On April 9th, 2009, my husband rumbled into Hereford on the noon train. Hereford, a city of about 60,000 in the West Midlands of England, is seven miles from my late mother’s cottage. (The plane ticket was super-cheap: he’d gotten the ‘wrinklie rate,’ a five-day $400 round-trip ticket from Detroit to London on the ‘red-eye’ express. A Marine, he can sleep anywhere, even in a second class airline seat.) His medical office was closed for Easter, and, in four days it would be his birthday. We could celebrate it together.
After he’d cheered the progress I’d made with my flooded-out cottage renovation (I’d been living there for months to do this awful job) we decided to motor to Chester, not quite three hours away. It lies just two miles from the Welsh border, along the tidal River Dee.
This beautiful, ancient city of about 80,000 souls is a World Heritage site. Over two thousand years ago busy Romans built its (partially excavated) amphitheater designed to seat 8,000, pillared gardens (still there), and huge arches. Multiple restored medieval black-and-white timbered buildings shone in the afternoon sun, having maintained their dignity despite their cant. Chester’s ancient cathedral, with an intriguing mixture of styles, is the third most visited in Britain. But the two-mile-long stone/brick Roman wall nearly surrounding Chester was my favorite marvel. That’s where we’d spend the next day.
Our arrival was marred by a misery. Online I’d found an attractive-looking B and B with a nice write-up, located close to the center of town. The reality was shocking. The picture had lied! Cement covered everything. A spindly, 15-story-high derrick dangled directly overhead; I couldn’t imagine trying to sleep under that! The building’s walled parking area was girdle-tight. Bulging trash bags lined the garden wall’s edges. Bad sign! We found the hidden key in the old outhouse and climbed nervously up to our assigned room. Horrors!
This bilious boudoir had two badly made beds crammed into an extremely narrow space. Joe quick-peeked at the gray bedsheets, checking for bedbugs. Black specks betray the creatures. (We’d gotten a big dose years ago when I’d found us a nearly pitch dark, horrid room in Rome. Alas, I’ve mastered the art of booking bummers.)
This room’s bathroom was the size of a canceled postage stamp. A split, sagging window looked out on more cement that merged into a busy road.
We shuddered. A look was exchanged. After stampeding out the door I stepped out onto that road and stopped traffic. Joe hastily backed out, I leaped in, and we escaped the Pit of Despair, fists punching the air, shouting with relief.
That wretched structure was decades past its sell-by date and needed a decent burial right soon.
We found a parking place in the center of town and began to wander the winding, cobbled streets in search of lodging. Six blocks later we happened upon The Pied Bull Pub/Inn, Chester’s oldest coaching house, dating from 1144, and one block from everything. Perfect! There was even one parking space left behind it! In a flash we secured its last enormous, slightly canted second-floor bedroom, which offered a big, high, ancient four-poster bed, a well used sofa with matching chairs, a coffee table, armoire and generous bath, and to top it off, windows that offered great views of the medieval streets- oh, and breakfast, also cheap as dirt now, in the off-season.
The only problem? We wanted to stay forever!
Two medieval ghosts haunt it. We questioned the very elderly front-desk lady about them.
“Yes, indeed, I’ve seen the ruffled gentleman three times over these many years, but, so far, not the parlor maid. Muriel has, though…”
Looking thoughtful, she stared into space for a bit, and then added, “He never speaks, just looks out yon window...” She pointed to an ancient one on the stair’s landing. “He’s no trouble…”
The fish and chips supper was yummy, but breakfast died on the vine from a crime: instant coffee was served! Bleh! This would never do!
The next morning we found a tiny shop a block away with lace tablecloths and lovely china cups, and savored their freshly brewed beans. Ahhh! A full English breakfast, with unbuttered toast-in-a-rack-so-it-can-get-cold-quicker, was cheerfully gobbled down.
In Britain, if you order coffee, you’ll get one cup. Might be instant. Might not. (Ask, if you care. I certainly do.) Frequently, at bigger hotel chains, a steaming carafe full of the real thing is set before you, but ordinary eateries offer ONE pour - often instant. So I order ‘Americano,’ a tasty, real bean-brew presented in a baseball-sized cup, and make it last.
I love England, but this sort of parsimonious thinking is a moan for me.
Fortified, we explored Chester’s High street with its many shops, and then circumnavigated the town from the broad, crenelated top of its imposing Roman wall, peering down at the splendid, grandstanded racehorse-course set in a very large, open meadow, and watched narrow, gaily painted houseboats navigate through the River Dee’s hand-cranked locks. Chester’s town crier, dressed in medieval garb, shouted interesting news to delighted explorers and eager shoppers. We gazed at everything, commenting about oddities and architecture for hours.
Later, still strolling high up on the battlements, the light-flooded, panoramic Turner landscape began to dress for twilight. Time seemed to slow. Save for the last birdsongs, a cloak of quiet began to settle gently over the city, muting sound. We were enchanted. Wouldn’t it be marvelous to come back here for much longer?
And yet, the cost, and Time’s relentless passage reminded us, well into our seventies, that returning to this deeply historical, tale-ridden, semi-enchanted place isn’t likely in this lifetime.
On the other hand- maybe there is a ghost of a chance.........