Just a stone’s throw from the Welsh border, and twenty miles south of Scouseland, lies my beautiful hometown. Chester is a historic walled city, with an eclectic mix of architectural styles, including timber-framed buildings, a medieval castle and many Roman remains. Foreigners and southerners alike often have no concept of where Chester is; I tend to describe it as being ‘halfway between Manchester and Liverpool, but without the Scouse accent’. That explanation doesn’t really do it justice: Chester is more than just a city that happens to be situated midway between two of the UK’s most famous football clubs. It’s a city with almost two thousand years of history; I’ve only been on this planet for 1% of that time. I may no longer live there on a permanent basis, but it will always be my home. Save for a few passing mentions, I haven’t given much attention to Chester on my blog. It’s time to remedy that, and bring you the very best of Chester. Grab the Hobnobs and a cuppa, for this one’s a bit of a long one.
Chester’s city walls are the pedestrian equivalent of a hop-on hop-off bus tour: pick any of the key landmarks below as your starting point, and as you circuit the city you’ll come across the others. (Just don’t take me too literally when I tell you to hop off the route!) The full circuit is about two miles, and there are boards detailing interesting features along the way.
1 | Chester Cathedral wasn’t always a cathedral; it began its days as a site of worship as a monastery. During the Dissolution of the Monasteries, instigated by Henry VIII, only six monasteries were spared: Bristol, Chester, Gloucester, Oxford, Peterborough and Westminster. Over the centuries, its role shifted into that of a cathedral, and today it hosts a number of concerts and events throughout the year. If you’ve got time to spare, the free guided tours are well worth doing. If you want an aerial view of Chester, check out Cathedral at Height; on a clear day, you can see the rolling Welsh hills on the horizon. Until October 15th, Chester Cathedral is home to ARK, a contemporary art exhibition pitched as ‘modern art in a medieval space’. Featuring almost a hundred works of art by celebrated sculptors, including Eduardo Paolozzi, Damien Hirst and Antony Gormley, this is the largest exhibition of its kind ever to be held in the North-West and – what’s more – it’s absolutely free. (So what are you waiting for?)
2 | Next up, it’s Eastgate Clock, the second most photographed clock in the UK. Built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, this timepiece is an icon of Chester, and one I’m rather fond of.
3 | From Eastgate Clock, you can see the famous Rows. Unique to Chester, the Rows comprise shops on two levels, with the lower level accessed from the street and often a few steps below street level and the higher level accessed by narrow staircases. Godstall Lane is a particularly nice little alleyway which links the Rows to the front of Chester Cathedral; if you’re in need of a caffeine fix, stop off at Duttons for coffee.
4 | Heading south, your next stops are the Roman Amphitheatre and Roman Gardens, both of which are free to visit. Chester was founded by the Romans, and back in the day was known as Deva Victrix. Don’t be too surprised if you spot a couple of guys in full costume wandering about the city: they’re tour guides. (If you’re interested in taking a themed tour of Chester, please check this page for more details.) Over the summer, the Roman Gardens transform into an outdoor cinema come evening – I’m yet to try this myself!
5 | Rejoin the walls and head south (i.e. continuing away from Eastgate Clock) towards the River Dee. Stroll along The Groves or, if it floats your boat (pun intended), take a sightseeing tour on the river itself. Rowing boats and pedalos are also available for hire, but take care not to go over the weir. I’ve witnessed the odd canoeist glide over the edge and can confirm your chances of getting back up it unassisted are close to zilch. If you’re feeling peckish, I’d recommend trying The Boathouse (nab one of the beach huts outside if you can!) or the ice cream parlour which stocks Cheshire Farm ice cream.
6 | When lunchtime hits, you can either enjoy a picnic by the river or in nearby Grosvenor Park, or you can venture to one of Chester’s many cafés or restaurants for a bite to eat. I’d recommend La Fattoria (authentic Italian food) and The Brewery Tap (classic pub fayre with a range of ales), both located on Lower Bridge Street, or The York Roast Co. (sandwiches with freshly carved meat), on Upper Bridge Street. There are, of course, many more places; these are simply a few tried-and-tested favourites. (If you do head to Grosvenor Park, take a detour to check out the ruins beside the Parish Church of St. John the Baptist, and see if you can spot the coffin in the wall!)
7 | Once you’re fed and watered, the next stop on our hop-on hop-off tour is Chester Castle, which has only recently re-opened to the public. Over the summer, they offered free entry to the Agricola Tower. Quite frankly, I wouldn’t pay to go in: there really wasn’t a fat lot there. (I wasn’t the only one to think this: all my friends who visited while it was free said the same.) While the interior is nothing to write home about, Chester Castle does at least look the part from the outside: a formidable sandstone fortress atop a grassy mound. If you want to, you can take a detour to The Grosvenor Museum (admission free).
8 | A little further on, you’ll reach Chester Racecourse. Horses have been raced here since the early sixteenth century, making the Roodee the oldest racecourse still in use in England. If you’re celebrating a special occasion, drinks or a meal at 1539 might do the trick. The Architect, located nearby, has a nice outdoor space if you fancy stopping for a drink in the sun. (Contrary to what southerners would have you believe, Northern England does enjoy the odd sunny spell.)
The last stretch of the walls has less of note, though as you round the final bend you’ll have views of the Shropshire Union Canal on your way back to Chester Cathedral. On sunny days, a stroll along the canal is rather nice; head towards the station and you’ll come to a string of eateries. By the towpath, there’s The Artichoke, a peaceful bar-cum-café with a vast selection of gins, and Old Harkers, a bustling pub. Above this, you’ll find Siam, a superb Thai and Teppanyaki restaurant spread over two floors, and arguably one of the best places to eat in Chester.
If you’re in the area for longer than a day, you might want to check out a few of these places too:
Chester Zoo | I’ve made no secret about it: I absolutely love a trip to Chester Zoo. Having the UK’s number one zoo on my doorstep growing up was nothing short of wonderful. It’s home to a herd of elephants, some adorable baby rhinos (which are undoubtedly growing up fast) tons of other furry, scaly and feathery creatures.
Knutsford | Halfway between Chester and Manchester (or thereabouts), this is a quintessentially English town, with quaint cottages and bunting strung across the streets. While you’re there, venture over to Tatton Park (within walking distance of the main street) and try to spot some deer.
Cotebrook Shire Horse Farm | Equine enthusiasts and farmyard fans alike will love this little spot in the Cheshire countryside, which has been breeding prize-winning Shire horses for over forty years.
Abbeywood Gardens | This is an absolute gem, and one that isn’t so well known outside the area. Set aside a morning or afternoon to explore this place fully, and round your trip off with a slice of cake in the café.
Blue Planet Aquarium | It’s been yonks since I’ve been here, but if you’re a fan of sea-dwelling creatures, this is the place to go. The underwater walkway which passes through the shark tank is, without a shadow of a doubt, the best bit.
If you’re planning a trip to Chester, I hope this comes in handy. (Feel free to drop me a line in the comments if you want further tips.) If you’ve been to Chester, let me know what you thought of it below!