Familiar to many as the backdrop for Hollyoaks, Chester has much more to offer, with glossy locals, trendy wine bars and great shopping. Oh, and not so many serial killers...
Think of Chester and two modern phenomena come to mind: footballers’ wives and Hollyoaks. Of course, there is more to the city than that. It has charming cobbled streets, black-and-white Tudor shopfronts and walls you can tour for great views.
But the people live up to expectations. Poker-straight blonde hair with honey highlights, and perfectly executed French manicures. Ugg boots over straight-legged Rock and Republic jeans, clinging to figures clearly hauled to the gym at least three times a week. That is the Chester you see on Hollyoaks, and that’s the Chester I saw for myself. Although there are probably fewer serial killers per capita and not everyone is lads’ mag material (sorry).
Strutting its stuff like the posh lovechild of Liverpool and Manchester, Chester has a definite polish to it. By day, the shops are buzzing with WAGs, WAG lookalikes and WAG wannabes. At night, trendy wine bars are in serious danger of selling out of dry white wine.
It sounds like one big cliché of a city, but actually it’s quite appealing – like London with a friendly, well made-up face. Pale and interesting doesn’t quite cut it here. To the Chester set, it would be rude to meet a friend or go on a date without making an effort.
All this gloss and glamour contrasts nicely with the city itself, which is steeped in more than 2,000 years of history. It’s encircled by the well-preserved city walls, which you can walk around to get a good feel for the place. You can also get a good introduction to the city by taking a Chester Heritage guided tour, on board an authentic old-style omnibus - prettier and generally more interesting than those open-topped buses you see in every town and city.
Most of the shops, from Russell & Bromley to Boots, are set in striking black-and-white Tudor buildings. In fact, the 13th-century ‘Rows’ – two tiers of shops running through the centre – are a tourist attraction in themselves. Just another excuse to shop till you drop.
For our weekend break in the city, we stayed slap-bang in the centre, at the Mill Hotel. Comprised of two buildings linked by a bridge over the Shropshire Union Canal, the hotel has an ideal location. It is an easy stroll to Chester’s busy bars and restaurants, which are almost as glossy and well turned-out as its inhabitants.
If traditional, no-fuss eateries are your thing, Ye Olde Kings Head (48-50 Lower Bridge Street) will be right up your street. You can eat in the bar or the quieter restaurant, with dishes including mussels steamed in garlic, herbs and cream, and rump of Welsh lamb with mustard and redcurrant glaze.
If you want to do something other than shop and eat, Chester Zoo is well worth the bus ride. Allow the best part of a day, especially if you are taking kids. They will love it, especially the huge, open elephant enclosure and the orang-utans.
To round off our break, we had our Sunday dinner on a cruiser along the canal, run by the Mill Hotel. You get your starter, set off, and slowly drift back to pick up your main course. Then you set off in the other direction. There’s not much in the way of views, since the canal runs alongside the city walls. But that hardly matters. There’s just a more relaxed pace to life in Chester, where even office workers have the air of ladies who lunch. And, like Hollyoaks, it can be quite addictive.
Virgin offers direct train services to Chester from London Euston, Liverpool and Manchester.
Where to stay
Rooms at the Mill Hotel start at c£88 for a double room, including buffet breakfast.
Chester Heritage guided tours run from the Chester Visitor Centre every hour, and last around 40 minutes.