Above: Bridge St., Chester
If rumour has it that the North is a no-go zone and rumour also has it that Chester is not in the ‘real’ North, then Chester is the destination. So Southerners (in particular), prepare to be pleasantly surprised by the contents of my must-have guide.
Chester is a Roman city of around 120,000 people. Not huge in size, but huge in cultural appeal. Founded as a fort in 79 AD, you can, 1940 years later, still visit parts of the Roman Baths, the amphitheatre and walk all the way round the (only partially reconstructed) Roman walls that once secured the city. Given that the city lies on a Triassic sandstone ridge, the views of the nearby Welsh hills from up on the walls are particularly spectacular. For a little more geographical context, Manchester and Liverpool are 45 minutes away, as are the beaches on the North Wales coast. Snowdonia and the Lake District alike are accessible for day trips and London is only a two-hour train ride away.
Now, all this Wikipedia-page paraphrasing is all very well and good but I don’t wish to bore you – rather demonstrate to you why Chester deserves to be a travel priority. I’ve already said that the city sports numerous cultural gems but its appeal is, in fact, far more extensive. If you want it, Chester’s got it. Except if you expect the Roman Baths to have a long ‘ahhhh’ vowel sound, then you’ll be disappointed. I would prescribe hot-footing it back to the Home Counties in this instance.
I enjoy returning to Chester from Oxford because there are things to do and places with which I can reacquaint myself. If you seek the Missing Bean or Society Café’s long-lost Northern sister, the Jaunty Goat and its vegan off-shoot have strong (soy) flat white games. In need of a spot of Instagrammable brunch? The Flower Cup’s Monterrey Jack and sriracha brioche grilled cheese has got your back (and growling stomach). Once you’ve had your fill of filtered photos of food and coffee, I would recommend following your nose along the Rows.
The Flower Cup is one of many local shops and businesses situated on the city’s iconic two-tiered streets. Mock-Tudor wooden structures house a literal next-level shopping experience and provide a photogenic solution to your Saturday high street stroll. Vintage and charity shops abound, as well as the British classics we all know and love. I consider Chester superior to Oxford in that we have a TK Maxx and a Wilkinson’s, though. (Are there even Wilko’ses in the South?)
We Cestrians were very proud when, last year, The Guardian did a feature on Storyhouse, our theatre-cinema-library-restaurant-study space. Located in a listed building and ex-Odeon, revision has never felt so good. Comfy chairs, antique tables, high ceilings and vending machines to fuel you through, it’s like an Oxford library on steroids and growth hormones.
I enjoy returning to Chester from Oxford because there are things to do and places with which I can reacquaint myself
If you don’t fancy a play, show or film of an evening, however, there’s always a season of horse-racing on down by the river. You may even catch a glimpse of other animals included in the ticket price. Mutton dressed as lamb are often sighted dashing in their heels and Debenhams fascinators to the drinks stands. Tongues out of cheeks, this is a great opportunity to get glammed up and chance your hand at the betting counter. The party always continues after the last horse has crossed the line, too. A plethora of trendy, independent bars are at the disposal of punters already p***ed out of their minds. The canal-side Telford’s Warehouse is a personal favourite of mine.
And for those more outdoors than racehorse, the River Dee and adjacent Meadows are the perfect setting for a Flake 99 and a wander, or a picnic and a dog walk. Pedal boats are available for hire and there is a floating beer garden on hand for when the pint-sized cravings kick in. If you fancy mixing fresh air and Shakespeare, Grosvenor Park’s outdoor theatre during the summer months is the place to be. Bring a blanket, raincoat, several jumpers and a Thermos of tea (this is England in July, after all) and you’re set for the (Twelfth) night. If you’re upper-middle class, you might want to consider scouring M&S or Waitrose for some ridiculously over-complicated flavours of crisp beforehand, or a free-range quail Scotch egg if you’re in the mood (-summer Night’s Dream) for a protein hit.
The Spoonses are cheap, disabled access championed as the best of any European city and we Northerners (whether legitimate or fake) are ready to give you a friendly (though probably drizzly) welcome.
(Picture Credit: Crashlanded Ltd., https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bridge_Street,_Chester.jpg)