'Close to normal now': Salisbury gets back on its feet as royals visit

Steven Morris
The Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall wave to well-wishers on a visit to Salisbury. Photograph: James Gourley/Rex/Shutterstock

For many weeks, the staff at B&R Textiles in the Maltings shopping centre in Salisbury looked out on a bleak scene: soldiers and detectives in protective clothing working at the spot where Sergei and Yulia Skripal collapsed after being poisoned with a nerve agent.

On Friday, it was very different. In brilliant sunshine, shoppers were out in force, children played in the park and the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall strolled past.

Sharon Batstone, who works in the city, said: “We had weeks of looking out at that tent billowing in the wind. It’s so lovely now to have the shop door open and hear the hustle and bustle again.”

When the Maltings reopened after being decontaminated, customers flocked back to the textiles shop. “Some bought cakes and presents for us,” said Batstone. “You could tell people were coming in to buy a cushion or piece of material just to support us.”

The duchess speaks to a butcher in Salisbury, where footfall in some shops fell by 90% after the poisoning in March. Photograph: Toby Melville/AP

Occasionally, curious tourists ask where the “Skripal bench” was (it has been taken away and will not be replaced). “They pose for selfies there, which is a bit odd. We don’t want Salisbury to be remembered for a bench,” she said.

The attack on 4 March hit Salisbury’s businesses hard. Footfall in some shops was down by 90% and a number of companies, such as a key-cutting shop in the Maltings, closed.

Danny Styles, a greengrocer who had a chat with the prince as he and the duchess looked around the Maltings, estimated he had lost £10,000 in trade. “It was a tricky time. Things have got better. Hopefully this visit will help the vibe,” Styles said.

Henry the “Cockle Man” laughed and joked with Camilla. “It’s starting to pick up a bit. We’re happy. Everything’s in order. We had to move around the corner and lost 50%-60% of our trade. People are back in town supporting us. It’s getting close to normal now,” he said.

Tourists have begun to return to Salisbury. Jane Morgan, the communications director at the cathedral, said the reopening of the Maltings and events including a cycling race had helped restore confidence.

“Our visitor figures are moving back up but there is still a lag. May was around 8% down on 2017 and overall, we are 13-14% down for March-May when compared to last year,” she said

“That is, however, a vast improvement on the 40% drop we saw immediately after the incident, so things are definitely going in the right direction.”

Hundreds of well-wishers, including children from 17 schools, greeted the royals in the marketplace. Jessica Fulton, who lives and works in the city, said: “I think their visit is very important, it boosts morale and [will] hopefully bring people back to the city – we need tourists to survive.”

The royals are shown around Salisbury, where Sergei and Yulia Skripal were found on a bench, gravely ill, 16 weeks ago. Photograph: Finbarr Webster/Rex/Shutterstock

Kelvin Inglis, the rector of St Thomas’s church, said he believed the people of Salisbury had reclaimed the city. “I think we have all learned afresh to value our cultural, commercial and community life,” he said. “We have learned that there are an awful lot more people who are for the values we cherish than against.”

There is, however, still work to do. The Zizzi restaurant and the Mill pub, which the Skripals visited before they collapsed, are still shut and have yet to be declared clean and safe. Sergei and Yulia Skripal have left hospital and are recovering, but their home on the outskirts of the city remains a crime scene.

Neighbours have become accustomed to the road being blocked and the sight of the police mobile control centre. It is rumoured that the house might eventually be demolished.

Supt Dave Minty of Wiltshire police, who coordinated the initial response to the attack, said: “From day one, when we didn’t know what had happened, and from the chaos and confusion, we have hopefully managed to bring things together successfully to show Salisbury is recovering and show we can move forward.”

After the royals left, the Maltings looked to be back to normal. A woman called Gemma was playing with her 21-month-old son, Thomas, on a swing in the playground. “It’s great to get back in here,” she said. “A lot of the mums come here to bribe children to behave while they’re shopping, so it was hard when it was closed. At least we’ll have a story to tell the children when they’re old enough.”