“You’re pathetic , you just hide behind an account because you haven’t got the balls to be a real man!” says the angry voice over the phone as I wander through The Shambles, York’s most historic street, on the first night of my fact finding trip/escape. Already marred by transport problems, the slow train from Manchester arriving ten mins too late late for my connecting train and then 2 subsequent train cancellations, its a dark start to a holiday designed as an escape from recent troubles.
In simpler, and maybe happier times I visited York 28 years ago in the summer of 1991 on a fondly remembered family holiday, a trip that was partly documented in school publication “My Trip to York”. As well as comparing and contrasting the historic cities, I also hoped to rekindle childhood memories and compare my thoughts and feelings across the decades. Having become totally jaded by the comments on the Cheshire Live facebook, with the usual rants about the city’s imminent demise, I’d subscribed to the York press for the fun factor of reading the same comments but through a different prism. The themes were the same, council killing the city, shop closures, too many student developments and coffee shops, plus the know-nothings blaming the council for punitive high business rates.
Walking from my hotel towards the main city centre towards Micklegate I noticed one trendy eatery after another but also several independent retailers, all of which would have graced the Chester high street. Two independent bookshops alongside a photographic gallery/art shop on this street alone. Heading into town I noticed how York had all the same chains that Chester had, and more, and yes there was quite a few empty units , but in the context of the city being much larger, with several distinct shopping areas, York seemed to be doing very well. The main thing overlooked by the York comparers is that the city is much larger than Chester with the population of 208,000 dwarfing Chester at 79,000. The cities have developed differently, but end up being lumped together because they are both “historic cites”. In many ways York stands tall above Chester with its multiple cinemas and theatres, world class museums and tourist attractions- attracting 7 million tourists a year, plus an established art gallery, the latest on Chester’s cultural wish list. Its natural to compare yet the critics are too quick to attack Chester for not being York, rather than celebrate what makes our city special. And yet there are lessons to be learned here.
“I have a cooked breakfast once a year, on Christmas morning” says the man on the neighbouring table at breakfast. I am reading through a glossy tourism guide which seems much better organised than Cheshire efforts, with a calendar of events in York being a particularly interesting and simple method of attracting future visits. I have yet to see a publication like this from Marketing Cheshire.
Onwards into town I note the various shops that Chester lacks, including popular brands such as Flying Tiger, Pitcher and Piano, even Argos. Department store Fenwicks holds and emotional appeal as it was here back in 1991 that my parents bought me a Lego pirates set. I distinctly remember accidentally swallowing one of the cannonball bricks, luckily suffering no ill effects. I browse the Lego in the basement , confident that I have matured significantly in nearly 3 decades. Sadly most of the sets lack price labels, and of course its all cheaper on the internet anyway. I leave to join the queue for the Jorvik Viking Centre.
Opened in 1984 the Viking centre is one of the UK’s premier tourist attractions. I don’t have to wait long and the security guard doing bag searches is cheery- “ready for shopping!” he smiles at my empty bag. In the centre visitors walk over glass which displays the archaeological remains of the Viking settlement before journeying into the past on a “time capsule” ride. Via lifelike animatronic figures , a snapshot of York in the past comes to life as visitors tour ye historic city. Costing an affordable £12.50 the 17 minute ride is great fun, as the haunting empty eyes of the Vikings look into our soul, but in a positive way. The idea is so simple, the moving carriage takes you through scenes of the city, a family playing a board game, fishermen at the docks, market traders, and yet very effective, as the sights, sounds and smells take you back through the centuries.
Why oh why doesn’t Chester have an attraction similar to this which celebrates our history in a fun and accessible way? We all know it would rake in the coin and bring in tons of visitors.. and theres enough vacant buildings where the hypothetical attraction could be housed. Such wasted potential. In the gift shop a lady at the till chats to the staff member: “I’m from Wrexham originally but I live in Chester now”. There’s no escape I smile to myself.
Next stop is the Castle Museum, dwarfing Chester’s Grosvenor in scope and size and again fondly remembered from youth largely due to the recreated Victorian street. Chester used to have a recreated section of the rows in the old visitor centre, but it apparently vanished when the centre closed. Another sad comparison. My main reason for visiting is the touring “Museum of Broken relationships”. A collection of donated items all associated by their owners with a relationship breakdown, ranging from personal to professional, to the current European political malaise. The stories behind the items on display are haunting and sad, and range from a dead pot plant to a favourite record to a ripped dress, which documents a physically abusive relationship. A timeline of Brexit related news stories ends the exhibition, displaying a world at war with itself on multiple levels. ” A broken relationship leaves debris, unresolved feelings, reminders and mementoes” says the museum blurb. Hugely effective and sobering. What would your museum exhibit be ?
The final part of the museum is inside the old prison where the empty cells are brought to life by projection of notable prisoners. “Debt and pride will kill a man in York” says one in a heavy Yorkshire accent. In another small cell a projection informs you that in 1737 nine men suffocated whilst awaiting trial- this is eerily depicted by coughing and choking sounds. In the final room the legendary highwayman Dick Turpin greets visitors: “who’d want to die in York?” he sneers. Once again York shows us how to do it with simple use of technology to bring an empty historic building to life. The feeling you get here is that in York, a Dee House scenario just wouldn’t have happened. Nor would our own St Olave’s Church be lying in ugly disrepair. In York there are numerous historic properties open to visit and the tourist offer is extremely well presented. Much as I love Chester, can we say the same???
In the car park outside the museum I notice the huge temporary Rose theatre being constructed ready for a summer season of Shakespeare. Another great tourist pull, it compares well with our own 10 years running Theatre in the Park.
I return to browsing the shops, enjoying the shambles and stocking up on Rolys Fudge. Petition pending for the Chester branch to start selling double chocolate pending. Online York comment had depicted the Shambles as being in decline bit it seemed thriving to me with a good mix of retailers. Tourism supports a Harry Potter shop and a Christmas shop alongside a Peruvian gift shop and others. I wonder how York residents view their own city. “Too many tourists” one insider had remarked to me recently. The adjacent open air market is neat and tidy and includes the now customary food court. I return to photograph it later in the evening when its empty. Further exploration of the narrow shopping streets shows many many stores which theoretically would thrive in Chester: multiple vintage sweet shops, homeware, a doll hospital, a teddy bear shop, a shop selling custom wooden ink stamps, 2 poundworlds, a fair trade shop (Chester’s recently closed its doors) a pub with a Roman bath in it (contrast with the now unseen Roman ruins in the old Spud U like). Lacking in depth data I wonder why there seem to be so many independent stores here, given that Shambles traders had recently been complaining about high council rent increases. Is it simply that the greater population supports the higher concentration of stores? Chester folk say they want independents but the retail turnover is high- what happened to Whitmore and White for example, which lasted less than a year , being ignored by most? Is it parking charges I wonder… our own market car park charges £3.50 for up to 3 hours, whilst York castle car park is £7.80 for the same time period. Perhaps its simply geography with the spectre of Cheshire Oaks looming over us, although not a place noted for its independents. Mad world.
The Museum Gardens are my next stop another revisit from 1991. I walk through the grounds of the ruined abbey, a victim of Henry VIII’s attack on the monasteries, and sit and ponder for a while as rain clouds start to gather in the sky.
I end the day at the Picturehouse cinema to see that Rocketman. Picturehouse are the chosen cinema operator for the Northgate development, something which should be massively welcomed as part of the drive to get people back into city centres continues. Some local opposition remains however. “Real love’s hard to come by. So you find a way to cope without it. ” says Elton in the film, my head crowded with song lyrics to caption tweets with. Before bed I browse the daily York paper , confidently boasting of a DAILY readership of over 81,000 in print.. and online. The centre pages are a debate on whether the traditional high street can survive.
On day 2 I take a side trip to Hull, before completing the final day (3) in York which I spend shopping and wandering the streets. I spend a long time in a impressively stocked vintage games shop . Recently opened http://www.sorethumbretrogames.com/ is another nostalgic step into the past with its racks of He Man action figures, game boy and SNES games. Another decent shop is https://www.givethedogabone.co.uk/ , where I browse its fun, beautiful and useless wares. I end up eventually at the National Railway Museum, which is packed with visitors. Queen Victoria’s train carriage is a highlight as well as a Chester station bench, reminding me once again of my own heritage. Meanwhile news breaks from home of a catastrophic water leak on Frodsham street…
After a rest in a vinyl themed cafe I take to the walls:
Offering a stunning view of the Minster, the walls are very different in feel to Chesters. They close at dusk and dogs are denied access. Narrow in places, with no access for wheelchairs, the population density is revealed by the rows and rows of terraced houses which surround the perimeter of the city.This must be a huge boost to bars and restaurants and again something Chester needs to look at it, in terms of increasing city centre residents.
In the late evening, despite an other hour of sunshine remaining , the walls are mainly deserted and after a long stretch of mildly claustrophobic battlements I am faced with a locked gate and am forced to retrace my steps to escape being trapped. I tweeted the council about wall closure times which contradicted information on their website but get no response The walls walk brings the visit to a suitably melancholic end:
York, I love you and I’ll be back, Chester: celebrate your walls, rows, zoo, market, rivers, art, parades, theatre, culture, people, meadows, but be the best possible Chester you can be.