Almost as often as I report new business openings in Chester, it is inevitable I also have to write about those that close.
And most recently, two longstanding venues closed within weeks of each other, just yards from each other on Eastgate Row – the gift shop And Albert which had been trading for 24 years, and The Rows Café, known for the homemade food it served for the past couple of decades.
The Rows are unique. There’s nothing else quite like them in the world. We almost take them for granted as part of our regular shopping routine, but there’s nowhere else that can offer shopping on two levels.
Few other places in this country can you can see unique, original 13th century buildings that still remain as impressive to this day as they did centuries ago.
They’re a piece of Chester that attract so many people, and their uniqueness is a huge part of the city’s magnificent beauty and character.
So surely each of the Rows should be a thriving hub of activity, packed to the brim with bars, restaurants and stores?
This just doesn’t appear to be the case for parts of The Rows – in corners of Eastgate Row and Watergate Row, especially, where there’s little more than a desolate corner of empty stores and abandoned space.
To be absolutely clear – the Rows already features a slew of fantastic businesses; for example, Mad Hatter’s Tea Room is an absolute gem, with some of the best afternoon tea and homemade cakes in the city.
And of course there’s the quirkily brilliant Paysan/Cavern of the Curious Gnome where you can sit on toadstools to drink the finest craft beer downstairs and enjoy speciality cheeses, cooked meats, paté and wine upstairs.
Not to mention the great botanical coffee shop The Flower Cup, Chester Health and the dozens of other successful shops that continue to thrive in The Rows.
But you cannot deny that with the conspicuous empty spaces that seem to be becoming more and more prevalent on the Rows, Chester is almost being done a disservice.
Surely we should be offering the people of the city, let alone the tourists who travel across the world to visit Chester and our magnificent Rows – something more?
Granted, the arrival of new tourist attraction Chester: A Life Story in St Michael’s Church, Bridge Street Row is a huge positive for the area.
In August last year there was some hope for a revival of the Eastgate Row area when a Liverpool bar owner revealed plans to open a new cocktail bar called Syn on the row which would offer weekly prosecco nights and bistro cuisine.
But for various reasons, this never materialised and the premises, in one of the city’s most dominant locations, remains vacant more than a year on.
After The Rows Café closed recently, local Twitter account S***Chester tweeted some forlorn pictures of an empty Eastgate Row.
“Empty on the Rows,” he wrote. “Can’t help feeling this unique, anywhere in the world feature should be offering more than this.”
Elaborating further, he said: “Whilst there are some excellent businesses on the Rows, parts of them feel empty unloved and abandoned.
“I’d like to see pop up art events to drive footfall, or even cardboard cut outs of Chester people such as Russ Abbott or Orville.
“As a unique feature in the world, the Rows should be championed for visitors and residents,” he added.
And many others on social media appeared to feel the same.
“It’s depressing – I walked around there the other day and felt so sad for the odd shops. Hardly any footfall.
“Look at the Shambles area of york. Similar (ish) twee/old setting, lots of small independents (and sadly lots of tourist tat shops too) but it seems to be riding the storm.”
There were suggestions of solutions to utilise the empty spaces, including pop up shops, a youth market where people can make money by selling their own products and handmade goods, or an area for University of Chester students to showcase their art and crafts.
And local businessman Adam Dandy said: “Before the Old Market Hall was built in the 1860s, Market Stall holders used to decamp when it rained, from the Market Square (in front of the Dublin Packet pub), up onto the Rows and continued to trade from within each inlet – maybe the Rows could house an Indy Street Market?”
In the past there have been attempts to give The Rows World Heritage Status, such as an extensive regeneration project by Chester Renaissance that would transform the area into a thriving shopping and educational area, but that fell by the wayside.
Indeed, it’s an area ripe with so much potential that could really thrive as a must see destination if the right thinking was put behind it.
I wrote an article last year about American travel writer Dennis Callan who filmed a visit to Chester in the early 1990s for his travel guide and when I contacted him almost 30 years later he remarked that even after travelling the world he was still blown away by ‘the city of balconies’ and had never seen anything quite like Chester’s impressive Rows.
We’re lucky enough such a jewel in our city, so let’s make it the very best it can be.