If only to see a Row, Chester is a fascinating, fun place to go!
"Chester? Hollyoaks and the races? That's it isn't it?"
Ignorance is never a defence in a court of law but how wrong can a man be? Chester has history, nightlife, a food scene, friendly drunks and the Rows. But more about the Rows later.
"Wetherspoons, just pubs aren't they?"
Again, how wrong can a man be? And good job I was wrong because my bed for the night was in a Wetherlodge. The hotel arm of the giant pub chain.
There are 57 Wetherspoon hotels in the UK and the Republic of Ireland. And the only surprise is why Tim Martin's keeps so quiet about them.
So the story goes when Mr Martin set up Spoons over 40 years ago due to a legal wrangle he could open pubs, as in actual pubs, hence why banks, cinemas, bowling alleys and fire stations suddenly started being turned into Wetherspoons.
However, those days are long gone. Because the Wetherspoons pub and hotel in Chester, the Bull and Stirrup is very obviously where generations of Chesteronians, or is it Chesterites or Chestertons have congregated for a good time.
Standing proud on a corner yards from the town's historic walls the Bull and Stirrup has all the majesty and grandeur proper pubs from yesteryear were built with. First opened in 1889, the Northgate Street pub was named after a nearby cattle market which is long gone.
Inside there are nooks and crannies, inside nooks and crannies, tiling to die for and better stained glass windows than many a church. And when I found out it was officially reopened by Ricky Tomlinson, I knew it was fit for a Royal. Wetherspoons bought the pub in 2014 and Ricky cut the ribbon in 2017 after a £2 million refurbishment which created a new beer garden and 11 en-suite rooms.
Always worth a read, the walls told story how the pub played a pivotal part in bearded left-winger's life. In the 1970s as plasterer he attended union meetings which would lead to his, and his comrades illegal jailing in 1973, enshrining them forever in the Trade Union movement as the Shrewsbury 24.
We were in the original part of the pub and hotel and our room was unique, and a great view down the street towards the old town.
The pub's extension is not like a carbuncle created to cynically squeeze every drop of floor place for profit. The outdoor area meant smokers and sun-lovers had enough space to enjoy their morning, afternoon or evening, but close to me so I could eavesdrop on multiple conversations, which is always a good way to judge a new place. I'm pleased to report the regulars and visitors all pointed to a funny, contented crowd happy to chat for England.
After jumping in the shower then peeking through our window into the old town, there was only ever going to be one course of action.
"Let's pop out for one," my girlfriend and I agreed.
Before coming back, to get ready to go out, out.
A great idea in principle, if we hadn't seen the Rows. Walked down the Rows. Drank and ate in the Rows. Or spoke to anyone in the Rows.
What are the Rows? Well they make Chester totally unique.
Imagine, the first floor of a city's buildings all being connected, and all having a balcony. And all unique, with people's creative juices flowing all over them for centuries. Some say they date back to the Roman fort Deva almost two millennia, others point to a more Medieval start to life, but everyone agrees they have played a huge part in Chester's history and culture.
I've been to cities all over the West Midlands, and the world. And have never seen anything like the Rows. The city was quiet when we were there on a Friday night, but I can just imagine what it must be like if there is a giant procession, they have a kind of Game of Thrones quality, the townspeople could cheer or boo or throw muck at any kind of hero or villain safe in the knowledge they are out of harm's way.
Chester old city is a grand place. Well under two hours on the train from Wolverhampton, going north, thankfully north as compared to similar distance south could mean a £3 differential in the price of a pint.
Sitting on the River Dee, Chester has always been popular, and not just with those of use trying to beat the cost of living crisis. The Romans put Chester on the map, and the city's townsfolk have been improving the place for the last 2,000 years.
We we shouted down from a Row to the street below to compliment a fellow on his pork pie hat. Before you could say 'actually, I'm on a date with my girlfriend' he had bounded up the stairs bought us shots. I mentioned, as a Brummie, I had massive gaps in my knowledge about Chester.
Well, not anymore, he was a walking talking Mr Chester, he showed us where his first newspaper selling spot was, told us tall tales, Roman wall tales and a few tragic ones too.
After a tour of some of his favourite pubs, including Everton striker Dixie Dean's old place, our new friend invited us to his bar, which we were later told was not his bar, but who cares, his was a welcome I wish I got in every city. The pubs are fantastic in Chester, many seem to interconnect to another, and only the next day did we work out how.
We staggered back into our hotel, around 11pm, and then back out again to see what could be gained in the early hours, drinking, dancing and a kebab were all easily found. Chester has some truly great pubs and bars, and this being the North, a drink will not cost a day's wages.
By the time we woke up in time for breakfast at the Spoons we'd decided to return for a day at the races, or a more relaxed sojourn. Our previous night gave us plenty to talk about over a grand breakfast, our full English hit the spot, and much better than your average hotel chain morning offering.
We decided, one night was never going to be enough in Chester, but we had to visit Sick to Death before we returned home.
Maybe not the best idea hung over as the museum explores the gory story of diseases, doctors and dying in the medieval world, and the smells were extremely realistic, too realistic maybe for a 40 something hangover.
Sick to Death is in the old St Michael's Church in the old town and is certainly worth a visit, its not stuffy and too serious as too many museums are, but with staff who stay in character and interactive exhibits designed to get the giggle muscles going, this is fun for all the family.
But hair of the dog was needed and we retired to The Victoria, a pub dating back to a century when your life expectancy probably wasn't even old enough to buy a legal drink today. Taking a drink into the courtyard of the 13th Century pub helped us place a missing piece in the previous night's memory jigsaw.
As The Rows are connected, its easy to walk into one place, go into another and have no idea where you are when you leave. But just a few hours before, we had been in a hotel, come nightclub which had rattled our brains with great music, but also where a grifting regular and barmaid tried to swindle a free drink out of my girlfriend. However, it was about as subtle as Hollyoaks storyline and she noticed, as did I standing 10 yards away. So we complained, and refused to leave without a refund, so, and I guess this goes for anywhere, keep your wits about you when the Witching Hour whizzes by. I'd say it left a bad taste in the mouth, but the expensive watered down cider did that for me anyway.
However, whilst enjoying the Guinness from the Victoria, we found out it was a rail strike day and it looked like we would not have a choice.
Where to stay? The Wetherlodge of course.
Alas, there were trains so we headed back home, but knowing we would be returning.
En-suite rooms at the Bull & Stirrup are available from £79 per night. For more information or to book a room visit https://hotels.jdwetherspoon.com/hotels/the-bull-and-stirrup/.