Living with the past

It's a cool city for sightseeing and shopping and it's hot stuff when it comes to history. Helen Werin reports.

It was lunchtime in Chester and our guide Janet Holman was leading us into Spud-U-Like in Bridge Street.

Despite my rumbling tummy, we weren't about to dig our teeth into a hot buttery potato. Instead we were to feast our eyes on a Roman hypocaust in this most unlikely of settings.

The perfectly preserved section of the heating system which kept the city's founders warm and their bath water piping hot is still, nearly 2,000 years later, in situ in the far corner of Spud-U-Like's basement. While we gazed in awe, hungry office workers were filling up on fast food, seemingly blas about this wonder just feet from their dinner table.

Ah, but is this really any wonder when you live in Chester? This is after all a city where an ancient and fascinating history is not just around every corner, but in every wall, street and cellar, literally.

The delightfully knowledgeable Janet, who likes to trip little frivolities about the city's past off her tongue, is one of the city's Blue Badge guides who offer a "secret" Chester tour.

If I thought there could be no more incongruous a setting than finding the ancient heating system in a house of hot potatoes then I was very wrong. Walk past the latest fashions in Miss Selfridge, in Northgate Street, and you will discover another part of the heating system for the Legionary Commander's quarters at the back of the shop. Nearby at Blacks, a substantial column base, part of a colonnade in the huge Legionary HQ, can be seen through a viewing panel in the floor. In the basement of the Castle Galleries, in St Michael's Row, a section of black and white mosaic flooring which once decorated part of Roman Chester's large bathhouse complex is on view. Apparently anyone with Roman remains in their building is obliged to display them. But it is expected that you ask first, of course. However, we'd only been in Chester 30 minutes and already we were being "overun" by Romans; albeit four-feet-nothing ones in school uniforms.

By now Janet had whisked us round to another of Chester's pride and joys, the great Roman military amphitheatre.

The area around the amphitheatre – the largest of its kind in the UK – was filled with groups of eight and nine year-olds dwarfed by "Roman" soldiers who appeared to be leading them on rampages around the city walls.

Time here, perhaps, for another of Janet's interesting snippets; the leader of the Roman soldiers, the "centurion" Paul Harston, has, apparently, got more Roman clothes than contemporary gear. I can well believe that, judging by the very obvious popularity of his tours, which are not confined to school groups.

I wouldn't want to step out of line with Paul and his army, though. These guys are actually authorised by the police to carry some very scary-looking weapons; all in the interest of authenticity, you understand. Chester, or Deva – to give it its original name – was founded by the Romans in about 70-80 AD, and the city loves nothing better than to play this prestigious heritage to the hilt. In the time of the Romans the Dee estuary reached right up to Chester and what is now the racecourse was a tidal pool outside the Roman walls. Now these very walls are the most complete circuit of Roman and medieval defensive town walls in the UK and, for visitors, provide one of the best ways of getting to know the city.

It took us about one hour to gently stroll the 2.5 miles or so along the walls early on a glorious Sunday morning when the only other people about were joggers.

From our elevated position we had great views of the city's racecourse, the site of Britain's first horse races almost 500 years ago. Horse racing began in 1539 after football was banned; apparently because so many players were getting hurt. One can't imagine what antics footballers in those days must have got up to to inflict such injuries. And it's possibly even harder to imagine the city as a port, with ships bringing in wine, figs and olive oil from the Mediterranean.

The racecourse exists to this day because the port became disused by the Middle Ages as the Dee silted up and changed course, so the land was used for racing.

Indeed, Chester's history is threaded through the modern-day city's everyday life in so many other ways as well; take shopping, for instance. The city may be a consumer paradise but to my mind is also one of the most charming, as well as easy on the feet, in the whole of Britain, thanks to the 13th century Rows. Theses two-tiered medieval galleries reached by stairs at ground level are the city's best known architectural feature. Yet another bonus in an already traffic-free city centre, they are now home to major high-street brands as well as thriving designer stores and quirky independent shops. The businesses which gave the different rows their quaint names – Butter Steps, Honey Steps, Milk Stoops Rows and Shoemaker Row – may have long gone, but the innate charm and character attracts hordes of tourists every year.

Many visitors, like us, get their bearings with a Blue Badge walking tour, which run every day, including Christmas Day. Unfortunately this means that Janet has not had a Christmas Day off for 15 years. One suspects that she doesn't really mind that much, such is her enthusiasm.

She takes great pleasure in reeling off Chester's other "notables": the city has no less than four park and ride facilities; a few Tudor buildings remain despite Oliver Cromwell's efforts and, the one I like best; Chester still has a town crier, complete with top hat and full ceremonial regalia. Well, from May to August anyway.

Sadly we didn't get to see the crier, who "performs" at midday at the High Cross with the customary "Oyez! Oyez!".

By this time we'd soaked up enough of Chester's engaging and vibrant personality to make our own proclamation. Chester? Oh, yes!

THINGS TO DO

Themed walking tours, including History Hunter, Secret Treasures and Ghosts, start from the Town Hall Information Centre. 01244 402111.

Chester Zoo has regular feeding sessions and keeper talks throughout the day. 01244 380280. www.chesterzoo.org

Chester Heritage offers 30-minute sightseeing bus trips. 0870 7656840. www.chesterheritagetours.co.uk

Grosvenor Museum (free). Roman tombstones and displays. 27 Grosvenor Street, Chester. 01244 402008. www.grosvenormuseum.co.uk

Chester Cathedral has magnificent stained glass. www.chestercathedral. com.

ChesterBoat runs 30-minute and (in the summer) two-hour cruises. www.chesterboat.co.uk.

FACTFILE

www.visitchester.com

Helen Werin stayed at MacDonald New Blossoms Hotel, St John's Street. Double room B&B from 150. 01244 323186. www.macdonaldhotels. co.uk/blossoms.

The Chester Grosvenor and Spa, Eastgate (five star), owned by the Duke of Westminster. Double room B&B from 195. 01244 324024. www.chestergrosvenor.com

Express by Holiday Inn, Chester Racecourse (AA budget hotel). 0870 990 4065.