THE city of Chester is a lovely place to amble about in on a crisp January morning, whilst stuffing one’s face with delicious but unhealthy goodies bought from an old-fashioned sweet shop. Trust me, I speak from experience (the actual speech may be muffled on account of the mouthful of sweets).
‘Mmfl mmmfl mmmMMmmm mfl,’ I tell you,
Shropshire Union Canal
Having returned there last week to continue my perambulations, I initially chose to perambulate into the town centre, crossing the Shropshire Union Canal along the way.
The Shropshire Union Canal was the last of the trunk narrow canal routes to be created in England and was also the last major work of engineer Thomas Telford. Completed in 1835, it had fierce economic competition from the equally new railways and that was a fight it was never really going to win.
The Shropshire Union was a system rather than an individual canal, stretching from Ellesmere Port on the banks of the Mersey at one end to the West Midlands (and Shropshire) at the other. Where possible, it reused older canals on the same alignment, such as the 1779 Chester Canal, which ran southeast from Chester to Nantwich. The stretch in the photo above is actually part of the older Chester Canal.
I made my way into Chester’s city centre, where I was slightly dismayed to find the Eastgate swathed in scaffolding.
Although it stands upon the site of the original main entrance to the Roman fort of Deva Victrix, the current Eastgate is a brick arch erected in 1768.
Atop it stands an ornate iron clock tower, built in 1897 and officially opened in 1899 on Queen Victoria’s eightieth birthday. It is said to be the second most photographed clock in England (identifying the first is left as an exercise for the reader) and I had had every intention of contributing to that status except I couldn’t actually see the damned thing.
Never mind, though. Having passed through Chester’s walls — which still are almost entirely intact — I had plenty of other structures to gawp at. Mostly while chewing vigorously, thanks to the aforementioned sweet shop that sits within sight of the cathedral.
Much like the sweet shop’s wares, Chester Cathedral is a mixture of styles and flavours and, depending on which bit you are looking at, it dates from anywhere between 1093 and 1975, when a free-standing campanile was constructed — the first English cathedral campanile to be built since the Reformation.
Chester Town Hall
Directly opposite the west door of the cathedral is Chester Town Hall, opened in 1869 to replace an older, seventeenth century building that burnt down. In 1897, the new building also had a go at burning down but turned out to lack the combustible determination of its predecessor.
Erected in Gothic Revival style and topped by a tower, it is a fitting embodiment of local secular power, facing off against the spiritual authority of the cathedral.
Cheshire West and Chester Council actually uses a different building for most of its business, but retains the hall for official and ceremonial purposes.
I passed the council’s headquarters as I detoured south in search of Chester Castle (first constructed in 1070 for Hugh Lupus, Earl of Chester). When I found it, the castle was frankly disappointing by comparison.
Hugh’s castle was a wooden motte and bailey affair but this was rebuilt in stone during the twelfth century and much expanded over the next hundred years or so.
It remained an active fortification until the end of the English Civil War (in which it had been Royalist), after which it was used as a prison. As a prison, it deteriorated terribly and needed extensive reconstruction during the late eighteenth century. The Mediaeval Agricola Tower remains standing however.
Having ticked the castle off my mental list of Chester buildings, I returned the narrow, half-timbered streets of the city centre and sought out a coffee shop amid The Rows, which are essentially a Mediaeval shopping mall and quite unique.
Each of the four main streets of Chester city centre has shops at ground level (often slightly lower than ground level and accessed via steps down) and above and behind these a second tier of first-floor shops set back on a covered promenade. Upper storeys, which are not shop fronts, form the roof of this walkway.
The exact origins of the Rows is uncertain but they date back to at least the mid fourteenth century and probably the century before that. Most of the black-timbered facades are Victorian reconstructions but the layout and appearance remains quite mediaeval, even if the actual shop is a Caffè Nero or a Starbucks.
Once suitably caffeinated, and still munching traditional English sweeties, I headed back past cathedral and town hall along Northgate Street. You will probably not be shocked and surprised if I tell you this led me to the Northgate, which is the northern gate in the city walls.
The current gate is an elegant, classical sandstone arch across the road and two rectangular portals for pedestrians. It is decorated with Doric columns and was erected in 1810, replacing a narrow mediaeval gatehouse that impeded the flow of traffic.
I passed through the Northgate, paused, consulted my map and then passed through it again. On the inner side of the city wall I found a staircase that led to me to the top of the walls, where a footpath now runs.
Chester’s ancient north wall conveyed me westwards while down below on my right hand side, running outside the bounds of Roman Deva, I espied my old friend the Chester Canal. At a convenient point, I descended to join it and when the Shropshire Union Canal turned northwards, leaving behind the old Chester Canal route to the River Dee, I went with it.
University of Chester
There followed a fairly delightful stroll along the urban, post-industrial canalscape, much frequented by dog-walkers and punctuated by the occasional loudly-quacking duck.
The canal carried me past one of the campuses of the University of Chester, founded in 1839 by several local leading lights (including William Ewart Gladstone and the Earl of Derby), which was the UK’s first purpose-built teacher training college.
Chester and Connah’s Quay Railway
A little further north, I took my leave of the canal, opting instead to make tracks westward along the route of the long disused Chester and Connah’s Quay Railway.
The CCQR was established in 1890, linking Chester and Connah’s Quay via Shotton, where it connected with the North Wales and Liverpool Railway at Dee Marsh Junction. Most of it closed to passenger traffic in 1968 but remained open to freight until 1992, after which the track was lifted and the rail bed tarmacked over.
It now forms part of National Cycle Route 5 (Reading to Bangor) and guaranteed easy if unexciting going. I restrained myself from making train noises as I strode along the track; it would have been rude, I had a mouthful of salt liquorice.
The old CCQR conveyed me almost to Hawarden Bridge Station and where I crossed the Dee on my way into Chester. Thanks to the weirdness of boundaries, I had crossed back into Flintshire and Wales along the way.
Deeside Industrial Park
I now found myself directed into Deeside Industrial Park as the railway line from here on in was inconveniently covered in working track and decidedly off-limit to pedestrians. The public road posed no such problems.
I rather like the stark simplicity that Toyota (whose engine-manufacturing plant lurks in the distance in the photo) appears to have adopted when it comes to rerouting access to their vast and largely empty plot within the industrial park.
Sure, they could remodel the access roads with proper kerbs and everything or they could take the cheap and easy option with a few white lines and a fence straight across the road. Bish bosh, job done.
It seemed to take an age edging round the endless acres of the Toyota factory and various other industrial units.
Eventually, I found myself walking between the busy A548 on one side and a dead-end lane filled with East European lorries on the other. The path nipped under the A548 via a bridge and suddenly broke out onto another open cycle and footpath much like the old CCQR. Rather than being an old railway line, this was a shiny new path opened last year.
BR Brake Van
That strange little wagon sat on a siding is a British Rail ‘Standard’ 20 ton brake van, formerly used on freight trains without continuous braking (i.e. where the locomotive had brakes but none of the other wagons) in order to give the train a better chance at actually stopping.
The ‘EWS’ marking on the side indicates that it belongs to English, Welsh & Scottish Railway, a freight railway company now owned by Germany’s DB Schenker. Not sure what they’d use it with though; continuous braking has been the norm for years.
Sealand Rifle Range
I bimbled happily along the cycle and foot path, unperturbed by either the occasional cyclist whizzing past or by the intermittent sound of gunfire.
The latter came about because the first part of the path was connected to the access road to a military rifle range, which would occupy the marshes between path and river for the next few miles. A flock of sheep roamed the fringes of the rifle range, apparently even less concerned than I was, for all that they were on the ‘wrong’ side of the danger signs.
The flatness of the landscape gave the illusion that the path would continue for miles without obstruction or incline. Which was sort of true.
The reason that the path took a while to establish soon became apparent as the marsh ceased to be merely muddy and became a kind of thin mud and reed soup. It was the sort of terrain where the boot-eating mud hid beneath a layer of brown-coloured water and no amount of enthusiastic tarmacking would have made a road across it.
The boardwalk was a pretty obvious solution to the problem of building a cycle route across a marsh although I imagine the L-bend in the middle of it is fun at speed on a bike. At the far end the metalled path resumed and I paused there to see how far I had come. The answer, it turned out, was ‘far enough to be back in Cheshire (and England) again’.
A little further along, the cycle path joined an actual road, linking the nearby village of Burton to the outskirts of Neston. Burton was once a flourishing village on trade and ferry routes but the silting and moving of the Dee left it an isolated picture postcard village. A shame then, perhaps, that I didn’t go to look at it; my journey took me in the other direction.
Denhall House Farm
As the road conveyed me towards Neston it also took me past a small café (Nets Coffee Shop), where I was able to refuel with tea, a toasted sandwich and a slice of lemon drizzle cake. Tea is the English panacea, and it certainly cured any tiredness I might have been feeling. Thus, with a newfound bounce in my step, I continued onwards to Neston.
Technically, I actually reached the residential village of Little Neston first, a former mining village that dates back as far as the Conquest (it is listed in the Domesday Book).
In Little Neston, I was faced with a choice: namely, to keep following the Wirral Way, which it now appeared I was on but which diverted into town, or to stay on the road I was following as it turned into a muddy marsh-side footpath.
I chose the route with signage, namely the Wirral Way. This led me down a series of residential streets and more-or-less past but not directly through the centre of Neston.
Neston (Old Norse Nes-tún ‘farmstead at the promontory’, Nestone in Domesday) was historically a market town named Great Neston, to distinguish it from nearby Little Neston, although they now form a continuous conurbation.
Before Birkenhead’s massive expansion in the 1820s, Great Neston was the Wirral Peninsula’s largest town and was an important port until the Dee silted up.
Between 1760 and 1928, the town also relied on mining, with a coal mine stretching under the river Dee. To have the river overhead must have been unnerving and I don’t doubt some of the miners must have prayed fervently in the village church.
St Mary and St Helen’s Church
Don’t let the Early English Gothic lines of St Mary’s & St Helen’s fool you. Sure, it looks Mediaeval in design but it was actually rebuilt in the late nineteenth century on account of having become structurally unsound.
The church is on the site of older predecessors though, with one having been founded in 1170 by Ralph de Montalt, a baron under the Earl of Chester. But that too was on the site of an older church, with fragments of Viking Age crosses turning up in the floor during the nineteenth century works.
There is a sundial dated 1717 in the churchyard but that was little use to me, on account of the grey skies overhead.
Wirral Country Park
Just past the church, I joined the B5134, the main road running through Neston, which was quite busy and not entirely enjoyable. Fortunately, the Wirral Way soon provided me with an alternative in the form of a tree-lined and suspiciously straight foot and cycle path heading westwards out of town.
The path was unmetalled and more than a little muddy but I knew a disused railway line when I saw one. And so it was. It was in fact a branch of the old Birkenhead Railway (1866-1962) now redesignated as the Wirral Country Park.
As the winter afternoon sun slipped ever lower in the sky — or at least I assume it did, somewhere behind the grey clouds — I hurried along the old Birkenhead line towards Heswall. On the way, I left the ceremonial county of Cheshire and entered that of Merseyside.
Merseyside was a creation of the 1970s, recognising that the conurbations on either side of the river basically form one unit with Liverpool. Historically though, the Wirral was entirely Cheshire.
Heswall’s growth is entirely typical — a tiny village until the 1880s when the railway allowed Liverpool merchants to live in the countryside and commute. It is now somewhat bigger.
The ghost of one of Heswall’s two railway lines (the other is still in use) led me into the town’s southern outskirts and a Station Road that no longer has any remnant of a station. I was staying the night in a hotel in Heswall and was soon to discover that while the Wirral is generally flat it very specifically isn’t around Heswall, much of which sits atop a steep climb from the riverside.
A bath and a splendid meal awaited, followed by rum and some well-earned sleep. On the morrow I would continue on to Liverpool…
This time: 15 miles
Total since Gravesend: 1,888 miles