It’s Heritage Open Day in 2014 and I’m in a Georgian house in Lower Bridge Street. It’s part of a terrace set back from the road, opposite the Bear and Billet. The staircase is in the middle of the house – lit by a skylight (or lantern) in the roof. The ground floor used to be the province of the BBC, but the upstairs has long been home to the Chester branch of Donald Insall Associates. It’s the director of this firm of architects, Tony Barton, who is showing us around the building today.
Chester owes a lot to Sir Donald Insall. In 1968, he wrote ‘Chester: A Study in Conservation’, which encouraged the city to see the architectural possibilities of conservation – rather than the replacement of buildings by constructions of glass and concrete. He was therefore partly responsible for preserving the character of Chester’s buildings and to my mind is, therefore, a local hero.
I didn’t know it then, but that tour around one of Chester’s old buildings was the start of a new initiative, one that in 2017 attracted tens of thousands of people to the city. To find out more I asked the Vice President of the Chester Civic Trust and Chair of Chester Heritage Festival, Steven Langtree. Besides being a chartered civil engineer, Steven is also one of the authors of ‘2000 Years of Building – Chester’s Architectural Legacy’.
‘It all started because Heritage Open Days have always been really popular in Chester. Tony Barton and I thought we would like to extend the Heritage Open Days programme and make it into a week-long festival. So that’s really how it began – an extension to an event that already took place.’
‘In the very first year we called it Chester Heritage Week. In the second year we were bolder and we called it a ‘Festival’, and it ran just ahead of Heritage Open Days in September.’
It was then that they began to realise that they had something with potential: a stand-alone ‘Chester Event’ with ‘a much bigger scope’ than the national Heritage Open Days. So, with this in mind, they brought the date of the Chester Heritage Festival to July in 2017, and now in its fourth year, they’re moving it forward again to June. This is to take advantage of the crowds that come to see two other important cultural features in Chester: the Midsummer Watch Parade, and the 2018 Chester Mystery Plays.
So, for the last few months, Steve has been chairing the steering committee to decide and organise the 2018 programme. The committee combines the skills and experience of representatives from the Cheshire West and Chester Council, Chester Cathedral, Chester University, the Civic Trust and a variety of interested businesses and organisations, including Russell Kirk the organiser of the Watch Parades. It’s been a lot of work: the fun part of thinking up events has to be translated into actual happenings. Venues have to be arranged, a ticketing system has to be put in place, brochures and flyers have to be compiled and printed and the whole thing marketed and publicised. Much of this is in the hands of Elizabeth Preedy who has overseen the compilation of a programme that now has more than a hundred different events. It’s an impressive outcome for a festival that is only four years old.
When I ask Steve what has been the biggest draw in these first four years, there is no contest: ‘Well, without a shadow of a doubt, in 2017 the most popular event was ‘Pokemon Go’. This was organised as part of the festival by Big Heritage, and believe it or not, attracted 16,000 people to Chester. The streets were absolutely mobbed with people; it was quite incredible.’
Other events have also proved popular and include ‘last year’s festival finale – a jazz concert in the Carriage Shed which attracted 60 people, as well as tours that have attracted 20 -30 people.’
As for his favourite event, Steve says, ‘last year we did something rather special in Bishop Lloyd’s Palace. We ran an evening event called Bishop Lloyd’s House Party in which we had sonnets, music and food from the Jacobean period, which was when the Bishop Lloyd’s Palace was built – in about 1615. That was so good – it worked very well with really skilful musicians and speakers, including Nick Fry from Chester Cathedral. We had a full house of over 40 people. It was a lovely evening. That has to be one of my favourites so far.’
Looking to the future, I ask him what sort of event he’d really like to see at the festival. ‘There’s loads of scope at Chester Castle,’ he says, ‘The castle was opened for the first time in many years last year, and we’re hoping it will be opened again for the festival this year. I’d like that to become a significant part of the festival – with displays, people in costume, possibly some outdoor entertainment, maybe some music, maybe a concert. I’d like to see the castle site become a major element for the festival and I think we’re heading in that direction. People seem to want that to happen, but we’re working towards it step by step.
‘The other thing, and this is not a particular event, is for us to see a real carnival atmosphere in Chester. Everyone that comes to the city during the festival period will realise that there’s something special going on, and that the Heritage Festival makes a real impact on the streets. People will recognise that there’s lots to do and that it’s a special time in the calendar. That’s really what I’d like to achieve. Something that is recognised both locally and nationally.’
Steve’s enthusiasm is infectious. It’s something I’m looking forward to be part of – both as a visitor and also as a participant, when I give a series of Creative Writing Workshops during the Festival this year. As the world changes, it is, perhaps, a way of keeping the city alive. It is also a way of appreciating and celebrating the legacy of Sir Donald Insall’s architectural insight fifty years ago.
Chester Heritage Festival runs from 22nd-30th June. You can find out more about what’s on and when here. Clare Dudman’s writing workshop series starts on the 22nd June with – ‘Tales from the City – The Uncovering of St Werburgh.’