by Ginny Light The Great British Weekend: Chester, Cheshire
Ginny Light finds intriguing history, shopping and good local food are more than enough to fill a weekend break.
Chester is a city that wears its history on its sleeve, and by that I mean you don’t have to go looking in dusty museum archives to find it. A palimpsest of invasions is laid out in the streets, from the Roman wall that rings the city to the Tudor galleries overhanging Watergate Street. You can walk the walls and, at just over two miles in circumference, they are a great way to begin your history lesson.
The Kaleyard Gate on the wall’s east side was built in the 13th century to allow monks access to the cathedral’s vegetable garden (hence the vegetable reference in the name), sadly now a car park. Edward I granted the monks permission to build the gate, but insisted that it be made too low for an invading Welsh soldier on horseback to pass through, and that it be locked every night — a notice still states this, and until a few years ago it was locked at 9pm. The centrepiece of Chester is its fine cathedral, built in the local pink sandstone and noted for its west window. It costs £5 to visit — or you can join Saturday or Sunday evensong to hear the choir.
Hungry after your walk? There’s plenty of good food to be had, and the first thing to try is the famous local Cheshire cheese at the city’s much-loved Cheese Shop on Northgate Street. Farther up the street another deli, Joseph Benjamin, behind the restaurant of the same name, creates delicious sandwiches, perfect for a picnic alongside the River Dee.
Following the riverside will take you to Chester Racecourse, once a large Roman harbour, but since reclaimed and now the country’s oldest racecourse. Here you can find more good eating at the splendid 1539 restaurant overlooking the course. Tables on race days get booked up months ahead, but even when there is nothing on, the dramatically-lit course is a striking backdrop to a meal of dishes such as Whitby crab to start and roast chump of Conwy Valley lamb to follow.
Chester boasts some good independent boutiques along its two-tiered streets. The Rows are a covered gallery above the ground-floor shops, built in the late 13th century and restored along most of the city’s pedestrianised centre. They are another lovely reminder of how, even when you go shopping in Chester, history is always, quite literally, at your fingertips.
Need to know
Chow down at
Joseph Benjamin (josephbenjamin.co.uk) offers local, seasonal food in bright, bustling surroundings. Servings are colourful with fresh ingredients, perfectly cooked such as aubergine, tomato, Yorkshire feta and mint on sourdough bruschetta and fillet of Scottish hake with curly kale, Menai mussels, Cumbrian chorizo and basil. It is run by a passionate pair of brothers, Joe and Ben, one of whom is a chef and the other, front of house and oenophile. It costs about £23pp for two courses, and has an extensive and varied wine list at reasonable prices – the owners have opted to abandon the astonomic mark-up common to many restaurants to encourage its patrons to try more wines (there are many varieties by the glass) and to return.
Bed down at
ABode Chester (01244 347000, abodehotels.co.uk/chester) has large, attractive rooms from £135, and a Michael Caines restaurant and Champagne bar on its fifth floor. The food is elegantly prepared with a good choice of fish and meat, such as crisp veal sweetbread, watercress, cepe, lemon and thyme purée and Amaretto foam, or roasted skate wing, Lyonnaise potatoes, fennel purée, caper berries and olives. There is also an impressive selection of local cheeses. All bedrooms overlook either the racecourse, or the city and the Roman walls around it. The Soul on Fire package offers accommodation in one of three large suites on the top floor, plus a bouquet of flowers on arrival, pre-dinner glass of Champagne, 7-course Michael Caines Tasting Menu (or three courses from the à la carte menu), and a full English breakfast. It costs from £380 per suite based on two people sharing (Saturday night carries a £70 supplement)
One of the city’s most intriguing mysteries is a coffin, set into the wall of the St John the Baptist church, close to the ruins of the Roman Amphitheatre, and now exposed bearing the words, “Dust to Dust”. It is dated to the 13th Century and was set into the wall on the vicar’s orders in the 19th Century, but little is known of the deceased.