Shitchester’s Christmas Day off

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I begin the day catching up on the latest facebook threads: “If I can’t buy a pork pie its not a market” say the New Market/ “no its a food hall” commenters, on and on, and on. No matter how many times the non food traders are listed, their very existence is denied. “But you can buy vintage clothes and theres a fishmongers..” “Foodhall!” replies a toddler. An entitled bunch who for the most part hadn’t set foot in the old market for decades, and are still living in the land of Quaintways and Owen Owen. Where were they in the 2010s ? Obviously nowhere near the Market because if so they would have known that only the addition of the food traders made the market viable. The haberdasher closed in 2017 (Only just noticed), the sweet shop owner retired, the fancy dress closed down due to lack of customers, but no, we demand all of these businesses we never shopped in and their rent can be paid in facebook anger. After skirting around this abyss I am pleasantly surprised to see that the Stagecoach bus app is working and showing bus departures so I set out for the city

“Is your Lego in yet?” asks an old friend on a bustling Frodsham street. After Christmas I say, with no activity today given the coincidental closure of NCM for unspecified technical reasons. I bimble through the Christmas Market, quieter than the congested weekends. Where are the toilets ? I wonder. With NCM shut the nearest public toilets are at the bus station, or the park/river. In spite of all the extra footfall in the area, including the 3 bars we haven’t provided any additional facilities, yet when the races are on the Race Company can afford a few temporary toilets. Just something to think about. Exchange Square with the market closed takes on an eerie abandoned atmosphere, apart from the living wall receiving a winter trim by workers on a cherry picker. Looking up towards the recently renovated Abbey Gateway, I note the layers of architectural history in the area. The tower of the Victorian Town Hall above the modern Northgate additions , next to to the 60s brutalism of the Forum. Everything adding up to one pic and mix of the centuries. But why can’t the new Home Bargains be black and white??

I stand at the Cross waiting for my friend to arrive, before I’m barged out of position by an elderly busker setting up his amp to sing Elvis songs. The anxiety of small city living, where everyone knows your name, and many hate your name circles around me as I stand wondering if I’ll have to avoid anyone. No need this time as good friend Jennie Harper arrives for our Christmas present exchange visit. We set off down Watergate street , currently thriving with many new business openings- recently Death by Tacos, Providence Gin, Gator Pit and now a new bubble tea shop. Service is leisurely at the newly opened Lovin Tea with a 15 minute wait for a cold drink. “The signal’s rubbish down here!” Says Jennie on the steps of 22 Watergate street.

“Sorry, its an historic building !” I reply as I leave with my drink, Its not as easy as just boiling a kettle. Immediately I realise the bubble tea is the wrong choice on a freezing day, travelling down the backstreets for a long around the soon to be extinct Forum shopping centre. Browsing a skip, a shattered Christmas decoration sums up the mood. The Forum, in the last weeks of its life now faces an uncertain future with no plans or investor in place for the next stage of the Northgate development, although many of the businesses are relocating including The Hair Shop and Intuneative (both moving to Watergate street). Paulene and Margaret looks to be closing down, as well as popular Christian cafe, Oasis of Miracles -“The best coffee and hot chocolate in Chester”, and the University’s gallery space. The biggest loss will be B&M (opened Oct 22 2014, I was there), half of the floor space now sealed off as staff prepare for closure. Along with the old market, soon this place will be another Chester memory for people to cry over. I can remember the glory days of TJ Hughes, Greggs and Shoezone.

End of days for the Forum

We visit Northgates for a mulled wine. Not long open in the former Sweet Elements unit on Northgate street, the business is the new venture from ex market trader Tony Beverley “We are doing really well at the weekend” he says “but in the mid week we haven’t been discovered yet. We have put application sin for seats outside and that’s been approved , that will make us look physically open and will be a great help. People are flocking to the indoor market and I think its an absolute success but they’re not coming back out yet, to find me! With the Christmas market, they love going up and down it, its a wonderful once at year treat for everyone. We have a food menu up and running and in the evening we swap over to just nibbles so people can enjoy that with cocktails or a wine”

My afternoon activity is setting up an ad hoc Christmas Lego display with the parts of Lego Chester that aren’t in market storage. For the last 8 years I’ve enjoyed putting the Christmas displays together, Santa’s sleigh over Brook street, Santa hats on Romans etc. To maintain the tradition on a smaller virtual scale , I assemble the old favourites plus Die Hard Bruce Willis and kilted Russ Abbot and new MP Sam Dixon. The Rainbow Tea Rooms joins the list of new models ready for the forthcoming New Market display.

By evening, the stagecoach app has stopped working again. Back in the city, the Clock is lit up orange in honour of voluntary workers set to be recognised at the Chester West Voluntary Action awards. It is press night for The Snow Queen at Storyhouse, and I go to McDonalds to order a pre show burger. “Guest 91… Guest 92…” calls out the server against a backdrop of soothing classical music. A large group of schoolchildren are huddled in the window seating area without a milkshake between them, the original “warm space”.

With another £5 mulled drink I wait in the foyer for my theatre guest to arrive and I think back to opening day in 2017 when I sat in the same place with Neil Bellis formerly of the Chester Standard. I think back further to buying cinema tickets and drinks here ( for pic n mix I used the market of course). We enjoy the optimistic buzz of activity inside, with musical duo Me and Deboe impressing. “This is not a city on its knees” says my colleague. ” Remember the campaign group that worked to save the Odeon?” he asks noting the clock salvaged from the cinema on the wall. In some universe where Rome never fell, the Odeon might have been turned into a nightclub. I tweet a video of the band performing, early favourites of the account they once dedicated a Killers song to me during a performance. I am sad to see they’ve unfollowed me on twitter, but a lot of people do move on. Things come full circle , nearly ten years have passed now since “the account” was born.

Meeting a greeting several friends in the theatre crowds, hopes are high for the show and it doesn’t disappoint. I scrawl my review notes in the same notebook that I used to write down the election results as they were read out at the Northgate Arena the week before. The show does not disappoint (see review) “I feel nothing, nothing” says one of the characters, a line offering great appeal to any angst ridden audience members. “A satisfactory outcome” replies the Snow Queen. You could never feel nothing in this city

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