seat in the Blacon by -election with ex councillor Ben Powell returning to politics with a majority of 900. Turnout was low at around 25% and Labour retained their slender 2 seat majority on the council.
The “world class” bus station finally opened, sparking more online anger about the placement away from the market and the town, the design, the noise for nearby residents, the lack of seating and the lack of protection from the elements. Market traders reported a loss in footfall, despite the provision of a free linking “shopper hopper” which ferried passengers to the Northgate area and back. Fears that buses would be unable to navigate the new interchange were totally unfounded. The facilities including toilets, Wi-Fi, passenger information and space for a shop and coffee bar were a vast improvement on the previous set up which offered no facilities of any kind and were largely a slap in the face to public transport users. This wasn’t enough to satisfy critics who used the investment in new facilities as another example of disastrous council policies “killing the city”, a very common theme this year.
Cheese toastie cafe Meltdown opened in Handbridge, the brainchild of the experienced Laura Lautrete. “If there’s one thing I’m into its Cheese!” said Laura, with Meltdown soon establishing itself as another quality Chester independent. Laura secured a government start up loan to help establish the business which was later covered in a BBC documentary.
Sky Sports presenter Jeff Stelling brought his “March for Men” to Chester FC, as part of his quest to walk 15 marathons in 15 days in aid of Prostrate cancer. Setting off from the Deva stadium along with man other charity walkers including Robbie Fowler and Mark Lawrenson, Jeff said that it was “great to be back in Chester because it’s one of my favourite cities. I used to come racing here which was always a fantastic day out!
Election night at the Northgate Arena resulted in Chris Matheson holding the seat and increasing his majority to over 9000. Although Will Gallagher got more votes than ex MP Mosley did in 2015, Labour’s 56.8% of the vote was more than enough to secure victory based on the highest turnout since the 1997 election.
Talking walls was the latest initiative from the CH1 BID group to encourage longer stays in Chester and support local businesses. Based on similar schemes across the world including New York, plaques attached to walls allowed visitors to listen to stories about the history of the buildings they were displayed on, marrying new technology with the city’s history. Whilst Talking Walls was a commendable and interesting programme, the monologues would have proven difficult for non EU visitors to access as mobile phone data usuage was required to listen to the stories. Many of the talking walls monologues were voiced by local celebrities who sadly failed to turn up for the press launch.
90 sculptures by world renowned artists including Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley were displayed at the Cathedral for the ARK exhibition, more evidence of the city’s cultural renaissance, with the modern art contrasting and complimenting the historical backdrop. However many of the sculptures were attacked by online haters, claiming the city was being “ruined”, that the exhibits were a “waste of council money” (the exhibition was sponsored by Bank of America), or would scare children. Bitter rants fuelled by certain social media groups aggressively criticised the temporary exhibition , immune to the fact that no one was forcing them to look at the art. More culturally minded Cestrians marvelled at the chance to see a Damien Hirst piece in Chester, which only a few years ago was branded a cultural wasteland. Love it or hate it, the fact it happened showed Chester was culturally on the rise.
Storyhouse’s updating of Julius Caesar was another high point of the year. Adapted to the modern era and opening with an interactive and immersive rally outside of the auditorium, the atmospheric blood soaked production had us thinking “are we still in Chester” it was so good. The Guardian review stated that JC occupied ” this thrilling new space with swagger and confidence. ”
With thanks to Mark Carline, Maurice Roberts, Janice Fryett, Russ Hughes and everyone featured in this years blogs.