Chester: Races, Romans and the River Dee

Make some history of your own with a visit to this captivating Cheshire city, says Lucy Gilmore

Chester simply sizzles in the summer. Visitors flock to this cosily compact city circled by ancient sandstone walls. There's a river, a racecourse and Roman remains. History seeps out of every little alleyway, the Welsh hills are hazy on the horizon and pretty Cheshire villages are just a flip-flop's trip away.

A stroll high above the crowds around the worn old walls, pierced with turrets, towers and ornamental gateways, whiles away an hour or so. It also gives you a good view of the jumble of architectural styles that knits together into a vivid mosaic. The higgledy-piggledy black-and-white Tudor façades jostle with the Victorian half-timbered imitations and the medieval shopfronts in Chester's celebrated "Rows": the galleried walkways that radiate out from The Cross. Teetering over the main streets, Eastgate, Watergate, Northgate and Bridge Street, they're lined with a second tier of delis, shops, old-world pubs and cafés.

During the summer the Chester Races (01244 304610; chester-races.co.uk) is one of the biggest crowd-pullers. Women in fancy hats swan past camera-clicking tourists milling around the town crier. The midday proclamation at The Cross has been a theatrical spectacle since the Middle Ages.

The first race was held at the Roodee, the oldest racecourse in Britain, in 1539 thanks to the Lord Mayor, Henry Gee, whose name spawned the nickname "gee-gees". The next meet is a week today: Saturday 21 August. You can take a picnic or have a flutter in swanky gourmet Restaurant 1539 (01244 304611; restaurant1539.co.uk): think contemporary design coupled with panoramic views over the racecourse.

The course was built on the site of the silted-up Roman harbour where ships once unloaded their cargo from the Mediterranean. Two thousand years ago Chester was an important Roman garrison called Fortress Deva – named after the River Dee. Chester also lays claim to the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain (english-heritage.org.uk) and for a taste – and smell – of what it would have been like here two millennia ago, plus a glimpse of the archaeological excavations beneath the city, you can visit the Dewa Roman Experience (01244 343407; dewaromanexperience. co.uk) with its reconstructed street scene.

The history of Chester Cathedral (01244 324756; chestercathedral.com) is a little more recent. First there was a Saxon minster here, then a Benedictine Abbey. It's been a cathedral since Henry VIII's dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century. Check out the Norman arches, Gothic columns, 14th-century wood-carvings and the medieval shrine of St Werburgh. Wander around the tranquil cloisters and church, one of most magnificent monastic complexes in the country, then stop for refreshments in the 13th-century rectory café.

Alternatively, escape the crowds by wandering down to the River Dee to feed the ducks and swans, stroll beneath the shady trees with an ice-cream, or take a cruise along the river. If you fancy messing about in boats, Chester Boat (01244 325394; chesterboat. co.uk) has an old-fashioned Mississippi paddle steamer-style showboat, the Mark Twain. You can hop on a city cruise or a two-hour Ironbridge excursion through the Duke of Westminster's estate. Or head to a country pub for lunch. The Grosvenor Arms (01244 620228; grosvenorarms-aldford.co.uk) in Alford is a gorgeous old inn, now a local gastropub in a bucolic Cheshire village.

More exotic wildlife can be found in Chester Zoo (01244 380280; chester zoo.org) – Britain's largest zoo, spread across 110 acres with more than 7,000 animals, including a new baby elephant: the male calf, Nayan, meaning "eye" in Hindi, was born on 18 July. The zoo has a maze of pathways to meander down and award-winning gardens.

Three great days out

Ness Botanic gardens

Ness (0151 353 0123; nessgardens.org.uk) is on the Wirral peninsula, between the River Mersey and River Dee. It's just a 15-minute drive from the centre of Chester, with views out across the Dee Estuary towards North Wales. The gardens, which were started in 1898, now belong to the University of Liverpool. They were the life's work of Arthur Bulley, who funded plant-collecting expeditions in the Far East. Today, the Laburnum Arch is one of the garden's best-known features, while during the summer the herbaceous borders and terrace garden come into their own. There's a charming potager, heather garden and rock garden and large shady lawns for picnicking. Nearby, the 18th-century port of Parkgate, now silted up, borders a salt marsh. Buy a homemade ice-cream from Nichols and walk along the front looking out to the Welsh coastline.

Tatton Park

Tatton Park (01625 374435; tattonpark.org.uk), near Knutsford, is 30 minutes by car from Chester. With a stately home, landscaped pleasure gardens, a 1,000-acre deer park, rare breeds farm and numerous events throughout the year it makes a great day out. Today there's an open-air production of Romeo and Juliet , and next weekend (21-22 August) a vintage and classic car rally. You can wander around the 18th-century mansion, explore the atmospheric Tudor Old Hall, stroll around the walled kitchen gardens and glasshouses, Japanese garden and then relax in the Stables – a restaurant focusing on local produce.

Llandudno, North Wales

The beaches of North Wales are easily accessible from Chester. The seaside resort Llandudno is just over an hour away by train. The horseshoe-shaped bay lined with elegant Victorian villas lies between two headlands, Great Orme and Little Orme. The Irish Sea is on one side and the Conwy Estuary on the other. There's a Victorian pier, the longest in Wales, donkey rides on the sand, Britain's longest cable car – and the recently completed expansion of dynamic contemporary art gallery Mostyn (01492 879201; mostyn.org). Current exhibitions include the Junkyard Museum of Awkward Things (until 16 October). Arriva Trains Wales departs at 55 minutes past every daytime hour from Chester direct to Llandudno.

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