Week 19 – A Visit To Chester

Sunset From Northgate Staircase

It hasn’t been a great summer but in the last week we have had the best and longest spell of decent weather since we left in May. There was one hot, dry spell that lasted a few days but we managed to spend that week back in Croydon, where it was actually too hot to be enjoyable. Wednesday 18th September was another fine morning, if a little cold and misty at the start. We took Bracken over to the other side of the canal, opposite the Country Park, which is shown on the map as a golf course but appears to have been abandoned. There is a lot of open land but it is almost impossible to identify the greens or fairway from the surrounding rough.

Originally, we had expected to meet Aintree Boats for some snagging in the city on Thursday. One piece of good news while we were last at home was that the manufacturers of the boat’s diesel central heating boiler wanted to arrange a site visit on Wednesday 25th August. This was good news in that, firstly, it shows that Aintree Boats really had been in ongoing discussions with them and second, it should give clarity on whether the system is sized, installed and configured correctly and in line with our specification. If not, we should be able to agree what needs to be fixed and if it is, then we can find out if there are options to improve on what we specified that we can consider. As this issue has been the one constant running theme, Aintree decided to postpone their visit and be here at the same time.

Since that meant we now had Thursday free of visiting snaggers we decided to leave it until late morning to make the short hop to Chester. We would be able to get our bearings in the afternoon, deal with a few chores, like a visit to the launderette and a big weekly shop at Tesco and work out a plan for what to do the next day.

It looked for a moment as though this might have been a tactical error. We had identified a mooring in a the large basin at the northern end of Chester, by Taylor’s Boatyard, as the best place to stay for a couple of nights. When we arrived at twelve thirty there was no room at the inn and we ended up round the bend and under the Northgate Staircase locks. Fortunately, there was room there to turn around and as we went back for a second pass the boat nearest the locks indicated that they were about to finish lunch and move on. The basin is so wide that we could turn again and reverse up to the CRT services to take on water while we waited for their space to come free. Now, of course, we could worry that someone else might turn up while we were busy and slip into the space ahead of us. Thankfully, that didn’t happen and we were safely moored up by quarter past one.

We had a good afternoon finding our way around and settled in for a quiet evening on the boat on our berth opposite Telford’s Warehouse. Originally conceived by good old Thomas Telford in the 1790’s, the Warehouse stands as a magnificent example of Georgian architecture and as a reminder of the once thriving port of Chester. The building was constructed partly over the canal to allow boats to be located and unloaded from the full height of the loading bay within the building. It is Grade II listed and was converted to a pub in 1980. Little did we know that Wednesday night is Latin Mania night! The frantic Latin rhythm, the excited voices of the Samba students and the persistent percussion underpinning it all, carried,unhindered across the water. Fortunately, it quietened down by eleven o’clock, apart from the loud farewells of the participants, slowly taking their exhausted leave.

Thursday was the day for our grand tour of Chester, following the guide we had picked up at the visitor centre the day before, which was also the start point. The weather was absolutely perfect. Warm and sunny but with just enough breeze to keep it from being uncomfortably hot. We started our tour with a cup of coffee sitting in the sun outside the Coach House pub and it felt positively continental.

Bracken – Ready For The Grand Tour

The guide was pretty good, a sensible route that covered a good proportion of the city and offered just enough description. By the end of it we felt we had a pretty good grasp of the layout and a bit of the history. Our memory was that we had really liked Chester when we visited here once before and we weren’t disappointed. One thing that hadn’t changed since then was the city fathers’ understanding of pedestrianisation, which seems sketchy at best. You are walking around broad thoroughfares and open squares that give every sign of being traffic free, along with hundreds of other tourists, and you suddenly find yourself in the path of a double decker bus!

A redeeming factor is that every notable feature is neatly labelled. In many towns you can follow a guide that talks about ‘a half-timbered building’ and look around to see half a dozen such, with no clue as to the particular site they are trying to describe. You are almost never left in doubt in Chester. If you see more than one candidate for the landmark in question, just look a little more closely and you will find the correct one clearly identified with a sign, even when there has been a change of use or ownership since the guide was written.

You get quite an emphasis on Chester’s foundation as a Roman base from which to do battle with savage Britons in Wales and the North. That position continued over the next two millennia. William the Bastard, scourged his way north in the wake of his victory near Hastings and installed his nephew Hugh Lupus as Earl of Chester, with the right to make his own laws and taxes. By virtue of both his name and savagery he was known on one side as ‘The Wolf’ but based on his girth and fondness for the feasting table the Welsh knew him as ‘Hugh the Fat’. In the 15th century there was a formidable mediaeval gate known as Welshgate guarding the only approach to the city from Wales. just one and a half miles away and following the last great rebellion in 1400 the Welsh were forbidden to enter the city after sunset, to gather in groups of more than three people or to carry knives. It seems this law still stands and although we saw some groups of Welsh people during the day, and even one or two in the evening, none of them were carrying knives.

We are told Fat Hugh also had some responsibility for the eventual demise of Chester as a major port and the transfer of it’s trade to the fishing village of Liverpool. He built the weir in the river, that is Britain’s oldest surviving dam, to power his mills. It slowed the river down, which contributed to the mediaeval harbour silting up. The Jolly Miller of Dee, immortalised in song, was jolly because the farmers had to bring their corn to their mills by law, so the millers could set their own prices. Penalties for not using these mills included having the farmers hands chopped off!

Like a lot of people, apparently, we were surprised to learn that the black and white half-timbered Tudor buildings that characterize much of the city are nothing of the sort but are part of a Victorian ‘black & white’ Revival movement.

There were lots more little nuggets to plagiarise on the way and we had a lovely tour in the sunshine, with a lunchtime break for an excellent pork roll with all the trimmings, including a bit of crackling for Bracken. As we finished the tour, walking into Abbey Square and around the Cathedral, we noticed odd items in the Georgian streets that looked like window dressing to make it look like the 18th Century. Rounding a corner to find a sea of trucks, a forest of floodlights and a rats nest of cables running in every direction offered an explanation and the little army of creative looking people in ripped jeans all ignoring one another and staring at their phones confirmed it; the area was being set up for filming although there was no clue as to what. David Jenkinson would probably have felt right at home.

It was only about four o’clock, leaving time to go round again to the various stores, whose locations we had noted en route, and shop for a variety of items you just can’t get outside a large town.

Throughout this whole tour Bracken was amazingly well-behaved. We had expected that it would be difficult to keep her from getting bored and demanding attention and thought it likely we might have to cut the day short. On the contrary, she followed us around patiently and just sat and waited while we talked about the sights we were being introduced to. Even as we traipsed around the shops she was quiet and relaxed while one of us went inside and the other waited with her. It is also true to say that everywhere she went, she was the star attraction. We lost count of the number of people who would suddenly stop us and say what a lovely dog she was and want to meet her. The people here are very nice and at least twice, as we were standing looking at the guide in different places, complete strangers stopped to ask if we were lost or needed help. Perhaps it’s Cheshire? After all, the last time that happened was in Macclesfield. If it were to happen in Croydon, of course, you should be very afraid!

To round off a near perfect day we walked around the basin and found a bench on the west facing terrace of the Telford Warehouse to enjoy a couple of drinks in the setting sun before going home for dinner. Bracken was really quite good again, while engrossed in something to chew, which lasted for at least forty minutes.

Friday continued the run of bright, sunny mornings. A bit more of a breeze made it feel cooler but another nice day. Before leaving Chester we went for a walk over to an area called The Cop which leads to the Dee River walk. We had read a lot yesterday about Chester’s role as a major port open to sea-going vessels before the river silted up. Out here along the river on this side of the city you can really see how that was possible. It is wide and deep, heading straight down to the sea. As the walk and a designated cycle route runs alongside it with no access to traffic it was an ideal area for Bracken to have a run.

Back at the boat, ready to set off, I went up to the Northgate staircase lock, just around the corner to let the volunteer lock keepers know that we were coming up. Having them there meant that we shouldn’t have quite as much trouble as we had had coming down on Sunday. They were also struggling to balance the level and told us that it had been a problem for a couple of weeks since a boat had hit the top gate. As they were letting water out of the middle lock, and chatting to Sue on the stern, we suddenly noticed that the boat had begun to list violently to port. By the time the lockie had rushed back to the paddles, stopped the water flowing out and let some more back in to right the boat we had lost a glass and two plates that were sitting on the draining board. The problem was a narrow ridge below the top of the lock. The base plate of the boat projects an inch or so around the hull to provide extra protection and a couple of footholds below the surface of the water. This caught on the ridge as the water dropped and caused the list, a potential disaster in a wide lock like this that would have allowed room for the boat to turn turtle.

Although we were on our own this time and so it took a little longer, we had a good run up the rest of the locks out of Chester, on a very warm, sunny afternoon, back past the place where we had moored last Saturday night and pulled up just short of Tattenhall Marina. We needed to get some diesel the next morning and had decided to treat ourselves to breakfast in their café while we were there. There are obvious reasons why railways often follow the line of the canal and we are well used to finding ourselves moored within earshot. This particular spot was about as close to the tracks as it was possible to be. Just beyond the hedge was the West Coast Mainline. Normally it doesn’t bother us but even we couldn’t help noticing when the Virgin express trains thundered past.

Saturday was another very fine, bright day, the last we could expect if the forecast was to be believed, but much windier than it had been recently. Just the challenge we weren’t hoping for when navigating a marina. All in all it went very well and we slotted neatly into the service pontoon by the café. Unfortunately, their diesel hose would not reach anywhere near our filler cap at the stern. We would need to back out, turn around and reverse back onto the pontoon again. Having placed an order for two full breakfasts and filled up with water etc. we steeled ourselves for the attempt. We might be learning something at last. We backed off far enough to really give us plenty of room and used a lot more power against the wind as we made the turn. We cheated a bit by being able to pass a line to one of the guys from the marina as we reversed back in but still it felt quite successful.

By the time we had filled the tank our breakfast was ready and one look at the size of it turned it instantly into brunch. It was excellent, though, and the people here were very nice, something that we had seen commented on in reviews online before we arrived. As we were now facing forward our departure was a bit more straightforward, although it was a very busy morning and as we headed for the narrow entrance we almost didn’t spot “May Bee Tomorrow” on a collision course, powering across our bow at speed from the other lagoon. We signalled for them to go ahead, slowed down to let them out first and followed them out into the cut. We regretted that decision only a little later as we approached the first lock. Obviously they knew we were behind them and yet resolutely closed the lock against us, even though we sounded the horn to warn them not to shut the gates. It isn’t often you meet with such ignorance but people are people everywhere.

Once again we had the locks to ourselves, then, until we arrived at Bunbury staircase, which sits right beside an Anglo Welsh yard. They were running one of their customers through his induction as we arrived and joined us in the lock. As it happens that didn’t save us much effort as there was a squad of CRT volunteers who basically did the whole thing for us. We were aiming to moor up just beyond here so it was a relaxing finish for the day. Imagine our delight at finding a space just behind “May Bee Tomorrow”, who had obviously turned around and were presumably planning to head straight back to the marina they had come from on Sunday.

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Posted in Cruises, Long Haul, Parting Shot.

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