Hot Spot: Chester, Cheshire

Chester has a tradition of being fireproof against economic recession. But then the Romans knew a thing or two...
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The Independent Online

Black and white on the outside, plenty of gold and silver inside, Chester's renowned magpie buildings are underpinned by commercial prosperity and a reverence for history.

Black and white on the outside, plenty of gold and silver inside, Chester's renowned magpie buildings are underpinned by commercial prosperity and a reverence for history.

With its startling black and white architecture, "Chester is perhaps the most instantly identifiable and charming of England's county cities," notes Helen Hutchinson of Donald Insall, chartered architects. "Nikolaus Pevsner was both right and wrong in saying that Chester was Victorian, not medieval." Pensner's book, The Buildings of England, is among the most important works of the German-born British art historian.

Ms Hutchinson says the Cheshire city's "main-street frontages are largely Victorian but they incorporate the remarkable medieval raised shopping arcades, The Rows, and follow a Roman street pattern."

"Chester has been a strategic centre since Roman times," says estate agent Graham Adnitt of Jackson-Stops. "Nowadays, people live here who commute to Liverpool and Manchester, and if you add Warrington, it is a major conurbation. Chester bucks any recession. Even in the last big recession in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Chester held its head high. Prices faltered but not nearly as badly as in other parts of the country. It is also a wonderful place to live in."

The city's own economic base is strong. The Chester Business Park is the largest in the North West, and the city is home to such prestigious employers as Marks & Spencer Financial Services, credit card company MBNA, British Aerospace, Bristol-Myers Squibb and Shell Chemicals. "Many of our buyers are first-timers and job relocators," says estate agent Peter Humphreys. "The first-timers are well-paid by financial institutions and are buying properties for between £150,000 and £200,000."

Chester's buoyant economy has not escaped the notice of property investors, including the likes of investment bank ING Real Estate, which will let all of the 41 flats and town houses it bought directly from the builder. "We look at demographics and employment prospects. Chester has a strong economic base and a good white collar base," explains Peter Davies, ING's Director of Asset Management. "There was an under-provision of houses and apartments to rent. Even though our flats are top--of-the-range high quality lets, for companies it is cheaper than a hotel, whether for a month or two, or for six months or longer."

Protected in the past by walls that are still standing, Chester profits from overlooking the River Dee: "Riverside properties always have a certain cachet, and I don't see their values decreasing in Chester," says Jonathan Major of Strutt & Parker. "The river did flood nearby meadows and towns, but Chester is built above the river and was spared."

According to Peter Humphreys, property values in Chester are also being spared: "The market has slowed down but it is still very buoyant. We had annual increases up to 15 per cent a year ago, and I anticipate 10 per cent for next year."

The Low-Down
Transport

Chester relies on its links to the M6 and M1. It is a half hour to Liverpool or Manchester airports, and Chester has its own small airfield. By car, it is 21 miles to Warrington, 28 to Liverpool, 40 to Manchester and 75 to Birmingham. "A third of the UK population is within a two-hour drive of Chester," says a council brochure.

Properties

Chester's diverse property stock is not all black and white. The area contains barn, school and chapel conversions from various eras, as well as thatched cottages, erstwhile stables, and guest houses. An 8- or 10-bed guest house can cost less than a 4-bed family house. Demand for period properties exceeds supply.

Town and country

Four-bed detached houses and cottages in popular villages and city districts cost between £200,000 and £350,000; country houses with 5 acres start at about £450,000. In Chester itself, areas such as Blacon and Saltney, which is next to Curzon Park, 2- and 3-bed terraces are available for less than £50,000.

Riverside properties

Georgian terraces cost about £250,000, and big semi-detached town houses cost £350,000 to £500,000. Curzon Park North is a semi-circular road which is on a hill and straddles a bend in the river. The large houses slope down to the river on plots large enough to lend a rural ambience to houses that overlook the city centre.

City centre

Wimpey has built luxury 2-bed flats at 156 Foregate Street in the city centre, priced from £195,000 to £350,000. The modern building is adjacent to the Grade II former home of the Mayor of Chester. (01244 311156; www.onefivesix.com)

Retail therapy

The Shropshire Union Canal along with the River Dee offer fishing, barge cruises and other water-based activities, and there are waterfront concerts at the Groves. The city has a race-course (England's oldest) and the area is home to 8 golf courses. If your idea of health and fitness is shopping, the area contains four major retail parks.

To see

Area attractions include Chester Zoo, Little Moreton Hall (the 16th-century moated manor house where Moll Flanders was filmed for TV), Tatton Park, Jodrell Bank (home of the famous telescope), Cholmondeley and Beeston castles, and Lyme Park (location of TV's Pride and Prejudice).

Contacts

Donald Insall architects, 01244 350063; Humphreys, 01244 350450; Jackson-Stops, 01244 328361; Strutt & Parker, 01244 320747.

Look and listen

Chester hosts a major annual summer music festival, Royal Horticultural Society Flow Show, literature and jazz festivals and other events, including river races and craft fairs.

Pedigree

For its original city walls and basic grid pattern, Chester can thank the Romans, and for its rebuilt and extended walls, it is indebted to 10th-century Saxon Queen Ethelflaeda. The only truly medieval architecture still extant is in Chester Cathedral and three of the original seven parish churches. Chester generally and its famous elevated shopping arcade, The Rows, in particular are often regarded as medieval but "much of the city's character is in reality Georgian, and the origins of the Rows are obscure". ("Chester: A Study in Conservation" by Donald W Insall & Assoc.)

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