Posts Tagged ‘chester’

Awake early having slept since 8pm, having had strange dreams perhaps caused by reading Alan Garner’s Thursbitch, a powerful novel of overlapping time, set in Cheshire, deep in the language, mythology and geology of the place. Morning reading somewhat lighter – ‘At Your Leisure with Premier Inn’, a free magazine left in the room. Although produced ‘In association with the Daily Mail’, it doesn’t focus exclusively on the interests of Mail readers (‘The Dover Premier Inn is a great place to relax and thrash yourself into a moral panic about immigration…’) but does offer a copywriter’s view of Britain, divided into tourist zones where ‘whichever attraction you choose, there’s always a Premier Inn close by’. Written for people in the (to me inconceivable) position of entertaining children as well as themselves, it’s full of hyped up, accelerated statements: ‘For the ultimate North West experience check out some of these great attractions: Belle Vue Greyhound Stadium…’

In this scheme, the North West is a place to ‘Do something different’, whereas the Midlands promises ‘Novel ideas for great days out’, (‘novel’ referencing the literary connections, ‘the fascinating worlds of Robin Hood and William Shakespeare, Ivanhoe and DH Lawrence’. The phrase ‘walk back through fossilised time’ brings me back to Alan Garner territory, and the track of today’s walk…


First in the pub as soon as it opens, that’s my policy – in this case 8am for breakfast in the Twirl of Hay. The plan is to stoke up on the all-you-can-eat options, enough to avoid the necessity of a lunch stop, but not so much that I become an immobilised Mr Creosote figure. It’s a friendly place and the breakfast is nice. I enjoyed sitting there as people drifted in. Background music started with a Kraftwerk track, but sadly strayed from a promising krautrock theme into more easy-listening territory. I ate porridge and looked at the motley walls of reclaimed brick, traces of paint and staining indicating the diverse origins of each brick, wondering idly if events of the past might be imprinted on objects in the environment, as suggested in numerous ghost stories such as Nigel Kneale’s The Stone Tape. If so, what happens when the bricks are dispersed – the outhouse wall that witnessed a fevered betrayal now divided between new-build replicas of converted barns, strategically-sited copies of olde worlde pubs, commuter-belt garden walls? Is the recorded experience replicated in all of them? Does each new construction become a massive cutup text of hauntings, or do they all blend into a supernatural emulsion?

If ghostly consciousnesses linger here, I hope they enjoy the endless music (‘Just like Starting Over’), the workaholic wifi breakfast emails, the alcoholic afternoon chasers, the daily dust settling on dried flowers, the slowly evaporating condiments…


But don’t be put off by my entropic whimsy. This breakfast gets 4 stars, the staff are great, all is forgiven on the Fayre front. I’m stoked up, like James Bond ready to ski away from Blofeld’s mountain headquarters. Hang on, that makes me George Lazenby – oh well…

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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


All this lot of photos

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Home now, with leads aplenty, I’ve added pictures from phone and camera to the interweb, for your viewing pleasure.

To whet your appetite, there’s a rather painterly shot of a crane in Leeds.

Moving on, pictures of the Parkgate-to-Chester leg of my main walk are in a set on Flickr.


And in another set,  images in and around the Orbital 2008 SF Convention…

car park

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I’m writing this on Easter Saturday, an in-between-time in the Christian calendar, G-d’s absence made official for a day. I’m in a hotel at Heathrow, a place that exists mainly to be part of the way to other places; sited just within the M25, the imposed city boundary explored by Iain Sinclair in his book London Orbital. We’re not actually going anywhere, though: I’m at Orbital, a science fiction convention, mingling with 1,200 people fluent in reimagined worlds, alternative realities, futures that break in to the present. Resting up. Two days ago I completed the latest leg of my walk, from Parkgate to Chester, through land I don’t know, weaving between countries, between pilgrimage and leisure ramble, art and lark, present and past. Jennie dropped me off and headed on down to Birmingham University to pursue her transgender theology research. As she left, a heron on the saltmarsh ate a fish and flapped lazily away towards the industrial park.

Ultimately I don’t know what I’m doing, but I’m getting something about crossing and recrossing boundaries.

After the heron sighting, possibly the closest I have ever been to one of these birds, I resumed my walk. An immediate sidetrack took me along the Ropewalk, a path through a narrow park, presumably once an actual ropewalk where great lengths of rope would be twisted into being. I tried to skirt Little Neston but (after photographing a dead, abandoned Christmas tree – the first of three seen on this trip) was hurtled into suburban streets. Despite having lived most of my life in suburbs, I find walking through strange ones rather unnerving (more so than cities or countryside.) Perhaps it is because they exist purely to domicile the residents – they do not offer anything for the casual visitor to interact with.

Back in the open, wet wind cutting through me, just walking, the Dee on my right. Veering inland, through villages and farms that are pretty but somehow forbidding (similarly to the suburbs) – without shops, pubs or pavements, these seem like places for the residents only. Handwritten signs warning about traveller sightings in the vicinity add to the exclusive atmosphere. At Shotwick I visited St Michael’s Church, and learned that, like Parkgate, this had been a thriving port before the silting of the river prevented navigation by larger craft. Hard to imagine it as a bustling port, now. You can’t beat geography, it will get you in the end, playing some unexpected trump card. (I wonder what equivalent of silt will eventually silence today’s transport and communication hubs – rendering Heathrow, Spaghetti Junction, and Google as quiet as this place).

Soon after this I negotiated the roundabout where the A550 meets the A558 and found myself (actually a bit lost) in an industrial estate which featured a substantial rookery (ie trees with rooks’ nests, not a mazelike slum filled with Dickensian crime-urchins). Dual-language signs indicated that I had crossed into Wales. I found a disused railway line, transformed into a cycling track and footpath, which headed towards Chester. These kind of paths are like bit like the hyperspace wormholes of science fiction – the directness of the former railways enables you to get to places quickly, without the need to navigate – just keep walking, mile on mile – it almost feels like cheating.


They also act as a kind of subconscious to the towns they pass through, the place where awkward detritus ends up – abandoned beds, dead Christmas trees (artificial and organic), wild growth, secret burnings and scribblings. Some graffiti was quite nice – Ryan’s account of his love for Rachel, recounted on the bench where their first date and kiss occurred, et seq.

A mile or so outside Chester I switched to the path along the Shropshire Union Canal. Entering a city via a waterway is a gentle and somewhat covert way in – it’s hard to tell where the city limits have been crossed, you just sort of arrive, behind things. I climbed up to street level when the buildings looked big enough to be interesting; walked through a terrace/student area and found the city walls. A bookshop on the wall offered some restorative moments. I decided to save a proper exploration of Chester for another time (science fiction was calling me by then), and walked briskly to the station, stopping only for a pint in the Union Vaults, a corner pub with nice beer and an excitable clientele (on this day discussing loudly whether, if we all marched to Westminster at once to institute an Anarchist state, they would be allowed to shoot at us).

The places on this journey were not mine – across flat landscapes where the sky seemed big and empty. Now and again a strange cluster of things caught my eye: daffodils around a No Through Road sign; a discarded leather jacket behind a stone gatepost, snails clustered in its empty socket. Metal fenceposts sang in the wind.


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