Starting mileage: 18610 km
Day started: 12:00
Day ended: 21:00
We rarely spend an entire day in one city, but Chester has just such an embarrassing richness of attractions that even over the many hours of sight-seeing I feel we’ve only just skimmed the surface.
The town is one of the most ancient and historical in Britain. Both its English and Welsh name, Caer, means simply “a fort” – and that signifies its origin as Britannia’s prime legionary fortress, the seat of the ever-victorious XXth Legion, Valeria Victrix, from which the town got its Roman name – Deva Victrix.
Unlike Caerleon on the other side of Wales, Chester’s historic importance did not end with the departure of the legion; it remained a vital strategic and merchant town well into the Middle Ages and beyond, which resulted in the city having one of the richest and prettiest old towns in England.
The first sign of Chester’s antique coolness was the pub. A pub in the city centre is usually a good indicator of what a place is about, and the Falcon oozed atmosphere. Set in an original, painstakingly restored 13th century black-and-white-walled house, with Samuel Smith’s outstanding ales on tap (£2 a pint!) it was the perfect introduction to Chester. Things could only get better from there.
We don’t do many museums on this trip, but Chester’s town museum was free and had two big rooms full of Roman stuff, so we could not give it a miss. Hundreds of artefacts were excavated from underneath the city, including an entire Roman cemetery with complete gravestones and sarcophagi, altars, temples, masonry, weapons and tools. There are several more floors of the museum, and an entire Victorian house reconstructed in the back, if you have more time to spare; definitely worth a longer visit than ours.
Shortly past the museum starts the pedestrianized medieval old town, the Rows quarter: street after street of quaint, dollhouse-like facades. Uniquely for Chester, constructed on two levels, which allows two sets of shops on every street.
Of all the attractions in Chester, one was highly disappointing: the Deva Roman Experience. It’s also the only one you have to pay to see (£5.50 pp); don’t. Not even if you are with little children, at whom the place is targeted. The “reconstruction of a Roman street” is tiny, dark and poorly made; the only thing worth seeing are several layers of excavated Chester street, showing stones from Roman times to Tudor, but considering what else you can see in the city for free, it’s hardly worth the admission fee and time spent locked in a dark room listening to audio play.
The covered market and the adjacent shopping centre are also not up to the hype (and up to the high standard of Swansea and Cardiff), although there’s word that they are being refurbished, so there’s hope.
With the very few bad things out of the way, you can focus your attention on the rest of what the city has to offer. The city walls, incorporating Roman masonry, encompass the entirety of the centre, and make for a good long walk. The cathedral square and the cathedral itself are very fine examples of Norman architecture – all built in the blood-red sandstone, typical for Cheshire but rare anywhere else in England. The Eastgate Clock – the second most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben – is an intricate piece of Victorian sculpture and machinework; St John’s church, near the amphitheatre, is one of the finest early Norman churches in all of Britain, with its thick, low columns, grave effigies and Romanesque arched windows. The list goes on and on, as can the visit to Chester.
And there’s more Roman work to be seen all around the city. In the basement of a Spudulike joint – of all places – there are remains of the baths; there are foundations of a fortress tower near the walls, and further outside the city, in the middle of a field, stands a shrine to Minerva. Most of the columns and bits of masonry are gathered in the Roman Gardens stretching along the city walls near the river. But the finest of all is the amphitheatre: excavated only half-way, it is far greater than the one in Caerleon – in fact, it’s the greatest amphitheatre known in Britain. All of that, combined with the scale of other Roman buildings discovered prompted some historians to theorize that Deva Victrix was well on its way to taking over as the capital of Britannia from Londinium.
In fact, even the whole day seemed too short to fully appreciate Chester; we didn’t do the wall walk, didn’t see all the gates; we did visit (by accident) a fairly new and well needed addition to the town’s commercial landscape: an indie cafe called the Harvest Moon, with one of the most enthusiastic baristas we’ve ever met – and he makes a mean iced long black, too 🙂 Make sure to pay him a visit when you’re around – the cafe is just by the abbey square, on Northgate Street.
Church Farm in Wirral is a big activity centre near Liverpool with touring pitches tucked up everywhere among the animal enclosures; it is one of the most bizarre camping experiences – not only we could see rare breed goats, ponies and chickens from our pitch, but also along the way to the facilities we could pay a visit to meerkat colony or guinea pig shed.
Since it’s a working tourist attraction, you do get woken up by coach-loads of visiting schoolkids, which some may consider a drawback, but it’s only a minor one, and in exchange you get to be stalked by a quartet of pygmy goats every time you go to the loo 🙂 Also, the on-site dog is fantastic.