The gates of Chester castle was reopened following the efforts of Chris Matheson MP and Dr Niall MacFadyen, bringing many organisations together to restore access to the neglected historical site. Previously open only on pre booked tours and largely unknown to many Cestrians, the Castle hosted a series of cultural activities including drama and music over the summer. Stressing that the temporary opening was the first step towards wider regeneration, Chris Matheson stated that possible long term uses for the castle included a museum or art gallery. The castle was a designated “Pokestop” during an international Pokémon festival , brought to Chester by BIG Heritage and game developer Niantic Labs on the 22/23rd July .
The high profile event once again focused the national news spotlight on Chester, with the streets packed with virtual hunters, many of whom had travelled internationally. Organisers of the festival estimated that the event was worth £3 million to the local economy. Cleverly the event linked the city’s landmarks and points of historical interest with the thrill of Pokémon hunting.
Chester market celebrated its 50th birthday in July, having opened in 1967 after the demolition of the much loved old market building- something which still haunts many people to this day, despite not being alive when it happened. Musical performances and other activities, including a design a card competition judged by Cllr Bob Rudd took place, though many felt the day was overshadowed by still lingering uncertainty over the future of the market. With the new market scheduled to open in 2019, many commenters believed that the council was intentionally killing the market, to pave the way for some unknown conspiracy. Such theories aside, the council announced a range of support measures to support struggling traders hit by the bus station move including a 3 month rent free period. However Jim’s Haberdashery one of the market’s longest serving traders announced that the would cease trading after 60 years, including 10 in the previous market. “I’d just like to say we’ve had a good time and would like to thank all our customers past and present for supporting us” said business owner Annie Hall
Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable made a visit to Queen’s Park High to meet local supporters and the press. Vince offered his views on Brexit and how to restore the battered Liberal vote, with candidate Elizabeth Jewkes having lost her deposit in the summer election. Critical of the two main parties over the Brexit issue who he said were “working hand in glove” he said that “A lot of idealistic young people got behind Corbyn because they thought he was pro Europe.. but he’s working with them”.
Chester Pride , now in its 5th year, moved into the summer months and was another fantastic and inclusive event for the city, with the traditional colourful parade, led by a fleet of Tuk Tuks, and a musical stage headlined by 90s girl band B*witched
In yet another new artistic venture for the city, Chester Visual Arts, brought “Pop Art in Print” to the old library building. The high quality exhibition featuring works on loan from That London’s Victoria and Albert Museum, featured works by Andy Warhol and Roy Lichtenstein, was a delight for art lovers, and a fantastic use for the vacant space (scheduled to become a Cosy Club restaurant in the long term). CVA founded by husband and wife team Ian and Cynthia Short had been working for some time to bring the exhibition to Chester, with the long term goal of delivering a permanent art gallery for the city.
After 4 years, Rock Lane, also known as Prince Rupert’s Trench, the shortcut between Parkgate road and Liverpool road was finally reopened. Historically significant because of its use as a defensive trench during the Civil War, the area reopened after years of repair work and legal wrangling. Commenting on the reopening, Cllr Louise Gittins commented that “the Civil War is a key part of the city’s history and can sometimes be overshadowed by its Roman heritage. It’s been a slow journey to get here today, but now its open once again, anyone passing through can find out a bit more about Rock Lane’s history”.
Storyhouse hosted a breast feeding festival, one of many social and cultural groups hosted by the new art centre. Community coordinator Nicola Haigh explained that Storyhouse was hosting the festival as part of their “story telling” role in the community. “People can come together and tell their stories. We have pulled this event together with lots of support. Ultimately we will also be reducing social isolation which is one of our main goals”
The anthemic “Tell me its not true” closed Blood Brothers at Storyhouse, part of the fantastic autumn touring season. Many might have sang the song at the news that the city’s 8th Costa Coffee was heading to Hoole, or that the city’s second Starbucks was opening on Sealand Road, with the usual online woes expressed regarding the city’s apparently dead or dying independent businesses. A vocal coffee mafia denounced any chain coffee house users , forgetting the principles of the free market and freedom of choice, overlooking the fact that if people dont like Costa the don’t have to go in.
The ever busy Lord Mayor opened the new Starbucks , sitting proudly next to a new Greggs, with the chain selecting mental health campaigners Chapter Chester as their chosen charity. The Chronicle was attacked for giving unfair precedence to news of the opening, despite covering the opening of independents throughout the year.
Independent coffee purists were delighted by the opening of Baristas at the new bus station. The selection of the popular independent which had fought off competition from a Costa which opened opposite their Watergate street branch, pleased those who had expected another Costa. The new coffee shop was a welcome addition to the bus station, especially convenient for public transport users or lost souls .
Cllr Dixon and the team behind the Northgate development assured us, that despite a “flexible timeline” the project was very much happening, with a Compulsory Purchase Order being submitted early in 2018 to allow the first stages of construction to take place. With anchor tenant House of Fraser revealed earlier in the year, and cinema operator Picture house in 2016, residents were frustrated by the latest delay to the scheme, with work on Cosy Club restaurant expected to begin in the autumn. We had to make do with the old bus station being hoarded off for preparatory work, with major concerns expressed in the press about the council apparently bankrolling the scheme in the absence of a private investor. However cwac Finance Officer Steven Tranter told this blog that “there are a huge range of possibilities and we live in uncertain times. We have invested time and money .. and under certain circumstances the council would be prepared to further support the progression of the scheme”. Roll on 2021..
The big story in November centred around the Chester Flat Earth society. A small group who believe that global elites had been supressing the true nature of our existence- the earth was in fact flat and surrounded by an enormous ice wall. Going against hundreds of years of scientific research and development, the group based their theories on YouTube videos , as well as extending the conspiracy to include factors such as the decline of the market and the Northgate development. Having heard of the groups public speaking in the city, we attended one of the groups meetings and were given a frosty reception when we challenged their views
With the news that 3 new hotels were scheduled to open in the city centre, including one inside the ex Argos building (who relocated to Sainsburys in Caldy Valley) fears about the future of the city were again raised. The Argos hotel news incited online riots with conspiracy theorists stating that everything was a cover to bring in more student accommodation, based on the one time a failing hotel was sold to the university. Our tourist city didn’t “need” any more hotels claimed critics, with many lapsing into virulent anti student bigotry. Given the increased visitor numbers and busy city centre calendar this seemed like an illogical statement to make, unless Cestrians are in favour of a North Korean style system of economic planning. It was also a nonsense given how easy it is for developers to build student housing via conventional means, and the proliferation of such developments across the city.
The council announced the results of the parking consultation for the borough, with the confirmation that free after 3 was to be removed in the new year. The local Conservatives who had led a campaign to retain the popular scheme, criticised the moved along with BID Chair Carl Critchlow blasted the lack of consultation and projected impact on business. On street parking fees were also announced for Brook street and City Road, and the response was equally negative with pessimists once again predicting the collapse of the city. Overlooked somewhat in the row was the fact that charges were actually being lowered in most of the council car parks, meaning that in either the market or delamere street, 6 hours of parking would cost just £6, very reasonable compared to other cities of comparable or larger size. However in terms of competing with the monolithic threat of out of town shopping the answers were limited.
Supported by the local Conservative party, Dr Christian Dunn launched “Straw Free Chester” a campaign to reduce the environmental damage caused by single use plastics. Claiming that the city used “300,000” straws a day, the campaign got people talking about the issue and was widely covered in the media. Unfortunately critics claimed it was an attempt by the party to harvest mailing details via the online petition. Several businesses signed up to the straw free pledge, and Dr Dunn stressed that he was open to working with any political parties or organisations to spread his eco message.
A sign holder working for the Christmas Market was sacked from his position for wearing an “anonymous” mask, once his employers saw his photo on twitter. The story made the front page of the Leader with many viewing it as harsh punishment from Marketing Cheshire , others confused as to why he wore the mask in question given its political links and lack of relevance to the festive period. Others used it as an excuse to bash the always busy Christmas market and the consumer society in general. An example of the power of one random photograph on social media and how quickly events can escalate.
Christmas in Chester was packed with the usual array of activities including a calendar of parades, and a cultural programme offering a variety of shows: Storyhouse brought The Secret Seven to the stage for the first time ever, Tip Top delivered their traditional panto and Matt Baker led several musical events at St Mary’s Centre. A new addition this year was the Watergate street festival at the start of the month. The event organised by businesses including Weasel and the Bug in conjunction with the BID shone the spotlight on the independent businesses of the street, which many had been claiming we no longer had. Activities on the day included fake snow, dancing in the street, music, face painting and free mulled wine.
On the same day, Small Business Saturday, long serving newsagent Mountford’s on Northgate street ceased trading. The bitter business owner, fanning the flames of fake news about everything being bad in Chester claimed that Northgate street was “run down”. Again, blamed on loss of trade from the moved bus station, rather than a traditionally declining industry, the owner was given a free reign by the Chronicle to denounce everything, despite overlooking some key facts. Whilst accepting that like most high streets there had been losses, Rococco chocolates moved to the street in the summer, Jack Burrito opened after a 2 year delay, Ginos Gelateria opened, as did children’s stationers, Smiggle and Dr Martens the year before. Alongside the variety of restaurants and bars, including Vino (opened Feb), Joseph Benjamin, the refurbished Bull and Stirrup, Covino, Gustum,Marmalade, Alexanders, Ginger etc etc… it was a baffling remark to make, but served the anti Chester agenda of those who couldn’t handle the facts. The killer blow was neighbouring Storyhouse revealing visitor numbers of 508,000, yet none of them wanted to buy a newspaper or mint aero. Of course with the opening of the newsagents at the bus station ,there was no net loss of news vendors overall.
One year on and the Dee House row again came to the fore with the news that no work had been done by pub chain Thwaites despite Labour’s triumphant announcement the year before. This brought disappointment to those who had believed, perhaps naively that the eternal Chester problem could be quickly fixed, and anger and new hope to those that wanted to “knock it down”. A huge political issue in Chester, the issue will continue to be debated into 2018 as we await the news of anything happening.
The much loved Disney store on Foregate street closed in the autumn, and with Argos and New Look also closing, the future for the once premier shopping street in the city appeared dim. When HMV announced that they were also relocating, the scale of the problem became clear, with another potentially large empty unit adding to the problems on the street, just across the road from the long empty BHS unit. It remains to be seen how the council or the BID can remedy the decline of the street in 2018, with their impact being limited by not owning the units or setting the notoriously high rates.
A big thank you to everyone that has featured on the blog this year and people who have helped write it. Happy New Year! In 2018 we can look forward to the reopening of the Northgate walls after 6 years, the return of the Mystery Plays, a new attraction inside the old Heritage centre, more online rows, the continuing cultural boom, as well as bitter political rows as we head up to the council election of 2019.