April 9th, 2007

Fishy Circumstances


Chester is an odd city. In scale and in the compass of its walls, it reminds me of York. The street layout is predominantly guided by its Roman origins. The density of its double-layered shops, "The Rows", reminds me of a Yorkville (in Toronto) with deeper historical grounding. That double layer of shop may be a product of medieval infill, but its cohesive half-timber unity is a product of nineteenth-century restoration. The racecourse is a large, smooth expanse of verdant turf, yet two thousand years ago it was the river harbor, dense with boats, for which reason the city was built. Two-thirds of the inner city is a beautifully-maintained historic façade. The rest, largely tucked into backstreets, but protruding in useful locations, is ungainly hulks of '60s concrete. The River Dee curls around two sides of the city, limiting it with breadth in a way that the Shropshire Union Canal, a relatively recent addition, does not.

The city is touristed, but alive. There are expensive hotels, but only two new bookstores in town. Secondhand bookstores seem to do healthy trade, and the city is thronged with trinket and clothing shops. Roughness laps at the edges. A water bomb narrowly missed us, the splash lapping my conveniently-worn raincoat. The city feels small enough that I can easily see it being dull for impatient teens. The tourists must dominate most of the time, for all it feels as if it must have a few other industries keeping it healthy. The races must bring in the wealthy; the course is too lovely not to, although it seems a facile conclusion to draw. The label of "Tattersall's", after so many recent Heyer books, has its cache.

After London, it is a relief to be in a place populated by small, individual shops. The Hat Shop shows off its Easter bonnets. The Cheese Shop is full of local delights and further-afield treasures. Blue Fade Cheshire is rare blued Cheshire, its taste delicate and earthy. Crabtree is an unexpectedly fruity and reasonably soft cheese, made from the milk of cows which had grazed among fallen crabapples. Here is more than just the usual high street shops.

In the Roman Gardens, our walking tour of Chester paused in front of a displaced hypocaust. The gardens are full of excavated parts and pieces translocated from elsewhere in Chester. The medieval walls loomed above, the relic of a Roman tower across the road. A man walked purposefully by, dressed as a Roman legionnaire, accompanied - if superficial appearances tell true - by his wife and children. While he declaimed and waved his sword in the garden below, I ran into a couple staying in our hotel. "Go see!" One said. "There are Roman soldiers jousting down there." The sun was warm and comforting, the skies blue, the company pleasant. Recreation, history, and the ongoing life of a town all meet and coincide.