No better way to spend a lonely Saturday afternoon than a bus trip to Ellesmere Port to emote, opine and check out some new attractions.
The bus is crowded , youths vaping and people of all ages playing music on their devices. I steel my heart for the inevitable tears as we approach the recently vacated site of the wooden ark. The misanthropic real person behind the tweets emerge as the constant phone alert sounds make me wish I was a vampire. Happily most people get off at the Zoo, although some leave their litter behind.
The journey takes me through the always busy Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet (opened 1995) a slow knock out blow to the Port’s town shopping centre and high street shopping in general. Remember that before House of Fraser collapsed in 2018 the plan was a new Northgate shopping centre with nearly 50 new shops in Chester. How could we ever have competed with all this free parking, queuing, traffic fumes and lack of green space? People bemoan the high street’s demise but if its dying its a democratic death. Further along I pass the Ellesmere Port Sports Village, where I once attended an election count, and the new Theatre Porto (more on this later).
3 trolleys greet me as soon as I get off the bus, one actually inside the bus stop. The new bus station opened in 2020 and is a vast improvement on the old one which offered a bleak welcome to town visitors. A new council hub building now stands on the former bus station site, part of a £16 million investment programme, evidence that things can get better and change , eventually.
Crossing over to the shopping area, the first new attraction is “Mr Fill” the talking bin. One up on the controversial Chester solar bins , the bin replies “THANK YOU FOR USING ME” once litter is deposited, If you squint it could almost be like a futuristic Blade Runner world.
One bin stands outside a smart Wilko store. “Only one till open.. on a Saturday” grumbles a customer, and she has a point , as the 2 (of 3) self service tills that are open are being used at a leisurely pace. Eventually a second till is opened.
Next to this is one massive glitch in the Matrix with a CEX next door to a very similar themed “CGX” (complete with chalk written A board saying that they beat CEX on price).
There is is better content coming… After 8 years of writing this blog, I’ve found some therapy in writing alongside sharing news and interviews etc. I’m in a privileged position to have people reading anything I write, so sometimes when the veneer cracks I can step outside the Chester news reporting and experience the boring and failed bits of life in general and shine a light on the highs. The blogs a metaphor for my own life, sometimes.
Discount Plaza, a shop new to me, is one of the highlights of the visit offering many budget ranges and a huge TV screen displaying CCTV camera footage to rival the Batcave. Air rifles, confectionery, baseball caps and affordable household goods are all on offer here. I stock up on carpet cleaner, smarties and a musical birthday candle.
After a quick explore of the fairly busy market , including a packed food court, I make my first visit to The Market Warehouse, a pop up artisan/street food event founded by Ellesmere Port Social. Their account was set up in 2017 to share positive news and events from the area and they moved into event management in the autumn of 2021. A prime example of not sitting around moaning about how bad things are , instead, shaping something positive. The market, in the building normally used for the fleamarket, is very busy with pizza, beer, a Polish bakery , live music and range of artisan traders. The energetic youthful vibe (people taking selfies etc) reminds me of Chester’s own market revival, which fingers crossed will be replicated in the fast approaching New Chester Market.
I head over to Whitby Park via the backstreets noting a grim overgrown basketball court looking like something like a scene from the walking dead, an example of the sense of abandonment found in some parts of the town centre. However on a generic building site stands the under construction Hydrogen Experience Centre. The Hydrogen village programme backed by the council and MP Justin Madders aims to transition the local area to hydrogen based power , playing a big part in “net zero” commitments. Whitby is planned to be the UK’s first hydrogen village and when the centre opens it will be used to engage with the local community about the benefits of using hydrogen (as opposed to natural gas) and view hydrogen ready boilers and equipment. Marc Clarke, Head of Hydrogen Consumer at Cadent recently commented that “Switching to hydrogen for heating will allow people to continue having the convenience and flexibility of gas while reducing their carbon dioxide emissions. Our plans for the new centre will give people the chance to find out exactly what this lower carbon hydrogen future could look like, even if the answer is ‘just like normal’. Exciting times, although not everyone agrees with the plans, with the Cwac green party speaking out recently.
Amazingly I’ve never visited Whitby Park, a green and pleasant oasis away from the concrete town (although I actually like concrete). It opened in the 1930s so possibly I visited it in a previous life however. Carefree skaters parade up the ramps, one adorned with a quote from Che Guevara. The main purpose for the visit is to see the new Theatre Porto a £2.8 million theatre and cultural centre the new home of youth theatre group Action Transport Theatre. Formed back in 1986 the theatre has been working with young people and the local community ever since. Inside the refurbished Whitby Hall is a cafe alongside a 150 seat theatre and other creative spaces. I sip a cappuccino in the gardens while pondering a nightmare in which the Daly Mail slated my Lego display, and other sad things. Full on melancholy is aided by the acoustic covers coming out of the wall mounter speaker. “Go home, get ahead, light-speed internet”. A great addition to the town, already being enjoyed by families and others in the community, its well worth a visit if just to see the house made out of books.
Back in town , good times return to haunt me on the approach to the Port Arcades. In my youth the Port offered the glamour of a Woolworths (which Chester didn’t get back until the early 2000s). I remember one never ending raining day when my dad treated me to Masters of the Universe figure and I saw the shopping centre under construction. Later on it had a KFC, another thing Chester didn’t have. Visits to the Littlewoods opposite provided a trip to the pic n mix. Now Rivington road, leading to the entrance to the shopping centre is an anxiety inducing wide open space complete with a behemoth empty paint flaking B&M. Woolworths, with the happy happy childhood memories is now a charity shop. If I was a town planner I’d try and get cafes in there to create an alfresco area, but as we’ve seen here, big empty units are hard to fill..
In the Port arcades itself, I stock up in Poundstretcher, and note the National Milk Bar opposite, which has been there a long time. I always wondered what it was like, later associating it with the venue from A Clockwork Orange. I will save the mystery for my next visit. The sadness of retail’s decline continues to sadden with the central atrium now consisting of a Costa, a phone shop and 3 closed units (including a closed down Bright House). A browse of an exhibition of local history photographs impresses , with cameos by Elsie Tanner and Oliver Cromwell, as well as an original sales brochure for the centre from 1988. The visit ends with a 50p Susan Boyle CD (still with the security seal on after a decade) from a charity shop. Mad world
As the ladies pile out of the Club 3000 Bingo, and having not even touched on the National Waterways Museum or the walk further up Whitby Road, its with a touch of optimism that I leave the Port.
On our next travel blog we visit Wrexham followed by a return to Rhyl