For the second time this year, I found myself spending a couple of nights in Chester. On the first one, last May, I was on a stag weekend and, for some reason, recall little of the event. But I remembered enough to think I liked Chester, and that it was worth another visit.
I wasn’t wrong, as Chester’s tourism website explains;
“Chester has the most complete city walls, the oldest racecourse and the largest Roman Amphitheatre in Britain, plus a 1000-year-old Cathedral with Europe’s finest example of medieval carvings – and of course the one and only 700-year-old Rows galleries where shopping is a double delight.”
This list omits the superb Chester Zoo (click link for blog) which is a few miles outside the town. For a little place, it seems to have been greedy with its allocation of attractions.
We stayed in The Mill Hotel and Spa where a double room cost around £85 per night, including parking; this was a bonus as parking is at a premium in Chester. The hotel was fine, breakfasts were pretty decent and set you up for the day. Or at least until it was time for a cake at lunch. We were only a five-minute walk from the town centre.
And what a town centre. Whilst our European neighbours have been more successful (or fortunate) in keeping their historical towns architecturally intact (for example, try these; Rothenburg, Venice, Bergamo, Bruges, Tarragona) Chester is one of relatively few in this country to have kept a big chunk of its heritage. To be fair, we do have a few gems.
Chester is certainly a gem. The town wall is pretty much intact and is a pleasant 2½ mile stroll for an hour or so. Dating from the time of the Romans and with several re-builds since then, it gives good views of the town and surrounding area, including the River Dee and Chester Racetrack.
The town’s stunning cathedral backs onto it. Regardless of its theological intentions at the time, Henry VIIIs’ Reformation despoiled the religious art of the nation. Consequently, our ancient churches are somewhat denuded of painting and statuary compared to (again) their European counterparts. For me, Chester Cathedral can hold its head high. The art is minimal, but the stained-glass windows are superb, the cloisters sublime; overall it is a very impressive and grand pile of stone.
There are the remains of England’s largest Roman Amphitheatre. But, not much remains. Actually, Chester makes quite a play of its Roman pedigree, and legions of primary schoolchildren can be found marching round, clutching swords, and enthusiastically following their centurion. As a site of Roman interest however, I found it underwhelming.
The town centre has plenty of shops (mostly national chains, alas) and it is also the heart of the nightlife, with many splendid bars, pubs, cafes and restaurants. They’re not all brilliant, but before I recommend a few, there is a big caveat you need to know before visiting Chester. It is very popular for Stag and Hen parties. Fine, if you are on one of them, but not conducive to a quiet weekend. We went midweek to avoid them.
Paysan is a cool, well stocked wine bar downstairs with a beer hall on the first floor selling a massive range of artisan ales. Beer Heroes has a wide range of groovy brews to choose from. I particularly liked an IPA called ‘Polly’. The Church Bar and Restaurant is a very chic joint. It is a bit pricey but the cocktails are top drawer and, ultimately, you are paying for stunning surroundings of the converted Church. Veeno is an excellent Italian restaurant, I can recommend the cold platter which serves two. Artezzan is a more typical modern Italian eatery, the starters were stunning, I had pork crackling and olives followed by a fine pizza. The Spaghetti Carbonara looked yummy and I wished I’d had that now. Ah well.
However, for me the ‘must do’ establishment is The Albion Inn. It’s next to the wall, round the corner from the Alms Houses. It is a place with enormous charm. The décor is, I suppose, wartime England, with signage and artifacts to match. The beer is good and the food is high quality, and very reasonably priced. If you were an overseas visitor to the UK this would be the kind of pub you would expect to find. Except, of course, you need to know where to look for them. London and Manchester have a few, Liverpool rather more, and there is The Albion in Chester!
Should you go?
Definitely, but I wouldn’t go at weekends, and I imagine it gets pretty busy, and more expensive, when Chester Racecourse is having a meeting. It would be a decent plan to spend a day at Chester Zoo before or after a visit to the town.