The only home in Chester that had no 17th century plague victims now houses the city’s independent coffee shop; and our featured place for tea is bidding to become the UK’s only tea room in a Grade I listed building.
Yep, there’s a lot of history to Chester, going back even to the Romans, who actually called the place Deva. But a lot of the really old stuff is covered up now.
The Roman amphitheatre is kept under cover, apparently for its own protection, so all we can see is its shape – and we’re left wondering what might have happened had the local authorities gone ahead with their original plan of building a road right over the top of it…
The Victorians actually had a far better sense of urban development and I defy most visitors to Chester to tell the difference between the original Tudor shop fronts and the Victorian refurbishments.
As we walked along the upper level of these Tudor-looking Rows, we stumbled across a tea and coffee merchants. Bollands is actually a 19th century company that went out of business ages ago, but just reopened last Monday, with Penny Warren and her partner in charge.
They’re just finding their feet and haven’t even installed a kettle yet to allow potential customers to try a brew, but this looks like a great initiative and we’ll be interested to see which local coffee shops and tea rooms stock their stuff before we finish our research at the end of the year.
For now, though, we were heading for the only real espresso bar in town. Barista’s in Watergate Street is run by Andy and Jaci, with daughter Alice helping out. They’re real coffee enthusiasts, encouraging punters to try their feature single-estate coffee from Thailand, but not complaining when all we wanted was a standard cappuccino.
The coffee here was great, and there’s a good overall vibe, helped I’m sure by the ‘God’s Providence’ wording over the front of the house. After all, this was the only home in Chester not to see any plague victims in the 17th century.
So, with ‘God’s Providence’ behind us, we stepped confidently up to Chester Cathedral…
Sadly, this didn’t start too well. You see, I’m all for donating to cathedral funds if they recommend a certain amount, but there’s something that doesn’t feel right when you’re told you can’t enter a place of worship without paying. And that’s where the Chester Cathedral experience begins: at the cash desk. The small print says you can go in for a service or to worship, but funnily enough there was no suggestion of offering your money back when told to stop your tour for a moment of prayer or when the dean invited everyone to join their daily service.
I’ll blog elsewhere on this issue because the main focus here is coffee and tea, but I’m afraid all in all Chester Cathedral felt the most impersonal, corporate and unwelcoming of the 35 cathedrals I have had the joy to visit this year. Hey, they didn’t even have people around to take you on a guided tour!
So let’s move back to the safer territory of coffee and tea…
We were delighted to find Katie’s tea rooms in Watergate Street just down the road from Barista’s coffee. Set in a fabulous 14th century merchant’s house, Katie’s serves you fine loose-leaf tea, with home-baked scones and wonderful clotted cream. They’ll also do you a proper three-tiered platter style Afternoon Tea.
This was a fine way to end our day in Chester, but we were surprised to see the place filling up rather than getting quieter as we finished our tea at around 4.30pm. Do the people of Chester keep to the traditional English tea-time? Well, when they’re about to go to the races, it seems…
Yes, Chester’s racecourse is only a five minute stroll from the centre of town, and Katie’s was filling up with racegoers getting a spot of tea before the off. Hmmmm, now there’s an idea for a future book: Fancy a Cuppa Before the First Race? Something to think about…Chester, we’ll be back!