Walking into town via George Street I pass the recently completed pocket park. Its a nice piece of work, more a strip of land than a park but a huge improvement on the waste ground that was there before. The streets are wet with rain, and I pass the familiar sights of vehicular traffic on Northgate ( two delivery wagons ) and the eternally scaffolded Northgate wall ( 8 years and counting with no end in sight).
I cross the derelict former bus station site. There has been some effort to improve the area with a street art covered shipping container and some picnic benches. Apart from myself I have never seen anyone use the area. When the scaffolding was removed, access to the yellow bus shelters was restored, offering the brief thrill of urban exploration, with the site having been left empty for over 2 years. With the Northgate scheme going back to planning in September, I hope that the land will be utilised soon, despite opposition from a number of local groups. Anything is better than this literal wasteland and people won’t be sitting on these benches any time soon despite talk of an events programme taking place. Chester’s been standing still for a long time on this score and change and progress should be embraced. Alternatively we can hold onto a weed infested ghost site for another stretch of time.
My first point of call is the market. I spend a lot of time in here these days, talking to traders and maintaining my Lego display, or just socialising. The area has become a real hub for the city with people now tweeting regularly asking for longer opening hours. Whilst eating last Friday night I overheard another patron praising the foodie Friday but saying the council “destroyed the market” to make it happen. To these people I say this: the market was not thriving before the bus station moved, it had been struggling for years and the people had turned their backs on it due to changed shopping habits and out of town paradises. The council and the new breed of traders have saved the market and made it a nice place to visit. As ever you wonder how many of the detractors moaning about the rise of the food stalls and the demise of non food traders have ever shopped in the place. Back to the Lego, I rearrange the display to incorporate the food court, full of Lego citizens. Coming up next I have a Dandy’s truck and the Marlborough Arms (to be completed). As I move the Lego I wonder if traders will question the location of the LEGO stores as opposed to their real life counterparts. One does and I hastily rearrange the display. Cleaning takes up some more of my time, wiping bricks to remove dust , or using a paintbrush to get in between the studs. I also removed the body of a dried up ladybird. I take a final look and hope the next Trip Advisor reviewer will be kinder than the one star dissection I received last week.
I leave the market and head to Foregate street. On the way I notice that the Debenhams chain is down for the third day running. Have we won the war? On quieter parts of the row its easier to understand but putting a chain to restrict/ not restrict access to a key viewing platform is deeply egregious. I wouldn’t have minded if they were honest about their intentions , or if there had been any kind of input from civic or community leaders. The new Lord Mayor says he wants the chains gone but from everyone else theres been an odd silence. Is it even a big issue? “Why are you tweeting about it?” asks a dog with a twitter account. “There are bigger problems” they all say. Yeah for sure the world has much bigger problems. But if a local twitter account cant tweet about local issues then I might as well retire. I tell the dog its a lot more complicated than stepping over a chain, and that there are linked issues of public/private spaces, heritage, anti social behaviour, policing. Being a dog though (with one follower, and following one account) I tell him, he probably wouldn’t be able to understand any of it.
Outside WHSmiths one of the regular street performers is singing, her computer tablet balanced on a can of ale. “I know that life won’t break me” she says with sad irony as I walk by.
Further on is the empty BHS building. No hope in sight of that being filled, maybe ever. I look at the architecture and it doesn’t even seem that bad, with the black and white seeming a modernist interpretation of our traditional styles. Its just a shame its empty like several of the units on this street. The BHS Christmas shop was always up there for gifts back in the glory days of the high street. I briefly go in the neighbouring charity shop , other customers shuffling around me. Christmas cards are on sale.
For breakfast I visit The Eatery , further up the road past the worst Burger King in the country. I have not been in before and the cafe is pleasant with a young team offering friendly service. The walls are covered in black and white photos of the city in recent times, because everything, especially timeless Chester looks great in black and white. With a window seat this cafe would be great for people watching on a wet winters day. I will return.
“Would you like white or brown toast?” asks the server to a subsequent guest.
“Oh you choose” he replies
The main activity of the day is a walking tour with one of the Freemen of the city. Ian, in his blue robe, is my volunteer guide for the next 2 hours. The Freemen (and now women) are historically linked the trade guilds which have operated in the city for the last 800 years, and in modern times play a ceremonial/civic role.
Though many of the tales told are familiar to me ( the 3 faces on the town hall clock, the history of the racecourse etc) I end up with an insight into aspects of the city which we all take for granted. For example the different gradients and heights in the city centre. We walk a few steps up to St Peter’s churchyard and crossing the yard past the Commercial we end up one storey up on the level of the rows. I can’t say I have ever noticed this before. The rows of course, are unique to Chester, they aren’t found anywhere else in the world.. more should be done with them. The Dublin Packet is where tickets to Dublin were sold when Chester was a thriving port, we are told.
Other stops on the tour include the former townhouse, Leche House (now Sofa workshop) and Corks Out , with its historic undercroft below street level.
Ian is full of passion and stories about the city. With this passion comes a concern about what needs improving and what could enhance Chester’s offering. ” “If we were in York it would be 3.50 to get in and they’d give you a tour, tell you the history! “ he says of Bishop Lloyds Palace on Watergate row. With my own recent experiences in York I totally agree. The sad state of Chester castle also comes up on the tour, but on the flipside the imminent reopening of the Guildhall as a members club/performance venue is mentioned.
Learning that the rows used to extend all the way down Bridge street was another new one for me, but something which I suppose was hidden in plain sight. Residents tend to take a lot of things for granted. I am left with an enhanced sense of how the city has changed over the years, and how the past echoes into modern Chester.
We end the tour inside the new cafe that has taken over the Spud U like premises. The cafe has only been open 2 weeks but is very busy, which is great to see. We descend into the basement to see the Roman ruins , the remains of the heating system/hypocaust for the Roman baths that once stood on the site. This is what makes Chester special. For more information on the Freemen and the Guilds, visit https://www.freemenofchester.co.uk/
I then visit the Cheshire Live team. Due to the closure of their office near Sealand Road amidst a general trend of savage cuts to print media and local journalism in general, some of the team now operate from a coworking space on York street, whilst others work from home. The team have all been great supporters since the early twitter days and its good to see them, we catch up on local issues and news stories. I believe that the central location might aid their cause, because most of the stuff I uncover is found from daily meanderings around the city. I leave behind a pack of Jaffa cakes to help them through the afternoon. Thanks Sallie, Carmella and David!
Another new coffee shop, Panna Coffee is next on the list. Housed inside one part of the formerly iconic Toycraft, the business only recently opened its doors. My initial thoughts centre on the lack of atmosphere, but its only because I am on the only customer at the time. I select an Aeropress, which the menu states is a coffee that “defies gravity”. I have no idea what it means but it sounds cool so I tap for my £3.50. The interior is smart and manages to feel modern without being clinical. At the rear of the property in a small courtyard is the fragment of a pillar, probably Roman , which I have never seen before. In my youth Toycraft was a popular visit, I referred to it as “the owl shop” because of range of costumed owl toys which lived in the window display for many years. Used to but board games and Lego from there, and the Panna half of the shop had a central carousel of pocket money toys. Never moved with the times however, and now like many old haunts its a place to drink caffeinated drinks .Coffee is a meaning of life here, everything submerged in its cool numbness. The futuristic coffee blend is smooth, and the unusually shaped saucer is a bonus. I pretend that the coffee is a life changing elixir like the regeneration tonic drunk by the 8th Doctor.
In the cafe, with no internet signal and unseen by everyone in the world, I feel like I dont exist for a few brief happy moments. All the worries and regrets and snarled up chains around the heart, for the time in this cafe, the guns fall silent. Then someone who follows me on twitter walks in and takes a seat. Then another one 5 minutes later. Its a lovely place.
Back to town hall square I pause to watch another of the city’s popular buskers. We call him “smiler” because he’s always full of happiness and cheer, and often offers his microphone to budding singers. The guy is a legend. Today he is supporting “The Clivenator” who does a gentle rendition of “You don’t know me”, despite only starting singing a few weeks ago. Smiler sits next to me on the bench, also joined by the homeless lady from earlier in the day. I am with them, part of the gang.
The Cathedral is next and I have a quick walk around, always one of my favourite places to visit, with always something new to see thanks to the forward thinking leadership team. When free entry was reintroduced it was a real game changer. I have already seen the Lego “the deep” exhibition , but I admire the cathedral Lego model, noting as a cool touch a series of brick built sea creatures have been added to the nave of the Lego model reflecting the happenings in the real nave. That’s dedication for you. I spend a few minutes at the shrine of St Werburgh as a large group of Japanese tourists pass around me.
I finish off with a cottage pie at Steins in the market. Then I receive a welcome phone call. “I’ll meet you at the river”. I say.
Later that night I return to the city centre for one of my regular “patrols” of the city. Its where I get so much of my content from and given the sunshine I am hoping for a spectacular sunset, which is always brilliant to view from the riverside. Instead as darkness falls , its a night tangled up in blue as I hunt for moody photo opportunities. On the walls I pass the Moonlight Flicks crowd enjoying “A Star is Born” , and then another tourist group passes me. In the Groves I enjoy the sense of isolation and the freedom of being alone. “Being an outsider isn’t so bad. It gives you a unique perspective” is a phrase from a TV show that has always stayed with me.
At the bandstand I recall the ghosts of times gone by- when the late Jonny Walker led a busking protest there.. ( see https://thechesterblog.com/2015/09/17/mark-thomas-and-the-pspo/) , when I watched the Duck race from there, when I met the Lord Mayor at the raft race- can’t remember which one.., earlier in the summer when Matt Baker’s Handbag of Harmonies sang there… Now the silence of the evening gives clarity and perspective. I know my place in the world and tonight, I’m fine with it. I tweet the shit out of all the content I photograph.
I walk the walls and get a final shot from the Eastgate as I reflect on the people I’ve met throughout the day. I glance up at the rows and notice 3 people drinking on the rows outside Pavers shoes. All night I haven’t seen any police or anyone from the homeless services. Would a chain stop them ? “Nothing is ever black and white” I think to myself