Travel Diary: Chester weekend break

By Dan | Feb 9th, 2020 - 8:37pm

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Today I want to try something a little different; this is the first in a possible series of travel diaries, where I tell the story of a recent trip and all of its trials and tribulations. Not all trips go according to plan, but we always try to make the most of them...If you wish to know more about my opinions regarding Chester's attractions, read the Chester article here.

Chester would fulfil our yearly tradition to take an anniversary weekend break somewhere new for 2019. The tradition is simple: as our anniversary falls so close to Christmas, each year we alternate arranging these breaks and that can be the present, allowing us to keep the pennies ready for December 25th. Chester was planned far in advance and all booked ready, we would drive down on the Thursday, head straight to the zoo, once we were ready we would head into Chester and eat at a restaurant (of Rox's choice), then wing the Friday - primarily exploring the town and eating at the Christmas market. We like to keep these things mostly loosely structured, that way we can easily adapt and make it into the holiday we want, but the zoo is such a known landmark in England it had to be planned around. So with our bags packed, all that was left to do was grab the rental car and get on with enjoying our little break...

8 am, I roll out of bed, throw some clothes on and jump in the car. Not my car, unfortunately, as I still needed to pick my car up for this journey from the rental place. For these little trips I tend to rent a car for several reasons:

  • It is always fun to drive a new car.
  • Pretty much any rental will get better fuel economy than my car, dramatically offsetting any cost.
  • If all the car is going to do is sit on a public car park for the weekend I'd rather it be a bit more secure than mine.
The goal is to be out and on the road by 9, get to the zoo by 11 latest and get many hours exploring all of nature's cutest and deadliest.

The Thursday morning rush-hour traffic causes us a couple of headaches, luckily we only have a short jaunt but it goes via some busy roads. Without too much time lost, my dad drops me off and I head across the empty car park to fill out the final bits and pieces. At the time I noted how odd it was the carpark was so empty, a car rental place tends to be overflowing with, well, cars...but my reservation was made months in advance so I had no need to worry. The process should be fairly simple, I am renting the cheapest option available due to our relatively short trip, did all of the pre-pickup details online and had already purchased the extra cover so I would have nothing to worry about and they would have nothing to upsell. Little did I know I was walking into chaos itself.

The desk is manned by three members of staff, all on the phone - another from the side office invites me to wait and apologises for the inconvenience, I'm not concerned as I am in no rush. I have run through this process many a time, and I know I will be in and out in about 10 minutes. After a little while of browsing Reddit and Instagram, I am greeted, I hand over my paperwork and we get to small talk when he comes out with:

"I don't suppose you can drive an automatic? We can get you into something nicer if so...."

I'm fine with auto and an upgrade is absolutely fine by me, there is a little bit of a wait as the car is currently being valeted. It was a little annoying as my rental was booked well in advance, but as we talk I come to find out they have a massive car shortage - at the time of my arrival the car I was being upgraded to had been the only car on site, with a second arriving while I was there. I empathise, these things happen and they're a friendly bunch and I really have all day so what're an extra 10 minutes? The guys manning the desk have all visited Chester before so we pass the time talking about all the things to see and do...

The rental car

A short while later, we get to the walk around and the car looks great: It is a nearly new ST-line Ford Fiesta in white with barely a scratch on it. Now sat in the driver's seat, with the heater running and happy with everything, the sales assistant breaks out the tablet so I can awkwardly sign my scribble on the touchscreen and pay the final deposit. With how my day was going I suspect you can already guess what happens next; I have to say I am certain the universe was conspiring against me that day. We try three times to get it to accept, and every time an error pops up or the thing freezes. It rapidly becomes apparent that technology has failed us and head inside to do it the old fashioned way - I sign on an actual dotted line and because their payment system had gone down nationally (this being the reason the tablet did not work), they will need to key in my card details manually. Fine by me!  I'm a few minutes away from being on the road in the rental and away on holiday.

"The bank has denied the payment".

We live in a world of contactless cards and payment via apps, so when you attempt to make a payment the old fashioned way the bank's security kicks in to protect you. This day has already stretched on for an eternity and I've only been awake 2 hours. Luckily for me the staff have encountered this before, they dial the number for the bank and go through the security process, and I kid you not, the process failed the first time so he had to run through it twice. At this point, all I can do is laugh and as I have worked in IT for the last 10 years, I truly do empathise with staff who have to deal with these hiccups. By this point, the car had now completely fogged up, but that gave me an excuse to sit on the car park and play with the shiny buttons of my new weekend toy...

Traffic on the run back was easy, primarily because rush over had long since ended, but I take this as a silver lining to my morning's ordeal. I load the car up and we head on our way to Chester! The car is loaded with Android Auto so the screen is merrily broadcasting our directions as I make my way north, a wonderful wintery day with blue skies and the low winter sun, about as good driving conditions as you can ask for in November. Nothing can stop us now!

On the road

That is until the entire infotainment freezes. The touchscreen is non-responsive, so are the dash and steering wheel buttons, at this point, we can't even control the stereo. I roughly know where I am going so I leave it to Rox to figure out, but as we get closer and closer to our destination I need those precious directions badly. We end up in a lay-by on the A41, twice, trying to get the bloody thing to just work, we gave up on being able to control the radio or anything else, just directions would suffice. The whole system rebooted several times, sometimes the buttons would work but the screen wouldn't, sometimes the audio from the Sat-Nav would stop - it was a complete catastrophe. Eventually, parked outside some little convenience store, through some combination of trusted device, keeping the screen unlocked and percussive maintenance got it running nicely.

As an aside: Once I got past those, admittedly very frustrating, teething issues I have to admit Android Auto really did work well, it is just a shame my initial experience with it was tainted, but I would actually recommend it to anyone and I am sure Apple's Car Play is a similar story. I love to see the advance of technology and am glad to no longer have some stuttery, buggy and outdated sat-nav suction cupped to the windscreen.

Midday comes and goes, we are already an hour beyond my target time and the Sat-Nav is not optimistic. We make our way forward as best we can, but the traffic keeps thwarting our forward momentum, with HGVs and folks who think the national speed limit is 40 keeping our progress slow. I'm still ploughing towards the zoo, but Rox's mood has become a little more defeatist:

"A lot of the reviews for Chester Zoo say it's absolutely massive like barely get around it in a single day massive". The chaps at the rental company had said a similar thing, but I try to keep the mood positive, saying we should be there in half-hour and we will have all afternoon to explore! Assuming the O.A.P in the Nissan Note can pick up the pace or pull out the way, we would still have a solid 4-5 hours, plenty to see the main things we want to see. Rox is still doing research when she notices something else I hadn't: Chester Zoo has winter and summer opening times. When we had planned this trip, in the summer, we had gone by some hours we stumbled on in some article, but the winter times meant those 4-5 hours would be more like 3. Armed with all this information, we agreed it would be silly to pay entrance to the zoo, to be forced to run around like a muppet and still probably miss most of it. We agreed on a return trip in the summer, and I asked Google to change the destination to our hotel.

The Knife angel at night
It is early afternoon with the sun already getting low in the sky as we pull onto the hotel car park, a little too early for check-in but we pay for the car-park and begin our holiday proper. The mood was high as we saw Chester's main shopping run for the first time, dressed up in Christmas lights looking absolutely stunning. Time to do a little exploring: we get our bearings of the main run. As we explore we stumble upon an unexpected attraction: The Knife Angel, something I had always wanted to see but never managed to be in the same city at the same time. Eventually, the coldness starts to take its toll and we decide to find a little café to warm up. The coffee and cake go down a treat and before we know it we are making our way back to the hotel to check-in. Thankfully, getting into the room is monumentally simpler than getting the car, I fumble with the unfamiliar keyfob and after lugging the bags in from the cold we settle into our little apartment with high spirits; there is nothing better than arriving at your temporary abode to find it is actually well-kept and clean. Time passes quickly as we watch a little TV and get ready to head out into the evening, satisfied with our decision to skip the Zoo as being the correct thing to do.

As the organiser of the whole trip, Rox selected our restaurant of the evening as The Alchemist, a fairly small UK chain famous for their theatrical cocktails. We start with drinks, I am eyeing up one that comes with a souvenir Hip Flask and Rox is after something with glitter, but as my stomach is completely empty I opt for an ale to tide me over until we eat. In-keeping with their interesting drinks range, they have local and interesting ales so I am in my element until we are ready to eat.

The Alchemist hip flask

The food is absolutely superb, with the biggest surprise being how seriously they take allergies. I have a fairly uncommon allergy to mushroom; usually, I try not to make too much of a fuss about it: I order sensibly but still check with the waiter as I order. But The Alchemist immediately sent over a manager to handle my order and it was relaxing to be able to eat with 0 concerns. I expected amazing and the drinks surpassed that, from sweet and colourful concoctions to dramatic displays of the alchemical. Our nibbles prior to eating were chorizo and cheddar dough balls, where the cheese was served in a syringe and for main my Philly Cheesesteak Ciabatta was loaded with peppers and onions cooked perfectly. By the end, we were satisfyingly stuffed and could not rate the place higher, not just for the drinks and food but the staff were friendly and seemed to enjoy what they do.

After filling up on fabulous food and beginning to make our way back to the accommodation we dropped into a few watering holes along the way - considering how spoilt for choice we were we, it would be rude not to. The first place was an exceedingly red cocktail-bar called Kuckoo, where Rox tried the drink she shared her name with and I, having had my fill of sweet drinks in the Alchemist, opted for one of the available ales. At this point, we were truly fit to burst but decided to stop in at the local pub, the Big Hand Alehouse, for last calls; I sampled an excellent on-tap bitter and Rox tried a bit of the Dead Man's Finger Hemp rum and Coke. With a successful evening out under our belts, we returned to the hotel room, primarily to regret the excessive amounts of food and drink we took in. Thankfully, the food completely outweighed the drinks and there were no bad heads the following morning.

Image of cocktail from Kuckoo and pint from Big Hand Brewing Co.
We are generally people who are early to rise, with the eagerness to get out and explore we arose especially bright-eyed and bushy-tailed; Rox's get up and go mood was mostly due to excitement for the complimentary breakfast of pastries, fruit and juices. While Rox applied her face for the day, I did my usual and took to Google Maps to plot out a walking route, noting the primary landmarks I wanted to pass by so I would have my general bearings without needing to stare at the map later. With our plan ready and us dressed up to face the chilly but dry conditions that awaited us, we headed into the crisp morning air and begun to follow Chester's city walls south.

The city had the perfect atmosphere on a Friday morning, the bustle not yet in full swing but everywhere feeling alive. The outskirts and walls littered with fellow walkers and locals heading to work, it felt like a safe and welcoming city. Our route brought us immediately to Chester's Castle, not a castle we were typically used to, a fairly modern building from the outside attached to its medieval remnants. We stopped briefly for photos but decided to head onwards as we had a busy day ahead, keeping moving was a must to fend off the icy weather.

Now following the River Dee east, our ears were suddenly overwhelmed by the roar of the weir at the Old Dee Bridge. The bridge itself is a charming old structure, the narrow single lane of traffic emphasising the bridge's heritage long pre-dates the automobile. We remained here a while to watch the birds fishing above the weir and to just enjoy the beautiful views up the river, snapping a few photos and people watching, until returning to the north bank and making our way along the river.

Old Dee bridge and weir

As we passed the slightly out-of-place feeling Hickory's Smokehouse, we headed away from the river to see some of the remnants of Roman culture that remain in Chester. First was the Chester Roman Gardens, a narrow park with pieces of Roman architecture crumbling but still visible. Just imagining the history behind places like these always inspires awe for me, but we didn't have to imagine anything - as we entered the garden we were greeted by centurions! Albeit, fairly short centurions...a local school trip underway with a guide in traditional Roman military garb. Back to the main road and across the way is the Chester Roman amphitheatre, inspiring the same awe as we explored the former stands and stood at the former fighting pit. In most cities, it is easy to lose sight of just how much history they hold, so it is always nice to see places take at least some effort to preserve that.

We briefly passed by Grosvenor Park as we made way back to the river, where we made our way across the stunningly ornate Queens Park Bridge, taking a moment to admire the golden detailing and to take in the river's serenity.

Once on the other side, I decided we should put into place a safety net for a problem we had encountered on a previous trip. While exploring the amazing city of York, we had been caught out by a sudden influx of weekend trippers that rendered us unable to squeeze into any of the local restaurants, bars or pubs; eventually, we resigned ourselves to just return to the hotel and enjoy some of the fabulous beers we picked up at the House of Trembling Madness. In order to make sure we had a similar back-up plan we doubled-back along the river to Chester Beer & Wine, where we grabbed a handful of ales and Belgian wheat beers to keep in-case of emergency.

The main highstreet

With the morning done and midday a distant memory as well, our stomachs started rumbling. We returned to the city centre proper to get some grub and drop the beer off at the hotel room. Rox decided to dive into a full Sunday dinner in a wrap, courtesy of The Yorkshire Wrap Company, and I stuffed my face with a beautiful Brie, Bacon and Cranberry sandwich at The Barista's. We get the last dregs of our coffees down our neck, drop the beer off at the hotel and head out to explore the last major attraction on our list: the Christmas market! The lightest sprinkling of rain had begun as we made our way into the shadow of Chester Cathedral to explore the rows of sheds that would form the market. Trinkets, decorations and various consumables were on offer; the hanging Christmas lights and atmosphere were warm and welcoming, much more of a romantic setting than the typical rowdy groups that typically swarm the larger citie's markets. The food was superb, piping hot German sausage kept us warm as the rain tried to dampen our spirits and alcohol kept us sane when the rain really started to bucket down. We picked up some little presents for my folks back home, got ourselves something nice and continued to explore both the market and into the town until exhaustion got the better of us; as we needed to rest we had no choice but to buy a tipple and pull up a chair at the drinks tent. I got myself a refreshing ale and Rox went with Baileys hot chocolate, we squeezed ourselves under the canopy just about anywhere we could fit and took to people watching, with the sun beginning to set and the patter of rain on the roof it was a wonderful moment, made all the better by escaping the rain...if only for a moment.

Ale at Christmas

As I finished my drink, Rox announced she had had enough and wanted to head back to the hotel. I wanted to stay out and explore, it was our final (full) day in Chester and I was enjoying exploration but I had to admit, the rain had been unrelenting for hours at this point and while my coat was keeping me warm my trainers were soaked through, my jeans were wet with only my thermal base layers keeping me dry from below the waist. Plus, at this point, we had been on our feet and walking since 8 am without much of a proper break, so putting my feet up was starting to sound really tempting. We could keep going around just for the sake of being out, or we could head back to our warm hotel room, settle down with a nice beer, put the TV on, wash the day away and get dry. Aside from a brief stop-off back to The Alchemist to try one drink Rox had missed, we called it a night and returned to the warmth of our little home away from home.

...this lasted an hour or two until Rox decided she was hungry. We were settled in for the evening so getting dressed to the nines for a restaurant seemed like a waste of effort - instead she wanted to find that British staple: a chip shop. My instinct, as you'll know by now it often does, takes me to Google Maps to scour the local listings; but rather than guessing by the reviews I suggest we head to the reception to ask for recommendations - as good as technology is, whenever you travel always speak to the locals. They send us to Blackstock's Fish and Chips and a cold but uneventful walk later Rox was fed, with some excellent chips, and our evening could wind down in comfort, with a nice beer in hand and whatever we could find on telly.

The following morning we completed our packing, loaded up on the complimentary breakfast and took one last wander around the city centre. Our breath hanging in the air and the low down drone of the small crowds rapidly gathering, we decided to get on our way before the Saturday crowds descended and my escape from the city would become a nightmare. We loaded up the car and our weekend exploring the beautiful town of Chester came to a close. We enjoyed beautiful food, wintery weather and a city full of character and entertainment. Certainly a place we will revisit in the future, especially to finally see their famous zoo...

On my return, I went straight to the rental place, handed the keys over and, thankfully, there was no drama. Let us hope 2020's trip the drama can be reserved for places like The Alchemist.

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