Bumbling About the Medieval Walled City of Chester by Darren Elliott
Chester is one of those places where I arrived in disbelief. It wasn’t like some outpost in Northern China where I wondered what I had done so wrong to deserve to end up there. It wasn’t shocking in the way that getting-out at the wrong subway station can be in some US cities. It didn’t remind me of my time in Winnipeg or of growing-up in the Kennebecasis Valley. Of being a visible minority in a suburb of London or the only Western person in a school in Japan.
The disbelief came from wondering why I had never heard of this place before. Chester is one of England’s best-preserved walled cities with nearly 3 km of Grade 1 listed walls. First established as somewhere in 79 (that’s 0079, not 1979) by the Romans and having received city status in 1541, this is not some new place for me to have not yet heard about. This is an incredible, handsome city full of character. Chester should long have been on my radar of places to visit, and yet it was only by recent suggestion during my UK travels that it came to be on my hit list.
I had heard of lovely Chester years ago but it didn’t register. My most senior employee when I was a co-owner of a retail business in Winnipeg was from Chester.
Margaret is one of those people with the gift of charm and we were lucky that she wanted to work for us. Friendly and outgoing, interesting and interested, Margaret could while away the hours chatting with customers and neighbours while selling any manner of merchandise. Always impeccably dressed and ready to work, Margaret came from that era when people felt their time at work belonged to their employer. None of the texting, doing homework, mobile phone-using, watching videos or playing games on tablets that younger people might hope to achieve during their employment hours. Between sales Margaret was dusting, sweeping, glass cleaning, watching. We had other excellent staff too, but they weren’t from Chester.
Margaret’s charm was bolstered by her jovial English accent which I had thought was from Manchester. I had known that she had danced with John Lennon, he was in a band called the Quarrymen that performed at a pub in her hometown. (The band later became the Beatles.) That Margaret’s hometown was Chester, a smallish city today of 120,000 people South West of Liverpool near the Welsh border, had never quite connected to my obviously-weak brain tissues. I did not realise I was visiting Margaret’s hometown when I was in Chester, she told me that later, on my blog.
I did come to know that Chester was Paul’s hometown before my visit. Paul was someone who taught for the same board of education as I did, in Matsuyama, Japan. As handsome and impressive as his hometown is, I can see that it may not have had the plethora of career choices he may have wanted since sadly Chester is no longer needed as a base from which to attack Wales. So pros and cons about that. “Let’s attack Wales just for jolly fun!” I am tempted to suggest remembering my very long week in Cardiff this past winter. “Jolly” isn’t even in my vernacular, that’s how enthusiastic I feel just thinking about it. “But Wales is part of Great Britain.” “But is it, really?” “Yes, it is.” “Is it though?” “Yes.” But they were mean to me when I was trying to order sandwiches and stuff. Everywhere I went. All week. Oh never mind, it was just an idea. I bet it would be good for the economy though.
So between knowing Margaret and Paul, I figure I’m practically a son of Chester. Most of the places I’ve visited on my UK adventure I’ve had no connection to whatsoever. Did you know that Princess Diana was also the Countess of Chester? I would have put that above my Princess of Wales title if I were her, but that’s just me holding a grudge. I suppose she had no choice in the matter really. And for some reason when I hear “Countess of Chester” my mind pictures “Court Jester” because of the slight rhyme. So I suppose Princess of Wales has a nicer ring to it, it doesn’t make me giggle.
When my favourite writer, Bill Bryson, passed through Chester, he just passed through. I guess he was saving it for others to write about, he mentions only that he changed trains here. In this beautiful town of medieval buildings, many restored during the Victorian era and still absolutely picturesque. How could he have passed this lovely town and not felt compelled to capture it in his entertaining way for time immemorial. He can’t have been well. Under the weather. Temporarily blinded. I’m not complaining, his act would have been very hard to follow.
Chester is perhaps most famous for it’s Rows. These are very interesting and unique structures. All in medieval style, basically there must have been some type of agreement between the landowners that each independent building in a row would have a built-in walkway. These are within the structure linking building-to-building on the level above ground. This was a very early form of multi-story shopping where one would promenade along one row of shops and dwellings on the ground level, and another row of shops and dwellings on the level above. The walkways are not uniform and are obviously of separate construction. As one passes from one building to the next there are changes in height, dimension, and building styles; it’s a very interesting arrangement.
Pondering Bryson’s surprising exclusion I find a place to wait for the little antique double-decker bus that has a narrated tour by costumed guides. I have seen this little contraption here-and-there putting about the city. It is quaint and cute and I want a turn. It has arrived to the departure point but I am told to wait. If others do not come, there will be no more tours today. Sitting there, a mother and her grown daughter swoop in beside me. “BHS is British Home Stores and I’m sure they’ll have it. Just wait here and I’ll be back for you,” says the daughter as she merrily wanders off down the high street. “I’ll be here with Mondrian,” her mother replies, referring to my socks. Pretty ones I got in NYC. Having fun socks is enough for this woman to decide that I must be a decent sort of fellow.
Now I might have used the term “swoop” loosely. I meant it in more of a trudging, painfully-slow, dragging-ones-limbs, laborious sort-of-way. The mother, who looks to be shy of 60, is, how can I put this delicately, mammoth. A very large woman who has become nearly immobile and steps with the aid of a large walker. Very friendly and amicable, we start chatting before her ample weight has even met the bench. (No, it didn’t break. How rude of you to think that. You’ve gotten me completely off topic. Again. Bad reader.)
“Are you here with the cruise ship?” I ask. I had just completed a walking-tour with a group of Albertans who came off a large ship docked today in nearby Liverpool. The entire town seems to be abuzz with the sudden influx of hundreds of visitors who arrived all at once and soon will be departing in a flash mob to return to port before curfew. In a matter of minutes half the people wandering the streets will have suddenly vanished. “We are, are you too?” “No, I’ve been here for a couple of days. I’m touring around by car.” “By yourself?” “Sure.” “I’ve never done that, I always bring one of my daughters with me. I’ve run-out of friends to invite, I travel as much as I can afford to. It’s always been my thing, my friends and family think I’m nuts! I used to travel with my husband until he passed a few years ago.”
“So, do you mostly take cruises?” “No, I prefer rock climbing and adventure travel. Last year my other daughter and I hiked the Inca trail to Machu Picchu.” “Oh, I’ve been there too!” “I was kidding.” “Oh, yes. Ha, ha.”
“I LOVE cruises,” she continues, “I’ve been all over the world on cruise ships. I get all sorts of perks now, with the cruise company I’m with this time I have their top status, that’s for having more than 150 days of cruising with them.” “Wow! That’s a lot of days!” “Sure is,” she acknowledges proudly. “My husband, rest his soul, was a large man. One of the cruise companies didn’t treat him well with his mobility issues, so I don’t use that company anymore.” We continue talking about cruising as I have only travelled on one so far and I am happy to learn more from this veteran of the seas.
The conversation comes around to my travels and I tell her that I am planning on taking a road trip around her country soon. “You must visit my beautiful valley, it’s one of the most beautiful places in the world.” Well, she would know. “I live in the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia.” “Like the song?” “That’s the one!” I had thought the song came from Ireland’s longest river, the River Shannon. And that “doah” was a word for “river” like “loch” was for “lake”. Turns out I was completely mistaken in this assumption. But then I only ever knew the first two lines of the song. Every time I sang those lines, as an actor, I thought my character was pining for his homeland across the ocean. I never got to the end of the verse and I never actually heard the song apart from what I sang.
One summer during university I had a summer job in Fredericton as a park performer. I was a member of a troop called the “Calithumpians”, we wrote and performed some historical plays for tourists in a downtown park. In one show there was a brief mention of Ireland and in lament I suddenly burst into song, “Oh Shenandoah, I long to see you, away you rolling river . . . ” before being pulled-back to the action by another actor. The song itself seems to have been made popular by the Irish Tenors too, so I am surprised today in researching it online to find that yes, in all it’s variations of lyrics it is indeed from the Shenandoah Valley of West Virginia. This well-travelled woman’s homeland.
Click on the video below to hear me sing the first two lines of Shenandoah. (If you received this story be email it should open it in a browser.)
We must have chatted for at least twenty minutes before the coach tour was cancelled and I took my leave. “It’s been great chatting with you!” I said as I stood up. Walking away I added, “I hope that I’m you in thirty years!” Now, I am in my fortieth year and I look that or more. If she paid attention to my comment and added 30 years to my appearance, she might have thought about that for a long time. Another kind and thoughtful remark put out into the universe by yours truly. I don’t know how I said that! I was trying to leave with a complement, I had very much enjoyed chatting with this friendly, interesting American woman while she waited for her daughter. The two of us were from small towns and were both enthralled with seeing as much of the world as we could. Of course she would realise that I had meant that I hoped to be her with regards to the extent of her travels, which exceeded my own, and not with regards to her being a young widowed grandmother or for her substantial girth which weighed her down so that cruising was really her only option for travel. “That Canadian guy must have thought I looked like I’m in my seventies! Do I really look that old? We seemed like such kindred spirits, he and I. Why would he say that?”
Kicking myself, I circle back thinking to somehow mend my departing comment but I am too late. Coaches are already filling to take everyone back to port. I see her from afar, as do two older local woman standing near me. “Bless ‘er, she’s as big as a bus,” one of them says, her hand over her face. “Oh my word, don’t look now, she’s trying to get in one,” gasps her friend.
A deep thinker and a student of life, I often look back on experiences to try and find the deeper meaning, the life lesson that the universe is trying to teach me. Perhaps even the real reason that I find myself in Chester today. After only a few minutes I have my “ah-ha” moment.
Next time I happen upon Mondrian socks I really should buy a few more pair because they really do go with just about everything.
I stayed at a B&B called the Chester Townhouse on this lane. I enjoyed staying there, pleasant hosts and a warm environment.
Here you can see the unique feature of the Rows. What looks like open balconies are openings on to the above-ground common walkway.
Another view showing the Rows.
Walking along the above-ground walkway.
Click on the image below to see some kind of exercise commercial that was being filmed in from of the town hall.
A view from walking along the city walls.
School trips were here and there being led by costumed guides.
One of the things I miss most when I leave the UK are the pedestrian zones. Every city should have one.
Another photo looking down from the city walls.
The antique bus tour I missed from waiting until my last afternoon to take it. I guess I’ll have to go back another time.
Click on the image below to play a video of someone practicing piano inside St John’s Church.
Resting back at the Chester Town House.