As we gear up for the summer holidays, the holiday hotspots of Cornwall, the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales are preparing for a bumper year of tourism. Foreign holidays are still in a mire of uncertainty, and more Britons than ever before are planning to spend July and August 'holidaying at home', with competition for bed and board in the South West looking particularly fierce.
But what of other parts of the country? Of Cheshire, for instance? This beautiful yet sadly underappreciated county in the North West is, like everywhere else, steadily opening up for business after so much pandemic-wrought turmoil, but relatively few will decide to spend their summer holidays exploring its lush green countryside, or ambling through the streets of pretty Chester. Perhaps this is the year to change that.
So, from ghost tours and beer gardens to tea on a narrow boat, here are 20 good reasons for you to visit:
1. Celebrate a national treasure
Chester Zoo turns 90 this year, having survived the threat of closure during the first lockdown thanks to a fundraising campaign which raised more than £3 million in just one week. Founded in 1931 and home to 135,000 animals, the zoo is celebrating the anniversary by unveiling its Latin American Wetland Aviary, a walk-through attraction intended to showcase birds from the wetland plains of South and Central America. Stop for lunch at the zoo’s Oakfield pub, based in the restored family home of zoo founder George Mottershead, and book zoo experiences, such as Keeper for the Day, for special occasions.
Pre-booked tickets cost £24.55 for adults and £19.55 for children; experience days from £120; chesterzoo.org
2. Run wild in the forest
BeWILDerwood, an adventure park in a fairytale forest setting, offers the ideal antidote to all that time spent cooped up indoors earlier this year. Just 20 miles from Chester and ideal for families with primary school-aged children, the new attraction offers forest trails leading to treehouse play activities, such as navigating the Mish Mash Maze, a Wobbly Wires zipwire, den building and daily craft activities. There are specific activities for toddlers and plenty of space for family picnics.
Tickets from £17.50 for children, £19.50 for adults, toddlers free; includes crafts and storytelling; cheshire.bewilderwood.co.uk
3. Get a culture fix
Last month Chester arts hub Storyhouse launched its open-air theatre in Grosvenor Park and its Moonlight Flicks outdoor cinema by Chester Cathedral. The theatre season runs until August 30 – with The Jungle Book for family matinees and The Merry Wives of Windsor for fans of the Bard, plus Pride and Prejudice. Film buffs can also choose from a mix of family favourites, cult classics and blockbusters including Hot Fuzz and Dirty Dancing. Be sure to take deckchairs, snacks and blankets to beat the summer-night shivers.
Theatre tickets cost from £28; films from £10 (advance booking recommended); storyhouse.com
4. Push your limits
If you have a head for heights, the new white-knuckle aerial adventure course at Carden Park is a must. There are two levels of adrenaline thrills, each lasting two hours and culminating in either a 210m zip-line ride, or the opportunity to launch yourself on to a giant stunt pillow from a 10m tower (qualified instructors are on hand if you find yourself struck by “the Fear”). The hotel is also opening a new fine-dining restaurant, the Vines (a nod to the estate’s English wine-making vineyard), which will offer dinner Thursday to Saturday and Sunday lunch.
The Vertigo adventure course costs £40 for adults, £30 for children over six; read the full review of the hotel here.
5. A tour for everyone
Explore one of Britain’s most haunted cities with Chester Ghost Tour, exploring the city’s dark side via the mysterious coffin in the wall at St John’s Church and the shadowy anchorite in the Hermitage. If ghosts aren’t your cup of tea, opt for a one-hour 5K Canine Dog Run with Tours Around Chester – taking in the Roman amphitheatre and castle before ending with coffee (for humans) and treats (for four-legged friends) – or a two-and-a-half-hour Foodie Family Walking Tour which combines local history with sampling stops at independent eateries.
Ghost tours run at weekends from the Visitor Information Centre (from £10); chesterghosttour.co.uk. Canine tours cost £29.99; foodie tours £50 for adults and £24.99 for children (max six people); toursaroundchester.co.uk.
6. Get close to nature
The ancient Japanese art of forest bathing has been catapulted into the wellness limelight this year – so if you’ve developed a yen to try it, you’re in luck. Set amid the rolling Cheshire Plain, Tatton Park estate planted 40 new cherry trees as part of the Sakura Project, celebrating horticultural links with Japan since the opening of Tatton’s Japanese Garden. While it is now too late for the blossoms this year, never fear – there is the Foodies Festival from July 9-11, the RHS Flower Show from July 21-25, and the ever-popular Dogfest from September 25-26.
Parkland entry from £8, National Trust members free; tattonpark.org.uk
7. Have a flutter
The Roodee Racecourse, established in 1539 by former Lord Mayor Henry Gee (of “gee-gees” fame), is the world’s oldest still in operation, and is now considered the day out of choice for the high-rolling Cheshire set. Join them at Ladies’ Evening on June 25 or the Family Fun Day on August 1, settle in to watch the winners from the 1539 Restaurant, or retire to the beach huts at the racecourse’s White Horse pub for lunch, then stroll to the Commonhall St Social pop-up bar by the winning post for beer-garden vibes on summer weekends.
Open course tickets from £10; chester-races.com
8. Frolic at a festival
Three-day family music extravaganza Deva Fest returns to Chester Lakes this August, with headline acts including Dodgy, Symphonic Ibiza and Sophie Ellis-Bextor – plus an appearance from Chester operatic duo Belle Voci from The Voice. Expect food stalls from local suppliers, fairground rides and family activities (including crafts for toddlers, who go free), plus shuttle buses operating between the site and Chester city centre. Make a weekend of it with camping, caravanning or motorhome weekend tickets, available on the website.
Deva Fest runs August 13-15; weekend tickets from £59.50 for adults, £39.50 for children; day tickets £27.50 for adults, £18.50 for children; devafest.co.uk
9. Take to the water
The Groves – the tree-lined promenade along the banks of the River Dee – might already be a favourite for Chesterite flaneurs equipped with espressos and ice creams from nearby Snugburys, but it’s also the gateway to a world on the water. Embark here for a Chester Boat sightseeing cruise and see the city from a new side, whether you opt for a private picnic trip or a wine- tasting river cruise in collaboration with the Wine School of Cheshire. If you are keen to get even closer to the water, go for Dee River Kayaking’s new white-water kayaking and paddle-boarding sessions, a relaxed 90-minute social paddle that is also an ideal way to make new friends.
10. Follow the salt trail
Ditch the GPS and rediscover the joy of maps this June at the Lion Salt Works near Northwich, Cheshire’s historic salt town, when the industrial-heritage visitor attraction hosts the Magic of Maps, a new family activity based around a treasure map. Afterwards, discover the atmospheric Grade II-listed buildings to learn about the importance of salt in the region and its discovery here by the Romans. There will be new activities each week throughout the summer, so check the website for details.
Entry £6.60 for adults, £4.20 for children (activities £2); lionsaltworks.westcheshiremuseums.co.uk
11. Embrace the culture
Chester’s Gothic cathedral – a place of worship since at least the 11th century – is usually a safe bet for interesting cultural events, be they Chester Mystery Plays, art installations with Chester Visual Arts, or this summer’s Making Tracks, an event created by music producer and railway enthusiast Pete Waterman OBE.It sees a bespoke model railway of the West Coast Mainline (which runs from London to Chester) set up by the cathedral’s nave. The Clonter Opera Theatre (clonter.org) near Congleton, meanwhile, has live jazz and opera, while the Words & Music Festival (wordsandmusicfestival.com) will take place at venues across Nantwich from June 25-27.
Making Tracks runs Jul 16-Sep 3; from £2.50; chestercathedral.com
12. Delve into the past
Combermere Abbey, the historic country estate near Nantwich, offers guided tours from Tuesdays to Thursdays, giving wonderful expert insight into the history of the estate, including its 12th-century origins and role as home to an array of famous house guests.
Abbey tours are priced at £10 with pre-booking (limited to groups of six); combermereabbey.co.uk
13. Sip a sundowner
Cheshire has gone unabashedly al fresco crazy for 2021. Stay urban with Watergate Street’s many pavement cafés and Chester Market’s new outdoor indie-foodie pop-up space, or go rural at one of the local village pubs, where the likes of the Ring O’ Bells in Christleton and the Poplars in Rowton offer quaint beer gardens with clever wet-weather solutions – the Dine and Domes concept at the Blag Dog in Waverton is perhaps the quirkiest. Still thirsty? The Taste Cheshire Food and Drink Festival returns to Chester Racecourse over the August bank holiday weekend with food, fizz and family fun.
Taste Cheshire advance tickets from £8; tastecheshire.com
14. Discover some horrible history
Plague, pestilence and pandemics are on the agenda at Sick to Death, a Horrible Histories-style romp through the history of medicine. Chester’s newest visitor attraction opened in May and has plenty to say about vaccines, hand hygiene and bad science. Look out for the quack medicine wall of shame, featuring President Trump’s bleach remedy and Gwyneth Paltrow’s vagina-scented candle, among others. The company also manages Western Approaches in Liverpool and has taken over the Chester Roman Experience attraction, reopening in late summer with a focus on Chester’s Roman origins.
Adults £6, children £3.50; sicktodeath.org
15. Journey to the past
Beautiful Beeston Castle dates from medieval times and was once captured on canvas by JMW Turner – but its origins go back even further. In the 1970s and 1980s, archaeologists uncovered Bronze Age roundhouses, and these have now been recreated using traditional materials and techniques to offer an immersive, hands-on learning experience. The Castle of the Rock indoor exhibition has also reopened, outlining Beeston’s history from the Bronze Age to its decline in the Civil War.
Pre-booked tickets cost £9.90 for adults and £6 for children; english-heritage.org.uk
16. Take afternoon tea afloat
Davenports Tea Room (winner of the prestigious Tea Guild’s Top Tea Place Award in 2013) serves its tea with a difference – aboard a vintage-style narrow boat. Private afternoon-tea cruises are now back in action (think costumed staff serving a selection of 50 loose-leaf teas in bone-china cups with home-made scones), taking in the Trent and Mersey Canal, the Anderton Boat Lift and the River Weaver. Belinda, who runs this almost-100-year-old family business, recently represented the UK at the European Speciality Tea Association’s tea tourism forum, so she knows her leaves.
Adults bookings cost £60 per person (five passengers per cruise); davenportsofcheshire.co.uk
17. Scrub up
We are all up to speed on hand hygiene after the past year, but do you know the science of soap? If not, head for Port Sunlight, the historic village where William Hesketh Lever founded his soap empire in 1888, and the site of a new family visitor attraction that opened in May. Based in the Lyceum, the former village school room, SoapWorks fosters interest in STEM subjects with an interactive take on the life-saving properties of the simple bar of soap. Afterwards, join a 90-minute walking tour (these run Wednesday to Sunday and depart from Port Sunlight Museum) to understand the village’s history, then pop into the Lady Lever Art Gallery (liverpoolmuseums.org.uk) for the free new Augustus John exhibition.
Tickets for the Port Sunlight Experience cost £8 for adults, £5.50 for children; portsunlightvillage.com
18. Take the plunge
Forest Live’s Doves at Delamere Forest gig has been postponed until 2022, but that doesn’t mean Cheshire’s favourite woodland is off the cards. Hire a bike and hit the trails, or when the mercury climbs, make your way to Wild Shore Delamere, a new watersports adventure park in a former quarry at Delamere Lake with a water-based obstacle course, wakeboarding and stand-up paddleboarding, plus additional activities for the school holidays.
Prices from £17.50 per person, including wetsuits; open 10am-dusk; wildshoredelamere.co.uk
19. Shop ’til you drop
Chester has always been a shopping destination but, while some larger stores have closed, a plucky band of new independent retailers is filling the gap. The medieval Rows, which once bore the names of the various trades who clustered there, and Godstall Lane, Chester’s favourite flower-strewn alleyway, are prime hunting grounds for the city’s growing group of indie stalwarts. Look out for Crichton Bespoke for tailoring and Suzie K at the Secret Garden for offbeat gifts. The Wine School of Cheshire has new premises opening on Godstall Lane, located close to the Metronome Jazz Bar, for tastings and events.
20. Celebrate in style
Have an occasion worth marking? You have plenty of options – but book ahead. Local favourite the Chef’s Table (chefstablechester.co.uk) is scheduled to re-open from July in a new city-centre location. The focus remains on local, seasonal produce with a weekly changing menu. Sticky Walnut (stickywalnut.net), part of Elite Bistros and located in the Chester suburb of Hoole, is another long-standing favourite under head chef Gary Usher. Finally, Chester’s grand old dame, the Chester Grosvenor Hotel and Spa (tasting menu from £89; chestergrosvenor.com), retains its Michelin-starred restaurant under long-serving executive chef Simon Radley, and offers all-day dining at the less formal La Brasserie. Both have been open for business since mid-May.