Three Christmases ago saw me miming one of my husband’s presents. I ran around the festooned living room raising an imaginary glass to my lips and making him very confused.
‘Running? Running and hydrating?’ he tried, looking understandably disappointed. ‘We’re running and drinking water?’
Fast-forward to the gift itself – a freezing cold, rainy January night, a bunch of us huddled together in hastily purchased running gear, Gareth Boyd beaming in front of us, excited to kick off the tour.
A tour of course, which involved a light-hearted jog around the city, pausing to catch our breath as Gareth regaled us with funny and haunting stories of years long past, and every now and again, popping inside a bar for a G&T.
The unsuccessful miming incident and scepticism in the rearview, my husband was soon warm, cheered and enjoying the truly unique experience.
Since that fateful night, I’ve had the pleasure of seeing Gareth’s award-winning venture, Tours Around Chester, expand into culinary delights, launch in Liverpool, and become a cherished spotlight for our independent gems.
Admittedly, your more likely to find me on one of his walking food tours these days (because hello – Meltdown, 9 Elephants, Pierogi, Hanky Panky – to name just a few) but you can also partake in a Horrible Histories family run, a 5K along the walls and hopefully soon, an experience designed with your pooch in mind.
In the strange times we find ourselves in, I was keen to find out how Chester’s top-rated food and drink attraction was faring, and hear Gareth’s thoughts on adapting and the future of independent Chester (over Zoom, naturally).
‘Initially, in March, it was tricky- communicating with people who’d booked tours, who had vouchers, and the retailers who were significantly hit. Figuring out when to contact and in what guise was difficult; I wanted to support as much as possible.’
With the never-ending, split-second tier jumps and conflicting advice, how difficult has it been to adapt a business founded on social gathering?
‘It’s kept me on my toes, pivoting. Due to the size of restaurants/venues, the tour itineraries had to change, I’ve had to think about smaller group sizes and workarounds. It’s about trying to be considerate too. It’s important to provide reassurance that the tour is safe and still fun.’
We reminisce about the very first food tour (hands down the best press experience I’ve ever had), where we were giddy, full-bellied and without a care in the world. I ask Gareth how difficult it is for him to encourage social distancing and to what extent he feels it’s his responsibility:
‘For guests on a tour, the mindset has been pretty consistent and sensible – they know they’re responsible for their own risks but that it’s up to me to take them to only safe environments. I give a gentle health and safety briefing and carry hand sanitiser and face masks.’
He’s been surprised by how respectful guests have been, especially on the running tours, and hasn’t yet felt concerned for his own safety. Does he think the future is more of the same?
‘I’ll continue the tours; I think there’s a winning formula there, but it will be smaller groups for the time being. I’m pencilling in future bookings and also extending voucher expiry dates. Some people are very wary, and I respect that; health is paramount, but a lot of people are keen to get out there and have an experience. I think we’re looking at summer, at which point I’d like to expand the tour offering.’
Mad Hatters, a firm tour favourite, sadly shut down in June last year – in part no doubt due to its charming home on the rows which made social distancing inside near impossible. But Gareth’s been impressed by the volume of indies who’ve come out fighting:
‘Some businesses have grown, expanded when lots were struggling, look at Stile Napoletano on Watergate Street. And the takeaway offerings: Da Noi, Gnome and Away, Porta, Hanky Panky and their curries – amazing ideas. It’s exciting times ahead for Chester Market and new businesses are opening like The Green House on Godstall Lane.’
How does he think independent Chester is holding up?
‘This is the key time; January is often naff for hospitality: the weather, rents and rate etc. But there’s a wonderful community: amble, ChesterBID, Marketing Cheshire, Taste Cheshire, Izzy Grey – there’s a great collaboration and people want it to work. I think the majority will survive, with a few casualties.’
I’m chuffed that Gareth sees what I see – businesses which have reimagined themselves, kept the city fed, provided moments of pure foodie happiness in bleak times (I’m looking at you Meltdown, Chef’s Table and Death by Tacos) and come out fighting.
When I started amble in 2017, it was to champion a city of quietly operating indies, some of whom were really struggling. A lot has happened in 4 years; the market has exploded and new and established indies rule the roost from wall to wall. In the past year, it’s mostly the chains who’ve had to bow out and our indies are an evidently-loved powerhouse that defines Chester.
We’re not out of the woods yet; but the independent spirit is alive and well.
All images courtesy of Tours Around Chester. To book a tour or contact Gareth, check out the website here.