My first (non-airport) foray into England: Chester, a medieval city built on Roman ruins and renovated in the Victorian era. A shopper’s paradise as much as a history buff’s.
Chester is known for its medieval rows, which are basically a street of shops, all in a row (hence the name). There is a covered boardwalk connecting them, one story up. The Chester Rows are totally unique in Britain. Some buildings are the original medieval, and some are Victorian remodels, but all are charming. Chester is also one of the few parts of Britain on a grid, thanks to those orderly Romans; all other streets around here are curvy, narrow, and seemingly random. My one regret is that I didn’t check out any of the Roman crypts alleged to be in the basements of some of the shops.
I encountered plenty of quirkiness in Chester, enough to make me interested in a return visit.
Queen Victoria’s Clock, constructed to celebrate Queen Victoria’s 60th year on the throne, rests ornate and lovely on top of the Roman wall, above the bustle of shoppers in the streets below. I thought it was awesome, but you don’t just have to take my word for it; after Big Ben, it’s the 2nd most-photographed clock in England.
Centuries ago, Chester was part of Wales; today, it rests on the border. For a long time after Chester became English, there was great animosity towards the Welsh in town. There is a clock tower with clocks on only three sides because, it is said, the people of Chester wouldn’t give the Welsh the time of day!
Chester was a blast to visit. I spent a while simply walking up and down the streets, gawking at the dates on buildings, enjoying the medieval feel, and– wait, what’s that? Yes, a Disney store, right where I least expected it!
There were tons of American fast food restaurants as well, but I managed to skip McDonald’s and found a pub for lunch. We returned to the pub later in the afternoon and caught the end of the Wales vs. Italy rugby match. Surrounded by locals and shoppers all cheering for Wales, the mood was infectious– and Wales won! I also fit in (my first) afternoon tea at The Mad Hatter’s, which was bedecked with Union Jacks and life-size playing cards, and clever wooden menus with hearts and spades on them (points for keeping with the theme, though I’d only give the scones a 5/10).
My favorite part of Chester was walking around the Roman wall surrounding the city (though I was practically swimming by the end of it!). The sense of history and continuity was powerful, and each tower along the wall was unique. My favorites were the Phoenix Tower (cool stone phoenix; King Charles stood there in 1605!) and the Goblin Tower (purely for its name; come on!).
The town is built up so close to the wall that there were many places you could step right from the wall into a restaurant or bookshop. A secondhand bookshop against a Roman wall? Of course I went in, and made a beeline for the Neil Gaiman books.
Chester Cathedral was awesome in size, grandeur, and detail, and deserving of its own post. Chester Castle was apparently too low-key to even mention or go inside (When did “less impressive castles” become a thing? How quickly I’m becoming used to seeing castles tucked into every nook and cranny!), but I was pumped by the half-dozen ubiquitous red telephone boxes all over the city. My first time exploring an English city, and the red phone boxes in England thing turned out to be spot on.