Great British Breaks: Chester

Festive fun in this charming city

Jill Starley-Grainger
The Sunday Times, 2016

Why?

Cobbled streets lined with Tudor-style buildings and historic shopping galleries make Chester a picturesque pre-Christmas getaway. Better still, all the best sights, pubs and restaurants are conveniently contained within its two-mile ring of Roman walls.

What you do:

Get a 360-degree perspective of the area on the Chester Cathedral Tower Tour (£6/30mins; chestercathedral.com). From the roof, look down onto traffic-free medieval lanes, then gaze out at the snow-covered hills of Wales and Shropshire in the distance. Back inside, stroll through 11th-century Romanesque arches and into neo-Gothic cloisters filled with 50 decorated Christmas trees from 26 November to 8 January.

Behind the cathedral, walk up Kaleyard Gate for a half-hour circuit of the city walls (free; chesterwalls.info). Going counter-clockwise, you’ll pass the tower where Charles I watched his army’s defeat by the Roundheads in 1645; the Roodee - the country’s oldest racecourse; the Shropshire Union Canal and the River Dee. Stop in at The Brewery Tap (52-54 Lower Bridge Street; the-tap.co.uk) for a pint of Pumpkin Spiced Porter from Chester’s Spitting Feathers Brewery, taken beneath the barrel-vaulted ceiling of a Jacobean Great Hall. Back on the walls, you’ll pass the ruins of a Roman bathhouse before finishing at the wrought-iron turreted East Gate clock, built to celebrate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee.

Inclement weather be damned. Since Roman times, Chester’s residents have risen above such petty concerns as rain and snow in the Rows. These first-floor covered galleries run all the way along Watergate, Northgate, Eastgate and Bridge streets and are lined with independent boutiques. Tick off your child’s Christmas list with a toy train set from the Chester Model Centre (71 Bridge Street Row) or handmade wool bear from Funky Aardvark (61 Bridge Street Rows). For the adults in your life, try Powell’s (2 Eastgate Row) for vintage jewellery.

Down on street level, pop into the atelier of Nick Munro (6 Commonhall St; nickmunro.com) to pick up flawless-looking ‘seconds’ of the designer’s kitchenware at bargain prices. On our visit, a stainless-steel octagon-shaped wine cooler was discounted from £65 to £35, and an elegant slender teapot was £35, down from £95. Next door at The Arc (6 Commonhall St; thearcgallery.co.uk), they sell only British-made goods, including silk scarves (£185) by Lou Gardiner, a Cheshire artist who has exhibited at London’s Saatchi Gallery, and fingerless wool gloves (£40) from Jules Hogan. Want to fill up a hamper? The Cheese Shop (116 Northgate St) is a Chester institution and sells 200 varieties of mostly British cheese, plus locally made chutneys, honeys and ales.

Carry on over the cobbles beneath fairy lights to Town Hall Square to finish your shopping at the Christmas Market (18 November to 18 December; christmasinchester.com), where 70 wooden chalets sell homemade fudge, candles and wooden toys beneath a 40-foot-high fir tree.

Finish the day with a festive cocktail at Oddfellows (oddfellowschester.com), which has transformed its bar into a ski lodge until March. After walking beneath a snow machine, sit the fire in the enclosed winter garden and sip a Las Posadas, a margarita with a jolly dash of fig and marmalade.

Where you eat:

For Heston-style wizardry at affordable prices, book into The Chef’s Table (mains from £15; chefstablechester.co.uk). Order the delectable slow-cooked belly pork, and you’ll be given a Bunsen burner to brew up the accompanying smoked-bacon dashi. In need of a hearty Sunday lunch? Grab a table in the wood-floored, exposed-bricking dining room of Joseph Benjamin (mains from £11; josephbenjamin.co.uk), where the 13-hour roast Cheshire beef brisket falls off the bone in lusciously soft chunks.

Where you stay:

The six chic bedrooms of Edgar House hotel (doubles from £199, room only; edgarhouse.co.uk) are in a Georgian building on the walls by the River Dee. Crystal chandeliers, button-studded leather headboards, roll-top baths and a terrific British-menu restaurant make this the perfect refuge on chilly evenings. In the middle of the city, the five-star Chester Grosvenor (doubles from £139, B&B; chestergrosvenor.com) has classic décor in its bedrooms, and goes big for the holidays, with seven Christmas trees, lavish decorations from bar to spa, and an old-fashioned record player belting out Jingle Bells and Deck the Halls.

Jill Starley-Grainger was a guest of visitchester.com, visitengland.com, and Virgin Trains (virgintrains.co.uk), which has one-way fares from London Euston to Chester from £16.