Chester, Cheshire Hotels, Resort Accommodations

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In 1779 Boswell wrote to Samuel Johnson: "Chester pleases me more than any town I ever saw." CHESTER , forty miles southwest of Manchester, has changed since then, but not so much. A glorious two-mile ring of medieval and Roman walls encircle a neat kernel of Tudor and Victorian buildings, including the unique raised arcades called the "Rows". Very much the commercial hub of its county, Chester has enough in the way of sights, restaurants and atmosphere to make it an enjoyable base for a couple of days.

In 79 AD the Romans built Deva Castra here, their largest known fortress in Britain. Later, Ethelfleda, the daughter of King Alfred the Great, extended and refortified the place, only to have it brutally sacked by William the Conqueror's armies. Trade routes to Ireland made Chester the most prosperous port in the northwest, a status it recovered after the English Civil War, which saw a two-year-long siege of the town at the hands of the Parliamentarians. By the middle of the eighteenth century, however, silting of the port had forced the Irish trade to be rerouted first through Parkgate on the Dee estuary, and then to Liverpool. Things improved a little with the Industrial Revolution, as the canal and railway networks made Chester an important regional trading centre, a function it still retains.

Walking tours - assorted Roman, historic and ghost trails - from the Town Hall tourist office and from the Vicar Lane Visitor Centre (May-Oct twice daily; Nov-April once daily) aren't a bad way to orient yourself. The main thoroughfares of Chester's Roman grid plan meet at the Cross , where the town crier welcomes visitors to the city (May-Aug Tues-Sat at noon). Both sides of all four streets are lined by the Rows , unique galleried arcades running on top of the ground-floor shops. The engaging black-and-white tableau is a blend of genuine Tudor houses and Victorian half-timbered imitations, with the finest Tudor buildings on Watergate Street - though Eastgate Street is perhaps the most picturesque, leading to the filigree Eastgate Clock , erected atop a sandstone arch to commemorate Victoria's Diamond Jubilee.

You can get an insight into Chester's Roman heritage at Deva Roman Experience tucked away up Pierpoint Lane, off Bridge Street (daily 9am-5pm). North of the Cross, the neo-Gothic town hall dominates its square at the end of Northgate Street across from the heavily restored Cathedral (daily 7.30am-6pm; free tours Mon-Sat 2.30pm). Taking the role of cathedral in 1541 after the Dissolution of the Monasteries, this Benedictine church is dedicated to St Werburgh, a seventh-century Anglo-Saxon princess who became Chester's patron saint. Parts of the eleventh-century structure can still be seen in the north transept but the highlights are the fourteenth-century choir stalls, with their intricately carved misericords.

East of the cathedral, steps provide access to the top of the two-mile girdle of the medieval and Roman city walls - the most complete set in Britain. You can walk past all its towers, turrets and gateways in an hour or two, including the Water Tower at the northwest corner, which once stood in the river - evidence of the changes brought about by the gradual silting of the River Dee. South from the Water Tower you'll see the Roodee , England's oldest racecourse, laid out on a silted tidal pool where Roman ships once unloaded wine, figs and olive oil from the Mediterranean.

Until nineteenth-century excavation work, much of the wall near the Water Tower was propped up by scores of sculpted tomb panels and engraved headstones, items probably used to rebuild the walls in a hurry in the turbulent fourth century. Many are now on display at the Grosvenor Museum , 27 Grosvenor St (Mon-Sat 10.30am-5pm, Sun 2-5pm; free), just inside the city walls near the southern end of the Roodee. This is the best investigation of Roman Chester, with good displays about the legionary system, city buildings, grave sites, defences, daily life and culture. The back of the museum opens into a preserved Georgian house complete with furnished kitchen, parlour, bedrooms, rickety floors and sloping stairs. Across the traffic roundabout on Castle Street, the Cheshire Military Museum (daily 10am-5pm) inhabits part of the same complex as the Norman Chester Castle (Easter-Sept daily 10am-6pm; Oct-Easter daily 10am-4pm; free; EH). Though the castle was founded by William the Conqueror, most of what you see today is little older than the eighteenth-century Greek Revival Assize Courts and council offices on the same site, the building of which led to the demolition of much of the medieval structure.

South of the castle, the wall is buried under the street, but it rises again alongside the Roman Gardens (unrestricted access) on Souters Lane at Little John Street, where Roman foundations and columns dug up during redevelopment are on display. Across the road stands the half-excavated remains of the Roman Amphitheatre (Easter-Sept daily 10am-6pm; Oct-Easter daily 10am-1pm & 2-4pm; free; EH); it is estimated to have held seven thousand spectators, making it the largest amphitheatre in Britain, but the stonework is barely head-high now.

The partly ruined pink-stone Church of St John the Baptist (daily 9.15am-6pm), a little to the east in Grosvenor Park, was founded by the Saxon king Ethelred in 689 and briefly served as the cathedral of Mercia. Its romantic eastern ruins were left to deteriorate having been cut off from the rest of the church after the Reformation. Steps from the church gardens and from the southern edge of the city walls lead to the tree-shaded Groves , on the banks of the Dee, with its bandstand, slender iron footbridge and villas overlooking the willows draped along the opposite bank. Bithells Boats (tel 01244/325394, ) runs half-hour cruises on the river (every 15min; April-Oct 10am-5pm; Nov-March Sat & Sun 11am-4pm) and two-hour trips in the summer (Wed & Sat 11am & 8pm, rest of week 11am only).

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