England means walking.
Memories of country tramps and urban saunters. London, Oxford, and a hundred towns encrusted with time and beauty never lose their appeal to a wanderer on foot. Likewise the rural lanes remain changeless-- the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, the Cotswold and so much more.
Now a region I’ve overlooked before — Cheshire and the Northwest. Not surprising, really, since few Americans travel there. Its reputation is one of industrial towns and rain-swept skies.
But the stereotype is not entirely accurate.
Although Cheshire does lie in the shadow of Manchester and Liverpool, the county abounds in idyllic countryside perfect for hiking, cycling and general poking around. Chester, the one town of any size, is an architectural gem.
The old image of Liverpool — exhausted remnant of Victorian mercantile shipping — must now be replaced by that of a city reborn. The renovated dockside area is now home to first-class museums which invite days of exploration. The downtown core has become a showcase of architectural styles, Georgian to post-modern. This area throbs with the life of shops, restaurants and, still, the nightclub scene which has been a hallmark of Liverpool since the formative years of the Beatles.
When to go? Northwest England, just off the Irish Sea, is notorious for wind and rain. In summer and early autumn warm, sunny days can be expected. Occasionally.
A week-long stay might be parceled into rural and urban segments. My summer trip included sojourns at three country hotels in the heart of Cheshire, plus a couple of days in Liverpool.
All three facilities are operated by Nelson Hotels, a local company, and each has a distinctive strength. The Bear’s Paw, beautifully renovated after a recent fire, is arrayed in rich woods and brass, giving it the feel of a sumptuous, exclusive club. The Pheasant Inn, nestled into the Peckforton Hills, provides marvelous scenery for long walks along the Sandstone Trail. The Pulford Grosvenor Spa & Resort offers an award-winning four star facility with first class spa and easy access to the cultural offerings of Chester.
“England means walking” leaves unsaid what naturally goes with perambulation--food and drink. The upgrade of notorious English cuisine—this has been developing for decades now—means that no longer is the weary hiker faced with dinner fare restricted to fish ‘n chips or boiled lamb with mashers.
Nelson has created a standard of excellence in both quality of victuals and breadth of menu aiming well beyond traditional pub fare. Of course there are pints of English beer to wash it down—and nowadays no barman sneers if you happen to prefer a zesty German lager or Czech pilsner. It’s all there on draft and so too wines from far and wide. Cheers for the Eurozone!
But on to our walks.
The Bear’s Paw is located in the village of Warmingham in southeast Cheshire. Although there are a few pleasant pastoral walks in the immediate vicinity, the main attraction for trampers is nearby Peak District National Park, just across the county border in Derbyshire.
The Park features two types of landscape: in the north, craggy moorlands covered in heather; in the south, gently rolling limestone hills. The latter, nearest Warmingham, features the 13 mile long Tissington Trail, a crushed limestone surface ideal for both walkers and cyclists. If affords fine views of the so-called White Peaks (why the word “peak” is used in to describe this area is a puzzlement—there are no mountain peaks anywhere in the Peaks District). The trail is easy going and can be traversed in a half day. After your walk leave time for a look-around the old spa town of Buxton, which displays some fine Regency and Georgian architecture.
Back at the Bear’s Paw, prop up your weary feet in one of 17 luxury ensuite bedrooms. All have flat-screen TV and WiFi services. Or you might prefer to meander downstairs into the nineteenth century pub, there to forget the outside world. There are six draft ales to sample plus an extensive wine list. How about hearty dinner entrées like pork bellies and calf’s liver, which you mightn’t have dug into for years? Ah, but it’s been a long day’s trek. You’ve earned it!
On to The Pheasant’s Inn, just a few miles down the road into the heart of Cheshire.
Here walkers needn’t bother using a car, since the Inn is situated directly upon the 34 mile Sandstone Trail carved along sandstone ridges into Shropshire. We opted for a half-day circular walk from the Inn, up into the great Bulkeley Woods of ancient oaks and back through the village lanes of Burwardsley.
The terrace at The Pheasant’s Inn affords panoramic views from the Peckforton Hills down over the Cheshire Plain as far as Wales. The Five-Star Inn is intimate--12 ensuite bedrooms folded into a 300 year old sandstone manor also housing the gastro-pub, which displays a food-and-drink menu comparable to that of its sister establishment in Warmingham.
After days of strenuous walking we’re happy to move on to the third Nelson lodging, the Grosvenor Pulford Hotel & Spa a few miles outside Chester. Underline the “Spa” part because we are now in need of both a good soak and a vigorous head to toe rubdown.
Grosvenor Pulford has been expanded from its pub origins into a resort with 73 bedrooms plus full service spa including conservatory pool, Japanese Garden, and adjacent tennis court. There are also sizeable conference facilities. The hotel features two restaurants: the gastro-pub model we’ve already come to enjoy and Ciro’s Brasserie, specializing in Italian cuisine.
Then there is nearby Chester, an ancient town founded by the Romans, much developed during the Industrial Revolution and today a delightful provincial capital of 75,000. Chester is one of the best preserved walled towns in England with a city center of half-timbered buildings beautifully restored during the “black-and-white revival” period of Victorian days.
With its many lively and colorful pedestrian streets, Chester is a great town for walking. A footpath runs along the top of the city walls, roughly a two mile encirclement of the medieval town. This compact core allows for an easy two hour stroll to view the major historical sites, which include Victorian treasures like the Gothic Revival Town Hall, the Grosvenor Museum and Grosvenor Hotel—not to be confused with our aforementioned Grosvenor Pulford Hotel. (Why so many Grosvenors? The Duke of Westminster, long one of the primary landowners in the Chester area, carries Grosvenor as a family name.)
The ornate Eastgate Clock, said to be the most photographed time piece in Britain after Big Ben, was commissioned in 1897 to commemorate the birthday of Queen Victoria. The Clock is gracefully elevated over the half-timbered Rows, one of the oldest shopping districts in England. Other well preserved structures include the Norman-era Cathedral, Chester Castle and the Roman amphitheatre outside the city walls. Grosvenor Museum displays a large collection of Roman antiquities from the region.
And don’t forget the Chester Zoo, a major tourist attraction and largest zoological garden in the United Kingdom!
Just a few miles north of Chester opens out the broad estuary of the River Mersey and, just across its bounding waves, the remarkable city of Liverpool.
In Victorian times Liverpool was a great port city. Nearly 40% of world trade passed through the city’s docks. A diverse immigrant influx of Irish, Chinese and African peoples blended into the native English-Welsh populace to create the Liverpudlian “Scouser”, whose bewildering dialect and cheeky character were notorious throughout the United Kingdom.
Nowadays sites of major interest to tourists are clustered within easy walking distance near the downtown core. UNESCO granted World Heritage Site status to areas like Pier Head, Albert Dock and William Brown Street, which include many of the city’s famous landmarks.
Albert Dock, once one of the world’s busiest commercial hubs, has recently undergone extensive renovations to become the home of first class attractions like the Tate Liverpool art gallery, Merseyside Maritime Museum, International Slavery Museum and the Beatles’ Story, which memorializes the “Mersey beat” sound of the 1960s. The brand new Museum of Liverpool relates the historical record of Liverpool and its people.
From here you can also ride the storied Mersey Ferry across to the Wirral Peninsula. There are also River Explorer Cruises which offer commentary on the area’s maritime history.
Nearby is the Pier Head with its “Three Graces”—the Royal Liver Building; the Cunard Building and the Port of Liverpool Building—symbolic of the once-great maritime wealth of the city.
Just a few blocks inland from Albert Dock the commercial district features the eighteenth century Georgian Town Hall and, around William Brown Street, a number of extraordinary neo-classic structures like St. George’s Hall, the Walker Art Gallery, World Museum Liverpool and Wellington’s Column. In fact, Liverpool has more Grade I designated buildings of historical significance than other city in UK, plus more galleries and national museums than any UK city other than London.
Liverpool is also notably less expensive than London. For a reasonably priced lodging in the trendy RopeWalks district try the new Base2Stay. Situated in an historic 1850s building that has undergone extensive renovation, it features exposed brick and ironwork with massive timber trusses apparently recovered from eighteenth century ships. Base2Stay is organized around the thrifty “smart luxury” concept utilized in their flagship London property: emphasis on useful amenities like Wi-Fi, free internet and kitchenettes combined with the elimination of expensive add-ons like mini-bars, on-site bars and restaurants. The hotel is a few minutes’ walk from many fine restaurants, including those of Liverpool’s large Chinatown, and from Concert Square, the heartbeat of the city’s rich and colorful music scene which roars to life every weekend of the year. The Guinness Book of Records has designated Liverpool as the “World Capital City of Pop”.
Certainly much of Northwest England’s new-found charm comes from its determination to re-invent itself. Whereas London, Oxford and the Cotswolds’ surely still delight us, the Northwest offers England as a new story in old bindings, a revitalized hum that can’t help but beguile the visitor with an eye to fresh vistas.
As any good Scouser will be quick to encourage the newcomer: “Muck in, yer at yer granny’s!” (Which means, more or less, “make yourself at home, eat hearty, and no need to make a fuss about it!)
For further general information about the Liverpool and the Northwest the following websites are useful:
Very useful for travel in the United Kingdom are a pair of money-saving passes: the Great British Heritage Pass and the London Pass. GBPH, available only to overseas visitors, gives you entry to nearly 500 of Britain's finest heritage sites, including famous castles, palaces, gardens, churches, and monuments. Most of these are outside London. For London attractions best bet is the London Pass, which provides entry into more than 55 major London venues and tours. For more information on obtaining these passes go to www.britishheritagepass.com and www.londonpass.com respectively.
— Feature by Jerry Nemanic, Jetsetters Magazine European Editor; photos by Todd Nemanic and courtesy of the hotels and inns.