Chester's not short of cool places to shop and eat - but it's really hot stuff when it comes to history. If you know where to go, you can find fascinating treasures in the most unlikely of places...
It was lunchtime in Chester and our guide, Janet Holman, was leading us into Spudulike in Bridge Street. Despite my rumbling tummy, we weren’t about to dig our teeth into a hot buttery potato. Instead, we were to feast our eyes on the incredible sight of a Roman hypocaust in this most unlikely of settings.
The perfectly preserved section of the heating system that kept the city’s founders warm and their bath water piping hot is still - nearly 2,000 years later - in situ in the far corner of Spudulike’s basement. While we gazed in awe, hungry office workers were filling up on fast food, seemingly blasé about this wonder just feet from their dinner table.
Ah, but is this really any wonder when you live in Chester? This is, after all, a glorious city, where an ancient and fascinating history is not just around every corner, but in every wall, street and cellar. The delightfully knowledgeable Janet is one of the city’s Blue Badge guides, who offer ‘secret’ Chester tours.
Walk past the latest fashions in Miss Selfridge, in Northgate Street, and you will discover another part of the heating system for the legionary commander’s quarters at the back of the shop. Nearby, at Black’s, part of a colonnade in the legionary HQ can be seen, and in the basement of the Castle Galleries, in St Michael’s Row, a section of mosaic flooring that once decorated the large bathhouse complex is on view. Anyone with Roman remains in their building is obliged to display them, but it is expected that you ask first.
We’d only been in Chester 30 minutes and already we were being overun by Romans - albeit four-feet-nothing ones in school uniform. By now, Janet had whisked us round to another of Chester’s pride and joys, the great Roman military amphitheatre. The area around the amphitheatre - the largest of its kind in the UK - was filled with groups of eight- and nine year-olds, dwarfed by ‘Roman’ soldiers who appeared to be leading them on rampages around the city walls.
Time here, perhaps, for one of Janet’s interesting snippets: the leader of these Roman soldiers, 'centurion’ Paul Harston, has, apparently, got more Roman clothes than contemporary gear. I can well believe that, judging by the very obvious popularity of his Roman soldier tours, which are not confined to school groups. I wouldn’t want to step out of line with Paul and his army, though. These guys are actually authorised by the police to carry some very scary-looking weapons; all in the interests of authenticity, you understand.
Chester - or Deva, to give it its original name - was founded by the Romans in around 70-80 AD, and the city loves nothing better than to play up this prestigious heritage to the max. In the time of the Romans, the Dee estuary reached right up to Chester and what is now the racecourse was a tidal pool outside the city walls. Now these very walls are the most complete circuit of Roman and medieval defensive town walls in the UK. It’s yet another interesting fact that horse racing began here in 1539 after football was banned; apparently because so many players were getting hurt.
Chester’s wonderful history is threaded through the modern-day city’s everyday life in so many other ways, as well. Take shopping, for instance. The Rows, two-tiered medieval galleries, are the city’s best known architectural feature. These covered walkways, another bonus in an already traffic-free city centre, are home to major high-street brands, designer stores and quirky independent shops. Centuries ago The Rows were named after the businesses trading in them: Butter Steps, Honey Steps, Milk Stoops Rows and Shoemaker Row.
Many visitors get their bearings with a Blue Badge walking tour; these are so popular that they run every day, including Christmas Day. Unfortunately, this means that Janet has not had a Christmas Day off for 15 years - but one suspects that she doesn’t really mind that much, such is her enthusiasm for this city.
Chester also has a town crier, complete with top hat and full ceremonial regalia, who ‘performs’ (with the customary “Oyez! Oyez!”) at midday at the High Cross. Well, from May to August anyway. Sadly we didn’t get to see him. But by this time we’d soaked up enough of Chester’s engaging and vibrant personality to make our own proclamation. Chester? Oh, yes!
Things to do
Themed walking tours on a variety of topics (including History Hunter, Secret Treasures and Ghosts) start from the Town Hall Information Centre (01244 402111).
Chester Zoo has regular feeding sessions and keeper talks throughout the day (01244 380280; www.chesterzoo.org).
Chester Heritage guided tours offer 30-minute sightseeing trips in a vintage open-topped double-decker bus (0870 7656840; www.chesterheritagetours.co.uk).
Grosvenor Museum (free) has Roman tombstones and displays on the legionary system (27 Grosvenor Street; 01244 402008; www.grosvenormuseum.co.uk).
Chester Cathedral has magnificent stained glass and the most intricately carved quire stalls in Britain, dating back 800 years (www.chestercathedral.com).
ChesterBoat runs 30-minute and (in the summer) two-hour cruises; you can also buy a combined ticket for the CitySightseeing buses (www.chesterboat.co.uk).
More ideas: www.visitchester.com.
Where to eat
Enjoy afternoon tea at Oddfellows in Lower Bridge Street, the city’s latest hotspot (01244 400 001; www.oddfellows.biz).
Convivio does traditional Italian, Spanish and Greek-influenced dishes and authentic stone oven baked pizzas; their chocolate profiterole cake is the best we have ever tasted (29 Grosvenor Street; 01244 400029; www.conviviochester.co.uk).
Pick up a free Chester Food and Drink guide from the Town Hall Tourist Information Centre.