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The Rows in the central shopping streets of ChesterFor a weekend packed with interest - or even just a day trip - consider Chester, which ranks as Britain's best-kept medieval city.

Chester's four main streets meet in the centre, as town-planned by the Romans. The view is sensational, with double-decker shopping at street level and along the raised walkways called The Rows. Every building features the black-and-white half-timbered architecture which is Chester's hallmark. 

Chester's 2000 years of history is tightly packed in layers mostly below ground. See for yourself at the Dewa Roman Experience, which brings the archaeology to life. All the sightseeing highlights are within very short walking distance.

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Chester Race Meetings - several days between May and September: 

May Spring Bank Holiday weekend- Folk Festival

June - Midsummer Watch Parade, a medieval costume event with Giants

June - Roman Festival including chariot races.

November  - Lantern Parade and Winter Watch Parade, celebrating the 12 days of Christmas, and Chester's Lord of Misrule.

More information and visitor services: Tourist Information
Town Hall, Northgate St., Chester CH1 2HJ.         

Tel: 01244 351609  

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When the Romans set up camp on a hillside overlooking the River Dee, they built solidly for the future of Chester. Their walls are the best preserved in Britain, and form the basis of a 2-mile route march around the ramparts, mostly 20 or 30 feet above ground level. Give it at least an hour, taking time here and there to admire the view and read the helpful historical markers.

In fact the Tourist Information Centre at Chester Town Hall has promoted a Festival Trail, extending the standard Roman-wall circuit by way-marking a route past 40 buildings of varied architectural interest.
Chester Cathedral, built by the Normans
There are medieval town houses to admire, built by wealthy merchants, and the remains of Chester Castle, built by the Normans in 1070. 

But many visitors find it hard to tear themselves away from Chester's unique double-decker shopping streets. According to 'Good Housekeeping' magazine, Chester rates among the world's top five shopping cities, alongside Barcelona, Boston, Brussels and Milan. 

The double-decker system arose in medieval times, when Chester became wealthy as an army base for Norman campaigns against the Welsh. 

At that time, Chester was also the main port of northwest England. Merchants grew rich with a flourishing trade, exporting candles, salt and cheese, and importing luxury goods.

Local businessmen found that money was plentiful, but space inside the city walls was scarce. Hence the solution of building the shopping streets on two levels. Narrow flights of steps led to covered galleries above - the so-called Rows. 

The stylish setting is a huge tourist attraction today, and the city does everything possible to preserve the charm. The Victorians did their bit, rebuilding parts of the main streets in half-timbered style. 

Today, Chester is one of the very few UK cities where big chain stores don't dominate the shopping centre. Instead their facades are low-key, and the big stores are mostly located where they don't spoil the scenery. Along the main street levels and the Rows, there are boutiques, specialist shops, restaurants, cafes, antique stores and picture galleries - all making a varied choice for keen shoppers.

Chester's good fortune was that the River Dee began silting up in the 17th century, and the city slowly lost its grip as the main port of the northwest. Despite building a canal called The Cut, the newcomer called Liverpool took over the shipping trade, especially when ships became so much larger. 

The result was that industrialisation passed Chester by, leaving the city with its history and charm intact. It became a popular pleasure destination, complete with good shopping, theatres and plenty of inns and taverns. 

Another big attraction was Britain's oldest racecourse, dating from the 16th century. Chester Races are staged on the Roodee, once the site of the massive Roman harbour. Fragments of the harbour wall still remain.

The Town Crier has an announcement to make The Romans themselves had a great liking for sport and entertainment. They built a garrison-town amphitheatre seating 7000 for all the arena performances, festivals and circuses. The site is still being excavated. 

Among the other reminders of the past, Chester's richly-costumed Town Crier rings his bell and makes his proclamations every Tuesday to Saturday midday at the Cross from Easter to September. 

Beyond the city walls, there are other attractions within easy reach. Take a pleasure-boat cruise on the River Dee, or a Restaurant Boat cruise along the canal system with lunch or dinner aboard.
Chester's clock commemorates Queen Victoria's Jubilee above one of the Roman city gates.
Chester Zoo has an international reputation for animal conservation. A spooky attraction is the dimly-lit Bat House - the largest of its kind in Britain, beautifully constructed. Since the opening in 1998, the very prolific bats have bred well. The free-flight bats zoom around you, en route from hanging upside down from twigs and branches to dining off bananas. 

It's an added reason for going bats about Chester. 

Consider these other destinations in the North West

LANCASHIRE COAST - Turning the tide

LIVERPOOL- Beyond the Fab Four 

MANCHESTER - is more than United

SHIP CANAL - Cruising on the Manchester Ship Canal

"Books to read - click on cover pictures" or click on the links below

Roman Chester, City of the Eagles  by David J.P. Mason - A detailed study of the life of the Romans who were garrisoned in the city. Written by a leading expert who has made a lifetime's study of the site.

The Cheshire Regiment  by Ronald Barr - If you were interested in the military museum at Chester, here's an interesting photographic compilation on the history of one of England's oldest County regiments.

Chester: More Than a Guide - a handy guide in the Jarrold City Guides series.

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