Think about Chester’s reputation as a haunted city and what comes to mind? Perhaps tales of spectral Roman soldiers still patrolling the walls , or the famous poltergeist that haunted the former Thorntons store. Often referred to as one of the most haunted cities in Britain, TV ghost hunters make frequent visits to shout “what was that!” whilst walking through darkened rooms at midnight. A “Haunted Hotel” has recently opened. Our ghostly heritage is no surprise given our many layers of history from the Romans to the Civil War, combined with our evocative cobbled streets, listed buildings and lonely rows.
However for me, “ghosts” evoke something more mundane than a headless ghoul descending a spiral staircase. With changed shopping habits and the internet having torpedoed our high streets, we often look back at the shops and businesses of our youth that we miss and which inspire bittersweet childhood memories. Nostalgia is a massive pull in Chester, with numerous facebook groups looking back with rose tinted glasses at how brilliant everything was, before the bus station moved, or when the trams still ran. A recent twitter post asking Cestrians which business they most missed and would like to return attracted hundred of replies. Answers ranged from Woolworths to the recently closed Browns, to Penny lane records, Chester legends Weinholts, Argos, Harvest Moon, Virgin megastore, the Warner Bros shop or Platinum lounge. Blakes, the Forum McDonalds, Brannigans and Bookland!
As a frequent city centre stroller these ghostly memories come back to haunt me on a regular basis, as they would any long term Chester resident. Millets cafe (now the upper floor of Zara) a mythical childhood experience of walking through the hall of tents to reach the cafe of your dreams, I can still taste the chewy chocolate flapjacks, never bettered in 30 years of trying. Treading the green vinyl floor of Toy and Hobby.. which became HMV, and then Deichmann shoes. These are the layers of history of the common man, history can have the transitions from Roman to Saxon to Middle ages, I’ll take Dixons (and looking at the football scores in the window with my dad) becoming Little Waitrose, and then becoming Holland and Barrett. Storyhouse is a prime example of linking the past and the present in a positive way, retaining the iconic exterior and its key internal features including the Odeon clock. I sit in the library area where I once sat with my family on blue armchairs waiting for the cinema doors to open. I browse the aisles in the out of town B&M knowing that Chester City FC’s revered Sealand Road ground once stood o on the same spot.
The collective memories take us back to a pre internet golden age when you could buy most things you wanted on a trip into town. Down the stairs to Toycraft to look at the Lego or the board games, now the unit has been split into a trendy bar and a cafe. Lots of places are cafes now. Make no mistake Chester has plenty to offer residents and visitors and its retail and hospitality offer remains strong. The cynic might say, wrongly that there was little reason to come into town except stare at your phone. New places, new experiences and memories are being crafted for future generations. Perhaps looking back the memory cheats, and we’re all seduced by the pull of nostalgia and the phantom smell of the coffee in Owen Owen? Perhaps we didn’t know what we had til it was gone?
City centres continue to evolve and change, the BBC reporting recently that 17,000 chain stores closed in 2021. The virtual worlds of the internet continue to warp our existence so these internal ghosts are likely to increase adding more layers to our yearning souls. As I walk past the empty shops I’ll be dreaming that I’m browsing the poster racks in Athena or starting the day with a BHS cafe breakfast. These ghosts will always give me the warm sadness of nostalgia.