Before setting out this morning, I watched a recording of the Red Dragon movie. As I like to follow trails of coincidence as well as physical routes, in Chester I looked for some William Blake in Waterstones, one of the shops in the medieval Rows, a sort of upper storey to the streets. (The title of the film and the book it is based on, and much of the lurid action, relate to a Blake painting.) I could have got a decent hit of Blake for just £1.90 (Dover Thrift Edition) or £2.00 (Everyman), but settled for a Vintage Classics collection, selected and introduced by Patti Smith (£6.99). Massaging my post-purchase blues by the fire in the Bear and Billet, a 17th-century pub by the south city wall, I decided that opting for the costlier, fancy-schmancy, fanboy version had been a good move, if only for a quote from PS’ intro: ‘Thus we are condemned to stagger rootless upon the earth in search for our fingerprint on the cosmos‘.
Today’s staggering has been into, and out of, Chester – via outskirt streets lined with tattoo parlours, martial arts suppliers, charity shops, fancy dress hire shops, alternative therapy emporia and the like. The centre is, by contrast, resolutely upmarket – even the ‘Hed Shop’ has the alienating glow emitted when a high-end luxury-goods niche is being mined.
There is a denseness to Chester, perhaps from the accumulated layers of time – still a Roman city (‘The Empire Never Ended’, as Philip K Dick warns), with accretions from more recent periods still visible and interwoven with the modern – half-timbered Disney shop, constellations of gum on stone flags, market minstrel singing James Blunt, wifi-enabled Via Principalis.
I felt lighter as I moved away from the main drag, walking down Bridge Street – the heritage and lifestyle elements were still there, just a bit less closely-packed. (Jen: I bought an Aga! Only kidding…) I enjoyed the aforementioned pub stop (where I could have had a Chester-brewed beer, but as it was called ‘Devastation’ and had 5.2% alcohol instead settled for a nice IPA from the Isle of Man), and soon afterwards dragged my spiritually weary and uncertain bones into St John the Baptist Church, next to the Roman amphitheatre. This was once the city cathedral, and is an impressively beautiful church with a sense of a place well-used and hospitable. The Rector barrelled towards me like a visitor-seeking missile and a hearty conversation ensued. Normally I hate being accosted in places o’ worship, but this guy is OK by me: a priest who has ‘seen the worst evil of mankind’ (according to a press cutting in the porch), and who aims to raise £9m to transform the church for a wider range of uses both secular and spiritual.
From there I visited the Visitor Centre – rather desultory from a tourist point of view, but with excellent ‘bathroom facilities’. (Note to self; given age, plan route on WC availability as well as (ideally combined with) wifi access.) This is here the plastic horned helmets come from, and a starting point for walking tours. One of these, the ‘Gladiator Tour’ is advertised by a lifesized image of a fighting man covered in (but not particularly bothered by) a lot of wounds. (I’m not being sniffy – I doubt that the ‘peace and reconciliation tour’ would get many punters (‘On your left, you can see the site of the house where a Quaker merchant once provided better conditions for his clerks’) and I would have tugged at parental sleeves and demanded the Gladiator one when I was 12 – but it’s interesting that a moment comes when the bloodier details of war, wretchedness and oppression can be turned into fantasy and entertainment.)
Then out again, on the A41 – a road which could take me on much of the journey; a road we used to live a few yards from back in Wolves. Everything connects. More of the lower-rent shops, backpacker hostels in converted pubs, an astrologer, the American Excess Party Limo (a white minibus looking particularly grim in the stark grey light of a cloudy April afternoon).
By four I reached my overnight accommodation (the first to be needed on the journey) – a Premier Inn. I like Premier Inns, but am less keen on their food-partners, Brewers Fayre pubs, often found next door, and presumably run by the same company. In my experience these can be adequate, bad, ingeniously bad (serving a pie upside down so that it resembled the steak-and-kidney pudding I’d ordered) or even surreally bad (serving three small Yorkshire puddings, each with a roast potato nestling in it like and egg in an egg cup, as a surrogate for a ‘giant Yorkshire pudding filled with beef and vegetables’ requested by Jen). The menu in this motel room mentions ‘guest pie’ as one of the options, implying some Sweeney Todd arrangement between the two establishments. Nevertheless I had a look at this one (the Twirl of Hay), but the rows of chilly beer pumps and queue of people waiting to order made me think that this was one of the ‘places fit for woe’ written about by Blake. So I went to Sainsburys instead and bought grazing food.
(Outside the supermarket, a poster says ‘Life flows better with Visa’, reminding me of a flyer for the a talk about ‘Surrendering to the flow’ in a handout from the Chester Theosophical Society I glimpsed back in the Rows. Visa branding at an ontological level now…)
I’m writing this on my EeePC and would have posted it too, bringing this blog into real time, but the wifi charges here are designed for the expense-account market so it’ll have to wait… Jennie is also staying in a Premier Inn tonight, just not this one, so we’re taking advantage of the fact that we’re in identical rooms to create an illusion that we’re actually together. It’s like being at home, only more purple.
Back to my Blake book – any serious walker will find resonance in Blake’s print, The Traveller Hasteth in the Evening…