Motorhome travel: A weekend in Cheshire
Our weekend motorhome break in Cheshire certainly is one contrast after another – despite it being, in true Brit fashion, mostly cold and damp. What it isn’t, though, is dull and dreary.
Whilst Sophie, our teenage daughter, will remember it as being decidedly nippy (well, she was in a tent alongside our motorhome) and my husband, Robin, and I will recall the speed at which we had to dismantle that tent between showers, what also stays in our memories is the delight of Chester Zoo, the impressive panorama (between the clouds) from Beeston Crag, the amazing engineering behind the Anderton Boat Lift and the charms of Chester itself.
Pulling into Delamere Forest Camping and Caravanning Club site, hardy families head off on bikes into the surrounding woods. The dreary mist adds an ethereal quality to the slender pines, fallen trees and dark lakes, the huge logs sticking out of the water looking for all the world like alligators. Delamere Forest is recognised as a wildlife haven but the shrieks around us come not from animals, but from youngsters negotiating a high ropes course way over our heads.
Luckily, the weather brightens for our trip to the Anderton Boat Lift, the world’s first hydraulic boat lift. Our 90-minute cruise and lift sees us floating along the River Weaver to Northwich and back. Under the glass roof and wraparound windows of the Edwin Clark – named for the engineer who designed and built the 80ft-high iron showpiece – I find myself easing into an uncustomary relaxing pace. I
The lift – often described as one of the Seven Wonders of the Waterways – is an awesome piece of machinery from 1875, which was left sad and desolate in the early 1980s. Thanks to the efforts and stoicism of a restoration group, it’s been back in business since 2002, enabling pleasure craft to move between the Weaver Navigation and the Trent and Mersey Canal.
The highlight of our trip comes at Chester Zoo; no, it’s not the orangutang cuddling her baby or spider monkeys swinging through branches, but the tropical house. We sit in an Indonesian-style hut to watch vividly coloured birds fly around us, their songs drowning out the hubbub of human voices. Birds from southeast Asia, Africa and South America cluster around feeding bowls. Our favourite is the brilliantly hued neon orange male Brazilian tanager. I could stay here all day, but there’s so much more to see: magnificent Sumatran tigers, endangered eastern black rhino, rainbow fish darting among weird and wonderful corals in the aquarium and an immense reticulated python, which is claimed to be the largest snake in Europe.
Julia Bradbury had been the biggest influence on our choice of short break destination. Watching the ITV series 'Britain’s Best Walks' one evening, my attention was caught by Julia’s descriptions of the ridge she was walking along. Then I heard her talking about buried treasure, a surefire way to pique my interest! As Julia expounded about the invigorating Sandstone Trail (34 miles) and the camera panned around to a seemingly infinite vista, I was already planning our trip.
You already know the ‘just my luck’ bit about the weather and did I mention the traffic chaos, too? Nevertheless, even with momentary, fogged-up glimpses of what we would usually be able to see if we’d chosen a better day – eight counties, so I’m told – our visit to Beeston Crag, the high sandstone range running across the Cheshire plain, is stirring. We wend along pretty woodland paths surrounding Beeston Castle and up grassy slopes to the top.
As well as being steeped in history – this ridge was settled in the Bronze Age – there’s a great mystery: the buried treasure, which probably explains almost every visitors’ fascination with the well. It is said that there could be around £200m in today’s money buried in the murky depths of what is England’s deepest well from medieval times. The story goes that Richard II chose Beeston as the hiding place for his personal fortune and no one – despite high-tech investigations – has yet found it.
Chester, just 20 minutes by train from the station next to the campsite, is crammed with fascinating history in almost every wall, street and cellar. In the rather incongruous setting of Spud-U-Like’s basement we feast our eyes on a perfectly preserved part of Roman hypocaust, the heating system which kept the city’s founders warm and their bath water hot.
In the Grosvenor Museum, we are left spellbound – in a rather macabre sort of way – by more than 30 Roman tombstones. We learn something of the lives of the Roman soldiers, women and children just by reading the epitaphs. It’s mind-boggling to realise that some of these epitaphs are for people who died at the time of Christ’s crucifixion.
Like the millions of other tourists who visit each year, we’re entranced by The Rows – double-decker medieval galleries reached by stairs from ground level. Now home to major brands, designer stores and quirky, independent shops, they were named after the businesses which once traded in them: Butter Steps, Honey Steps, Milk Stoops rows and Shoemaker Row.
As we walk the most complete circuit of Roman and medieval defensive town walls in the UK, we get great views of the city’s racecourse – the site of Britain's first horse races almost 500 years ago. En route to Chester Cathedral, where the soaring voices and organ music of a choir practice provides an uplifting soundtrack, we pass the world-famous Eastgate Clock, apparently the second-most photographed clock in the world after Big Ben.
Culinary temptations are everywhere in Chester, from specialist cheese shops to Belgian chocolate shops and elegant patisseries to a twelfth-century stone crypt full of fine wines, so we’re glad of the chance to walk over two miles around the walls and up and down all those steps of The Rows in the traffic-free centre.
We’re still reeling from our whirlwind visit to Chester by the time we get back to the site. Whilst Sophie and her dad go for a last spin on the tree swings, I dream of the clear day when I can climb up Beeston Crag to see what Julia Bradbury was so enthusiastic about. Oh, and of finding some of Richard’s treasure, too…