I can’t remember what initially piqued my interest in Chester. It may have been word of mouth, or perhaps seeing it on Michael Portillo’s Great British Railway Journeys, but it sounded absolutely perfect for me as a recovering archaeologist. Its origins are Roman, it has a well-preserved medieval wall, and many of the buildings date from the 17th-19th centuries (or at least look like they do, which was close enough for me). I had to see it.
Although we had talked about going for the past few years, we never found the time until this summer, when we made a lightening visit on our way to Holyhead to catch the ferry to Ireland. As navigator, I made the executive decision that we should stop, and so my parents, husband, and I spent a few hours soaking in the atmosphere of the city centre and being introduced to local folk group The Trials of Cato, whose impulse-buy CD ended up forming part of the soundtrack of our Irish trip. Over lunch, I said to my husband that we should return as part of my birthdaversary. We would have the chance to see the town decorated for Christmas and the time to properly explore it.
And that’s exactly what we did. On our return visit we took the train, which was an adventure in itself. It required three changes and four different train operators, but everything was running on time and we arrived in Chester in the middle of the afternoon. The weather was grey and cloudy and cold, so we retreated to the hotel for the remainder of the day, resting up and making plans.
The next day dawn clear and bright, perfect for getting out and about to take photos. We started in a park, where we were immediately accosted by the local residents. Squirrels bounded up and begged at our feet. Ducks and moor hens surrounded us, looking for handouts. We had no food to offer, but we enjoyed getting close views.
From there we walked along the River Dee, pausing to watch as gulls surfed the weir. They let the current carry them along until they were almost in the turbulent white water then would fly 10-15 feet upstream to do it all over again. We crossed the river ourselves on the Old Dee Bridge; with a 14th-century construction date, it’s the oldest in the city.
The intermingling of time periods and architecture became even more apparent as we climbed the medieval walls and began a circuit around the city. Chester was founded almost 2000 years ago as a Roman fortification, and the walk along the walls took us on a journey through time. Black-and-white timber-framed buildings, 19th-century stone and brickwork, and modern concrete monstrosities all jostled for a place, creating an architectural patchwork that somehow formed a coherent whole.
The time travel experience was enhanced even further when we paused to overlook the Roman Gardens, a 20th-century park established to showcase some of the Roman remains that had been found across the city. Column bases and reconstructed hypocausts dotted the landscape, and in the very centre of it all was a Roman soldier giving instructions to his newest recruits … a group of school children who were learning about the testudo, a Roman defensive formation. Chester is also home to the remains of the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain, and during our visit it was being used by primary and secondary school children. While they looked like the world’s smallest riot police with their plastic shields, there was a feeling of bringing the past to life in a way that I have seldom seen when visiting historic sites.
As we continued on, we came to the elaborate Victorian Eastgate clock and great views over the decorated city centre. From there, we skirted around the lovely Chester Cathedral, eventually descending the wall on Northgate Street. This was where we discovered the deliciously stylish Rococo Chocolates and stocked up on a few treats for later, little knowing then how addicting they were or that this would be the first of several visits.
It was then time to venture into the Christmas market. I have to admit that my past few trips to the Bath Christmas market had nearly soured me on the experience: so many people crowded into such a tiny space make for rather unpleasant shopping trips for this introvert. However, Chester is on a far different scale: fewer chalets and fewer people meant that we could browse and shop at our leisure.
We then headed into the city centre itself, where we managed to catch the last few minutes of Trials of Cato busking; I’m keeping my fingers crossed they produce a CD of their instrumental music next year. There was then some window shopping along Chester’s historic Rows. This unique architectural quirk means that there is an upper and lower row of shops along the four main shopping streets, allowing more shops to fit into the space … and keeping shoppers alert to avoid hitting their heads on the covered walkways.
It was then time to hop aboard the Pride of Chester, a replica 1910 double decker bus. Only four of us braved the cold weather to ride on the top, but it was a fantastic way to see the city and learn about the things that weren’t in our guide book. For example, a local cemetery is the final resting place of Mary Jonas, a Victorian woman who was noted for having given birth to 33 children. This is impressive enough, but those 33 consisted of 15 sets of twins, each a boy and a girl. While the architecture is black-and-white, this and other little tidbits helped to add colour to the history of Chester.
In the evening, we headed out to enjoy the lights of the city and visit the wonderfully named Storyhouse. This newly-opened building combines a library, cinema, and theatre under one roof, and we lost ourselves in the world of Paddington 2. With Brexit on this side of the pond and He Who Shall Not Be Named on the other, spending a few hours in the company of the good-natured little bear from deepest darkest Peru made for ideal escapism.
Our second full day started with déjà vu with a difference. We popped into a local shop to buy a box of Cheerios (bread is bad for ducks and wildlife) and returned to the park. Although peanuts appeared to be more popular with the local squirrel population, we managed to distribute the contents of the box before heading off to the next attraction: Chester’s beautiful cathedral.
I have been fortunate to visit a number of English cathedrals, from Salisbury and Winchester to Durham and York Minster, and each has their own character and memorable features. Chester’s is built from red sandstone, and inside decorative floor tiles, Victorian mosaics, and perfectly formed chapels create a serene space. They are currently running an incredibly creative fundraiser, building a replica of the cathedral from Lego bricks. Visitors can purchase a brick for a pound and watch as the cathedral takes shape in miniature.
Next up, we popped next door to see the Chester Cathedral Falconry Centre. As a child, I read Jean Craighead George’s My Side of the Mountain in which a teenager escapes into the wilderness and raises a peregrine falcon to hunt with. It clearly made a lasting impression as having the opportunity to handle a bird of prey has long been on my informal bucket list.
At the Centre there was not only a chance to hold the incredible birds, but also to see them in action as they caught their meal on the wing while the keepers provided us with information about the different species that are housed in the aviary. From the majestic (and heavier than expected) golden eagle to the beautifully patterned barn owl and gyrfalcon, this experience was an unexpected and unforgettable highlight of the trip.
For our final morning in Chester, we completed the walk around the western half of the wall. This took us to the Roodee, Chester’s racecourse, and around the Water Tower, which once stood guard at Chester’s port, but which has long since silted up. From there it was back to the train station, reversing our route south (although only with two changes and three train operators this time), and then back to the presentday and reality.
Looking back on the trip, my memories remind me of this description of the county’s most famous namesake: “It vanished quite slowly, beginning with the end of the tail, and ending with the grin, which remained some time after the rest of it had gone.”