Credit: Ash Mills

    Salisbury: how the city bounced back from novichok

    14 March 2019

    One year ago many Brits would have had trouble telling you the county Salisbury is in – let alone the exact height of its cathedral’s spire.

    But when former Russian secret service agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia were found slumped on a park bench near the city’s Maltings shopping centre one quiet Sunday, March 4 2018, all that changed.

    The “wonderful town” famous across Europe “for its 123 metre spire”, as the two Russian men suspected of poisoning the Skripals so colourfully described it in that unforgettable RT interview, risked falling under a murky cloud of notoriety.

    Swarms of police units descended on the medieval cathedral city, the Maltings was closed down for 82 days to be decontaminated, and only this month did the Prime Minister officially pronounce Salisbury to be entirely novichok-free – which she marked by mistakenly tweeting a photo of Bath.

    Number 10’s original tweet, now deleted. Credit: Twitter, Matt Chorley

    But Theresa May’s twitter feed aside, the nerve agent attack has certainly put the Wiltshire city on the map. “In a strange way it’s probably the best thing that could have happened to the community,” says Deborah Fox from local arts hub Fisherton Mill. “It’s resulted in everyone coming together to promote Salisbury.” This has led, she adds, to a real uptick in the numbers of visitors over the past few months.

    One of the clearest signs that the city is back open for business is the flurry of new restaurants, clothing stores and even pop-up tapas bars that have been setting up shop since the poisoning.

    Emma Adams is one of these new business owners. This February, with help her from husband and two children, she launched The Tasty Tapas, a Spanish dining club which appears a few evenings a month in local artisan bakery, Henderson’s.

    “You couldn’t help but notice the drop in footfall in the city immediately after the attack,” she admits. “At first we were nervous about opening – but the response has been fantastic. Everyone around is very supportive and the first few pop-ups have been completely booked up.” Having to face tragedy head-on, she explains, has in fact made the local population very aware of what is going on around them. “People are more engaged with the city than ever.”

    So how has Salisbury managed to turn what initially sounds like the plot of a particularly dark James Bond film into a positive boost for the quaint West Country city? For Canon Robert Titley, the key to changing the narrative has been art.

    “Initially people from outlying areas were scared to come in,” says Titley, who is both canon treasurer at Salisbury Cathedral and chairman of its Arts Advisory Committee. “But art can speak when words fail, and it came into its own after novichok.”

    Just two months after the attack, while the clean-up operation was still on-going, the nave of the city’s cathedral became home to a flock of around 3,000 origami doves. The installation, designed by artist Michael Pendry, was intended as a poignant reminder of every person’s right to peace. Shops, homes and schools put up handmade paper doves in their windows as a symbol of hope for a fresh beginning for the city – some of which can still be seen today.

    Installation in Salisbury Cathedral by artist Michael Pendrey, credit: Ash Mills

    “We had planned to host the birds as part of our commemoration of the hundredth anniversary of the end of the First World War,” Titley explains. “But as events unfolded they acquired a new dimension of significance.”

    An arts festival followed in August, which included craft events, an art trail across the city and a sold-out community opera. In December Salisbury Cathedral’s walls and cloisters were transformed by dancing illuminations as part of an dream-like light display. Entitled “From Darkness to Light”, it attracted over 50,000 visitors, and the accompanying Advent and Christmas services were “full to bursting”, Titley adds proudly.

    The city also enjoyed its most successful pantomime season to date, with sold-out performances at the Salisbury Playhouse. “It just goes to prove that there is a real appetite for escapism and fun in Salisbury right now,” says Lucy Rouse of arts organisation Wiltshire Creative.

    There has even been talk of replacing the bench where the Skripals collapsed with a piece of art as a further step forwards in the healing process.

    Are locals happy to see the back of streams of military personnel and scientists in forensic suits? Certainly. But, adds Jane Morgan, Director of Communications at the Cathedral, recent events will not leave a permanent black mark on the city.

    “No one would ever have wished last year to happen,” she says. “However, we have to look for the positive – all sorts of organisations and people were thrown closer together and relationships have been forged which could be a real source of strength in the future.”

    Credit: Ash Mills