An iconic Cambridgeshire venue has announced it is closing its doors until further notice – leaving a huge hole in the county’s nightlife scene.
The Solstice, one of Peterborough’s few remaining nightclubs, has announced its closure after 23 years in the business.
The venue has been an institution for the city – also playing host to sports, arts and more in its lifetime.
From weddings to wakes, World Cup matches to Halloween parties – the 1,550 capacity venue has seen just about everything, and a lot of changes to the surrounding city.
Sat on Northminster at the northern end of the city centre, the venue sits just round the corner from New Road, which used to be home to a popular stretch of nightlife venues, from Liquid to Chicago Rock, and many more.
Peter Bell has worked as the general manager for three years and explained how, at the start of lockdown, they decided to be proactive rather than sitting around and waiting to hear what the future of hospitality would be.
“We closed when it became law in March,” explained Peter, “and we debated a way forward because it was the great unknown.
“No one was saying anything, a core part of our trade is the nightclub but we’ve also evolved the restaurant, bar and pub,” – which is how the venue started.
So Mary Boyle, the owner’s daughter and director of Solstice Events and Entertainments Venue, came up with a plan to make the most out of the areas they could still use and the ways they could still operate and serve customers.
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Peter said they “gutted the whole building, replaced furniture, new colour schemes, new booths and table areas” and while they could still trade as a bar and restaurant, they wanted to ensure it would also be “in line with the nightclub” so they could reopen that side of the business when they were able to.
Unfortunately, though, those days did not materialise, and the family had to come to the difficult decision to close the Solstice, leaving a gaping hole in Peterborough’s hospitality scene.
‘It was all going so well, then the 10pm curfew came’
The venue tried to keep going as best they could when they were allowed to reopen, and according to Peter they started with “great momentum”.
The investment, along with the government Eat Out to Help Out scheme brought a new type of customer to the venue, Peter explained
“Eat Out to Help Out was phenomenal for us.
“Then on the back of that success, we also got some outdoor concerts because we have the XL arena.
“We were running at a reduced capacity but realised that we can put more people outside so we also applied for a planning application to extend the time we can open up outside the back.
“There was a really good vibe about the building and what we were going to do in the future.
“Then the 10 o’clock curfew came…”
The curfew which meant all pubs, bars, and restaurants had to close their doors by 10pm, had a huge impact on the Solstice, with Peter saying: “It became a real challenge and it decimated one of our nights.”
The introduction of the three-tier lockdown system also created uncertainty for the future of the venue, with Peter calling it “a bit ambiguous” as it’s unclear who could be moved into a higher tier, and when.
They wrote to local MP Paul Bristow, who they described as “brilliant”, as well as the council.
“But the bottom line,” said Peter, “was it was the great unknown.
Speaking more about the 10pm curfew, and its impacts on the industry, he said:
“You’re so used to coming to this building at 10pm and now that’s when it closes.
“It did decimate the business.”
Looking back at the venue’s successes, Peter mused on the 2018 World Cup, when the Solstice became THE place to go to watch the match in Peterborough.
The combination of the warm weather and jubilant football fans had crowds gathered around the big screens, collectively experiencing every moment of each match together.
Peter said: “That’s the hardest thing to bear because for the next two years you’ve got the Euros next year, the World Cup the following year…
“We’ve had street food people want to come and do street food markets, the vintage kilo sale people want to do an outdoor thing… we’ve looked at pricing up marquis and all the different bits, but yeah with the sport we have become the home of live sport in some respects.
“We knew the future was bright, so we wanted to make sure we adhered to the rules to the letter of the law because we wanted to make sure there was nothing that was going to come back and hit us…
Alongside the struggles of adapting to new COVID rules and restrictions, there is also the issue of location.
Based at the northern end of the city centre, the Solstice sits right beside the recently demolished market car park and is usually accessible via alleyways so customers don’t have to walk a longer route around the side of the car park.
“But [after the demolition] they didn’t open any alleyways”, explained Peter, “so you have to walk around.
“And all these things just started to be a bit of a negative, which harmed the business and I think because we’re a family, we’re not part of a big chain, it was really ‘what’s going to happen next?’
“And we couldn’t answer that.”
Disappearing nightlife in Peterborough
Peterborough city centre seems almost like two different towns, with the revamped Cathedral Square with its fountains and restaurants with plenty of outdoor seating in stark contrast to the northern end of the city centre.
“I think this end of town has been forgotten”, said Peter.
“We did a review to the council just before lockdown and the actual trading capacity of this end of town was reduced by 70 per cent.
“When you see Liquid, Chicago Rock, all those areas, there wasn’t so much for you to come and visit over here, so you had to be a good product, which we were investing in all the time.”
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For Peter, telling the staff about the closure was particularly hard, as he explained: “this industry is a bit of a way of life”.
“It was really difficult to tell them,” he explained, “but we have a sense of duty right now”.
He went on to say: “There’s some staff that have worked here for several years, and there are staff here that have worked here for weeks – but they became a really good team, and you are nothing without your team.
“So to explain it to them was very difficult, but we also wanted to give them respect and be fair to them.”
Mary said she wanted to thank the amazing customers for all “the magical moments”.
She went on to reminisce saying: “It’s been an amazing place, it’s the magic, it’s just the buzz, the music, it’s people coming in and one minute they’re watching the football and walk into another room and there’s a wedding…”
Mary said she felt “quite honoured” to have been a part of the journey, and said it was a “special time” in her life.