A tour guide’s all-time favourite UK places.
This September, Visit Britain, the marketing arm of the British tourist industry, is launching its ‘Great British Staycation Campaign’ to encourage people to holiday in the UK.
Soul City Wanderer (aka Frank Molloy) is one of the UK’s most accredited and experienced tour guides. Over three decades he has visited nearly every part of the country, touring many of the places that Great Britain and Ireland has to offer.
In a new blog series, he will list his all-time favourite five places by area (spiralling out from London*). These are personal choices, some obvious, some obscure.
This week, the Welsh-English Borders.
Although the county of Cheshire has already been covered in this series, the walled city of Chester really deserves its own space.
Despite its proximity to the big cities of Liverpool and Manchester, it’s Chester that has the history. Indeed, it was a thriving town when the areas of Liverpool and Manchester were practically swamps. Around two thousand years ago, the Romans established a camp here, calling it ‘Deva’. Then they built the biggest Roman fort in Britain, one of three legionary fortresses in the newly conquered land, as a potential base for the invasion of Ireland. A port was built where Chester racecourse is today.
Chester Cathedral dominates the city centre. It was originally founded in 907 as a Benedictine Abbey and re-founded by Henry VIII in 1541. Perfect examples of Norman and Gothic arches stand side by side. The cathedral also contains materials belonging to every Christian century since the 900s. The ‘Mortlake’ tapestries which hang here are based on Raphael’s famous cartoons which can be found in Victoria & Albert Museum in London.
From a religious perspective, one of Chester’s most globally influential residents was Matthew Henry (1662-1714), a nonconformist minister and author who revolutionised world Christian practice. Born in Flintshire, his father Philip was a Church of England cleric ejected under the 1662 Act of Uniformity. Matthew’s education was in London. First in Islington, then at Gray’s Inn where he practised to become a lawyer. He then decided to give up his legal studies in favour of theology. In 1687, he became minister of a Presbyterian congregation at Chester and founded the Presbyterian Chapel in Trinity Street.
In 1710, he began his six-volume Complete Commentary of the Old and New Testaments, providing a verse by verse study of the Bible. It laid out a study of scripture for practical and devotional purposes. Unfortunately, Henry died of apoplexy in Nantwich in 1714, while on a journey from Chester to London. The work was finished (Romans to Revelations) in anti-papist style by 13 other nonconformist ministers. Famous evangelical preachers such as Charles Spurgeon used the work. John Wesley wrote how it ‘taught us how to worship God, not in form only, but in spirit and in truth.’ In 1860, a memorial was erected to commemorate his life and it stands on a roundabout opposite the entrance to Chester Castle.
Chester features a unique medieval shopping mall. Although most of the buildings date back to 1700, some features, for example, the stone arches, date from the 13th century. The Victorians continued to build shops in the Tudor style. The two-tiered timber buildings are known as rows and they were constructed along the original Roman street-plan. The best overall idea of old Chester can be had from a walk along its well-preserved city walls.
There really are some fine eateries in the town. Favourites include Joseph Benjamin on Northgate Street, and Chez Jules on Upper Northgate Street. The four-star restaurant at the Grosvenor Hotel on Eastgate St is a particularly elegant place to dine. For something a little quirkier, try Tea-on-the-Wall (where they offer Chester Pie) at no.5 City Walls, Ye Olde King’s Head (where they serve offal such as stuffed hearts and pig cheeks) at 50 Lower Bridge Street, or the Chester Cathedral Refectory where they do a rather interesting goose pasta. At one time, the Chester of branch of Spud-U-Like also was worth a visit, perhaps not so much for the food, but for the fact you could view the ancient Roman hypocaust (heating system) in the basement seating area!
If you enjoy a balanced day out, with a bit of culture, bit of shopping and a bit of food, you really can’t beat Chester.
Note: All sites mentioned were operating pre-lockdown. Please check relevant websites before embarking on any potential visit. More recommendations will appear next week.
For the very best in guided private tours of the UK visit www.yourlondontours.com
*Operators in the UK tour industry often separate the areas of the country according to what touring can be achieved in a region in one day. As a London-based operator, my ‘map’ spirals outwards from the capital and is separated thus:
- Northern Home Counties (Beds/Herts/Cambs)
- Eastern Home Counties (Essex/Suffolk)
- Southern Home Counties (Kent, Surrey, Sussex)
- Western Home Counties (Ox/Berks/Bucks)
- South coast (Hants/Dorset)
- Western England (Somerset/Gloucs/Wilts)
- South West England (Devon & Cornwall)
- Wales (north & south)
- Welsh Borders (Worcestershire/Herefordshire/Shropshire/Cheshire)
- Western Midlands (Brum/Warks/Staffs)
- Eastern Midlands (Northants/Leics/Rutland/Hunts)
- Northern Midlands (Notts/Derbys)
- East coast (Norfolk/Lincs)
- Yorks (all ridings)
- North West (Manchester/Merseyside/Lancs/Lakes/Cumbria)
- North East (Durham/Tyne & Wear/Northumberland)
- Southern Scotland (Borders/Lowlands)
- Northern Scotland (Highlands/Islands)
- Ireland (Northern/Southern)