When we told people in Cornwall and London our upcoming stop would be Chester, the response was pretty uniform. “Chester? Why Chester?” To them this ancient city on the border of Wales hardly seemed a worthy holiday destination, not to be mentioned in the same breath with St. Ives or Penzance or the Cotswolds. So we wondered…
But we hadn’t been here a day before congratulating ourselves on our good judgment. Chester boasts a rich past and a vibrant present. Roman Emperor Vespasian ruled in Rome when Chester was founded, Deva Victrix its given name.
“Chester” (derived from “castrum,” a Roman fort) was founded as one of Roman Britain’s main army camps. That was over 2000 years ago. The cathedral here dates back to 689 AD when King Aethelred of Mercia founded it. First came the Romans, then the Angles, followed by the Danes, then the Normans (Chester was one of the last cities to fall to William the Conqueror’s armies in the 12th century—the city’s castle was built then). It’s an old town, proud of its heritage.
We walked much of the wall for which Chester, one of Britain’s best preserved walled cities, is famous. With the exception of a stretch of a little over 300 feet, the two-mile wall is intact. From atop it we got a good view of life on the inside, drinking in its beauty spots and imagining its feudal days, when the fort and the liege lord offered protection to the serfs who toiled in the fields beyond the wall and the citizens who worked in town.
A hint of those days remains in the dominance of one name: Grosvenor Museum, Grosvenor Park, Grosvenor Hotel, Grosvenor Bridge. Grosvenor is the family name of the Duke of Westminster, today’s absentee landlord.
The dominant image the visitor carries away is of the famous faux-Tudor buildings like the ones at the top of this post. There are a few genuine buildings that date to the Tudor period (15th-16th-centuries), but only a few. You can tell the real ones by their sagging timbers. Time takes its toll. The straight ones are from the “black and white revival,” the work of 19th and early 20th century architects and builders who strove to bring back the luster of Britain’s glory years, if such a word can be used of the reign of Henry VIII. Queen Elizabeth I, maybe. I wonder whether they foresaw that their restoration efforts would one day transform Chester into a popular holiday destination. Many tourists come specifically to see the half-timber houses, faux or otherwise.
One of the most photographed clocks in England rises above the wall, placed here in the 19th century to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Jubilee. The Eastgate Clock stands above the East Gate, the original entrance to Deva Victrix, the Roman fort that centuries later became Chester.
Another of Chester’s attractions is its location on the border of Wales. We had decided we would not leave the UK this time without at least a day in Wales—and a day was all we could give. Taking some good advice from Chester’s office of tourist information in the Town Hall, a destination in itself, we boarded the train to the town of unpronounceable Llandudno on the Irish coast, now Wales’ largest resort town. Another good decision.
While there we agreed we must be maturing. We don’t have to do everything! A chief Llandundo attraction is the cable car that ascends the Great Orme, the imposing hill (I think they would call it a mountain) that offers a magnificent birds-eye view of town and sea. We seldom pass up a cable car. We love to go up where we can look down on people. (Most of the time I’m looking up, for reasons I don’t need to go into here.) This time we resisted the temptation. For now we wanted to spend more time in this beautiful town.
It’s not without its kitsch, though. We walked to the end of the pier, passing along the way a host of booths selling the cheap clothes and trinkets and donuts and toasties and drinks you’d expect at a carnival. I confess it was fun mingling with the parents and their little ones and the young lovers and the old timers like us, all enjoying the sea breeze and the laughter and sense of expectancy of tourists on holiday.
Lewis Carroll scholars still debate whether the author of Alice in Wonderland ever visited Llandudno personally, but there’s no doubt the family of the original of Alice holidayed here. Whether Lewis made it or not, his characters did and they came to stay. Delightful sculptures are found around town, like this one:
A parked tourist bus promoting rides to Conwy caught our attention. This opportunity we couldn’t pass up. One of the UK’s best preserved castles is just a few miles from Llandudno. I was a little reluctant at first. It’s not as if we haven’t seen the ruins of plenty of castles. But Joy gave me that look. I bought the tickets. Her look, by the way, caught me by surprise. This is the woman who in our early traveling years opined, with just a hint of exasperation, “Once you’ve seen one ruin you’ve seen them all.” See, I told you we’re maturing.
Yet again we congratulated ourselves on our good judgment. We’d have regretted missing Conwy Castle. This medieval fort was built as part of Edward I’s conquest of Wales in the late 1200s. Among its other claims to fame: it sheltered Richard II (1399) and Owen Glendower’s forces rebelling against Henry IV (1401). I learned of both these gentlemen in Shakespeare’s King Richard II and Henry IV Part I. Later, during England’s Civil War, the castle strongly resisted the Parliament forces before surrendering in 1646. This began its demise; by 1665 it was stripped of its iron and lead and fell into complete disrepair, from which it never recovered.
But it’s a handsome castle still. We’ve clambered over many such ruins. This is among the best. UNESCO named it one of “the finest examples of late 13th century and early 14th century military architecture in Europe.” It’s now a World Heritage site, attracting visitors like us from all over the world. It’s especially noted for its eight large towers.
After Wales it was on to Liverpool (and like our other visits in this post, Liverpool deserves days, not just a day). This trip was our tribute to The Fabulous Four. I know–in case there was any doubt up to now–this decision to take The Beatles Walking Tour of the city gives away our age. We were in our youthful 20s when Paul McCartney, John Lennon, Ringo Starr, and George Harrison burst onto the American scene. Ed Sullivan’s show turned these charismatic Liverpudlians into instant celebrities. That wasn’t so remarkable in itself, as many groups have shot to instant fame. What is remarkable is how they have remained celebrities status for over 60 years.
It’s not an accident of fate. The truth is, these hard-working, dedicated, brilliant musical geniuses (that’s especially true of Lennon and McCartney) changed popular music at least in the Western World, probably beyond. We still hear their recordings in restaurants all over the globe. My knowledgeable friends marvel over their musical sophistication; I just like their sound!
Rob, our guide, a man in his sixties, retains all the enthusiasm of The Beatles’ early crowds. He showed us the stage (“the very stage”) on which Lennon and McCartney met. It’s a shrine now.
He took us into The Cavern, the club acknowledged as their home venue. They performed there over 260 times and honored their contracted gigs when it would have been to their pecuniary advantage to cancel. They came from mostly humble origins and remained humble, Rob assured us. On and on he enthused. It was fun reliving their glory days (the 1960s) with this devotee.
We stopped in at The Cavern to catch a young Beatles wannabe singing his heart out to the mid-day audience.
What caught us by surprise is the vibrancy and modernity of today’s Liverpool. Most of the waterfront developments, including some magnificent structures, “weren’t here a dozen years ago,” Rob marveled. Liverpool was once England’s primary port for overseas shipping. Then along came air transportation and World War II, when the city was heavily bombed. The devastation was too much. The city went into serious decline. As Rob talked we realized that without learning of Liverpool through the Beatles we wouldn’t have known much at all about the city. In those days it was always described as a gritty, depressed, dirty industrial town, a tough place for the boys to grow up in, ruled by gangs and rued by respectable people.
Not so any more. Much of the revival, our guide assured us, is because of the Beatles. Thanks to them, Liverpool is now a tourist destination, annually drawing multiplied thousands of visitors with money to spend into the city.
JOY’S PICK OF THE PICS