In another world, the idyllic garden at Salisbury’s Mill pub would have been hosting the busiest weekend of the year so far. A Royal wedding, an FA Cup final, and a forecast of 21-degree clear blue skies. It’s not hard to imagine the gallons of ice-cold cider being eagerly enjoyed here.
Instead, the only inhabitants of this cosy patch near a spinning water wheel are the ever-growing weeds. Bristling in the slightest of winds on a recent weekday evening, the grass crawls up the sides of deserted tables, stretches over abandoned chairs and travels across fading posters for the Wednesday night quiz. Nobody knows when – or if – it will be trimmed back.
The Mill pub is in the very centre of Salisbury, a small city in the south-east of England that found itself, improbably, at the heart of an apparent chemical attack in March. Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia had visited The Mill while in the city one Sunday afternoon. They went on to dine at a local branch of Zizzi’s Italian. Minutes after their meal, the pair collapsed a few hundred yards away in a small park enclosed by waterways.
An ambulance was called, people tried to administer first aid. But it would be a day later before it emerged Mr Skripal was a former Russian spy and that the incident was anything but an accident. He and his daughter have since been discharged from hospital.
Two months on, many Salisbury businesses are still feeling the effects of having the world’s media portray the city as if it were the centre of a John le Carré thriller. Aside from The Mill and Zizzi’s, other businesses have been unable to re-open. And entrepreneurs have told HuffPost how the situation has led them to alter business plans, adapt to fewer customers, and even struggle to keep afloat. Others have reported a lack of communication from Wiltshire Council and confusion over support and funding, despite millions being made available, a situation which they claim is putting them at risk of closure.
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“People just stopped coming,” says Susi Mason, owner of a shop, Casa Fina, that sits in the shadow of the city Cathedral’s spire. “I think most customer facing businesses here have been affected through less footfall. This is what we feared – people saying it’s not safe here and that Salisbury is closed.
“We’re open – we’re safe. I’m sorry for the businesses worse affected than us, but it really is business as usual. We’ve not gone anywhere.”
A noticeable decline in visitor numbers since March has sparked a hurried campaign to keep people coming. The government in Westminster pledged a package of £2.5m - £330,000 of which will go towards keeping affected businesses open. Wiltshire Council and its partners have stepped up business support. There’s a new gift card scheme planned to help people spend more money locally. But the most striking initiative involves hundreds of white paper origami doves.
We’re open – we’re safe. Susi Mason, shopkeeper
In shop windows, across streets, in homes – the fluttering birds appear everywhere. Inspired by German artist Michael Pendry’s new display at the cathedral, the ‘City of Doves’ has become a response to the poisoning attack.
“I never expected this to go into the city,” Pendry says. “It is so nice to see how the installation has spread elsewhere.
“Shops started distributing the folding instructions and the paper and it has gone from there.
“What is amazing is how in the past few weeks Salisbury has been in the media for another reason, it has been so good to see.”
For Susi, the doves arrived at exactly the right time. “We’ve had to do something,” she says. “The doves are part of that – it’s bringing us all together.”
Among the items promoted in her shop, nicknamed an Aladdin’s Cave by regulars, are ceramic mugs from Stoke-on-Trent adorned with the word Salisbury.
“We rely on our local customers to keep going, although the visitors help,” she says, as a customer from San Francisco enquires about a pair of sterling silver earrings.
“I’ve had some of the financial help from one of the funds, but not a lot. It’s certainly helped.
“It’s starting to pick up,” she adds cautiously. “Over the past couple of weeks, fingers crossed, we’ve noticed an increase in people coming.”
At the Cathedral, one worker in the café echoes Susi’s observation. “We’ve had a lot of tour groups in the past week. It was quiet initially but now it’s starting to pick up – thankfully.”
Down the High Street, the powerfully sweet smell of Roly’s Fudge strikes just before the old city gates. Inside the shop, stacks of crumbly treats in a variety of flavours are packed on shelves, row after row. A big set of freshly baked Sea Salt fudge lies on the stone counter to cool.
“The media made it sound as if everything was deserted,” Den, the shop manager, says as she sorts through packaged treats. “I guess we have noticed a difference. Instead of four batches [of fudge] a day, I’d say we’re only making two now.”
Despite the slowdown in trade, a special Royal Wedding flavour of champagne and strawberries is still selling well, promoted via a fudge Stonehenge - just 10 miles away - complete with a mini Harry and Meghan propped up against the pieces.
But the picture is less rosy nearer to where the Skripals collapsed that Sunday afternoon in March.
“I had my doors open on the Monday,” Lucy Reeves, who works at Crystals jewellers in the Maltings next to the park, recalls of the day after the incident. “I looked up and saw people in big yellow space suits walking slowly towards the park. I didn’t know what to think - so I just shut the doors.”
Lucy kept the store open that day – in fact, it has never closed. Despite an international incident occurring just metres away, Crystals is one of several businesses that hasn’t been forced to shutter up. The Maltings was the main route from the city’s long-stay car park – favoured by locals and visitors alike. But with Police cordons still in place, footfall to the area has plummeted, leaving Lucy with fewer opportunities to sell Crystals’ beautifully crafted jewels and stones.
“There have been some days when I’ve served just three people,” she says. “Everyone just thinks this area is closed down.”
Further into Salisbury, the Timber Treasures store has generated headlines after owner David Gladden suggested he had just weeks to balance the books before considering the shop’s closure.
“I don’t think he knew his comments would cause all this,” Karen Corkery, who works at the store, says glancing at a newspaper cut out that reads ‘Family-run shop faces closure’. “Things are bad, but not quite as dire as they have been reported.
“It’s a combination of things, the weather, and of course, the attack. Our customers travel through the Maltings to get to us.
“We’re trying our best at the moment – we have the doves out.”
At The Cake Forge, back in the Maltings, owners Kate and Dan Mills are frustrated with what they see as a lack of support from local officials. “The disappointment has been in how the people who run this town have responded,” Kate says. “Yes, Salisbury is open, but we are suffering.
“We feel let down that nobody has had the courtesy to just come in and ask how we are doing.”
Kate said officials from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) offered light at the end of the tunnel by suggesting three weeks ago that cordons could soon be lifted at the Maltings. Tests conducted on the ground to see if traces of Novichok – the poison allegedly used in the March attack – remain there. But locals say they have heard nothing since. (DEFRA said it wouldn’t speculate on a date but that tests are ongoing.)
“We’re 60 percent down. We’re not back to normal,” Kate says.
The business has received some money from the emergency funds but the pair feel more could be done. “Our retail side has taken a big hit,” Dan says. “But we have the cake making business that’s still doing well so if this is permanent we might survive.” The shop which displays an array of colourful icing, decorations and cake stands, only opened last August.
“We’d been growing, new customers were coming in all the time,” Dan adds. “This just came out of the blue. Now we’re struggling.”
Wiltshire Council told HuffPost it has spoken face-to-face with over 280 business owners in Salisbury since March. “Our conversation with local businesses is ongoing, and we are working with the business community to support them, and the city as a whole, to recover,” a spokesperson said.