“Lowest of the low” says a member of a facebook group about the anonymous writer of a letter to The Standard who complained about nastiness in the same facebook group. “Be kind” didn’t last that long! Meanwhile local politicians continue to snipe at each other on twitter, while nationally the country lurches from one crisis to the next. Seemingly having learned nothing from the first lockdown, another month of “staying at home” beckons. With 2 days to go before most businesses are closed I took a day out to enjoy the Chester vibe.
Walking from the bus station, I pause at the George Street Pocket Park, the sun rises behind the trees, beautiful and sad. I wonder how we got into that mess, the politicians, the confused messages, the public’s inability to wear masks correctly or not hold illegal gatherings, the packed school buses etc. In a year of Hell the end doesn’t feel close. Much like the Northgate steps where work seems to have come to a halt despite council PR in late September saying work was “completed”. But there’s bigger fish to fry as we all know.
The bollards are back at the Cross, for social distancing again, or ? In June we had wider pavements and one way systems, which were all casually forgotten, culminating in a TV crew filming at the busy junction, with production staff trying in vain to move people on. I head to one of my favourite stores, HMV in the Grosvenor Centre, noting how much busier the city feels as everyone no doubt rushes out for “non essential” goods. People will complain that shops are too busy, the same ones that say the city is dying.. but are there any right or wrong answers anymore? Anyway HMV have expanded their gift range, offering green kit kats and other foreign confectionery, tin mugs with poisonous plants on, and other unusual stocking fillers. I hope this store continues to do well in the soulless download age.
My next stop is Chester Health Store, the owner Niki being a long term friend and supporter. On the way I pass a dejected hospitality business owner smoking a fag in his doorway ( the sun having suddenly faded into rain) . Meanwhile a woman shelters underneath the canopy of the empty Cafe Rouge and a policewoman covers her head with an iPad in a folder. A confident street photographer would have been snapping away but I’m not so you’ll have to make do with the descriptions. I wait outside the Health shop as two suited young men talk to the owner.
“Were they Jehovah’s Witnesses?” I ask
“No they were from the Council!” says the upbeat Niki. “As long as we focus on the 2nd December we’re fine, but if we get one more person saying its going to be extended , someone’s gonna get a slap! You can put that in I dont care!
“This should have been done weeks ago. Its not even a knee jerk reaction , everyone is screaming about it, its never something Boris and co come up with, its nothing they’ve instigated. We have to go along with it. we came out of a 3 month lockdown we’ll come out of this one . So many people are saying the city is dying, its not true, we are doing no worse than before. What I’ve noticed is that its the big boys that are closing, the ones that you’d imagine have more financial backing than us little ones to ride it out. I think the city will thrive… “
“Eventually” I add, noting the 30 + businesses that have sadly folded since March (despite Government support) the latest being the infamous Old Hall. I look up and note the balcony /gallery above us. “You should move all the stock out and put on some kind of Fight Club!” I suggest.
“That’s what it was!” says Niki. She says that she’s been told that in the 1800s the building hosted bare knuckle fighting and that people have seen ghosts up on the balcony, with the building dating from the late 1660s. “How much truth is in it I’ll never know, I’ve never sensed or seen anything myself”
“Can you sell me something to improve my life?” I ask. I reject cannabis oil tea and settle from some locally sourced honey from Parkgate.
Save the Children is next, I pick up a couple of Chester themed stocking fillers and an Elton John CD, which later turns out to be a completely different album to the case. Following this I buy a big expensive bag of mixed fudge from Rolys Fudge, another of my favourite shops. I’m pleased to see the photos of the Lego Rolys are still up on the wall after all these years.
I cross over to the Julie Colclough Gallery, a business I’ve not visited before but have followed on social media. After browsing her excellent gallery of Chester scenes (plus some Italian ones) I introduce myself and the talented Julie is keen to chat.
“We are getting ready for lockdown 2, panic buyers are welcome! During lockdown we will be doing free local deliveries and we will be open for online and telephone orders. We have a fantastic range of local paintings, we are so lucky to live here on the rows in the centre of Chester. We love having the inspiration of the city, the architecture, the racecourse, the river, so much on our doorstep, I will never run out of ideas to paint! ”
Julie has been a professional painter for over 30 years beginning as a children’s book illustrator , including The Famous Five book series. I asked her for thoughts on the lockdown:
“Its difficult, there are so many mixed messages. We have to do what we can to look after everybody. We hope we can reopen in December and people can support the local independents in the run up to Christmas”
Julie also shows me some artwork painted during the first lockdown which uses a collage technique to show some of the previous residents of the street based on a search of local records. “When we were looking at the old documents, we found lots of Colcloughs, Through the door at the back which goes through our garage was Colclough Court and everyone who lived there was called Colclough!” She also points out the inscription from God’s Providence House , especially relevant in the Pandemic era. Julie says that similarly the Basilica of Santa Maria (Venice) which features in another of her paintings was built to mark the city’s recovery from a Plague outbreak. What will we build when we’ve beaten our own demons?
For a while I stand on The Rows, in the formerly chained off area outside Debenhams. I listen to a busker and people watch for a while: “Two pound umbrella” mingles with her echoing singing as people hurry by, the sense of excitement in the air like a bad Christmas Eve.
Chester Market is busy, again, with many diners in the distanced food court area. I notice a certificate on the wall from the Civic Trust, with a Special Award marking the revitalisation of the market. A new textile trader (pillows duvet cases etc) opened a couple of weeks ago, and a Seafood stall due to open in November( now delayed) . There are plenty of browsers around Purely Pots who have a huge collection of houseplants. A cardboard sign mentions plants that improve overall health and wellness, A Peace Lily for example removes carbon monoxide and other toxins from the air. A quality business.
I finish the Grand Day Out at the Cathedral, the nave bathed in a purple light. I asked a member of the Clergy what the light represented, he doesn’t know, but he confirms that the Cathedral will remain open for private prayer from Thursday. I hope I’m back here for the now delayed Christmas Tree festival and other events.
We all hope that in a month life will resume “as normal” . In the meantime with non essential shops all closed, local author Claire Dudman (see https://thechesterblog.com/2016/11/08/real-chester-book-review/) has compiled a list of independent Chester businesses that will be delivering under the banner “Chester Delivers”
If businesses can survive and if we support them, they can thrive again. And if everyone stays safe , we might get our parades and events and theatre and sports back, in time. Make Chester great again! How appropriate.