What's great about Chester

PUBLISHED: 16:46 30 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:07 20 February 2013

Coun Stuart Parker, Vice-Chairman of Chester Renaissance

Coun Stuart Parker, Vice-Chairman of Chester Renaissance

Patrick O'Neill discovers that the place for today's gladiators is not the Colosseum in Rome but the amphitheatre in Chester

Here gladiators died. Here Christians were martyred. Here wild beasts fought tooth and claw. And here stood I, under the grim gaze of the Roman goddess, Nemesis, a shiver rippling down my spine. Cheshire Life reporting from the heart of a Roman amphitheatre. Had the editor finally thrown me to the lions?
This wasn't the Colosseum in Rome, but the heart of modern Chester, where the most dangerous beasts in sight were not charging rhinos, but motorists whizzing around the ring road. And now at last as part of a massive redevelopment project, Chester amphitheatre has become the place to visit this summer.
Here you follow the footsteps of gladiators, picnic where legionnaires drilled and go roamin' with the Romans.
And later this year thanks to efforts by Chester Renaissance, headed by their dynamic chief executive Rita Waters, you will also enjoy a dramatic 3-D mural of the site, which will turn the Chester amphitheatre into a theatre of adventure for students, visitors and archaeologists alike. Further public/private partnership plans for the city walls, Cathedral, and a modern business quarter will make Chester a must-see European destination' for the 21st century.
Perhaps I was gilding the imagination a bit, with my gory gladiators, saintly Christians and roaring lions. But it is certainly true that this year in Chester you will enjoy a feast worthy of a modern city. See our information box for details.
But as my long-time partner in crime, photographer John Cocks and I discovered, you don't need an excuse to come to Chester. Just go 'walk-about' any time. Led by official tour guide Jean Sullivan we started with a 'taste of Chester' which included a visit to Mervyn Howard at Corks Out on Watergate Street where you can try Eastgate Ale (2.50 a bottle). Or Krug champagne 1985 (a snip at 800.) Alternatively take a ghost tour, a history tour or (back to our theme again) a Roman tour with a 'real Roman soldier'.
Passing a gaggle of giggling schoolkids led by a legionary, we stopped at Chester's five star Grosvenor Hotel, where Lady O'Neill and myself once had a dinner to die for at Simon Radley's Michelin starred restaurant. Food for thought indeed.
Over by the Cross we met the Rev David Chester, rector of St Peters, who reminded us that those Christian martyrs at the amphitheatre were the reason that the royal church of St John was established in their memory by the Saxon King Ethelred and became Chester's first cathedral. (Talking of Saxons, there's also a local legend that Kind Harold didn't die at the Battle of Hastings but survived, retired to Chester and lived on as a hermit here. One in the eye for the Normans, maybe?)
But just in case Cocks and I are accused of being an 'odd couple' of ancient grouches we also talked to Lewis Brown, retail management graduate of Edinburgh's Heriot Watt university who pointed out that for young people Chester 'has a long way to go' to catch up with Edinburgh's festive fare.
But for 'places to pop in and shop in' its wonderfully tight location within the city walls makes it the perfect bijou city.
Down Watergate Street with Punch cartoonist Albert Rusline we found much about Chester to raise a smile, in particular my fond memories of the city. (There was the occasion when my secretary emptied our office on Watergate Street by shouting. 'Look girls. Two men in mini skirts'. And walking up the street was a Roman soldier and a Scotsman.) During the period when Cheshire Life has its base in Chester, both my local pub and the Cheshire Life office were called The Old Custom House. And head office in Preston never knew which one I was in!
PS. Don't mention this to our corporate head office in Norwich or maybe they really will throw me to the lions this time.

Patrick ONeill was editor of Cheshire Life for 18 years before retiring in April 2008.

The festival, 'Chestival 2010' includes:
A Roman weekend (June 11th to 13th) with marches of hundreds of Romans through the streets, live Roman games at the amphitheatre, a gala Roman banquet and a fully working Roman village
The World Town Crier Competition (June 15th to 18th).
Chester Mystery plays. Noah's Ark, performed on the original pageant wagon (June 17th to 20th)
The Giants of Chester, 50 giants parade through city (June 18th to 20th)
Chester summer music festival with the Tallis Scholars, Kathryn Tickle, and the European Union Chamber Orchestra. (June 30th to July 14th )

Rhino mania, featuring 70 rhino sculptures throughout the city July 5th to mid-September
Cycle Sunday: Focus on BMX and mountain bikes (June 27th)
And of course Chester Races from May to September.

Chesters world city bid
Chester aims to become a World Heritage site. If successful it would rank alongside some of the worlds iconic landmarks like The Great Wall of China and the Pyramids of Giza as an international visitor centre. Cheshire West and Chester Council were leading the drive to qualify for inclusion on the World Heritage List. Council leader Mike Jones said: 'I believe that Chester has all the assets necessary to qualify for this premier League of historic attractions. From the walls, rows, cathedral and amphitheatre, to some of the earliest council houses in the country, our architectural heritage spans every period from the Romans onwards. Added to this we have Grosvenor Park, St Johns and the Old Dee Bridge, to complement our riverside area.'

Chester snippets
Football A brief hearing at the High Court in London ended 125 years of history for Chester City Football club when they were wound up over debts owed to Her Majesty's Revenue and Customs. The campaign now is to create a new 'phoenix' club on the lines of AFC Wimbledon with the support of fans, local councils and businesses.
Chester University Honorary graduates have included: HRH The Prince of Wales; Ian Botham; Ken Dodd; Dame Joan Bakewell; Poet laureate Sir Andrew Motion; Terry Waite CBE and the Earl of Derby.
The Eastgate Clock is second only to Big Ben as the most photographed clock in England
The Rows, Chester's unique 700 year-old shopping galleries provide superb undercover shopping.
Chester Zoo has 7,000 animals including an 'eastern black rhino calf,' the first to be born in Chester for ten years.
Chester walking tours are conducted in Cantonese, Dutch, French, German, Italian, Russian and Spanish.
For more information: www.visitchester.com or www.chesterrenaissance.co.uk

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