City 9: Chester


The Cheshire Cat.

The Cheshire Cat.

Friends, Romans, Countrymen...

From Lichfield to Chester is 93 miles. Its easy enough to get to; one starts off sliding westwards along the Old Roman A5 then scurrying northwards via the A41 and finally following the A55 into the city proper. They are not fast roads these A Roads lined as they are with speed cameras and traffic lights but then again, we are in no hurry. The sun shines upon the blessed and today we feel truly blessed. We start off in around 14 degrees of heat and end up in an autumnal blaze of 24 degrees; a veritable solar furnace.  

My Theatrical dad, Baz Atchison who hales from Cheshire, is here to play Virgil to my Dante and what better companion to explore the delights both ancient and modern of this wonderful city. We start the day rabbiting away nineteen to the dozen and that is how we end it.

A glimpse of the River. There at the beginning and there at the end of our walk.

A glimpse of the River. There at the beginning and there at the end of our walk.

Scene 1: The River Dee

First stop is the River Dee, named by the Romans Deva, which means Goddess or Holy River. It rises in Bala and empties into an estuary just south of Liverpool 68 miles later having meandered through Welsh and English country and towns alike. Wide and tree lined it makes for a picturesque setting and offers calming walks along its inding length. 

A week or so away from my 49th birthday and the leaves are beginning to turn, from beech green to golden-wonder yellow. This makes me somewhat wistful as we survey the weir, an echo and reminder for me of Poultney Bridge in Bath, where I lived in the early 1990s. Chester weir, like Poultney Bridge and its weir has a long and illustrious history. Built originally in 1093, by Hugh Lupus, the First Earl of Chester, it served as a causeway for Benedictine Monks who haunted the cloisters of what is now Chester Cathedral. In Medieval Times it drove the mills and in the 20th Century the Hydro Electro Power Plant. 

Adapt to survive would appear to be the simple message there!

Fix that wall!!!

Fix that wall!!!

Scene 2: Walk the Wall

Local Artist Jill Pears with her Aquantint Buildings and vistas.

Local Artist Jill Pears with her Aquantint Buildings and vistas.

Ghastly flats across the water, where a cormorant dries its wings, crucify our sensibilities. They are just so ugly and Baz like me is not impressed. 60s planners have a lot to answer for we agree. The only thing to do is do what they did in Birmingham with the Rotunda and pull it down. We stop to talk to local artist Jill Pears who gives us the story and shows us her lovely Aquatint vistas and buildings. Apparently Prince Phillip like us was no impressed when he saw teh flats and ordered the town planners to cease and desist.

There is another fly in the ointment too. Renovations on and along the wall have been going on now for five years under the watchful eye of Peter Tudor. That means that one cannot make a complete circuit and have to keep hopping on and off at diversion points around the city. This is truly unfortunate and requires urgent remedy. Come on Mr Tudor, get a move on!!!

Monstrous Carbuncles.

Baz holds forth.

Scene 3: Albion Place

Bidding a fond farewell to Jill Pears, we ascend ancient steps to get up onto the wall and look around us. What is presented is a neat, pretty city which has on Georgian, Tudor and Victorian petticoats. Directly in front of us, we observe a multi tiered Georgian wedding Cake of a house and then below it a row of terraced houses, a glory of the Victorian Age.

Albion place (which reminds me of William Blake's cry of Perfidious Albion) is Chester’s answer to Coronation Street. So clean, tidy and well appointed it provides a mdoel of how all streets should be kept. Instantly I'm in love with it. Amusing signs and Union Jacks flutter in the breeze and Baz and I coo over it like a pair of London pigeons.

Chester wears its Englishness on its sleeve, but not in a Make Britain Great Again kind of way. It celebrates what's best of British and eight times out of ten makes the right choices about what to keep and what to disregard.

Prince Charles made much the same observation in his 'A Vision of Britain' (1989) when he wrote..."I remember thinking in the 1960s how crazy it was to destroy so much of value and, by obeying the dictates of fashion, to throw out the baby with the bathwater." 

Like him or loathe him, the Prince makes a sound point here and his objection, if one may call it that is valid. But what is baby and what is bathwater ? Well, to me the black and white Tudor houses are a delight to behold and definitely 'baby'. Well made and built to last, they should be and they have been preserved.  Next door is the monstrous horror of a high rise car park with impale you railings and rust. It is definitely bathwater and needs to go. And soon.

It prooves if nothing esle that beauty and horror coexist, often living side by side and that a city is never finished. It is always a work in progress.

Ever attractive. The streets not too bad either.

Ever attractive. The streets not too bad either.

Scene 4: The Amphitheatre and Roman Gardens

We continue our permambulation along the Great Wall of Chester, thanking the Roman's for their contribution to our cities and culture. The idea that an Empire can enrich the culture it occupies without invittaion, is not a popular one in the World of today. Still the Python's 'Life of Brian' and its hilarious 'what have the Romans ever done for us speech' should be entered into the record here. 

The Roman Gardens hove into view and we descend to view them. There are some wonderfully fake mosaics and rows of broken columns leading to a bath house. Life in Britain, away from the Italian sun must have been a drag for those Latins. Hence the bathhouse was more than a luxury. It was a necessity for keeping it together, sound in body and mind.     

Oh well thankfully we'll never know. 

Loves young dream, bearded, pierced and tattooed lurks just round the corner by an Angle Tower, situated in the South East Corner of the Wall.

Loves young dream, bearded, pierced and tattooed lurks just round the corner by an Angle Tower, situated in the South East Corner of the Wall.

What did the Romans ever do for us?

Whatever your political beliefs, the wall offers great viewing points from all around the city which is just as well because the roads are fast and busy and not for the faint-hearted. The edifice of the Travel Lodge lies opposite the Amphitheatre. I once booked to spend the night there but as the room was still vomit-encrusted from the previous occupants I left it unoccupied and drove elsewhere.

Francis Ford Coppola, speaking of the filiming of 'Apocalypse Now' said that wherever Americans go they take a show. This, I guess, they took from the Romans who like the Yanks had a mania for entertainment. And that in essence is what the ampitheatre is. It's laughter, excitement and death. It's circus, combat and theatre. It's lower, middle and upper class entertainment. And this is why it has endured... to remind us of that fact.

Et tu Brute?

Et tu Brute?

Scene 5: Church as Restaurant

Up next is my favourte spot of the day.

And strange to report... its a neat little church tucked away between the red brick thighs of two modern buildings. It draws my eye as something unusual and cat-like, I wander across the road to explore as Baz fishes for apples in his rucksack, near some Biffa bins.

A nearby electrician on a decked platform says the place is closed but lets us in to have a look and we gawp in wonder at one of the cities jewels and most popular venues. Desanctified but still holy in my eyes, the church has become a wine bar and restaurant. Empty pews have been replaced with tables and booths.The faded ruby and sage décor set off by both dark and light woods and terracotta tiles is a perfect compliment to the repurposed space. It honours what the building was but pragmatically serves what is currently is.

Every inch.

I love every inch of it, especially the adjoining terrace which permits for outdoor eating and drinking with the protective auspices of overhanging canopies and umbrellas. It would have been great for the place to have been open but I also value the fact we got to see and enjoy it empty.

I am reminded of Phillip Larkin's poem 'Church Going' where he speculates about what will happen to Churches once Christianity shuts up shop. And here is the answer.

Cafe Society. At an appropriate distance of course.

Cafe Society. At an appropriate distance of course.

Scene 6: To the Opera and Beyond

The Neo classical façade of the Opera house with its white colonnade of Corinthian columns draws us in. It too has been repurposed as a restaurant. It’s nice but pricy so we head up onto an elevated walkway that runs the length of Bridge Seat. It is lined with shops and wonders.

The Chain Store High Street is not in evidence here, with the same shops and décor in every street in every city. Instead there are unique boutiques and spaces that are as much Gallery or Museum as shop. In the Chester Model Centre I relive the childhood delights of making airfix model planes and collecting toy soldiers. Next door there’s a novelty cake shop and themed barbers. Beyond that an Aladdins cave of Nick Nacks with ancient helmets, swords, statues. It’s more Harry Potter than Harry Potter. A little bit Borkin and Blots, a little bit Diagonally, it’s another treasure and Baz buys some postcards.

By this time we are a little hungry so descend to the street below to feast.

Scene 7: A Quick Crepe

We don’t want anything too heavy to munch for lunch so when I spot a Crepe Affaire we’re in like Flynn. The waiter seats us under an awning and I order by App. Unfortunately the sale doesn’t go through so I repair to the till and do there paying there.

It all seems a bit of a faff but the food is worth the wait. We ignore the savoury and head for the sweet option. Baz has ice cream with his crepe whilst I have strawberries and cream. Covered in lashings of chocolate of course. It’s delicious and we are not in the but rushed… although I would have loved to see what the savoury crepes were like.

Time for a quick crepe. Sweet or savoury?

Time for a quick crepe. Sweet or savoury?

Scene 8: Clocktower and Cathedral

Down the Tudor-lined mainstreet, past traffic cones and empty travel agents to the Chester Clock. Past a donut stand and up onto the wall. At the Grosvenor I spot two Old Boys gassing at the entrance and take a snap. The top hat and tails contains that touch of Class that I still love about Old England. Not a baseball cap in sight. 

Down the wall, past the Cathedral. A leafy bower where lovers loll and check their mobile phones for text messages. A dove cote nestled beneath an oak has been taken over by pigeons. Moss covered brickwork. Georgian streets that make the place look and feel like a film set. One keeps an eye peeled for Mr Darcy. More red brick terraces with slate rooves, black gates and washing on a line. Below us the canal glugs. A highrise and a laugh.

A tower where King Charles the 1st witnessed his army defeated by Parliament forces in 1645. More warwound wall works…. (Come on Tudor get it sorted!!!) and we’re back on the street. Baz finds a deserted trolley that I suspect might be modern Art and then we’re back on the wall, racing for the finish line.

Scene 9: Racing Away

Infirm? Not on your nelly. It's a beauty!

Infirm? Not on your nelly. It's a beauty!

Built in 1762, two years into the Reign of the Mad King, George the Third, the Infirmary is a truly elegant building. Well appointed and symmetrical it reminds us that even functional buildings can impress. Moreover it would be a nice place to convalesce, after an illness or one too many sherries.

Over the road there are school fields and the girls and Miss are back doing their exercises, getting fit at an appropriate social distance of course. From there it’s a short walk to the racecourse. Which despite Covid is still well mown albeit horseless. A nearby pub called the Architect draws us in as the afternoon heat spirals upwards like the National Debt and we sip cold drinks on the terrace and chat to the waitresses.

As awful as Covid has been it has forced many businesses to restructure and improve their services. Time slots are allotted and one is escorted to tables with more formality than of yore. And I for one like it.

A Day at the Races.

A Day at the Races.

Homeward Bound

Baz and I finish the day very much as we started it, deep in conversation, never lost for a word or a new topic to explore. Its great to spend time with such a great conversationalist and all round gent as Basil. After drinking up we pass the cut glass trifle bowl that is HQ. It is a suite of offices, an apartment block and a restaurant all rolled into one and it is glass not brick but it works, even in the context of Chester.

And that is what we agree is so wonderful about this city. Everything fits and balances, for the most part. It is a beautifully spaced city which can be walked viewed and enjoyed from a multitude of angles, either from street level or from up on the wall. Traffic is kept to the orbitals and out of the town there are sensible and affordable parking schemes, like the Little Roodee where we start and end our day.

Driving home we are still talking, still laughing, still exploring. Both the weather and Chester have been magnificent. 

A top day in top company!!!


Barrie Atchison

22.09.2020 20:37

What a great day spent making wonderful memories with that wonderful raconteur Stuart

Latest comments

14.10 | 16:13

I know. I see that it's all over but concealed. Not part of a cities authorised biography or daily propaganda.

14.10 | 16:09

Ah thia latter letter reminds me of a man Iknew in Lichfield - now departed totally - he too was being hounded and oppressed and taken to court for nothing. See it isn't just Leeds!!

14.09 | 02:52

A joy to read Stu. Not only an expert tour guide (I have walked the Scottish Highlands with you twice) but a masterful storyteller who merges time and place into a kaleidoscope of imagery & metaphor.

13.09 | 17:29

Its so lovely to hear from you Mike and Jan. Your offer is very kind as are your memories of the trip we shared.

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