Wednesday, 19 August 2015

Our city visit to Chester: history, hats and (h)architecture

Chester has been on our bucket list of cities to visit for years - from
Eastgate clock, Chester 
before we even bought our Bailey Orion caravan. It can trace its history back to Roman times and is jam-packed with interesting architecture. It is also on an easily manageable scale for on-foot exploration. We drove the short distance from Crab Mill Farm to the Park And Ride and hopped on the bus to the city centre. A return fare is a very reasonable £2 and there aren't any concessions for bus pass holders. The brusque attendant didn't appreciate us interrupting his phone chat to buy tickets, waving us away to machines instead, but the driver was pleasant enough. We are noticing a distinct fading of the cheerful friendliness that so surprised us from shop assistants and the like further north. As southeners ourselves, we are used to people in service professions resenting their jobs and grumpiness is definitely becoming more widespread as we return southwards!

Originally founded as a Roman fort in AD79, Chester makes the most of
Chester amphitheatre 
its Roman heritage. We didn't visit the dedicated museum, but did walk around the site of the former Amphitheatre and through as much as was open of the Roman Gardens. Much of the Amphitheatre is reconstructed and there isn't even a lot of that, but from what we saw of the well-preserved example at Italica we could imaginatively fill in how impressive the Chester version must have been. As you might be able to make out from my photo, the other half of the sand arena is painted onto a backdrop and I liked this ingenious way of presenting more of the missing structure.

The Roman Gardens is a narrow stretch of park running along a section
of the city walls. Again a case of cleverly making something significant out of not very much, the Gardens contain bases of Roman columns and a small area of an original Roman bath house. A new mosaic in the entrance sets the scene and tone, and the whole park has several explanatory plaques and pictures. We were particularly interested in this partially transparent image of a Civil War battle. The image lines up exactly with an obviously repaired section of the wall and we learned that the damage had been caused by Civil War cannon. From the Gardens, we took ourselves up onto the city walls for a wander. We were able to look down onto narrow boats moored on the Shropshire Union Canal and also spotted an official municipal pigeon coop in Kaleyards which made a nice change from the usual unwelcoming spikes! People are actively encouraged to feed pigeons here, but are requested not to feed them anywhere else in the city. I guess the idea is to keep them in the one place. I'd be interested to know if it works - we hardly saw any elsewhere.

Chester pigeon coop 
My favourite aspect of Chester was The Rows: two blocks of medieval-
Gargoyles in The Rows 
style streets where the shops are on two storeys. At street level it is just like any other town, but look up and there are more shops and dwellings just above which can be accessed by steps every so often along the street. There are lots of wonderful independent shops in the centre of Chester, especially in this area where the units are smaller. We did notice quite a lot of empty units to let though. Obviously the economic recovery isn't racing ahead in this part of the country. As well as the wealth of shopping opportunities, I also liked the architectural details and design such as these small gargoyles on a second storey walkway. The second storey is set back under cover too which was perfect to avoid today's showers. Many of the black and white Tudor buildings were apparently built in Victorian times - this was their retro craze - and have been kept well to produce an amazing sight en masse.

Not everything in the city is old though. I spent a while admiring this
Celebration Of Chester by
Stephen Broadbent 
contemporary sculpture in Town Hall Square. The work of Stephen Broadbent and entitled 'Celebration Of Chester', the sculpture was unveiled in 1992 for the 900th anniversary of the cathedral. We didn't realise it until we got back to Bailey for a Google, but we had already seen another Stephen Broadbent sculpture during our travels. 'Empowerment' which straddles the river in Lincoln is also one of his.

We popped into the cathedral foyer and were entertained by a large model of a fluffy white rabbit disappearing down its rabbit hole. Alice In Wonderland is a popular theme around here as Lewis Carroll was born and grew up not far away in Daresbury. Also this year is the 150th anniversary of the publication of Alice In Wonderland. Fittingly, we chose to have lunch in the Mad Hatter's Tearooms. Situated in The Rows, it has quirky decor but we didn't realise how ridiculously busy it was as the three eating areas are visually separated. I wish the staff had mentioned the potential wait for hot food when we ordered because we could have simply chosen our fallback of coffee and cake. Instead, after half an hour we were offered a free drink to pass the time and another twenty minutes later our lunch finally arrived! My Corned Beef Hash was nice, although strangely presented in a deep bowl, but Dave's Pulled Pork Rarebit was bland and served with lots of boiled new potatoes. Oddness! The apologetic host did knock the drinks off the bill and gave us cupcakes to take away in compensation. I think maybe this cafe is a victim of its own success as they couldn't cope with a full house.

Our Mad Hatter cupcakes 

Also hat-related, but (probably) less mad, Dave made a surprising purchase today! He's bought himself a Trilby and I think he looks fabulous in it! It makes a real change from his habitual baseball caps. Named after the eponymous character in a George Du Maurier book I read recently, Dave had tried one on when we visited Cragside last month. We thought it had been a Fedora and the helpful assistant at The Hat Place today explained the different types. Dave tried out several variations today before settling on this super elegant Stetson Elkader Trilby. The Hat Place is a gorgeous little shop with an unbelievable selection of hats! You can't see from this photo, but the Trilby even has a little gaudy feather in the band which I like and Dave isn't sure about so that might get discarded. I shall have to get my red felt cloche out of storage when we get back to Sussex!

Just like Leonard Cohen?! 

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