The Shitchester day begins with my early morning Dee 106.3 radio slot with Gavin Matthews. We discuss the good work from the Grosvenor Round Table, delighting local communities with their Santa float- including a punch the air moment with Russ Abbot’s “Atmosphere” booming out of the speakers as the festive vehicle made its way through Upton. Tonight’s Saturnalia parade as well as a new historic colour scheme for parts of the renovated rows are also discussed. Gavin’s favourite Christmas song is Fairytale of New York, he tells me. The weekly ten minute slot is nearly 2 years old now and a real privilege for me to be involved. Back in 2013 it was the Editor of Chester Chronicle who provided a weekly news commentary, how the times have changed.
In the afternoon I head to Brook street for a reunion with my friends in the Pierogi shop. Katarzyna and Voytek opened their Polish dumpling business back in the glory days of 2017 and are currently ranked the 2nd best restaurant in Chester on the trip advisor. We chat about how quiet Brook street is, with the latest mixed messages from the Government echoing the situation back in the darkest hour ( well one of the darkest hours) of early March 2020 when hospitality was left in limbo before being closed down. A new fishmonger is coming to the street, Voytek tells me. We discuss Polish Christmas customs and if the winter watch parade is too scary for children, as well as the inconsistencies of the Covid laws. To visit the Storyhouse theatre requires providing proof of a double vaccination, negative lateral flow test in last 48 hours or of recent recovery from Covid, yet this is not required to see a film in the cinema. “Costumes great, music great” says Voytek about Storyhouse’s Christmas production of Oliver Twist. to After much laughter and chat about the madness of the world I return to the city centre.
Next up a quick visit to the market to check on the Christmas Lego display. On the way I pass the new development in Exchange Square, the market and cinema well on its way now, with details of the traders accepted into the market to be released in “the coming weeks”. I plan a future tweet for Christmas 2022 with a “Last Christmas” caption of the building site. Passing through the market I pause outside the now empty Forum studio theatre , formerly the Gateway theatre and gaze through the window at the box office. Many happy memories of the Tip Top pantos of yesteryear, getting on the media list and enjoying crisps and a mince pie in the press area with the Lord Mayor or similar. Sad to see the venue now unused, and apparently heading for demolition when the as yet undecided/ funded next phase of the Northgate development. The 60s brutalism of Hamilton House looms ahead- previously council offices and seized by homeless protesters in 2019. It feels like planning and developing the second phase is going to be another long period of flux for the city. Will the old market and car park be demolished as soon as the new build is complete? Will the Forum be flattened and if so , what will happen to my favourite shop B&M ?? We closed the Gateway theatre in 2007 and were left without a professional theatre for ten years, one of the things which inspired our initial burst of anger and activism in 2013. Does Chester not make sense or does the world not make sense ??
Waiting for an important email about being part of the Christmas window display competition, with some time to kill I sit and people watch at the Cross. A luxury hotel is being built in the corner building of Bridge street/ Watergate street and I refuse to be negative about it. The building has been empty and unloved for years and here is a huge investment that will better the area. Despite the bleak feelings about the High street, there is still a sense of belief in the city- the feeling of change and progress. It may not the the progress people want, but things are at least moving, taking steps into the future. A new drainage system, new hotels, a cinema, a market and new vibrant businesses opening (Bloom and Albion, Epicurean, The Doughnut whisperer, Amblongus books, Hotpod Yoga) all the time. ” But they’re the wrong ones!” say the Yorkists.
I sit and listen to Busker Ed playing a melancholy tune which I identify as “In the bleak midwinter”, his companion is muted today, simply sitting next to him and tapping her foot. He plays in front of the closed down Waltons, the violin merging with chatter from passers by and hammering from the boutique hotel. In my head I compose a black and white music video of the scene, dreams and journeys briefly intersecting at the historic junction. Ed’s next choice is the unseasonal Tubular Bells/ theme from the Exorcist. I take pleasure that no one but me seems to notice and they all keep on walking.
Still waiting for the email to arrive, I walk to see the controversial pink restaurant Boujee (Liverpool, Manchester, Chester) on historic Pepper street. Chester seems to have lost its mind about the pink canopy and signage with many arguing that it is “not in keeping” with a historic city. The council have reacted furiously to the development saying that “It is ..visually and physically overbearing on the street-scene due to its siting, bold structural detailing, and colour.” No doubt I’m out of sync with public opinion of this one, but to my eyes its neither offensive or out of place. It sits opposite the 1960s Grosvenor centre, not noted for its architectural beauty as well as the concrete block with a lion on the top, that is the Pepper street car park. We can’t have anything modern because the ghosts of the Romans wouldn’t like it. I also disagree with the comment that ” “Views from the City Walls are interrupted along Pepper Street as the eye is drawn to the structure. ” As the row between the business and the council continues, even making the national media, I wonder why, in general Chester doesn’t like new things and why perspective is so often lost in a blaze of angry facebook comments. Hopefully the matter can be resolved and the business will continue trading in a way that is acceptable to the council and public opinion.
The Grosvenor Museum is my next port of call, with hope fading that the email will arrive. In the foyer facing off with the sword bearing Roman is a whale made from plastic waste including milk bottles. I have a look around the under rated art gallery with pictures of local hero Thomas Harrison, the Eaton estate, Chirk castle and a young Price Charles. In the smaller gallery is an exhibit which explores wolf mythology in Romanian culture via photography. The niche exhibition from Chester resident Alexandru Modoi (resident since 2010) is an interesting look at another culture, I am surprised that I’ve seen no publicity about it anywhere. I have a quick walk around the Period House, another hidden Chester gem, the house decorated with subtle Christmas additions. A festive programme for the Royalty theatre is a nice touch. Always sad to think how much we hold in the museum archives and don’t have the space to display it all.
Still waiting email and nearly 5pm now with the Saturnalia/winter watch parade drawing near I visit the Christmas market, feeling reliable safe and secure from terror attack. The market has made a welcome return from its enforced year off. My Christmas market bingo card hasn’t been completed (only 3 squares crossed off) with only days of the market remaining, perhaps a sign that people have learned to live and let live. Sipping on the wine I check my email for the 20th time but all I’ve got is an email from the cwac press department telling me that “more than 50,000 COVID-19 tests have been carried out by Cheshire West and Chester Council since it launched its no-symptoms testing service 12 months ago.” Great news. In the Forum I notice the props and puppets for the evenings parade, lined up in front of the shop units. a dragon, an angel, a devil, the Goddess Minerva….
“These are real fuckin Romans!” says an excited man in the street as the small Legion marches towards us from the Eastgate. Its an awe inspiring sight combining our distant past , theatrics and the drama of the modern cityscape for a fantastic and atmospheric city event. Led by the Roman Emperor, portrayed by local actor Nick Fry ( he played Tyrone’s driving instructor in Coronation street once, a friend informs me) the Romans evoke the traditions of so many years ago. “I am come here to Dewa” he declares , in front of the closed down Debenhams, the greatest of my legionary forces in this province of Britannia. Beneath your feet lie the very stones on which these legionaries walked… on this street in the time of the Rome this street led from the harbour to the rest of the Roman Empire..”
“2000 years ago we would have given you a lighted taper, but the Gods of Health and Safety have intervened” says the lead Roman , so instead glow sticks from a fibre optic company are the replacement. For a few short minutes the Romans are back, who needs a democratically elected government when you have a Caesar…
The Roman’s march to the Town Hall to meet up with the equally brilliant Winter Watch parade . The City Watch were Chester’s original early Police Force, records show that at Christmas the City Watch took control of the keys to the city after processing around Chester to make sure it was secure. This has been adapted into the modern parade which shares some of the characters from the midsummer parade, originally performed back in the 1400s. Taking up my spot on Eastgate street, the perfectly fine street clutter in front of the bank building refurbishment gives me an ironic laugh. The parade is an enjoyable blur as I try and photograph as much as possible as well as spotting people I know in the costumes. Having missed the first parade last week due to a Covid scare, my enthusiasm overtakes me. Parade curator and artist Russell Kirk breathing fire, the monstrous Krampus ( new addition) , who eyeballs a confused passer by. I spot Supertrees founder Steve as some kind of spectre, alongside the angels and the ice maidens and the skeleton band and the chef dishing up a head on a plate.
It’s all over in minutes. I wish I had a photographic team to capture all the performers and the brilliant costumes, but I remain, one man and his phone.
Next week: the highs and lows of 2021.