The Roman city of Chester boasts Britain's largest amphitheatre, the most complete city walls, the oldest sporting venue in continuous use and much more besides. Reborn, Chester waits to welcome you.
Travel back through the mists of time, 450 years or so, to a time when King Henry VIII was busy divorcing, or beheading, wives at an alarming rate and the Mayor of Chester, Henry Gee, came up with a bold idea. Mayor Henry decreed that the 1540 Shrove Tuesday type of football game, an annual tradition, would be cancelled in favour of a horse race. And the venue for the race, Chester’s quaint and picturesque Roodee Racecourse, is still going from strength to strength today making it Britain’s oldest sporting venue to have been in continual use.
Chester Races have always been hugely popular drawing ever bigger crowds of race goers into the city, particularly for the big three day May meeting which is viewed as a trial for potential Derby horses. Incidentally, “Gee Gee’s”, the often used informal name for horses, is taken from Mayor Henry’s surname.
But Chester’s ancient history goes back much further than Tudor times and the city’s inaugural horse race.
A potted history
It was the Romans who first built a fort, in 73AD, on the banks of the Dee at what is now Chester, which they called Deva. Over time the Roman Army base developed into a major walled settlement. After the Romans packed up and left, around the 5th Century, the Saxons took over and renamed the city Chester before adding further fortification to keep the marauding Danes, and the odd Welshman, away from the growing number of streets within the town.
Chester was one of the last towns in Britain to fall to the Normans during the conquest and it was William the Conqueror who ordered that Chester Castle be built to dominate both the town and the Welsh border. Many of the buildings and structures erected through Chester’s 2,000 or so years of history still stand today. For example, Chester has the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain sitting just outside the UK’s most complete set of town or city walls.
Within the walls Chester’s famous shopping galleries, the Rows, date back to the 13th Century. Originally shops or warehouses at street level a long gallery ran above which was reached by steps from the street. In Tudor and Jacobean times the upper floors were built out over the galleries and in some cases the medieval undercrofts, which are now below street level, are still in use today as shops, cafes, wine bars and even as a wine merchant’s cellar. The Rows are a unique feature to Chester and nothing quite like them is found anywhere else in the world.
The cathedral, which was built between 1093 and the early 16th Century, dominates the city centre and is one of the North West of England’s top tourist attractions. Built of red sandstone it has been the subject of major restoration over the years but remains one of England’s most beautiful places of Christian worship.
And the River Dee, once a major Roman port and gateway to the sea, has to be one of the most picturesque stretches of river running through any British city today. It’s a fabulous stretch of water where pleasure boats and river cruises ply their trade alongside serious rowers out training from the city’s numerous rowing clubs.
The North of England Zoological Society, or simply Chester Zoo, is Britain’s most-visited wildlife attraction with almost 1.5 million visitors a year going through the gates. However, it’s as far removed from a traditional zoo as you can get and has never strayed from its founding tradition of being a zoo ‘without bars’.
Today, it has also become an internationally renowned conservation and breeding centre for endangered species. The zoo’s award winning enclosures are huge and innovative and the zoo’s many breeding successes are a testament to the care lavished on the animals that make up the collection.
Founded in 1930 the zoo is now spread over 100 acres with plans for a Heart of Africa 34m high tropical biodome that will house an African rainforest-themed sanctuary for gorillas, a large troop of chimpanzees, Okapi and other species.
I grew up in Chester and today just about every street corner, pub and building holds a memory of some sort. In truth, during my school years, I never really appreciated how lucky I was to grow up in such a beautiful and historic city. Sadly, as I began my working life and for many years after, I could only look on as a lack of investment coupled with apathy and an absence of imagination saw the city I love begin, in my opinion, to decay and fall apart at the seams.
While other cities and towns developed and seized opportunities to bring in investment to finance innovative plans and schemes to help promote their history, architecture and culture, Chester, it seemed, was content to quietly slumber in the shadow of progress.
But recently, just in the past couple of years, something changed and Chester awoke from its slumber. The city began a renaissance that has seen the amphitheatre, walls and much of the city centre rejuvenated. Suddenly, there is things happening, festivals, cycle races, musical and sporting events and signature restaurants, shops and new hotels opening. There is now a buzz and a confidence about the city that has for so long been missing. Once again I am intensely proud of Chester which is fast reaching its goal of being a must-see European destination.
Take time out to visit my Chester - I guarantee you will not be disappointed.
Eating and drinking
Chester is crammed full of good restaurants and places to eat to suit all budgets. My favourites include:
The Fat Cat Café Bar at Lower Watergate Street is just a stones throw from the Racecourse. Located in the cellar of an old town house it’s great for lunches or dinner. The menu is crammed full of good dishes, from filled jacket potatoes to delicious home made burgers or heavenly tender steaks. They even do a great full English breakfast from 10am. Prices range from £3.50 for sandwiches and wraps up to around £16 for top quality steaks. Visit fatcatcafebars.co.uk for more information.
La Fattoria, Lower Bridge Street is a great, child friendly Italian eatery with fabulous welcoming staff and prices that won’t hurt your wallet. The extensive menu includes a mouth-watering range of pasta and pizza dishes and some real authentic Italian favourites. Try the gamberoni all’agio (king prawns cooked in white wine and garlic sauce) at £13.90, I have, again and again and again!
But, be warned, the restaurant gets very busy and can be a little noisy, especially if there’s a birthday party in which tends to be an excuse for the waiters to involve the whole restaurant in making lots of noise. However, it’s got a great atmosphere, it’s good fun and it serves up top quality food. Visit www.lafattoriachester.com for more information.
Where to stay
Coming from the city I have never had the need to stay in a Chester hotel. However, local knowledge leads me to recommend:
The Best Western Queen Hotel, City Road, right opposite the railway station. This Best Western hotel has always had a good reputation within the city. Rates are around £85 room only.
Crowne Plaza Chester, Trinity Street, is just a few yards from the racecourse, the City Walls and the cathedral. The hotel has an indoor swimming pool, sauna, and fitness centre. Rates range from £99 for room only up to £200 plus a night for an executive room with dinner and breakfast.