The rumble of the bass amp means something is stirring.
I’m at Sourdough, Chester’s latest boutique festival with the low-fi by local bands music reverberating around the high-vaulted ceiling of St Mary’s creative space [stmaryscreativespace.co.uk]. For Dom Smith, co-organiser and editor of alternative music magazine Soundsphere, it’s a fresh take on the city’s cultural life from the Tudor buildings and the Roman heritage.
For me, as a teenager in Eighties Chester, a cultural night out meant a train to Liverpool or Manchester. Life felt as monochrome as the Joy Division album covers I fervently filed into my burgeoning vinyl collection. But things have changed: Chester has found its cultural mojo.
On any given evening I can now watch a live band at Telfords [telfordswarehousechester.com] or Alexanders [alexanderslive.com], see an arthouse film at Storyhouse or attend a lecture at the Grosvenor Museum [grosvenormuseum.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk].
The cultural renaissance was cemented in May this year with the opening of the Storyhouse arts centre [storyhouse.com] . Some 78,000 people passed through the doors in the first month and the ripples continue to wash gently across the city. Moonlight Flicks and the Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre are now stalwarts of the summer season.
The next day I’m viewing the artworks at Pop Art In Print, a temporary exhibition by Chester Visual Arts [chestervisualarts.com]. There are works by Sir Peter Blake and Roy Lichtenstein but it’s Julian Opie’s piece, I Dreamt I was Driving, that attracts the most constant chin stroking — and some 300 people per day since opening.
The exhibition currently occupies a temporary space in the old library building but Director Ian Short hopes to establish a permanent contemporary gallery space in the city in the future. Meanwhile, pop-up events include the light-installation artist Liz West coming to Chester Cathedral next February.
Across the road at Chester Cathedral, the ARK exhibition [chestercathedral.com/event/ark/] is inspiring games of hunt the Gormley. While large-scale works by Damien Hirst and Sarah Lucas are easier to spot, the tiny artwork from the Angel of the North sculptor is tucked away beside St Werburgh’s Chapel.
Some 20,000 Pokemon GO addicts recently descended upon Chester Castle as part of events to open up Chester’s forgotten heritage destination to a new generation of visitors. The longer-term plan is to restore the buildings while running a seasonal programme to lure in the 1.3m visitors to the city each year who walk past the castle on a complete circuit of the city walls.
Back at Soudough, meanwhile, Chupa Cabra are finishing the set, their guitars cascading against the stained-glass backdrop. Sourdough plans more pop-up events planned for Chester, including an after-hours showcase at the Grey n Pink [greynpinkrecords.com] record shop.
Proof that Chester has gone from monochrome to high-octane HD. It has become a place to challenge and inspire cultural horizons.
And it feels good.
Three to see: Get your cultural fix in Chester with these three world-class shows:
- Pop Art in Print at the Chester Library Building until October 22, 2017 [chestervisualarts.com]
- Ark at Chester Cathedral until October 15, 2017 [chestercathedral.com/ark-exhibition/]
- Autumn season at Storehouse, including The Chester Literature Festival in November and Famous Five Christmas show [storyhouse.com]
Credit: David Atkinson is a travel writer but always returns home to Chester; see atkinsondavid.com.