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I wondered for a moment why I felt different in Deva Victrix, as the Romans first named Chester in AD79. Originally built as a Roman fort, this historic town is one of the best-preserved Roman and medieval walled cities in England.
And it is the wide Eastgate Street that takes you back to medieval times and images of horse-drawn coaches, top hats and chimney sweeps.
The town is not simply a visual delight – the health of independent shops belies Britain’s current austerity and offers the chance to shop away from crowds and the ubiquitous high street chains. And it’s all just two hours and 10 minutes by high-speed train from London.
Chester’s history spans nearly 2 000 years, which in 2007 inspired the Chester Council to launch a 10-year plan for the town to become a “must-see European destination”. And though the Roman legacy is apparent, with monuments to their achievements and their attempt to deal with the English winter through the Hypocaust under-floor heating, the most charming feature is the city centre’s Tudor-style buildings which house elevated medieval walkways in Eastgate, Bridge and Northgate streets. They are believed to be the only ones of the kind in the world. The first-floor Chester rows weave and dip, and give access to many thriving shops.
Eastgate’s shops include the family-owned Hotter shoes, Penhaligons offering perfumes and gifts, Jaeger clothes, and Powells the jewellers with its original 19th century fittings, jewellery and antiques.
Nestled among the shops is the odd pub, like the Old Boot Inn with its uneven wooden floors and old beams. It struck me as I sipped my life-restoring bitter shandy that Britain’s recent economic woes seem to have bypassed Chester.
Down the way from the Old Boot is Chester’s Cheese shop, offering 200 cheeses from around England (try the Cricketer’s cheddar or old Winchester and Bourne’s organic cloth-bound Cheshire) and abroad.
And then there’s the history.
Perhaps centuries of cloth confidence – whether for fashion or for wrapping cheese – has been ingrained in Chester folk. Though mills were mostly used to crush corn from the 13th century, by the 1600s their use was also expanded to beating new cloth to cleanse and thicken it. And textiles were still important to Chester in the industrial revolution, when mill looms were used to weave fabric.
It’s like geological mapping, seeing Chester’s layers of history. With the Chester canal being connected to the Shropshire Union canal and the Ellesmere canal, which connected the city with the River Mersey, the network of water transport maintained Chester’s manufacturing importance during this industrious period.
After a lengthy walk along the River Dee – where in Roman times ships were able to sail right up to what is now the racecourse – I returned to the vantage point of the 14th century water tower. I read on the wall plaque that women carried the large back-breaking quarried stones to the site and were paid just a penny a day, with male labourers earning tuppence a day.
The view of sections of the town walls can be seen from the ferry tours on the river and a walk across the Queens Park suspension bridge is recommended.
Chester is a gem. There is also a free bus shuttle from the station.
How to get there:
London to Chester: Return from £27, www.virgintrains.co.uk