Think of Chester and what comes to mind ? The Clock, the walls, visions of Roman soldiers patrolling the ancient city and other picture perfect scenes? Or perhaps its a modern multi storey car park, a mossy roofed bus station or a neon pink restaurant sign? Lately there has been a lot of talk about modern developments being “not in keeping” with Chester’s apparently unique look and feel, with the Northgate development being particularly slated. It seems that unless a building is made out of black and white timber or supported by vast Roman columns then it has no place here, the city of Chester must remain a a sepia tinted dreamscape.
It was several years ago when I first started covering events in Chester, on a walking tour, that the guide complained about the bright yellow signage of a recently opened new business. Maybe I’m in a minority, but a yellow sign, or a purple one or a pink one doesn’t feel like something to get that upset about, particularly when the national high street is facing such long term challenges. The business in question, by the way, was Hanky Panky pancakes which has thrived ever since. Take a walk through town and we can see the legacy left by previous generations of Cestrians throughout the ages, the Roman walls, the medieval rows, the Victorian town hall, the brutalist 1960s additions including the concrete car park on ye olde historic Pepper street. “Its not Chester” say the Northgate critics with everything reduced to one single vision. Chester can the the independents, Chester can be the national chains which bring footfall and familiarity to visitors, it can be a colourful community parade and equally, a group of rowdy drunk racegoers dancing at the Cross. Quite often the Romans are at the forefront of that single “Chester”, with our rich civil war and medieval legacies often overlooked. Witness, those for example the demands to pull down the Georgian Dee House (admittedly in a ruinous state) to expose whatever, if anything remains of the Roman amphitheatre. We must be Roman and nothing else, everything must be quaint and picture perfect and look like it did in some mythical golden age, reflected so often on facebook nostalgia pages. Yet Chester has so many faces, all of which have their place and can all be embraced. The city streets are the stage where drama unfolds, street traders ply their wares, protesters wave their placards, the homeless gather, buskers perform and people catch their reflections in the windows of vacant shop units. Chester, like all cities has more than one face with more than its share of dirt beneath its metaphorical fingernail’s.
Many seem to think that once the new carpark. market/cinema and public square then Chester is forever tainted. This somewhat hysterical view is tempered by the fact that you can will be able to walk the walls or shop on Watergate street and never even see the new buildings. When the Northgate development is up and running, we will still have the Chester of old , the historic city won’t be diminished by a new addition built on previously unused land. We can still be beautiful but we must be functional and open to new ideas and not frozen in time. We have numerous unique features, but Cestrians aren’t unique, they all want places to park their cars, or a decent bus station, places to dream, fall in love, or soothe their broken hearts, propping up their favourite independent bar. Whatever changes in Chester, the sunsets behind the Eastgate will be just as beautiful as they always were. Until they slap a digital clock on it, or the Cathedral gets rebuilt in glass and chrome, I’ll be sleeping easily and continuing to enjoy what makes Chester so special.