Todays tour begins in the Supertrees roundabout (official name City Forest Garden as of August 2020) where I search for the latest animal art addition. I spotted the new Bee a couple of weeks ago, but missed out on the Hedgehog due to its more concealed location. In the green oasis of the well tended garden I admire the art, having long campaigned for some interesting street art in the city. We have enough blank spaces to fill after all.
A solitary can of strong Polish beer abandoned is an echo of the area’s previous grotty appearance and reputation. I bin it and take a moment to admire the planting, the shades of green and yellow, lavender, ferns, grasses and the Allium flower buds getting ready to bloom. A recent post showing plants growing up the metal “trees” led to some criticisms and disappointment being expressed , given that nearly 2 years on the plants are only slowly creeping up the structures, (“Waste of money” they say etc. ) These are quite tall structures however , and it will take time for the plants to mature and cover them. In the meantime the area is a great addition to the city and a point of interest for future visitors. I remember hearing about the project and thinking it was a complete fantasy, but no, it was delivered after a lot of hard work and community action and one part of the city was considerably enhanced. We can wait for plants to grow.
I walk down Frodsham street, alive once again, charity shop windows refreshed , Christmas decorations previously frozen in store displays for 3 long undead months, now removed. I browse the merchandise in Poundland vowing to return later for some house plant food and a mini angel garden ornament.
Chester’s traditional chip shop is doing good business with its pavement seating, more people outside than I ever saw inside the old Les’ chippy. The benches outside in the infamous shared space are equally packed. Years later and no one has been killed by a bus on the street that so many labelled an “accident waiting to happen”. People seem to have given up on that nonsense now , but the doom brigade will find new targets. Two new businesses are opening on the street , a Nail bar and the amazing Planet Doughnut. “We want proper shops” they will say.. WE DONT NEED ANY MORE DOUGHNUT SHOPS they will say, with boring predictability. “We want more businesses in the empty units, but they’re the wrong businesses!” Yes, someone did actually say that recently. Similar vibes expressed when people complain about the lack of toilets but then were outraged by the placement of portable ones in front of the historic town hall. Wrong kind of toilets! Anyway. Planet Doughnut will be a superb addition to the street, a quality independent with unique products you can’t buy anywhere else. The villagers with flaming torches who complains about the dying city, whilst injecting themselves twice a day with pure nostalgia : have they ever been anywhere except Chester? Do they not realise that high street retail is declining all across the nation? I predict a riot over Planet Doughnut’s choice of paint colour for their building, Back in 2014, on a guided tour of the city, I recall one member of the group complaining about how the allegedly garish colour chosen by a new business “wasn’t in keeping” with the city. 7 years later that business is an established independent favourite. A lot of the time we have one foot in an imagined past, we can respect and honour our heritage without being a slave to it.
Near the Eastgate clock I bump into George, an old friend who always has something interesting to talk about. He tells me about the grave of a Japanese acrobat who died on stage at the Royalty Theatre in 1915 , saying that his grave is in the Overleigh Cemetery. Then he tells me of Ronnie Lane ( ex Small Faces/ Faces guitarist) visit to Chester in the 1970s. “Everyone knows where the Beatles played and when the Rolling Stones were up on the roof” he says, but this part of Chester music trivia is far less well known. After leaving The Faces in 1973, Lane toured the UK with his new band “Slim chance ” and performed three gigs at the Racecourse in the summer of 1974. “An old geezer told me about it when I was queuing up for my vaccine” Lane travelled to the concert in a vintage 1948 bus.
A recent tribute album which reunited Ronnie’s 70s bandmates features an image of the venue on the cover the sun setting beautifully over the Racecourse. I thank George for this insight into Chester musical heritage.
In Wilko I am frustrated by a dead eyed but determined youth who ignores the one way entrance/exit system. He strides into my path as i leave, in his head probably the last defender of the free world. Back to Eastgate street, music playing from shops, the street traders back selling their wares, a sign holder, a Big Issue seller. We are alive again. I browse Kingdom of Sweets, its orange shop front has already attracted the critics who are offended by the colour of buildings. Its nice to just browse again, rare flavours of Dairy Milk at £8 each, or a box of imported pop tarts for £6. when the tourists come back this shop will do well, with its Royal Family biscuit tins and expensive pic n mix. I buy the pop tarts and then leave for the market, smiling at the new alfresco areas for Shrub (packed out at the end of Northgate street) and Share Shop.
Hoping to pick up a final pic n mix from The Candy Emporium I am disappointed to see the shutters down. However one of the market traders tells me they are always closed on a Wednesday. The business is closing after 100 years across this, and the old market, for good at the end of the month. For many people the iconic sweet shop was a huge part of their childhood, I am now different. From picking up some sweets before getting the bus home to getting a big bag to eat in the Odeon. I once used sweets as missiles aimed at some people talking loudly/ causing a disturbance during a showing of Shaun of the Dead (2004) . The market will be a poorer place without this business.
I spend some time cleaning the Lego display, wiping down mini rooftops and pavements with cleaning wipes, the Shot Tower windows requiring special attention to remove accumulated grime. 7 years the display has been here for now, thanks to the generosity of the council and the market management. People have been kind in their support and donations. I add a dragon and knight figure for St George’s Day. Talks are ongoing about moving the display in the brand new market opening in summer 22 (which is springing up rapidly on the site of the old bus station). Chester’s mysterious Big Cat was added last week, a point which I am glad to see noted by the Chester Standard in a report about the latest sighting , Blacon this time.
The market is extremely quiet with the footfall driving food traders closed, waiting for May to be able to serve food indoors. I catch up with Richard, the owner of Bookingham Palace, one of the pioneering new breed of traders that helped make the market great again. He shows me a couple of interesting Chester history books , commenting on how the pandemic has changed shopping habits: “The usual avid book reader will buy a paper back book , read that within 3 or 4 days and be back twice, maybe 3 times a week, Now the same people are coming in once a month and buying ten books. People fearing another lockdown, have been buying 25 books! So I’m having social interaction with people 4 or 5 times a year ,when the same people I would have had 25 or more interactions. That’s the way retail has gone at the moment”.
He shows me an 1887 book that documents Dr Livingstone’s exploration of Africa. “This was someone’s PlayStation back in the day!” he says enthusiastically, before handing me a book of Victorian comics and a massive 3 volume copy of the Domesday book. Rich also tells me he wants to convert the Shot Tower into a giant slide. Chester Memory Lane would be sharpening their pitchforks…
The final stop of the day is Browns of Chester, which recently celebrated its 230th birthday. The former cathedral of retail now in its last sad days. On the way I note pandemics impact on Eastgate row with Office (shoes), Hotter (also shoes) and Edinburgh Woollen Mill (Scottish things) all now gone. What will we fill these units with? Museums or “experiences” would be my choice. There is no sign of any impact from the Heritage Action Zone yet, perhaps understandable given the lockdown. A museum of the Rows, on the rows, how good would that be ? We have always struggled with this, all our years of history, stories untold, things not seen, doors locked.
In the shop, the perfume and make up ladies have mostly gone, stock already cleared in some areas as another piece of Chester fades into history. Some corners of the store are empty now, must be so sad for the staff seeing their world slowly whittled away. They carry on working in the terrible circumstances. Its such a lovely building, with its chandeliers and stained glass windows and ornate ceilings. Unfortunately sentiment counts for nothing in this cold reality. Chester loved Browns, but just not enough in the end.