It was a beautiful Spring-like day and I’d got a return train ticket to Chesterfield for £2.50 but these weren’t the only reasons I fell in love with the place. Chesterfield has, I think, more or less got it right. It’s retained lots of its old architecture, but hasn’t overplayed the twee, olde-worlde schtick. It has lots of half-timbered buildings but has somehow managed to avoid the naffness of, for example, Maidstone. On my desk I’ve got a postcard of Tudor Maidstone showing a range of half-timbered retail premises like Pizza Hut and Subway which can’t help but look ludicrous.
The first feature of the Chesterfield scene most people will notice is the famously twisted spire of the town’s St Mary’s church. This gravity-defying verdigris corkscrew is, according to legend, the result of a glancing blow from a passing Satan. In fact it’s the bodged result of poor craftsmanship. Due to the Black Death there was a shortage of skilled labour locally and unseasoned timber was used in the construction. I imagine the builders offering the Satan story as an excuse before mumbling something about needing to go and finish another job down the road.
Although the town has its share of the usual retail suspects, they didn’t dominate and there was plenty of room for some pretty random businesses. On the walk from the station there was a headshop which made its mission pretty clear with its choice of name – Amsterdam. Chesterfield doesn’t seem an obvious place for such a shop, but I’ve always thought headshops are on a bit of hiding to nothing. In my misspent youth my pals were so fearful of drug squad surveillance that we avoided patronising the only shop in Yeovil that sold king size Rizlas. A full-blown headshop with a window display of bongs would have been the sort of place we’d have run past with eyes averted. Perhaps times haven’t changed that much as Amsterdam had ceased trading. A few doors up and still hanging on in there was Mojo, a 70’s and 80’s bar which billed itself as ‘Chesterfield’s newest party hotspot.’ Perplexingly a poster exhorted the public to ‘put on your flares and come and test your reflexes.’ I've no clue what that entails, although I like the idea of staff wandering around casually whacking punters on the patella with a small rubber mallet. In the nightclubs in my hometown the main test of the reflexes was the necessity to avoid sudden and random assault by drunken sailors.
Misconceived business ideas were a feature of the town. The local Greggs was experimenting with opening until 3am. This seems ambitious given that Greggs usually struggle to keep their pies hot beyond mid afternoon.
For me, the icing on the Chesterfield cake was charity shop flavoured. There was a full day’s worth of musty-smelling browsing to be had. I was crestfallen to note that it was early closing at the first one I spotted as it looked a stonker and had a name to match. If there’s ever an award for the most tweely-named charity shop the Tiny Tim Trust has to be in the running. I hoped the trust might be in aid of that weird falsetto bloke who made the charts with ‘Tiptoe Through the Tulips’ and other one-hit wonders of his ilk. Or that it might be raising funds for new crutches for the sickly infants of the deserving poor. But as a notice in the window said, apparently without a shred of knowingness, it was ‘a local charity for local children’. I couldn’t help sensing an undertone of mean-spirited parochialism in the claim. I checked there wasn’t anybody coming up the road and pressed my nose longingly against the glass. There was an extensive £1 rail and a 50 pence sale rail – so near and yet so far. As in Leeds, Goth was still alive and purposely not looking very well, with a subsection of the teenage rail set aside for Goth/black gear.
The shop followed the usual trend where the further north you travel the more bric a brac there is for sale. In keeping with the season they’d made a display of said tat on a Valentine’s Day theme. How romantic! I suppose it’s the thought that counts. I was reminded of a sign I saw a few weeks before in a Manchester Pizza Hut; ‘Nothing says I love you like a pizza.’ Really? Nothing?! The lexicon of love’s obviously become far more specific than it was the last time I looked. What’s the protocol when the spark’s gone? ‘Perhaps we should think about seeing other people. Fancy some cheese on toast?’
Though I’ve imposed a moratorium on actually buying stuff I don’t need, I still had a leisurely mooch around the British Heart Foundation shop, Age Concern, Save the Children, Ashgate Hospice shop, and the Cats Protection League. Judging by the smell, the Cats Protection League was protecting cats by offering them somewhere cosy to piss. A woman, clearly a regular, came in to drop off a donation and greeted the assistant by name. Her name was Kitty, although maybe she just called herself that for work, sort of a nom de shop.
At the Arthritis Research Campaign shop I had a moment of weakness and bought a saucepan for £2, then in Help the Aged I lapsed again and bought a shirt. I am turning into the Imelda Marcos of smart casual shirts. One day I will count my shirts and weep with shame at my profligacy. But hey, it was £2; what are you going do?
Lately I’ve been going through a bolshy phase in my day-job at the Lee Harvey Oswald Memorial Library. Apart from chronic staff shortages, one of my bones of contention is the determination of senior managers to ape the practices of large multiple retailers. One of the big cheeses makes a habit of saying whenever she visits that she doesn’t want the place looking like a charity shop. I’m always tempted to say we’d be better off imitating chazzas than Asda. Most of them have air conditioning, take credit cards and have staff whose souls haven’t been crushed by years of management bullshit, so they’re streets ahead in at least three respects. And Oxfam do photocopying at half the price we do.
I’d checked the Chesterfield website before I came. The tourism page only had two things on it. I’d seen the spire so I checked out the museum. It was my lucky day. It had nothing about the Romans and it had a visiting exhibition of what it billed as curious contraptions. The exhibit was small but perfectly formed, full of devices that were pretty esoteric when invented and were soon rendered gloriously obsolete. There was a gadget for embossing cheques with the amount to pay so the figure couldn’t be altered, a tennis ball scrubber, and an automated rubber stamp that marked any correspondence that hit your desk with the date and time of its arrival – genius!
But the incidental highlight of the day came when I stumbled upon a cheese shop near the market square. Apparently the correct name for such a business is a cheese factor, which to me sounds more like the title of some horrid TV audience participation show. The shop’s novelty speciality was the cheese wedding cake. I’m not making this up; those who suspect as much can follow this link http://www.cheese-factor.co.uk/ .The related poster announced, ‘Love cheese? Be different. Get that wow factor!! Create your own cheese mountain!!’ I can imagine a cheese wedding cake causing a response, but it’d more likely involve people pointing and laughing rather than saying wow. Picture the scene. Once the sniggering has died down, among the muttering someone can be heard saying, ‘I don’t feel so foolish getting them that fondue set now.’ The accompanying publicity material showed an almost autistic concern with detail. It offered advice on decorating the cheese wedding cake, including hints for those who might be ‘worried about foliage touching the cheese.’ As if that might be the one thing putting you off the idea.