Here’s some of what the Lonely Planet – England chapter Manchester, Liverpool and Northwest England has to say about Chester:
“With a red-sandstone, Roman-era wall wrapped around a tidy collection of Tudor and Victorian-era buildings, Chester is one of English history’s greatest gifts to the contemporary visitor. The walls were built when this was Castra Devana, the largest Roman fortress in Britain.
Beyond the cruciform-shaped historic centre, Chester is an ordinary, residential town; it’s hard to believe today, but throughout the Middle Ages Chester made its money as the most important port in the northwest. However, the River Dee silted up over time and Chester fell behind Liverpool in importance.”
KAPOORS ON THE ROAD
I have to start off by saying I’d never heard of Chester before, Manchester and Winchester for sure, but never Chester. The first time the city came to my attention was earlier this year when I was listening to a podcast of a Rick Steves July 28, 2018 radio broadcast. Rick had invited three English tour guides to his program and he asked them to name the most overlooked cities.
They mention Brighton first, then Ealing and Chester, before adding Bristol, Plymouth and Liverpool to the list. We’d already been to Brighton and Bristol, and we were planning on visiting southwest England so I added Plymouth to our itinerary, but it was when I heard the tour guides describing Chester that I felt we should try and see Chester and Liverpool as well.
The added bonus for Chester was that it sits right on the border with northern Wales, and after visiting southern Wales five years ago, we very much wanted to see the northern part as well.
Of course everything depended on the weather once we arrived in England. We had ambitious plans the previous year, but then hurricane Maria swept in, hammering Ireland and Wales and settling in over much of the UK with clouds and rain. We cut our short after visiting friends in Norfolk and headed straight to the Republic of Georgia for our final three weeks of travelling.
The skies were overcast when we boarded the train for Chester, and it was still a bit dull when we arrived in the evening. We walked the short distance to the AirBnB that we’d booked and then began to consider where we would go for dinner. We checked TripAdvisor and learned that there was a great Turkish restaurant on Brook Street, right at the end of the lane where we were staying.
We love Turkish food and it often seems to be our go-to choice when we’re travelling and we’ve had enough of the local food. We stepped into the Istanbul BBQ restaurant and the open area kitchen filled the whole place with sights and smells that we love. We decided to order four different meze dishes instead of what appeared to be huge platters of food. We didn’t want a heavy meal that late in the day.
We had a young waiter who didn’t appear to speak English very well. I started off by telling him we wanted to order four meze dishes, and then pointed at the first one, a dish of sautéed mushrooms. I think pointed to three other appetizer-sized dishes and the said that was all. No problem, or so I thought.
The chef behind the glass screen went to work on our meal, and then asked me if he could combine some things onto one plate. Of course, I said. We were then given the three different items and then two long plates loaded with the mushrooms. It all looked, smelled and tasted amazing.
When we were finished and requested the bill, I was surprised to see that we were charged for four orders of mushrooms. At five pounds per plate, that meant the mushrooms alone were twenty pounds, and they were the cheapest items we’d ordered. I explained that we’d only ordered one plate of mushrooms and the owner realized there’d been a mistake and adjusted the bill.
I felt badly, but knew that the input cost of the mushroom dish was rather low, and we could make up for the misunderstanding by coming and eating there again. That wouldn’t be a sacrifice for us, because we loved the food anyway. In the end, we ate there three of the four nights we were in Chester. The food was fantastic, the location was perfect, and as it turned out we were welcomed with open arms when we kept returning.
On our first morning, we crossed the small canal at the end of Brook Street and found ourselves at the edge of the old town, but just outside the walls. We’d admired the beautiful buildings just outside the railway station the previous evening, but now we were introduced to the half-timbered buildings that Chester is famous for.
The skies were still a little overcast, but the forecast was for a bright sunny day so I suggested we visit the cathedral first and then walk the 2-mile circumference of the Roman walls once we’d come out again. As it turned out, we joined an impromptu free tour of the cathedral and spent a full two hours enjoying the architectural delights inside. The weather predictions were entirely correct, and we climbed the few stairs to the top of the wall and spent the rest of the day viewing Chester from above.
We had planned to stay in Chester for three nights and then hire a car and head to Wales for several days, but the storm Callum that had hit the western side of the UK had caused heavy flooding and power disruptions in Wales. Although the storm had passed, we felt it wasn’t an ideal time to visit the northern part of Wales, so we made the tough decision to leave for Bulgaria earlier than we had hoped to go.
For that reason, we thought we might as well make a day trip to Liverpool as it was only 45 minutes away by train. We hoped to be able to extend our stay at the AirBnB but it was already booked, so we moved to a nearby hotel for our last night in Chester.
On our second day in Chester, we decided to explore the area outside the city walls and began at the Roman amphitheatre. We were alone when we first arrived, and were about to move on to a nearby church when a group of school children arrived, dressed in Roman military costumes and led a Legionnaire in full battle dress. It was a wonderful addition to the site, and the children had a terrific time learning to march in straight rows, listening to the commands of their leader and taking defensive positions in preparation for battle.
After visiting the original Chester cathedral, we strolled to the nearby Roman Gardens, a peaceful spot just outside the East Gate of the wall. There’s very little green space within the old city walls, so we could see that this would have been a refreshing place in ancient times and today as well. There were several storyboards in the garden explaining more of the history of the battles that have taken place over the years.
One such storyboard had writing so small that it was very hard to read. I peered in close to read it, standing next to a very elderly couple. I asked them if they would like me to read it aloud, and they very much appreciated the gesture. This particular information board was right in front of a section of the wall that had been breached by the Parliamentary forces that were attempting to overthrow King Charles I. The army had laid siege to the town between 1642 and 1646, when the inhabitants had surrendered due to disease and starvation.
The garden continued all the way down to the River Dee, and there we found the spot where the riverboats loaded their passengers for both lunch and dinner cruises. We were much more interested in seeing more of Chester’s delight inside the walls, so we entered through Bridgegate and had a light lunch at the Bear and Billet Inn.
Now fortified, we set off to explore Chester’s unique ‘Rows’. There are two main thoroughfares within the city walls, they run north-south and east-west and meet at a spot called ‘The Cross’. Just north of the Cross, the last starts to slope very sharply down to the River Dee at the south end of the walled town. It appears to me that the Rows were developed on the second floors of the buildings in order to accommodate this change in elevation.
When the buildings were constructed, they were done in such a way to have ‘balconies’ on the second floor of each building, and the buildings touched each other ‘cheek by jowl’. The balconies were open at each end, making it possible to walk from one to another, along the east-west axis and on both sides of the southern axis for about half way down to the river.
While there were businesses on the ground floors of the buildings, it was really the second floors where all the shops were located. Of course, over the years, the things being produced and sold in the shops has changed dramatically, the unique advantages of having the Rows exist still remains. We visited on a bright sunny day, but during inclement weather, patrons would be able to shop in comfort out of the rain and the wind.
I’m not aware of anything like these ‘Rows’ anywhere else in the world, and I’m delighted to have learned about Chester’s many charms thanks to Rick Steves’ radio podcast. I’d have to say, to me, Chester is one of England’s best-kept secrets, a little like the Underground tour of the city of Seattle in the United States.
Our day-trip to Liverpool was quite a success. I’ve written about it in a separate journal entry. When we were back in Chester for our last night we went to the Istanbul BBQ once again. When we walked in, the waiter was very pleased to see us again, but told us he was disappointed we hadn’t come the night before. Apparently he’d told a Canadian friend about meeting us, and his friend had made a special trip to the restaurant to chat with us.
We had more or less walked through a great deal of their menu during our visit to Chester. The mushroom mix-up had been good in the end, because we became ‘regulars’ instead of just fleeting customers. Our favourite dish ended up being the stuffed eggplants. I told the owner he should consider opening a restaurant in our hometown, Victoria, BC. There’s nothing like his great Turkish food available, and we could be his ‘regulars’ there.