The Chester blog

July

Pubs and restaurants reopened , and to mark the event Storyhouse’s bee swarm escaped and settled on the side of the Pied Bull. The market’s late nights returned with the introduction of an alfresco dining area as businesses continued to adapt to the new circumstances. Vin Santo opened in the former Cork’s Out building on Watergate street.

Pop up art in the Roman Gardens mocks the inconsistent Covid rules

The Lord Mayor Mark Williams carried out a series of morale boosting visits to the city’s battling business community in Hoole, Huntington, Boughton and the city centre. “It’s a way of giving thanks” said the Lord Mayor, paying tribute to the extensive measures introduced to make premises Covid safe.

Mayor Williams greets a shopper in Hoole

Storyhouse, facing its own struggles with no sign of theatres reopening in the near future, launched a membership scheme as well as innovating with a drive in cinema on Linehall car park.

Some light relief came in the shape of the returning Upton Scarecrow Trail, this year with a Zoo theme.

August

“Eat out to help out” was a boost to the city’s surviving restaurants. New addition plant based Shrub on Eastgate row proved popular and contributed to a revival of that part of the struggling rows, alongside art centre/cafe Pictura. Other parts of the rows faced further challenges with the closure of the hugely popular Mad Hatter’s and the long standing Sofa Workshop. The long awaited second branch of Stile Napoletano was a welcome sight on Watergate street however.

Place for the Arts was one solution to the problem of ever increasing number of empty shop units. An alliance between interested organisations and businesses came together to bring some “pop up” life to the battered high street via art galleries/shops displaying the work of local creatives.

Storyhouse brought Theatre in the Park back against all expectations, in a socially distanced auditorium for a successful run of The Comedy of Errors.

At the end of the month another dark force reared its head as the community was split over the unexpected introduction of new bus lanes in Boughton. The lanes led to initial traffic chaos before the council apologised, stating that the government funded scheme was just a “trial”. Supporters of the scheme argued that reducing car usage was of paramount importance, but critics felt the scheme created congestion and further damaged city centre business already wounded from Corona impact. The die had been cast for Chester’s most toxic debate since Dee House, running for the rest of this troubled year.

September

Hospice of the Good Shepherd launch

The Taste Cheshire Farmers market, held for the first time ever inside ye historic Cathedral was a big success in a year largely empty of non-virtual events.

farmers market in the Cathedral

As 2020 continued its insane roller coaster, Neighbours Wrexham were boosted by the surreal news that Hollywood megastars Ryan Reynolds , of Deadpool fame was looking to buy the football club. And it really wasn’t a dream.

Michael Portillo filmed on top of the Eastgate and Stephen Mullhern filmed “In for a Penny” across the city centre, with security trying in vain to move along onlookers : “any more than 6 people and its illegal!” . In other arts news the much missed Tip Top Productions staged an open air sell out event at Theatre Clwyd.

As October loomed and the days grew shorter, further gloomy brushstrokes were painted as neighbouring Wrexham and most of North Wales went into local lockdown as well as the the Liverpool City Region. Meanwhile in a joint move Cheshire East and West councils applied to the Government for Cheshire for their own lockdown measures…

October

The bus lanes/active travel lanes were officially opened and clashed with the leak of a one way city centre travel masterplan ( Clockwise Chester) to facilitate the building of a new drain system in the city centre. The response to the expected year long, necessary disruption was not good. A facebook group opposing the bus lanes amassed nearly 3000 members as the debate rumbled on.

A plan to rebuild the collapsed walls was revealed including a temporary walkway to be installed “before Christmas”. The Northgate steps, covered over for a decade were also said to be complete, but the finishing touches to the work dragged on.

The impact of lockdown in Wales was felt by Storyhouse in the Toilet Gate incident with the Welsh police refusing the use of toilets at the cross border part of the Deva stadium. A solution was later reached which allowed the event to go ahead and Storyhouse benefited from a £730,000 grant from the Government’s Cultural Fund, securing their position until Spring. Alexander’s received £238,000 in funding. Meanwhile other grass roots music venues continued their fight for survival. …

With visitor numbers fallen due to neighbouring local lockdowns and hospitality now paralysed by a 10pm curfew introduced by the Government at the end of September, a joint effort from Chris Matheson, BID and the council resulted in additional funding awarded for businesses. The second national lockdown was announced on Halloween, as non essential businesses were all forced to close as the infection rate soared.

Hoole/Newton scarecrow trail: Its all gonna be fine

November

Everything was cancelled in another bleak month of nothingness. The Christmas market, originally scheduled to take place in a revised format was axed in response the new restrictions. Demoralised businesses faced an uncertain future with no guarantee that the lockdown would end in December. Despite the official advice to “stay at home” this time you could still come into town and get a Greggs or a takeaway coffee. On the plus side hopes were raised by successful tests of a Covid vaccine and a possible end to the nightmarish pandemic.

Hotel Moxy opened next to Waitrose as the regeneration of the canal area continued, the usual suspects lined up to cry out “we don’t need any more hotels”

One more unwanted gift from 2020 was the sad announcement from Tip Top Productions that they were vacating their home of 13 years in the Forum Studio theatre. The company announced they would be concentrating on other local venues and promised an exciting future, but the sadness was real at the loss of one of the city’s prime cultural venues, particularly one that had kept the light shining during the “cultural desert ” era.

Do we know its Christmas time ? November 15th

December

Lockdown ended but the city remained in Tier 2 meaning households could not mix indoors, and alcohol could only be served with a “substantial meal” leading to a boom in outdoor seating and imaginative menus/rule bending. £1 substantial meals were on offer, an issue largely ignored by the local press, with Cheshire Live, having lost numerous key personnel concentrated primarily on click bait or national news.

The clanging chimes of doom continued with the final collapse of Debenhams, owner of the city’s iconic Browns of Chester. News that no one wanted to hear , but news that perhaps been on the cards for some time it was yet another blow to the city. With a key location on the rows and anchoring the Grosvenor shopping centre , hopes remain that jobs and the business can be saved and an important part of the city preserved.

Story of the year was a bid by 2 Nottingham university students to catapult national legend, cult comic and Cestrian Russ Abbot to Christmas number 1 with his 1984 smash hit “Atmosphere” Backed by Russ himself, George Scotland and Damian Stephen ran a valiant media campaign which although unsuccessful , returned Mr Abbot to prominence, raised some funds for mental health charity MIND, and made a lot of people smile.

The retail gloom was slightly alleviated by Kingdom of Sweets opening on Eastgate street, plus three new market traders joining (with a boar themed logo revealed for the new market opening in 2022) as well as 4 new businesses due to open on Frodsham street. A small Christmas “miracle” was the reopening of the Northgate walls after nearly ten years. The restored steps offered hope, alongside the opening of the walkway over the area that collapsed in January. Although the repairs below are likely to take a while, only the closure of the Bridgegate prevents a full open circuit of the walls.

Northgate steps reopened. ..

Chester Cathedral’s Christmas festivities offered the always popular Christmas tree festival and “Starry stary night” offering some hope in the darkness.

Art by Peter Walker lit up the Cathedral
True Grit: Heroes of 2020

As Christmas approached, Electric Scooters were introduced to the city to a mixed response, and then the Government announced that Cheshire was entering “tier 3” meaning the closure of all hospitality venues apart from takeaways, as businesses prepared to close for the third time in a year, and once again facing mass uncertainty.

Hoping for a brighter 2021.

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