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When Novichok Hit Salisbury: Reflections of a Reluctant Landlady

Throughout my varied career in hospitality management, I have devoted considerable time to business continuity, risk assessment, and disaster planning. Yet, there will always be unforeseen events that catch us off guard. One such scenario I never anticipated was a Russian poisoning incident occurring right here in Salisbury.

In early March 2018, Salisbury found itself at the centre of an unprecedented international incident—the poisoning of Sergei and Yulia Skripal with the nerve agent Novichok. This not only thrust our historic city into the global spotlight but also coincided with the severe weather event known as the "Beast from the East." This unfortunate timing brought unusually cold temperatures and heavy snowfall across the UK, further complicating an already challenging situation.

As a landlady managing three pubs in the area, our business was severely impacted by both calamities. I was in Newcastle, with my son and business partner, attending an expo aimed at promoting our pubs to tour companies that organize visits to Stonehenge, when the events unfolded. There were many frantic calls between our staff and us in between selling our services to potential stakeholders.

On the outskirts of the city, our venues, along with many others, experienced a sudden and sharp decline in guest arrivals. Tourists, understandably cautious, postponed or cancelled their plans due to both the safety concerns raised by the Novichok incident and the travel disruptions caused by the severe weather. This led to a significant drop in bookings, leaving many businesses scrambling to reassess their strategies and find ways to reassure and attract visitors back to our beautiful city once the lengthy and expensive cleanup operation was completed.

Some city center venues were spared the difficulties we faced, as their accommodations were filled with journalists, newscasters, and film crews, needing rooms to sleep, as well as food and drink. This dichotomy between the quiet outskirts and the busy city center during the crisis highlighted the resilience and adaptability of our local businesses.

Our venues were visited by the police, and we had to provide lengthy statements and reveal details of who had frequented our venues that weekend as they desperately hunted for those responsible.

Tragically, the incident claimed the life of Dawn Sturgess, who briefly worked at one of my venues. The heartbreak unfolded when Dawn was unknowingly exposed to Novichok through a perfume bottle, given to her by her partner, not realizing the deadly substance it contained. He had found the bottle in Salisbury’s Queen Elizabeth Gardens and gifted it to Dawn. This incident painfully highlights the indiscriminate and far-reaching impacts of such a reckless act of violence. It was a stark reminder of the human stories behind the headlines and the personal losses felt deeply by our community.

Reflecting on these events, it’s clear that the road to recovery and normalization was gradual. Efforts to rebuild Salisbury’s image as a safe and attractive tourist destination have been paramount. The spirit of Salisbury, with its deep historical roots and vibrant community, cannot be overshadowed by a single event, no matter how significant.

This tragic event, which preceded the COVID incidents, meant that Salisbury had more than its fair share of problems. But Salisbury is more than just a footnote in an international news story; it is a city with a long history, a great base for tourism, and a bright future.

As for my business, we survived, and our trade slowly recovered. The Novichok incident was an unforgettable experience, but one that we overcame through determination and fortitude.

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A deserted city street, covered in snow.  You can see Salisbury Cathedral in the background.
AI Impression of Salisbury in Novichok

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