The big idea

Glamour, glamour, glamour – this is a city passionate about looking good, and it’s not hard to see why: pretty much everything about this city is attractive, and it and its people are practised at the art of seeing and being seen. From its stylish shopping and glamorous races to its beautiful gardens and historic icons, Chester does seem to be all about image. After all, it’s not for nothing that the WAGs of the north congregate here: this is a truly beautiful city, and if you scratch the surface you’ll see that its beauty isn’t just skin deep.

The beautiful city

Chester’s charm is enhanced by its fabulous city walls, which are unique in that they almost stretch right round the city centre and together form some of the most complete city walls in existence; in fact you can still walk round most of them today – a most agreeable way to see the city. And then there’s the utterly unique Rows, the mediaeval two-tiered shopping galleries with their distinctive black and white shops and covered walkways – if you’ve never seen them before it’s hard not to stop and stare at their magnificence. It’s in the Rows, Eastgate to be specific, that you’ll find (can’t miss, to be more accurate) the Eastgate Clock. Built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, the clock sits atop an arch that straddles Eastgate and is said to be the second most photographed clock in the world after the clock tower at the Palace of Westminster.

Effortlessly attractive.

Glamorous Shopping

The art of spending money has always been big in Chester, so it should come as no surprise to discover that the oldest shop front in the UK can be found here (The Three Old Arches on Bridge Street). And shopping is just as big today as it was then– and it’s all rather a classy affair. There are lots of upmarket brands to be found here, alongside some excellent individual and independent boutiques for those who prefer haute couture to high street – head to the Rows for some of the best. And just outside the city is one of the UK’s best-known retail outlets, MacArthur Glen, where you can snap up lots of designer bargains.

A touch of class

As any fashionista will tell you, there’s no point in doing all that shopping if you’ve nowhere to go and be seen in what you’ve bought, and it just so happens that Chester isn’t left wanting in that department. There’s an abundance of champagne and wine bars, specialist delis, teashops and cafes – and many a restaurant for ladies who lunch. And then there’s Chester Races, with polo events, show-jumping and other equestrian events at which it is de rigueur to show off your finery and quaff plenty of champagne. And why not? It all sounds very civilised to us.

The essence

Truly unique, the essence of Chester is quite simply polished

The interesting bits in the history

Although traces of occupation from the Iron Age have been found in the area, the Romans settled what is now Chester in AD 75 when they built a fort next to the River Dee called Deva Victrix. This formed a hugely important trio of forts across Roman Britain, with York on one side, Chester in the middle, and Caerleon in Wales on the other. The fort at Chester was unusually large and contained the foundations for a unique building, the imago mundia (an early portent of the city’s fascination with imagery?).

In the early 7th century the Battle of Chester took place between the Welsh and the Saxons; eventually the Saxons took it and named it Ceaster, which gradually corrupted over time to the modern-day Chester. By the end of this century, St Werburgh founded a church here, and such was her influence that in the 9th century her remains were moved from Staffordshire and re-buried in the church at Chester to save it from being destroyed by the Danes. And although the Danes did occupy Chester for a short while, they were eventually defeated. The settlement was fortified and designated a burgh by the king, and by this time also had its own mint (a sure sign of wealth).

Three years after the Norman Conquest the Normans took Chester and built a motteandbailey that would eventually become Chester Castle. Industry started to flourish:  flour mills were established here and a weir was built across the River Dee to keep water levels high; leather became the main trade with skinners, tanners, glovers and saddlers all doing well. It was around this time that the church of St John the Baptist became the city cathedral, and there was also a thriving import trade through the port, taking in wine and other goods from Spain, Ireland and Germany.

The 13th century saw the building of the Rows and the prosperity of the city continued, in fact the wealthy citizens of Chester were already getting used to living in style. Life was also good over the next couple of centuries, as the abbey was beautified; until the Civil War, where Chester played a bigger role than many.

In 1643 Chester, a Royalist town by nature, was besieged by the Parliamentarians, but the town beat them back; this was followed by a six-month siege against the city, and then, only in 1646 (following Royalist defeat in the Battle of Rowton Moor in 1645), did Chester bow to the inevitable and become a Parliamentary town.

By the 18th century Chester was a bustling market town and home to silver workers and shipbuilders. Chester continued to prosper during the 19th century and shipbuilding in the town really took off; however, the Industrial Revolution didn’t have the same effect on Chester as it did on other cities; in fact it actually became a haven for the aristocracy looking for an escape from the industrial sprawl of Liverpool and Manchester, with many establishing their homes here. It had become popular as a tourist destination and gradually adapted to a different role to other cities nearby; in 1828 Browns, the ‘Harrods of the North’, was rebuilt; in 1866 The Grosvenor Hotel was constructed, followed by the Grosvenor Gardens in 1867. Many more wonderful civic amenities followed, including the Town Hall, a public library, a museum and the Eastgate Clock.

Although the traditional industries faded away, the city and its people have always been aware of the city’s importance as a historic town, and as a centre for retail, services and tourism: this mindset has ensured the city keeps its vibrancy and appeal.

Who’s it ideal for/how it can make you feel

Well, apart from it being the obvious choice for wannabe WAGs looking to bag a footballer, Chester is the perfect place for fashionistas, style lovers, die-hard shoppers and anyone who appreciates the finer things in life.

Rather like its sister city back in Roman times, York, this is a place where leisure is highly valued, and hence a great place for looking good and feeling good. 

How to experience what’s different/ get under the skin of:

Why not start where it all began, just outside the city walls, at the site of Britain’s biggest archaeological dig – the 2,000-year-old Roman Amphitheatre. Step back and take in the sheer scale of the thing, at what was Britain’s largest Roman amphitheatre for military training and entertainment, underlining the importance of the city in those days.

Stroll along St John’s Street, and take a left into Eastgate Street, stopping to admire the Eastgate Clock – no doubt lining up with the other photographers to take a snap. You’ll now see the first of those fabulous Rows (they’re present on each of the four main streets). Eastgate Street is where you’ll find some of the larger retail stores, including the Grosvenor Centre, as well as some of the independent outlets this city does so well. Make sure to check out Brown’s department store, set over five floors it’s a landmark within the city.

Take a left down Bridge Street and you’ll find more of the Rows; this street has a mix of independent shops and boutiques, including at Number 48 the oldest shop front in the country. Look out as well for Pierrepoint Lane, down here you’ll find the Dewa Experience, the award-winning attraction that allows you to see, hear and smell what life was like as part of Roman Britain – a unique attraction. To the left is Grosvenor Street; down here you’ll find the Grosvenor Museum, an ideal way of reliving the history of the city, featuring impressive Roman tombstones, a silver collection of national importance, and a rather natty period house, with different rooms featuring different periods.

Now culturally nourished, it’s time for some more shopping. And if you’re interested in antique shops, especially silverware – for which the city has a longstanding reputation – you’ll find it a real delight to browse along nearby Watergate Street.

For the final ‘leg’ of the Rows, head up Northgate Street. More shops – Including a great cheese shop, where you really must buy some Cheshire cheese – the Forum Shopping Centre, the Victorian Town Hall, and Tourist Information Centre are all on this attractive street. Look for Abbey Square on the right-hand side and head into Chester Cathedral grounds. An attractive red sandstone cathedral, this is probably one of the most heavily restored cathedrals in the country, mostly in the 19th century. Pop in the cathedral and check out the choir stalls, dating from the 14th century, with their rich carvings these are ‘one of the finest sets in the country’ according to architecture guru Pevsner.

From here pop back up Northgate and locate on the right-hand side the charming little Rufus Court, an intimate courtyard of shops and a wine bar; there’s steps here which take you up onto the city walls. Now the walls themselves can be accessed at various stages along their route; but the whole thing amounts to about a couple of miles, and there’s so many different things to see en-route – the various towers, remains of the original Roman wall, views over the River Dee, the Rows, the Roodee (more of that later) and the Shropshire Union Canal – that, yes, to experience Chester properly you really need to do the whole thing.
Once you’ve done the walls, why not next head down to the River Dee? Behind the Roman Amphitheatre is the wide and open Groves; catch a boat down here for a relaxing half-hour cruise taking in Grosvenor Park and the Chester suspension bridge, the city’s footpath across the river.

And along the river in the other direction look out for the remains of Chester Castle. There’s enough of the mediaeval castle here to make this more than interesting, and there’s the Cheshire Military Museum within the castle complex, bringing to life the story of four famous regiments associated with the county of Cheshire over the last 300 years.

Chester Races is just over the Grosvenor Road; nown as ‘The Roodee’ it actually stands on the site of the old Roman harbour. It’s one of the country’s oldest courses, stretching back to the early 16th century, and also one of the most visited in the country. The society event of the year is the May Festival, but its home to a number of daytime and evening events – the elegant mile-long course really lends itself to a welcoming, intimate and most attractive atmosphere.

Finally, where to end such a stylish and individual visit?
How about the country’s number one zoo, the delight that is Chester Zoo? Inspired by the desire of one George Mottershead in 1930 to free animals and open a zoo ‘without bars’, this is now home to over 7,000 animals, including some of the most endangered and exotic species on the planet.

A beautiful day out, matched with a beautiful city.

When to visit

City pics