For the last two mornings I’ve opened the blind to find the sky looks black and threatening. This has not been an ideal situation for going outside because as we all know a black sky usually means a horrific deluge is imminent. Now we reach the third morning and I also don’t like the sky. It’s grey, not quite black, but it could still chunder it down any second.. Dare I go outside today? I decide not to go out and crawl back down into bed and pick up Inspector Morse for a bit of light reading before I get up and start working for the day. Some time later I look up from my book and see the colour of the sky has altered from grey and potentially about to chunder to blue with a few clouds. Its still early but that doesn’t stop me from leaping out of bed, putting some clothes on, packing a bag and checking the train times. It is time for a long awaited return to Chester!
By the time I am heading for the bus stop the sky is no longer blue. It’s gone back to grey. No matter. I’m out now and if the worst should happen I have a rain coat in my bag. Then I almost don’t catch the bus but the driver is one of those kind souls who stops when they see someone jogging for the stop. Not all bus drivers are like that, unfortunately. Some take an especial joy in driving right on. It is then at this point that I realize I haven’t had any breakfast, not even a rudimentary perk-up breakfast. Again, this is no biggy. I can either get something at the station or make breakfast my first priority when I reach Chester.
The station has no decent breakfast options available, just a small café selling stuff that isn‘t good for breakfast… Chocolate bars mainly. It is also noisy and I am left, as I wait for my train, trying to guess what song my iPod is playing. All I can hear is the occasional thud and a bit of a beat. This game continues after the train arrives for it is certainly no modern contraption. As it pulls into the station, making my guessing game all but impossible, I wonder what the hell this thing that has just pulled up is. The front looks like an armoured troop carrier and the rest… Errr… It clearly wasn’t built any time in the last twenty years. Who needs electronic doors when you can open the window, lean out and push some handle down? It looks like it was designed in the eighties as well. Though the seats certainly aren’t that old (they’ve clearly been re-upholstered) the rest of the train is that old and looks it. I’ve seen a train like this before, though that was in a slightly worse condition than this. It was on my way from Birmingham to Bristol and it was god awful. The train is crowded and I find myself on a table seat facing a lemon faced upper-middle aged lady and squashed into the corner by an old man and his large collection of newspapers. I curl up, jam my headphones into my ears as far as they’ll go, I still can’t hear much of the music, and bury my head in my e-reader (Finnegan’s Wake, just to make it look like I’m reading something when I’m really not reading anything much at all.) I start thinking of places in Chester where I can get breakfast.
Distracted briefly by a woman loudly talking on her phone. Is there one of these on every train? There always seems to be. She’s going on about how good the train is. HAH HAHA HAHAAHA HA! I almost burst out laughing. This train isn’t good. It’s not the worst train I’ve ever been on but it comes close. I’d say it’s at least the third worst. The doors aren’t even electric and the thing reeks of out datedness. The British railway system doesn’t do good trains. The best you’ll ever get is a Virgin. The lady obviously doesn’t travel by train much and it shows.
I’m still thinking about breakfast when I reach Chester and I’ve decided I want somewhere that does coffee as well, an over the top one with marshmallows and lots of chocolate in it! There’s at least two hotels opposite the station and my first thought on seeing them is to check the menus. Then reality slaps me in the face and before I’ve even crossed the road I’ve ruled them out, knowing the prices will be steep. Also the coffees won’t likely be over the top. So I go onto the city centre, passing by a bus which has something Welsh written on the side. It’s a nice little reminder of how close I am to the border here, less than a few miles. I think that one of these days I’ll have to get around to exploring the border country, go walk Offa’s Dyke and all that.
I check a few cafés on the way to the centre, one of them a Café Nero (where I can get my ridiculous coffee) but they all look either full or a bit pricey for a breakfast and a coffee. I eventually reach the heart of the city and after slipping into the bank for a quick deposit I keep looking for a place. I go on straight down the world famous rows, looking about, and I eventually find myself outside a place called ‘The Baristas.’ It looks like it might be good for breakfast but I can’t see if there are any free tables so I go in to have a look. Down a flight of stairs and I find it’s a cool basement sort of café and there are tables. This is where I’ll have breakfast then. The downside is that it isn’t the sort of place that sells ridiculous coffees packed with marshmallows and chocolate. Never mind- There’s a delicious looking pecan pie under the counter instead… It is tempting. I’m immediately approached by a nice serving lady with a beautiful smile. All of a sudden I’m conscious that my own mouth is a f***ed up mess thanks to years of cack, fourth rate dentistry and a lack of NHS treatment where I live. I try and keep my mouth shut as much as I can and only order a mocha. I really want that pecan pie and I am sorely tempted but I abstain for some reason. I regret it. I still regret it. Why didn’t I ask for the pecan pie? I start to wonder this as soon as I sit down at a table and wait for my mocha.
A few minutes later… Stick me on a dragon and call me Daenerys! Is that the guy who plays Peter Baelish on Game Of Thrones over there? Most likely not but the resemblance is uncanny. My own coffee arrives. It’s superb, one of the best I’ve tasted. A five star, melt in the mouth mocha. I want to savour it and along comes my second regret, that I only bought a small coffee instead of a medium or a large. I keep it going for as long as possible, staying in this fantastic café. I love the place. There’s a bit of exposed stone wall just behind not-Peter Baelish and the archaeologist in me can’t help notice it’s been patched up or rebuilt at some stage. Most of it is large blocks but there’s a bit towards the bottom and in the middle that is made of smaller, tidier bits of stone. The immediate temptation, as this is Chester, is to say that part of it is Roman but just as the guy opposite is unlikely to be Peter Baelish that wall is equally unlikely to be Roman. It’s probably late medieval at best.
I sit for a while with my empty cup, trying to get some dregs of syrup out of the bottom. I wish I could stay here but I have things to do and with a great reluctance I get up to leave. I’ll be back, I hope. I’ve fallen for this place. I drop my cup at the counter, give the waitress lady a closed mouth smile and say goodbye when she wishes me a nice day. As I head up the stairs to the exit I hear a snippet of conversation and catch the words ‘cute though’ coming from the mouth of one of the waitress ladies. Somehow I don’t think she’s talking about me. Whatever or whoever she is talking about, I don’t know.
Outside, filled with coffee and regret that I didn’t go for the pecan pie, I walk down towards the end of Watergate street. I stop outside an estate agency, seeing the words RENTAL. I’ve never really been able to see Chester as a place I want to live in. I like it, don’t get me wrong, but it has never felt like a liveable city. It was one of the many reasons I rejected coming to university here. Now I’m looking at these flats and for the first time I see it as a potential home. Some of these flats are alright, and for a reasonable price as well. Me and Chester could work I suppose and it would be a great base for exploring the borders and north east Wales. Alas, my heart belongs to another so it is never to be. I drag myself away and look in other windows, at the shops and the restaurants and what not. I don’t go in any, but I look.
A side street catches my eye, Crook street. Ah. This must be where the crims hang out! I smile as I pass it by, wondering why I’ve never noticed it before. But as I’m walking away I get an idea… I’ve toyed with various notions of a D.S Proctor sequel before. The most recent involved a wedding where the father of the bride is murdered mid speech- The plan was to call it Death In the Dordogne. But a new sequel begins to emerge in my mind and it’s name is as clear as day: Crook Street. I like it. I really like it. As the idea develops over the rest of the day it somehow ends up involving a person getting mauled by an imaginary lion. I finish my walk up Watergate, right to the end to the church as I seem to do every time I come to Chester, and then turn back. Passing Crook street again I stop to take a photo. That’s the cover for the D.S Proctor sequel if ever it gets written!
This is my fourth photo of the morning. I take it and then a piece of memory floats into my head- I’m in the university careers office. I have a CV prepared and on it are a list of my qualifications, right down to the ‘E’ I got in AS level photography.
‘Oh. I see you’ve got an AS level in photography.’ The careers officer remarks. ‘You could be a photojournalist!’ Erm? No? I failed!- All these years later, at the corner of Crook street with my camera in hand, the remark comes back to be. My photos aren’t half bad. Could I be a photojournalist after all? It could be worth a shot (Could be worth a camera-shot?). So I decide that whilst here I’ll try it out. I’ll take a load of pictures and see if it is at all possible that I could be a photojournalist. Walking back down Watergate I think about structuring the photos around a theme. Chester has plenty of avenues and alleyways and wide boulevards so I decide that I’ll make it that: Avenues and Alleyways. They don’t end up exclusively following the theme but whatever. The attempt was what mattered.
I also want to continue looking for a new jacket and as I’ve so far seen no potential jacket shops on the lower part of this street so I go up onto the rows. There’s a cartoon gallery type shop and I look in the window. A lot of them are pricey but they have some good ones. Is that Danger Mouse? That would look cool on the wall. £100 though. Expensive. I don’t think I’ve ever been up on this part of the rows before but I find that I like the look of the other shops here too. They’re odd and a little bit quirky. One shop a little way down from the cartoon gallery is an oriental rug shop. There’s a toy shop and a restaurant-bistro. The only shop I actually go in is right at the end, a cult-comic book memorabilia type shop. They have more action figures in here than at an action figure convention. And posters too, classic movie ones. Ach, but my walls and posters don’t get along and I’m now of an age where I can’t just stick a poster up, I need to frame it in order to make it look acceptable- A part about being an adult nobody tells you about as a kid, that you need to keep your walls ordered and neat. I’m puzzled by the fact that they do Arrow action figures now. It’s decent enough to pass forty minutes of a week with… But action figures? Really?
On the next bit of the rows, around the corner, there are no shops to interest me (or that sell any jackets) so I go back down to street level. I take pictures as I go and continue to walk down the street, ducking into a dim looking alleyway in order to take a picture. Then I start looking at the menu outside Carluccio’s. I am really regretting not having that pecan pie now and I’m wondering if I can find something here to chow down on. The menu has nothing that immediately catches my eye so I go in to look at the shoppy section. There’s nothing breakfast worthy. It’s mostly cuttlefish ink pasta, whatever that is. Does the cuttlefish ink make a difference? I don’t know.
Over the road and up on the opposite rows I enter into a fancy ornament shop. I’m just in here for a look and to see if they have any model ships for my collection. I can’t seem to find any anywhere these days and whilst I’m passing this place I might as well see if they have any. They don’t but the things here cause me to stop and linger awhile; some ancient Egyptian style boxes, intricately carved chess sets, gothic figures… The back and the front of the shop are square areas and in between is a narrow corridor type section and on it a shelf of blackis ornaments. One little fellow on the top calls out to me. He’s a dragon, a ferocious but genial looking beast, and he’s kneeling down on one knee with a sword in front of him as if to say ‘I am yours to command, good sir.’ I pick him up. How much are you little dragon? The label on his base says four ninety nine. That is a perfect price. The man running the shop today wraps him up carefully for me at the counter.
‘He comes from Germany you know,’ he says to me. ‘They don’t have them in England!’ I say nothing. I smile. I’ve already decided on a name and where he’s from and I don‘t want to ruin this man’s little fantasy with my own. I decided on a name in the same instant as I decided to buy him. And it isn’t a German name. He’s a dragon and where else is the land of dragons but Wales? Just over the border… So of course he has to have a Welsh name and I have chosen Ceilliau, a name I pull from the background of my own literary world. There Ceilliau is a mythical dragon who lives in a gorge in the Carneddau (Ceunant Y Ddraig Ceilliau.) He’ll make a nice addition to my shelf.
More photos around the corner in the really posh bit of the shopping centre, back on the jacket hunt. This part of the shopping centre has nothing for me. I could go for a posh, tailored suit and wander around like I’m in the thirties but not today. I find the rest of the shopping centre, the bit for us humble peasants, has nowhere that sells the kind of thing I’m after, though I do look in an entertainment shop for the sake of it. Then, out the other end, I forget all about that jacket and even breakfast. Why? No idea. I make for the walls, the clock above (more photos) and take a walk up to King Charles Tower and round along the bit by the canal. Last time I was here I was horrified to learn they were closing my favourite second hand book store but now, horror of horrors, the one that was next to it has gone as well. This is madness! This upsets me. Is there now any point coming up this way in future? None that I can see.
Down the road there is a cheese shop I’ve been intending to look in on for a while now. Unfortunately I can’t get to the counter or see any of the cheeses because two men are blocking both it and the view of the cheese. They can see that I’m wanting to look because they both look over their shoulders at me. Then they block yet more of the counter… Bastards. I don’t buy any cheese because I can’t see what there is to buy. The grocery store a few doors down claims, by a single piece in a window display, to sell r’hubarb but after a look around they don’t. This is a lie. A downright, dirty, sneaky, cheating lie of epic proportions! But there’s some good news. As I pass by the Cathedral a sign advertises that it’s free to enter. This is very interesting as Chester used to be one of those Cathedrals that charges an entry fee, except in circumstances like if you’re a pensioner, a young child or are a Chester university student. I’ve been in before but now it’s free so I’m not going to waste this golden opportunity. Mind you… Last time it was free as well; benefits of being with some Chester University students who just so happened to be carrying some spare Chester student’s union cards on them. I’m still not going to waste the opportunity and upon entry I have two leaflets foisted into my hands, one of them is for an art installation called ‘Golgotha’ and the other a general cathedral guide.
You enter through the undercroft and into the cloisters, not the main church as you might do elsewhere. The sense is thus not the same one of power and might that you get upon entering into other cathedrals. It’s more intimate, more humble. If you didn’t know where you were you might think you were in a castle corridor. The stained glass windows give it away though. One of them, I note, is St Ariel. Is St Ariel the patron saint of mermaids I wonder? Actually there is no saint called Ariel… The only Ariel connected with Christianity is an archangel. There is no patron saint of mermaids (Though there is a patron saint of fairies, St Collen, and a patron saint of vampire hunters, St Marcellus) but the closest there is to mermaids is St Senara who is known as the ‘mermaid saint’ and isn’t here. This window of St Ariel is actually one of four windows depicting archangels. The others are Michael, Raphael and Gabriel and all (though in the photo the names are cut off) are labelled as saints. I think there’s a difference between saints and archangels somehow. Other stained glass windows include Henry II giving shade to Thomas Beckett and an abbot of the place, Abbot Whitchurch.
This was never built as a cathedral. It was no more than an abbey up until 1538. Then Henry VIII, in the process of his spat with the monasteries, had it turned into a cathedral. If you think really, really hard you can still imagine the black cloaked, Benedictine monks walking through, heads bowed and their hands in prayer. A short walk around the cloister gardens and I spot a ladder on the roof. That’s for the assassins, right? Of course it is. I continue around the cloisters and then into the main cathedral. There are higher ones, grander ones, but this still isn’t the worst or the ugliest. The trouble is that it doesn’t really stand out from the crowd. There is nothing here to shout ‘look at me.’ Or it seems that way. To my right as I enter I spy an open door and a stairway going upwards. Am I allowed up there? I want to see where it goes and there’s something that seems rebellious in the action. So I look around, make sure nobody is watching, and slip up the staircase. At the top I find a little, light filled chapel… Pleasant and nowhere that looks forbidden. It does look like the kind of place where you might catch a Templar conspirator, however. He’s stood by the altar and as I come into the room he turns around and cries ‘No… Not you assassin!’ Five seconds later he’s dead and I’m escaping by way of the window…
Somewhere in the boring confines of reality, and leaving no dead Templar in my wake, I return down the spiral stairway into the main cathedral. My guide leaflet points out something called the ‘Chester Imp’ and says it’s above one of the windows but I can’t see it. Then around the corner it’s that art installation. An ode to Hellraiser? I appreciate that it’s supposed to be a recreation of the crucifixion but did they really have to stick all the pins in the statues? There’s also an in progress Lego model of the cathedral here. It’s alright. I find that the upper bits of the cathedral, the bits like the lady chapel- I love a good lady chapel me- are closed off because they’re holding a service. Fair do’s I suppose. It is a church after all.
By the time I come out the day is running short and I need to be getting back to the station. On the way I’m crossing this bridge over the canal and I see something I’ve never seen before; an old chimney with a modern lift thing attached. I wonder about it and take a picture, my final picture of the day. When I look through my photos again I see them as not bad, there’s some good ones there, but I don’t think they’re good enough to make me a photojournalist. At the station I buy myself a chocolate bar because I’m starving. I really should have gone for that pecan pie!