Medieval cellars, an adult crèche and German sausages — now that’s how to celebrate Christmas in Chester.
Sue Jaques is lost in childhood reverie. “I remember when I was six years old my dad took me to Woolworths to buy velvet bows for my hair.”
We’re standing under the brass chandeliers in the former Georgian ballroom, the tables laid for afternoon tea, at Booth Mansion on Chester’s Watergate Street. Individual mini Christmas trees glisten festively at each window and a grand piano stands ready for a post-party rendition of Fairytale of New York.
I’m eyeing up the stollen cake. And remembering my own childhood Christmas shopping trips to Chester, hunting for Space Lego at Toycraft.
“I had to dress up and wear my shiniest shoes,” adds co-manager Sue. “I’ve always thought there’s something magical about Christmas in Chester ever since.”
Sue will be serving a festive take on Booth’s signature afternoon tea (£25pp, including a glass of Prosecco) this December, as well as joining activities on December 2 for the Watergate Street Festival, a day of family activities as part of Chester’s Christmas countdown.
She may be all grown up these days but the atmosphere in the city still brings out the little girl in her.
I’m exploring the city afresh with Rows Revealed, a new walking tour by the Guild of Chester Tour Guides. It proves that history and Christmas shopping are not mutually exclusive — not in Chester, anyway.
Timed to coincide with late-night shopping until 8pm and evening parades, notably the Chester Winter Watch Parades on December 7 and 14, it proves Thursday is the new Saturday in Chester.
“Tours are not just for tourists,” says guide Liz Roberts. “Locals forget that Chester is a unique place to browse for presents in a truly historic setting.”
The 90-minute walking tour cuts a swathe through centuries of history from the Roman settlement of Deva Victrix to the modern day via the founding of the medieval, half-timbered Rows, the double shopping galleries built around 1350.
It also highlights the stories behind the hidden-gem hideaways while pointing out some of the Chester’s independent shops, cafes and galleries en route. It would be perfect to combine with a pre-Christmas weekend away, staying at one of Chester’s cosy B&B and eating out at one the city’s great independent restaurants.
An early stop offers a rare glimpse into the basement of Pret A Manger. Most of the customers taking a bargain-hunting break don’t realise the Roman colonnades that surrounded the Principia, the headquarters of the Roman fortress from the second century AD, are right under their feet.
Stepping into the cobblestone cellar of wine and spirits specialist Corks Out , meanwhile, feels like stepping back to the time when perishable goods would have been unloaded from ships on the River Dee. The building may have hosted wine merchants since the medieval era. It has a Winter Tasting on November 29 (£15pp) with over 200 wines from independent suppliers.
The next stop reveals a haven of tranquility to escape the present-buying frenzy. The sampling lounge for cigar and whisky aficionados at Turmeaus, complete with leather chairs and photos of Ché Guevara and Marianne Faithfull, has the ambiance of a genteel gentleman’s club, or an adult creche. But, explains retail assistant Calum Conn, the shop is increasingly popular with a younger clientele discovering it through social media.
“My fiancée, Jo, and I love the ceremony of a cigar — the cutting, the toasting. You have to put an hour aside and relax,” he smiles, suggesting a H. Upmann majestic (£11.49) for a newbie like myself from the range of hand-rolled cigars.
“A good cigar,” he adds, “is a hobby, not a habit.”
Home from home
We head back via gifts and art shop Sally’s Secret Garden, stopping to admire the carved, 17th-century ceiling with clues to Chester’s role in the English Civil War, and finish back at the friendly Visitor Information Centre (VIC). The Chester-branded Christmas puddings and glass tree decorations, painted with images of Chester Cathedral, are selling fast.
Outside the Christmas market is in full swing and the Christmas Tree Festival brings a waft of pine needles to the cloisters of Chester Cathedral. I finish my festive wanderings around the stalls of independent traders, checking out the mulled gin and the personalised decorations. But if one thing says Christmas, it’s sausages.
Andreas Lange brings a taste of Bavaria to the market and chose Chester for its Gemütlichkeit — a festive atmosphere of warmth, cosines and feeling at home.
“Great atmosphere, nice people,” he says, tempting me with some savory treats my own children will love. No wonder Andreas will be hanging his stocking in Cheshire this Christmas.
The wonder of Christmas in Chester, then. It brings out the child in us all.
Call to action: Rows Revealed tours run Thursdays at 2pm until December 21, then last Sunday of each month throughout 2018. Tickets (£7pp) from the guide; book at email@example.com. More from christmasinchester.com.
David Atkinson is a travel writer but always returns home to Chester; more from atkinsondavid.com.
Three more festive faves
Get your festive fix in Chester and Cheshire with three more family activities:
- The Lanterns at Chester Zoo, a family-friendly experience from arts group Wild Rumpus, brings Santa’s sorting office to the zoo- chesterzoo.org
- Canal cruise with Father Christmas at the National Waterways Museum in Ellesmere Port and the Anderton Boat Lift near Northwich- canalrivertrust.org.uk
- Tudor-style Yuletide celebrations at Little Moreton Hall, near Congleton, including traditional-craft workshops and live entertainment- nationaltrust.org.uk/little-moreton-hall