2018 was the year that Chester FC nearly went out of business (again), a pothole related tweet by the council went viral, a devastating fire struck Chester Zoo, and the city’s well known balloon man fell foul of the law. The Chester Leader ceased publication with no fanfare or thanks, and the online Chester Chronicle morphed into “Cheshire Live” with a cost saving regional focus. Some good things also happened including the rise of “Straw free Chester” and associated environmental campaigning, the first CH1 BID comedy festival, a Channel 4 special showcasing he city’s historic appeal, Tom Jones performing at the racecourse, as well as the triumphant return of the Mystery Plays. Here are some of our personal reflections on another eventful year in Chester….
1. The year started on a bleak note with a series of business closures, following on from the losses of Argos and New Look from Foregate street. The much loved Commercial Hotel closed suddenly as well as the Silver Star Gallery, and Chateau Sable on Watergate street. The Lock Vaults pub closed its doors as the gloomy narrative of the “dying city” took hold. Other closures in 2018 included the iconic Toycraft, Arbol house, the vintage sweet shop, Pia jewellery and both branches of Poundworld following the national collapse of the retailer. Next on Sealand Road also closed but was later replaced by Chester’s first Lidl. New openings offset many of these closures including independents such as The Second Floor, trendy wine bar Paysan, Scandinavian Living, The Violet Palm, Whitmore and White, and Beer Heroes. Coffee shops also continued to boom with several new openings. With Chester Chronicle/Cheshire Live readers banging on about the death of the city, more balanced commenters noted the national decline of high street shopping as well as the city’s health compared to many other places which lacked Chester’s historic charm. With many large empty units on Foregate street in particular, the city’s leaders will still need to address the issue long term with the never ending march of the internet, out of town shopping/parking concerns as well as question marks remaining over certain other large retailers at a national level.
2. Chester market saw a huge upturn in fortunes this year and after a long period of darkness, marked by several long established traders leaving with the empty stalls seeming to whisper: “theres nothing for you here. Stay away” , things changed. A successful reinvention saw several high quality food traders join the market, including the highly praised Stile Napoletano which opened in February joining earlier pioneer Nice Bites and helping the market to become a destination once again. With a new central food court created , the positive vibe was boosted by new signage and better advertising and use of social media. In the autumn the opening of That Beer Place coincided with the introduction of late night openings on a Friday night which were hugely successful. No longer in the doldrums the market was the success story of 2018 , with the place feeling vibrant once again and more adapted to the changing world. Alongside the new food traders , several none food traders also joined the revolution with the market in a much more confident position ready for the expected new market building, still scheduled for 2021.
3. Back to disappointment with the long running and now eternally boring Dee House saga. After months of silence from the council, to no ones surprise Thwaites announced that due to the huge cost involved they would not be refurbishing the elegant Georgian wreck into a pub/hotel. The council then announced that a working group of interested parties would be formed to look at all options , including demolition. With 2 years wasted, the sneaky feeling was that Dig Up Deva may well have been right all along when they demanded more consultation back in the summer of 2016. None of the political parties emerged with much credit with Labour’s plan having failed and the previous administration having let the building fall into such disarray in the first place. A shameful mess, joining the still boarded up Northgate walls(propped up since 2011 and no resolution in sight) as a lingering scar on the city.
4. The incredible rise of Chester Supertrees was another of 2018’s wow factors. Devised by chemist and marathon runner Steven Hughes the project aimed to renovate the dismal Mecca Bingo roundabout with steel “supertrees” inspired by a similar project in Singapore, boosting biodiversity and air quality. Steve started the fundraising off himself in 2017, running 7 marathons in 7 days and continued in the summer with an event in the subway with Steve running 100k in 10 hours on a treadmill .
Supported by groups including Chester Good For Nothing (GFN) and winning funding from various sources, the project received official council support as part of the area’s regeneration and achieved planning permission in December. Construction is scheduled to begin early in the new year, the successful realisation of one man looking in the mirror and deciding to make the world a better place.
5. The Royal visit in June was another highlight. Visiting Chester for the official opening of the official greatest thing ever, Storyhouse, HM the Queen and Meghan Markle, the surrounding area received a tidy up including new paint jobs for the red phone boxes. The Royal Party attended a reception inside the cultural centre meeting community groups and watching performances by local schoolchildren and the cast of summer production “A Little Night Music”. The Queen and Meghan then made the short walk down Northgate street happily greeting the assembled crowds.
Luckily the recently closed and boarded up McDonalds was just out of the assembled national press’ cameras as the Royals addressed the huge crowd from the Town Hall Steps. One for the history books.
6. The Chester safe space was a big talking point in the autumn with the blue mobile welfare unit attracting scorn for ruining Foregate street, despite its noble and valuable intentions. ” A national project used in 55 other UK towns and cities, the safe space staffed by emergency medical technicians, volunteers and security staff, aims to provide first aid and emotional support to late night visitors. The mobile unit, dropped off in the evening and removed the following day was widely criticised for its appearance and location, with man flying off the handle without knowing all the facts, as happens so often in Chester. A project designed to help people in need and the mob complained it would ruin tourists photographs. “It looks like it needs a crane to drop it off” It didn’t. Depressing about the negative responses but much love to the blue box team.
7. The return of King Charles 400 years after Rowton Moor was a fun and surreal project to be involved with. Historical reenactor Daniel Williams and his small entourage followed a tour of the city taking in the areas of Civil War interest including the famous tower on the walls. Greeting bemused tourists and locals, the flamboyant King performed vintage classic “Greensleeves” courtesy of a busker at the Cross.
8. Lord Mayor Alex Black dancing at the annual Diwali parade. Joyous
9. The Northgate project crawled on slowly, with a summer of apparent inactivity as the results of the public inquiry were awaited. Eventually the Compulsory Purchase Order was granted allowing progress at last, with the new market, cinema and public square now scheduled for construction in late 2019. The retail element of the scheme continued to receive wide criticism , especially given the fragile high street. This was dealt a hammer blow with the collapse of anchor tenant House of Fraser, meaning that plans for the second phase would require a major rethink. However barring any major catastrophes it looks like the first phase will happen and the derelict bus station will finally see some work, improving the area massively, linking it with Storyhouse and providing a new home for the revived market. Fingers crossed
10. The city’s Remembrance celebrations had a unique twist this year with the names of local soldiers being projected onto the walls of the Castle. Marking 100 years since the end of the First World War the project was led by Niall MacFadyen and supported by the Civic Trust, MP Chris Matheson , Cllr Richard Beacham and Big Heritage, who provided the projector for the moving event.
10. Finally, a few things that didn’t happen. A “late night party house” did not open in the Groves despite a license to serve alcohol being granted until 9pm. One angry resident had claimed that doom and destruction would be brought to the beautiful riverside location but it did not come to pass. The former A Argos unit did not become a hotel, instead lying vacant like several other large units on Foregate street . Despite a campaign early in the year, statues celebrating the city’s cultural icons did not materialise. With the debate led by soil magnate and homelessness campaigner Adam Dandy, his vision of a Roman chariot on a roundabout may one day greet visitors to the city. I’m still holding out for a Russ Abbot mural in 2019.
No one died or was injured in any way on Frodsham street.
Here’s to a happier new year