After a year in limbo, many events and happenings made a welcome return this year; The santa dash, the winter watch, the marathon, Diwali, remembrance Day , Cars and Coffee, choirs in the streets. Clockwise Chester caused misery for motorists , a Royal visited and some more hotels opened A non comprehensive reflection on some of the themes in another Cestrian year
- 2021 began with the country in a bleak winter lockdown. Some light relief was provided by alleged sightings of a mystery big cat, with the first reported by Puma Watch North Wales on January 10th. The “enormous cat” was spotted on a the meadows by an Uber Eats driver who took the iconic photograph, giving us all something to talk about during those lonely lockdown days. As well as multiple sightings across the Welsh border, The Cat was later photographed at the Deva stadium , with more reported sightings near the m56 Chester services , Blacon and Caldy Valley. A hoax sighting in Grosvenor Park turned out to be photo of the jaguar at Chester zoo however.
- Famous Chester men made the headlines for the wrong reasons this year. Radio presenter Mike Parry hit the headlines in Feb with an outrageous slur on Blacon posting on twitter that “I don’t want to be unkind to a district of my home town, Chester, but most people would rather live in down-town Kabul than live in Blacon.”. Parry stated that the suburb was a “pimple of the bum” of Chester before later apologising. Meanwhile Chester boy and Health Secretary Matt Hancock resigned in the summer after not following his own Covid safety regulations by not social distancing from his mistress.
- A personal highlight from the spring was the reveal of the artist behind the legendary “We need more shit” graffiti on Frodsham street, closing the circle on a mystery lasting 8 years. Getting in touch via instagram Liverpool based artist Will told us that in 2013 he was “obsessed with street art and public interventions. Any work that I was thinking about at that time was in a public space or on a wall. We Need More Shit’, along with other stencil pieces I did at the time was all about subverting and humouring the capitalist system… At the time I knew I had sprayed the piece onto the side of a bank but it definitely wasn’t a clear choice, but the significance must have blown slightly over my head. I only came across ShitChester only this year, which is crazy! I’ve never had twitter so I missed out on the initial surge of devotees to the account. A few weeks ago I was pleasantly surprised to see the graffiti piece posted in celebration of eight years of the account, but when I investigated more I was utterly shocked, confused, and of course, honoured to see how much that graffiti was central to the accounts image.” A personal landmark, thank you to Will. memry_bnk on Instagram.
- As the city’s vaccination programme rolled out, supported by an army of volunteers, non essential retail reopened in April. As the weather warmed up, alfresco dining took on a key role in getting people back out and about. The council relaxed pavement dining laws and the previous ban on A Boards was quietly forgotten. The popular Town Crier David Mitchell returned to his spiritual home at the Cross in June, restoring another piece of Chester’s unique jigsaw. The Crier commented “I haven’t cried for 15 months because a Town Crier in a mask is a highwayman!” Unfortunately people unknown chose the end of the lockdown, and the restoration of freedoms, to plaster the city with a plague of “wake up” graffiti.
- With the Northgate development processing at a rapid pace, a row broke out in June when some market traders went public that they would not be going in the new market , expressing their dissatisfaction with the application process. Many had expected the new build to be simply a new home for all existing traders, now critics claimed it would be full of chains and that the council had damaged people’s livelihoods. Cllr Richard Beacham provided a detailed interview to allay some of the fears, but discontent bubbled under over the summer, as top trader Stile Napoletano left the market alongside Steins, and the long standing sweetshop, as well as anger about power cuts and broken toilets. However by Christmas a further 6 new traders had joined the market, and the public contest to submit names for the new public square and arcade provided a lighter tone. The list of traders confirmed for the new market is eagerly anticipated.
- The closure of Browns of Chester in May was an existential blow to the city’s image and self esteem ending a 230 years long chapter of our history. With no future for the massive building agreed, like many high streets across the country, there may be no quick or easy solution- museum, art gallery, housing, event space use has all been suggested, as well as the popular choice of an artisan market to compete with all the other artisan markets.
- Once the premium news outlet for the city, the continuing fall of Cheshire Live was a low this year. The regional approach and rebrand introduced previously had already diluted the Chester content, and now readers were subjected to almost daily posts about the Real Housewives of Cheshire or Kerry Katona’s Only Fans account, alongside the so easy to parody “blue background questions”‘ 88% of people say they want bacon on their plate for an ideal full English reported CL amongst other random gems. Their descent into total madness was a live blog asking which of a series of ice lollies would melt first. Meanwhile the autumn visit of Prince Edward went bizarrely unmentioned. Supporters argued that the new focus was required to drive engagement and clicks for advertising income, but the apparent retreat was disappointing to witness, and inspired our own weekly news blog. However a new hope was provided with the recruitment of the hard working Gary Porter , a star signing from the Chester Standard who made an immediate impact on the news output. In 2022 will there be a new challenger for the local news crown?
- A host of new independent businesses opened in the second half of the year. This partially offset the closure of Browns as well as other big retail departures including H&M, the Disney shop and Jack Wills. New additions included Bloom and Albion, Epicurean, Sam’s guitars, Diverse Designs, About You (Grosvenor Centre) 2 new Doughnut businesses: Planet Doughnut a real boom for Frodsham street including a long opening day queue, as well as the ex Hollyoaks star owned, Doughnut whisperer on Rufus Court. Amblongus books on Northgate street was a late addition joining other independents on the street including The Second Floor. All the type of shops that the online ranters say we don’t have. The trend for using vacant premises for pop up art shops continued with Place for the Arts in the old Forum newsagents being adorned with the work of artist Mark Wigan. Opening in Handbridge was Inflatabubble, a family owned inflatable theme park that provided a lot of entertainment for the city’s fun starved child community. See: https://thechesterblog.com/2021/08/04/the-inflatabubble-story/ New additions to hospitality included Turkish cafe Pars Kahve, the brook street Polish bakery, Carbonara at number 49, Bonobo bar and canteen, as well as full occupancy of the much maligned dining quarter. Our stars of 2021 are Arista coffee– taking over the closed Baristas, the new owners went for a subtle and cost effective rebrand by simply chipping the “B” off the wall mounted signage. The new/old bus station cafe took advantage of the returning numbers of bus passengers. Secondly Melt Town , a city centre spin off of cheese toastie cafe Meltdown should win an award alone for their inspirational toilets. Sick to Death from the BIG heritage team was a great new attraction to the city’s visitor offering, with the company’s acquisition of the Deva Roman experience also promising great things for 2022.
- In September the appearance of some random benches and planters in Town Hall square sparked some interest. The parklet as it was known was a government funded effort to boost the alfreso dining scene and continue to drive footfall into the city. It soon became a popular meeting space and being on wheels allowed it to removed so that events in the square could continue as required. The initiative was a great success and hopefully we will see it return next summer.
- One of the most heart-warming stories of the year was the movement of Kids Bank Chester into much larger new premises. The charity who were founded in 2019 operate in the same way as a foodbank but for clothing, shoes, toys, equipment and toiletries for babies and children up to the age of 12 years. Since their launch the charity have helped over 1700 children across Cheshire, Flintshire and Ellesmere Port. The charity’s expansion was made possible by a £45,000 grant from The Chester Bluecoat Charity. Attending the event with the Town Crier , Lord Mayor and other guests felt like a return to the glory days of Chester blog reporting. Said founder Cathy Pettingale: ” We received our first referral in May 2019 … Its about the 14 year old who found herself pregnant with little or no support. We were able to give her everything she needed. Its about the grandparents who suddenly find themselves with care and control of their grandchildren.. its about the mums and dads who flee domestic abuse. We are blessed to be able to help these families. ”
- The return of the Christmas Market bought some magic back to Town Hall square alongside the welcome return of the season of parades, from community performers to lantern holding schoolchildren to marching Romans: all sights and sounds missing from a shell shocked 2020. This year Christmas carolling buskers shared Eastgate street with a pop up Covid testing centre. The Christmas tree festival at the Cathedral was as lovely as ever, but the much hyped roving Chester moon was no substitute for the popular CheStar. Tasteful colour changing lights on the Eastgate clock was an easy photogenic win however, as well as the sold out Santa’s grotto filling an empty unit in the Grosvenor Centre. The good men from the Grosvenor round table also provided one of the highlights of the year with the Santa float cruising the streets to the sound of the legendary Russ Abbot. Definitely my moment of the year.
- Other memories of the year include: local news reporter Phil McCann going viral after reporting on a nationwide fuel shortage, being shouted at by a local business owner: (WE AREN’T DOING A BLOG I TELL YOU THAT NOW!) after the offer of some free promotion, anti vaxxers/Magna Carta fans invading Storyhouse and wasting a lot of police time, interviewing Pete Waterman about model trains in the Cathedral cloisters, and Chester winning city of the year in the itravel awards. Chester in Lego was mentioned in the paper’s travel report alongside other market star businesses. Chester unlocked 2 was announced early in the year as part of a government funded cultural package for the rows, but did not happen, with the rows being subject to much talk but little action. The online Yorkists returned : “there are no empty shops there” was the claim providing some decent debate whilst comparing ourselves to a city twice our own size may have been counter productive. No one died on Frodsham street. Twitter memories include being told that Chester university should be closed down, and that putting promotional images and branding over empty retail units helped to keep the units empty….
With Covid uncertainty continuing, the key event of 2022 will surely be the opening of the Northgate development, and the end of the hated Clockwise Chester/ drain build (date TBC) with all fingers crossed that the project can deliver on its promise and reinvigorate the city economy and tourist offer. Hopes are also high for the much talked about regeneration of the rows including the new luxury hotel at the Cross. Movement would also be welcome on the rebuilding of the collapsed section of the walls which has developed into a lush weed garden in the last 2 years, with limited updates or explanation from the council. We also look forward to the return of Chester City Passion at Easter, as well as the raft race and hopefully a special celebration for the Queen’s jubilee. Arguments about Escooters, empty shops, pink/ purple buildings will continue alongside whatever joys and nightmares the world throws at us..