A gem of a city
Think of Cheshire and you might picture lush green pastures and footballers’ bling. Yet it’s the county’s Roman-walled capital city, packed with history and atmosphere, that’s the real sparkler, says Alexandra Pratt
I was quite enchanted at Chester so that I could with difficulty quit it.” So wrote the 18th century writer and bon viveur James Boswell to his friend Samuel Johnson.
It would seem many agree with him still, as Chester remains a highly popular place to live, stay, or just spend the day.
The city wears its history casually, with Roman, Norman, Tudor and Victorian buildings on every corner. Add plenty of diversions, from boating, shopping or going to the races – not to mention its famous zoo – and you’ll find Chester pretty difficult to quit, too.
Whether you’re staying in a converted barn in the Cheshire Peak District, a log cabin in Delamere Forest, a Tudor cottage in the Vale Royal, or nearby North Wales, the tiny city is easy to get to, with good road and rail links.
Its location on the River Dee, which flows into the Mersey estuary, has been one of the city’s greatest advantages for more than 2,000 years. Once the largest Roman fortress in Britain, it was later a thriving mediaeval trading centre and for a while the most important port in the country.
Although the River Dee has long since silted up and the city’s trade gone to nearby Liverpool, Chester has not lost its charm, nor its air of former glory.
Walk the Walls
The best way to get a feel for Chester is to walk the Roman Walls around the old town. Although this two mile circuit has been much altered since the Romans built it in AD70, the current layout has not changed since 1200. For the most part, it is easy to see over the top of the walls, with tantalising glimpses of narrow streets overhung with bulging Tudor buildings and some outstanding vantage points over the race course and the river.
Several of the corners are punctuated by points in history. At Eastgate stands the second most famous clock in Britain (you know the first – don’t you?) built to mark Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897. At the south east corner, the ‘wishing steps’, added in 1785, hold the promise of desires fulfilled for anyone rash enough to try and run up and down the worn steps holding their breath. Bridgegate, near the Old Dee Bridge, offers welcome refreshment for the footsore at the Bear and Billet pub, built in 1664 and the city’s oldest building.
Just outside the city walls on the east side, is one of Chester’s biggest attractions, the Roman amphitheatre. When it served the Roman fort of Castra Devana, or Deva (the headquarters of the Roman 20th Legion), the amphitheatre seated 7,000, making it the largest in the country. Until about five years ago, all you could see were a few steps in a grassy bowl, but since an ambitious archaeological dig, there is much more to the site. Results and updates can be seen at the Chester Amphitheatre Project Exhibition and DVD Show at the Visitor Centre.
Take a Boat
Water is integral to the history of Chester and its centre is bisected by both the Dee and the Chester branch of the Shropshire Union Canal. This branch opened in 1779 to transport salt and other goods from south Cheshire and beyond to Chester, and then to the sea. It was never very profitable, but these days it makes for an excellent day trip or longer, on either a hired narrowboat or a cruise.
Boat trips of one sort or another are an ideal way to explore this section of the Dee, too. The promenade between the amphitheatre and the riverbank is known as the Groves and it is popular with locals and visitors alike for an afternoon stroll, or a picnic. On summer days, the river is busy with rowing boats and pedal boats, while the less energetic take one of the many riverboat cruises. This is also an ideal way to reach the stunning gardens at Eaton Hall, home to the Duke and Duchess of Westminster. The county has another 20 exceptional gardens open to the public.
Shop till you Drop!
While that may not sound like an original suggestion, shopping in Chester is about as different as it gets. The shops here are some of the oldest in the world, and this is because mediaeval traders built against, or on top of, some of the original Roman walls. Later generations came along and added more shops, creating the unique ‘Rows’ – two-storey galleried arcades, constructed almost entirely from wood. Most are several hundred years old. The undulating arcades are a mix of original Tudor construction and later Victorian restorations, or copies, and they line the streets that spread out from the Cross in the city centre. Not only are the Rows themselves fun and quirky, but many of the shops are individually owned, and not part of chain stores.
The best way to explore is just to wander at will, but don’t miss some of the little alleys and narrow lanes, such as Werburgh St, next to the cathedral. As if there weren’t enough architectural and historical periods on show, the cathedral adds a few more. Built on the site of a Saxon church, it has a Norman cloister and an interesting history as a Benedictine monastery before the Reformation.
Shopping is always hungry (and thirsty!) work and although there are plenty of places that cater for the tourists, Chester is also the capital of a county known for its millionaire lifestyles – and offers dining experiences to match. Why not push the boat out at Michelin-starred Arkle on Eastgate St? Or go to Upstairs at the Grill on Watergate St, where they serve some of the world’s best – and most expensive – champagne.
Visit the Zoo
Chester Zoo gives its animals plenty of space and is well regarded for its conservation record of breeding rare and endangered species. With more than 7,000 animals in a vast area of parkland, there’s plenty to see – especially popular at the moment are the orang-utans, black rhinos and a new elephant area.
Go to the Races
West of the city lies Britain’s oldest racecourse, the Roodee, where the horses run widdershins (anti-clockwise). There is a good view of the racecourse from the Roman Walls, but you’ll need to go in to the racecourse to see the action on race days, usually held between May and September. The arena also hosts horse shows and polo matches.