This was the year in which the moaners wishes came true. No races, no Christmas markets, no events, and all the coffee shops closed for a while. Welcome to the year of Hell
Things started off badly with the closure of Lily Vintage, Mothercare, Zatchels and Fresh Cosmetics . Little did we know that this was just the beginning of a year of upheaval and business closures.
Man of the people Wayne Lammond, the leader of the homeless protesters who had been squatting in various locations across the city was arrested on drug dealing charges. The protest itself collapsed as the Police finally lost patience forcibly removing a group from the empty Covivio building on Grosvenor street. Mr Lammond ended up jailed for 18 months and banned from the city after being described as “something of a hypocrite” by the presiding Judge.
Chester was voted the 4th most popular city in the UK in a YouGov survey trailing behind York, Bath and Edinburgh. After York announced they were banning cars from the city centre, a similar debate took place in Chester, with the car free heaven seemingly at odds with the huge multi-storey car park scheduled for the Northgate development.
The defining point of the year and a message from the universe that this year wasn’t going to go well, was the collapse of the historic walls at a construction site at the rear of the Grosvenor Centre. The catastrophic collapse was initially blamed on developers “digging too close” to the wall but the company building the luxury apartments firmly denied liability. With Chester’s heart shattered by the avoidable disaster and the implications was soon swept away by an emerging much bigger crisis.
Chinese New Year marked a hopeful end to the month: With part of the ceremonies cancelled due to the rising spectre of Coronavirus, it would be the only large scale public event of the year. On the 31st Jan the first 2 UK cases of Covid were confirmed.
Chester’s revived Market was voted the Best Small Indoor Market. Organisers of the awards NAMBA commented: “This is a market in a shopping centre that in 2017 had a stall occupancy of just 35% with a weekly average footfall of less than 12,000. Fast forward to 2020 and trader occupancy is 100% and more than one million customers walked through the market doors in 2019”.
The findings of the Dee House Working Group reported back inside a packed Storyhouse, with the results no particular surprise to anyone who had followed the situation. Disappointing campaigners, full excavation was deemed impossible as was de-listing, following an extensive evidence gathering process, with retention and preservation of the decaying near ruin recommended. The group hoped for a private/council partnership to restore the building, and is still hoping…
In other news, a bid to create a wetland habitat at the Countess of Chester country park was launched by scientist and straw free pioneer Dr Christian Dunn and Andy Scargill, chair of the Friends of the Park. The long term goal, expected to take several years is to create a habitat for diverse plants and wildlife. Coincidentally February saw flooding of the riverside and the meadows, with a solitary swan gliding through the quiet before the storm..
With Covid cases slowly rising and the first death confirmed on March 5th, within 2 weeks panic buying was taking hold in Chester and the rest of the country with twitter flooded with images of empty shelves of bread, pasta and most confusingly toilet roll.
The Last Supper sculpture by Peter Barnes was installed at Chester Cathedral, continuing the venues support for quality art, the work showed Jesus and his disciples in a mosaic made of keyboard keys. As confusion reigned across the nation, events started to be cancelled and some businesses closed, many would have been reaching for the CRT ALT DEL combination by this point.
Some light relief/scientific analysis was provided by The Haunted Hunts visit to Chester in a new amazon prime series. Featuring a “ghostly encounter” with well known Chester tour guide Mary Ann Cameron, the series combined some beautiful aerial photography of the city with investigations into the cities “most haunted” locations. Consisting quite often of the team sitting in a darkened room shouting “what was that” the highlight was chief investigator Danny negotiating with the ghost of a prostitute in the Old Kings Head: ” I will not resist you.. we have payment for you.” One of the highlights of a fractured year.
On the 23rd March a UK wide lockdown was announced by Boris Johnson. This followed an ambiguous) few weeks when people were encouraged to stay home but businesses were not directed to close. Thus all non essential businesses were shuttered as silence fell over Chester.
With millions of workers furloughed, the public were told to “stay home” as an unsettling “new normal” emerged. Online support networks were swiftly established, alongside community volunteers marshalled by the council. Furloughed chef Phil Jones began his work of cooking hundreds of free meals for vulnerable residents and keyworkers.
As every city centre event was cancelled, critics complained about the suspension of garden waste collections….
Zoom, Tiger King, social distancing, were some of the buzz words as Chester settled into (the first) lockdown. The Queen addressed the nation with some words of hope but saying that there was “more still to endure”. Easter saw the long running food festival and Chester Passion both cancelled. The performance of the Easter story was replaced by an online broadcast of the 2018 Mystery Plays. Even Chester in Lego went online with a virtual display based on 3D photography: https://tinyurl.com/Chester-in-Lego
Soon businesses were adapting to the new regulations by setting up takeaway businesses including Sergio’s, Chip’d and Da Noi. With no end in sight at least residents could enjoy a meal from a quality independent, in between clapping for the NHS heroes and not knowing what day it was. CH1 Chester BID introduced a digital map to highlight which businesses were still open and offering services.
Finally the goal of a races free, tourist free, student free city had been achieved… But the critics should have been careful what they had wished for as businesses. already facing high street woes began to announce permanent closures. Docket 64 closed, as did Moulton Brown , Foot Locker, the VR centre and many others. As the year wore on, many much loved cafes shops and restaurants disappeared , including: Coffee Mill, Sofa workshop, Office, Hotter, The Alchemist , Wood Chester, Laura Ashley. Dawsons and Carluccios were both saved from closure however.
VE celebrations moved online, although musical legend Matt Baker led the Garden quarter in a rousing socially distanced musical performance which made the national news.
In the city residents were angry about the installation of anti terror bollards which appeared with no warning or consultation. Thankfully any disruption was minimised by most of the city still being closed. Meanwhile the Northgate Development (new market, cinema etc) went ahead finally after decades of delay. Further social media anger was caused by a plague of litter across the racecourse and meadows as people picniced in their socially distanced perfectly legal groups but forgot to clean up after themselves.
In other news a Chester FC takeover bid from moneybags businessman Stuart Murphy was scrapped, and the local music community released an album of charity covers to raise funds for a Nurses charity.
As restrictions were eased, cafes began to reopen for takeaways and non essential retail was allowed to reopen on June 15th, life slowly returned to the city with one way systems and pedestrianised streets. Twitte debates soon followed after pictures of busy scenes by the river (is that 2 metres? etc) However despite extensive work to make Chester Zoo covid- safe Chester Zoo was told to stay closed. A huge public outcry resulted in a titanic fundraising effort with over £1 million raised in the zoo’s darkest hour. The zoo was eventually allowed to reopen after further national coverage but still faced a struggle to survive.
A peaceful Black Lives Matter protest took place in Town Hall square and as the nation examined its past, attention was drawn to the previously much loved statue of Viscount Combermere due to his links to the slave trade. But which Chester legend could replace the figure on the plinth?
Popular Chester based soap Hollyoaks ran out of episodes so revisited some past classics from its archive. Jambo hijacking a rowing boat on the Dee and Dawn dying in his arms was a metaphor the existential gloom.
After 100 days of lockdown charity Soul Kitchen celebrated the production of 16,000 meals for the homeless community in Chester and Ellesmere Port.
continued in part 2