Chester for the uninitiated
Two years ago, I made the big move northwards to be near the new love of my life. Being a southern softie, this was not without severe trepidation; would I understand anyone? Would I freeze to death? Would I be hated? I took the plunge, kept my fingers crossed and ended up a few miles from Chester…a city I knew nothing about. In fact, to my shame, I had not even heard of it before meeting my partner.
He spoke passionately of the city: shops, the “rows”, architecture, Roman and Civil War History and a variety of weird and wonderful sounding festivals. He is however, most at home on the side of a desolate mountain somewhere so what could he really know about city life? Surely this was northern pride speaking; perhaps he was trying to impress his new girl from the south. I may have been living in a small city when we met, but my family were from the bright lights and he knew I’d spent plenty of my childhood in and around our Capital: my “North” back then. My clue as to what a gem Chester must be should have come when he admitted that he could not make a hypothetical choice between a mountain shack in Snowdonia and a city pad in Chester.
However, is it really so shameful that I knew nothing of Chester? Before writing this article I took to Facebook to ask my friends what they knew of the place or what they associated it with. You could instantly spot those that had stepped foot inside the walls and those who had not. For the uninitiated there was a common thread: Hollyoaks. Beam me up. It is a banned program in my household, being the epitome of what I do not want my daughter to aspire to. Quite frankly, it is just as well I had not known that Hollyoaks is supposed to be a fictional suburb of Chester before moving, or it would have been a sure fire way of keeping me away. For those who do not know, it is actually recorded across the waters of the Mersey.
To be found alongside this assumption, was the “Cheshire-select, footballer’s-wife” stereotype of glamorous women with nothing substantial in their lives, teetering around the streets in their high heels, visiting the races and sipping champagne. Don’t get me wrong, it is not to say that on certain days of the year, this cannot be spied from a coffee shop window; it’s just that Chester is so much more than this and it borders on the criminal that this city has not been full of pride and boasting about its beauty and culture.
Chester is now my favourite city of our isles: it never fails to amaze me. Wondering down any other high street such as that in my home town, recession and credit crunch is sprawled down every street. Some big chains have failed to weather the storm let alone any of the quirky and original independent retailers. Mary Quant has a whole series on it! Yet Chester is brimming with small shops of every imagining, run independently. It is one of the most striking features when you first meander through the streets off The Cross: many of the large brands are missing and The Rows are packed with something different. Oh yes, The Rows! Along some of the main shopping streets in the City, you get not one, but two rows of shops, again something I’d never seen before. If I cannot find that “something different” Christmas present in Chester there is no hope.
But it’s not just shops. Chester is full of history: you can walk along the top of the city walls, discover the vital roles it played in the Civil War and Roman times, have a Centurion take you on a tour, see numerous Roman pillars, see the tower from which King Charles watched his army defeated, observe re-enactments and so much more. And if history is not your thing, then you can uncover the other cultures: art galleries, cuisine, and live music abound. When my mum first visited Chester, she was struck by the amount of places to eat. Again, you find many of them are independent, providing a wide variety of good quality and delicious foods for a range of purses.
What has struck me recently, is the superb live music scene. Upon visiting one of the Northgate Quarter Festivals, I walked along the City Walls and passed the superb Chester Cathedral with the sun shining down. As I turned the corner, the festival was in full swing and we could watch one of the many bands from the walls. The atmosphere was relaxed, chilled and very European with food and drink, seating outside, art displays, etc. Every corner you turned there was more to see or do and another excellent solo artist or band to listen to.
On a Saturday night out, I expected the usual young crowd in their late teens, early twenties to dominate. However, I was astonished to visit numerous establishments with a more mature clientele. Many of these had excellent live music and I was overjoyed that as I reach my forties, fifties, sixties and beyond, I would not feel as though I “ought” to be staying in.
I am living near a city where there is a social and night life whatever my age; a city that is full of culture, in which I can watch a giant’s parade, visit a Literature Festival or watch Shakespeare being performed in the local park. Why on earth would I want to live anywhere else? Why on earth did I not know about it before? And how can people still not know about this gem?