Chester is an eye-catching Roman city on the River Dee with medieval walls and shopping rows, and offers a good base for visiting Wirral, too.
Chester may be small compared with many other British cities, but it has had a big impact locally and nationally down the centuries. The largest of the Roman forts in Britain, on the frontline of Wales, Chester, say some historians, was meant to become the capital of Britannia. The Danes, Saxons and Normans capitalised on this strategic position, which was also bitterly fought over during the English Civil War.
As peace descended on Chester, the Georgians and Victorians embellished its streets, imposing an air of elegance, with 20th- and 21st-century architects and town planners applying their own brush strokes (and provoking varied reactions). Chester was an important trading hub in the Middle Ages, a port of more importance than Liverpool, providing an entry point for goods including linen from Ireland.
But by the 18th century, the city had been eclipsed by its northern neighbour due to the silting of the Dee. The ‘Cestrians’ (as the locals are called) were known for their leatherwork – boots, shoes, saddles and gloves – and for silver, of which there is a fine collection in the Grosvenor Museum. The Industrial Revolution left its mark with the railway station (of which there were once two) and the Chester Canal, part of the Shropshire Union Canal (over which the 18th-century Steam Mill still looms), with its spur that once delivered narrowboats onto the waters of the River Dee for a smooth and efficient transfer of freight.
Yet Chester isn’t stuck in the past. The presence of the university and the city’s appeal to young families, with its gentle mix of the urban and rural, maintains a youthful atmosphere, where new trends quickly reach its shops, bars and restaurants. There’s a thriving cultural scene: the city has its own orchestra, the Chester Philharmonic, an open-air theatre, and a new arts centre, Storyhouse, with a theatre, cinema and library. An impressive amount of world-class exhibitions call by here and the lack of a major art gallery has fostered a creative approach where buildings such as the cathedral are put to work as innovative art spaces.
To the northwest of the city lies the Wirral peninsula, adding a perhaps unexpected coastal aspect to the county. In this first edition, we are taking a selective approach to our coverage of this area, winding the clock back to the days of the Vikings, whose influence echoes down the years, the medieval monks who rowed the first ferry across the Mersey, the industrialists who built model workers’ towns at Port Sunlight and Bromborough Pool, and the canal engineers who connected the industrialists of Shropshire to a global market.
The peninsula is also home to the world’s first public park and Britain’s first country park, an exotic garden, an RSPB reserve teeming with wildfowl, the historic shorefront communities of the River Dee, and the most unexpected of Cheshire’s pleasures: its very own islands.