Shop front in the summer

Monday, 16 July 2012

Real England is just beyond the towpath - PART 4

Few places deliver history the way Chester does, but then few places have played such a central role in our country’s development - and retained the evidence.

By narrowboat you approach through the villages and fields of the Cheshire Plain, and history is already screaming at you as you pass the massive remains of Beeston Castle sitting on it’s rock, with Peckforton Castle sitting just behind. After some pleasant, if greatly expanded, commuter villages you begin down the locks that drop you into Chester and once linked with the River Dee.

You can moor almost in the town centre, just a hundred yards or so from the main shopping street or you can pass under the massive town walls - still a complete route around the centre of the city - and down the three-lock staircase into the basin where there are more moorings.

Chester was founded as Roman fort called Deva Victrix in the year 79 and its four main roads, these days, Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate and Bridge, were laid out almost 2,000 years ago.

The Saxons fortified the town against the Danes and gave Chester its name and it was one of the last towns in England to fall during the Norman Conquest.

You will see lots of black and white buildings and, although Chester has a number of medieval buildings, some of the black-and-white buildings are actually Victorian restorations.

It is one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain, and apart from a 100-metre section, the listed Grade I walls are almost complete.

The canal arrived with the Industrial Revolution which also brought railways, and new roads to the city, as well as substantial expansion and development .

Don't miss the two-mile footpath that runs along the top of the walls, crossing roads by bridges. On Eastgate is Eastgate Clock which is said to be the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben.

The Rows are claimed to be unique in Britain. They are buildings with shops on both the lowest two storeys. The shops or homes on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street.

Roman remains can still be found in the city, particularly in the basements of some of the buildings and in the lower parts of the northern section of the city walls. The most important is the amphitheatre just outside the walls, near the Roman Gardens which run parallel to the city walls from Newgate to the River Dee.

The area between the river and the city walls here is known as the Roodee, and contains Chester Racecourse which holds a series of horse races and other events.

A series of festivals is organised in the city, including mystery plays, a summer music festival and a literature festival. The parade of giants has become an annual event and if you can coincide your visit with a gathering of Roman re-enactors from across Europe you will see spectacular parades of Roman legions through the city streets.

Add to that some of the best shopping to be had in the North West - in real shops in proper streets - as well as first class restaurants, theatre and some fascinating museums and you have a city break to remember.

Of course, as you arrive by water and moor for free you won’t have the cost of a hotel to add to the bill for a very special urban experience.

And finally we take a look at Manchester.

Travel by canal to Manchester from Norbury and you are accompanied by history all the way. Turn right at Barbridge, left in Middlewich, through three tunnels and you are on the Bridgewater canal.

This is the first ever purpose-built canal in this country, created 250 years ago with the sole purpose of getting to the great industrial city Manchester was then becoming.

It will feed you through pretty Lymm into the urban sprawl of Trafford and, if you turn right at Waters' Meet you will arrive in Castlefield.

Once this was the terminus of the Bridgewater canal, a scene of busy wharves and warehouses; today it has been gentrified with classy pubs and restaurants in many of the old buildings as well as apartments.

This is no peaceful haven, despite the trees, as the trams rattle overhead and Manchester is a party town, so expect late night noise and fun. In fact, why not become part of it? Manchester is a buzzing, busy, trendy metropolis and you can enjoy it for a few days before departing the noise for pastures greener as you head back south to Norbury.

Manchester proper is just one of six boroughs that make up one of the United Kingdom's largest urban areas - Greater Manchester - which has a population of 2.2 million.

Much of early Manchester was obliterated when it began to expand 'at an astonishing rate’ around the turn of the 19th century.

The reason was a boom in textile manufacture during the Industrial Revolution, aided by the creation of the canal upon which you arrived.

These days the 'dark, satanic mills' are mostly apartment blocks and the city is notable for its culture, music scene, scientific and engineering output, media links and sporting connections. You pass the Manchester United ground on the way in to Castlefield and the City ground is close to the Ashton canal.

Here was built the world's first railway station - now the Museum of Science and Industry, and it is the place where scientists first split the atom and developed the first computer.

Manchester has a notable place in the history of left-wing politics and it is well worth visiting the People's History Museum in Spinningfields area.

Manchester has an appetite for life that won't be squashed and bands that have emerged from the Manchester music scene include The Smiths, the Buzzcocks, The Fall, Joy Division. The city was the driving force behind indie bands of the 1980s.

For the more highbrow, Manchester has two symphony orchestras, the Hallé and the BBC Philharmonic. It also has a thriving theatre, opera and dance scene, and the Manchester Opera House, features large-scale touring shows with more on offer at the Palace Theatre and the Royal Exchange.

A tram ride to Salford Quays will take you to the Imperial War Museum North, as well as the Lowry theatre and, most recently Media City, the northern home of the BBC and now Granada.

The Lowry is also home to many of the works of L. S. Lowry, known for his "matchstick" paintings of industrial Manchester and Salford.

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