Come to Gloucester, city in denial

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The Independent Online
IT'S been a trying week for Philip Cooke, chief leisure and tourism officer for the City of Gloucester. 'I have an air of baffled innocence,' he says, squinting into the sun from a bench overlooking the city's Historic Docks (the Most Inland Port in Britain). Sporting a silky shirt, deep tan and pierced ear, he actually seems rather confident - but then that's his job.

This week should have been his triumph - the publication of the 1994/95 tourism review and marketing plan, the relaunch of the city after its strategic retreat in the face of the ghastly, ongoing Cromwell Street murder inquiry. Unfortunately, the national press got wind of an unfortunate line of promotional copy - 'Easy to get to, hard to leave' - and it all went horribly wrong. For two days, Mr Cooke has fended off smart-alec diarists who were simply not interested in the city's new slogan: 'Go Gloucestering'.

It's been that kind of year. Only last week, the Chief Constable of Gloucestershire hit the news after addressing a conference on rural crime prevention. 'The notion that rural counties are safe havens from the ravages of crime is increasingly being challenged by the facts,' he declared, going on to compare the county's crime rates and policing levels, unfavourably, with Merseyside. This followed hot on the heels of news of the 'Watering Can Gang', stealing strimmers and pillaging potting sheds across the county.

Another source of bad press was necrotising fasciitis, the 'flesh-eating' bacterial infection that has struck seven people in the county. The victims were mainly in nearby Stroud but guilt by association takes its toll. On Thursday the Gloucestershire Citizen screamed 'KILLER BUG: NEW PROBE'.

Worst of all has been Cromwell Street, an affair so horrible that the city council has difficulty even referring to it directly. 'Unfortunately, events in 1993 also brought negative publicity to the city,' notes the Leisure Services Committee. The ad agency employed by the committee referred to 'the extremely bad press the City was receiving]]'. 'The only way we want to deal with Cromwell Street,' says Philip Cooke, 'is by ignoring it. It was a one-off hideous event which can't be linked with the city. It's gone away now. The city has its own life and

momentum which has moved on

already.'

Mr Cooke - as Oprah Winfrey might say - appears to be in denial. Who can blame him? Tourism accounts for 10 per cent of jobs in the city and contributes pounds 35m to the local economy. Put another way, in 1993 nearly 2.7 million visitors spent an average of pounds 12.10 per head, 50 per cent more than the national average. Many sat down to quiche and salad ( pounds 3.45) in the cafe in the cathedral cloisters. Still others splurged at the city's eight museums, the Blackfriars Priory, the huge Antique Centre.

'Hardly any of the travel trade or members of the public have mentioned Cromwell Street,' insists Mr Cooke, who wants to talk about the new BBC adaption of Joanna Trollope's The Choir, set in the fictional city of Aldminster but to be filmed in Gloucester. 'The real spirit and truth of Gloucester is in the cathedral,' says Mr Cooke. 'That will outlast Fred West.'

Elsewhere in the city, however, ghoulishness is being packaged in the usual British way: Heritage Style. 'The boy King Henry III was crowned and the horribly murdered Edward II was buried in St Peter's Abbey,' trills The Gloucester Story leaflet, available from the Tourist Information Centre. 'Bloody Mary gave Gloucester its own martyr in 1555, when the Protestant Bishop John Hooper was burnt at the stake behind the Cathedral; a fine statue now marks the spot.'

Only two weeks ago, a smart new museum opened, the Gloucester Prison Museum & Shop, situated in the Old Gate Lodge adjacent to the modern prison. For only 50p, visitors can 'Come and see how prisoners lived in the 1800s and compare it with their conditions now]' There is a stylish green and white logo, an interactive game called Famous Prisoners and a visitors' book full of admonishments to 'Bring back hanging]'. In the shop, the fastest moving items are bird feeders and bird hiders, made by inmates. For pounds 3, you can buy the HM Prison Service book, The Murderers of Gloucestershire (1872-1939).

Back in the Tourist Information Centre, 36-year-old Alan Wyatt, the World's Loudest Town Crier (112.8 decibels) has arrived. 'Gloucester born and Gloucester bred,' booms Alan, 'long in the arm and weak in the head.' Since today's visit is social, Alan is wearing a baseball cap and jeans. Still, here is a man who knows about Heritage. 'People go to the Tower of London for one reason and one reason only,' says Alan, 'to see where Anne Boleyn got the chop.'

Elsewhere, there is less scrupulous separation of modern and vintage horror. 'Lots of people ask if Fred West is here,' explains the retired prison officer at the Prison Museum Shop. 'The answer is no. And we don't know where he is.'

Round the corner, in a pretty lane leading to the cathedral, is the tiny Beatrix Potter shop, setting for the story of the Tailor of Gloucester, his cherry-coloured waistcoat, his faithful army of mice and his disobedient cat, Simpkin. The walls are lined with Mrs Tiggy- Winkle books, Peter Rabbit toys, Jemima Puddle-Duck stationery, Squirrel Nutkin plates.

'Oh yes,' explains Geraldine, the manageress. 'We get people asking for Cromwell Street souvenirs. Americans, French, all sorts.'

Sandra Barwick is on holiday.

(Photograph omitted)

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