Chester Cathedral remains the centre of the city’s Christmas celebrations
PUBLISHED: 00:00 11 December 2018
We meet some of the people creating the magic that Chester offers to both visitors and residents
Chester Cathedral has a new Dean, The Very Reverend Dr Tim Stratford, although he’s not new to the city. He was brought up in Liverpool and recalls visiting Chester when he was a boy.
‘It was only a ferry ride away and that was always exciting,’ he says as he prepares for the busiest season in the Church’s calendar, Christmas.
‘But it is the first time I have lived here and I am looking forward to getting about both in the city and the county.’
‘The Dean’s role reaches right across the county and represents not only Chester but the whole diocese that includes parts of Merseyside, Manchester and Derbyshire.’
‘The Church of England is split into 42 dioceses and each has a Bishop as its leader. The cathedral is seen as the mother of the church and the Dean is the representative for mother church.
‘Most of my time is spent ensuring the cathedral serves the city and its people well. We are one of the oldest in the country and so we are responsible too for a lot of history, looking after the building and its artefacts and then making sure people can see them and appreciate them, that is part of my role.’
The challenges for Dr Tim are like those of anyone with a large old building to maintain and that is raising enough money to look after it. He says the Church of England is deemed rich but it’s wealth is invested in property.
Another aim is to make the cathedral welcoming and hospitable to people.
‘It is easy to slip into thinking that we should be here for the building when in fact the building is here for the people,’ he says.
‘Christmas time is when we have a lot of opportunity to show what the cathedral has to offer but that also means we put ourselves under a lot of stress and the consequences of that can be that we aren’t as welcoming. It’s about keeping that balance right so we don’t lose a sense of proportion and not to take ourselves too seriously.’
There are exciting times ahead for the cathedral which he says will be a place of exhibitions, installations, performance arts, music and worship and for social gathering.
‘We will be setting a theme for the year,’ he explains.
‘The next theme is water and we will be putting on a lot of events and installations within the building. Water is where Christian life begins, initially with baptism. There will be art, music, family events and an exclusive exhibition called The Deep. I can’t say anything about it but people will notice it.’
As one person enters the cathedral another says adieu.
Jo Sykes has been the Chair of Chester’s Mystery Plays at the cathedral since the 1990s. She has seen the event go from strength to strength. Her involvement stretches way back to 1962 when she was 16-years-old. ‘I lived in Tarvin, a village about six miles out of Chester, and there was not much there in those days. My teacher suggested to my parents that it might be good for me to get involved,’ she recalls.
‘My mother took me to audition for the part of Eve which I didn’t get. Instead I was made part of the crowd. It was a wonderful experience. Now when I meet people I say “This is an experience you will remember all your lives and you will make lifelong friends.” And it’s so true.
‘I joined the board in 1995 but was an actor right up until then. I felt I could act as well as do the job on the board. Sadly our Chair died in 2003 and I became the Chair and the rest, as they say, is history.
‘We have worked very, very hard to make sure the Mystery Plays are well-known in Chester. In the old days they were performed every five years but there was no continuity. Now we keep them in the public eye with fundraising events and we also do the Passion at Easter which has been enormously successful.’
Over the decades Jo has had some amazing experiences, including meeting the royals.
‘In my first year I had a royal encounter with Princess Margaret, that was in 1962, and we had Prince Edward here to see them in 2003,’ she says.
‘HRH Prince Charles and the Duchess of Cornwall didn’t come for the Mystery Plays in 2013 but in 2014 they visited Chester and asked to see a Mystery Play. We didn’t hesitate. We just said “of course” and did part of the production for them at the Cathedral which they loved.’
The reason for Jo’s departure is simple. ‘I’m not getting any younger,’ she explains.
‘I feel that it is time for somebody else to take over the reins. I still have loads of energy left but that may not be the case in five years. However, I am not leaving the country. I do a lot of other things and I will be there for the person who has taken over from me to support them.
‘It is a passion. I’m not sure when it became a passion but I loved doing it ever since I was a youngster, when suddenly it became more important to me.’
Christmas is a wonderful time to experience all that Chester has to offer and that includes the Christmas markets which Kendra Kennedy helped set up in the city around five years ago.
Having run the Christmas markets in Manchester she admits that Chester, with its mixture of local craftspeople and local producers has charm in spades.
‘There are 70 stalls and nothing is over-represented so you can do some grand shopping here,’ says Kendra, who now runs the Shire’s cafe and gin and ale bar.
‘Of course it has grown, but with 70 stalls it is less crowded than in Manchester. You can take your time shopping and talking to the producers. It’s also wonderfully festive.
‘Chester really twinkles. You can sit underneath the Christmas tree and drink your mulled wine and on Thursdays there are the parades, so you get a lot of families coming in and enjoying the market. It’s a good mix.’
Chester’s Christmas markets will run until December 22nd.