Dark Chester tour [pictured above] shines a flickering candlelight into the darkest corners of Chester’s dark-tourism heritage.
You may have already seen us walking around Chester, or previously joined us for a walk through the mists of dark history.
But now it’s time to explore the city afresh. And, what’s more, we’re going even darker.
For Halloween this year, we’ll be leading the darkest ever Dark Chester walking tour, bringing a frisson of Gothic noir to your October half term.
Expect new spooky stories, frightening folk tales and new perspectives as the darkness of the winter months engulfs us.
Plus, join us for an exclusive event on Thursday, October 26.
Dark Chester presents: Dark Dinner
We will lead a 90-minute Dark Chester tour, departing from Town Hall Square at 6pm. Then we finish our walk on Lower Bridge Street for a two-course menu served at King’s Kitchen restaurant at The Brewery Tap [pictured below] from 7.30pm.
Expect good food, craft ales and, over dinner, some spine-chilling ghost stories recounted by the tourist guide in a gloriously atmospheric setting.
Tickets cost £45pp and are available now via the Visitor Information Centre in Chester, or by calling 01244 405340. The tour is suitable for ages 10+.
Join us this Halloween and let’s take a walk on the darkest side ever.
From school set texts to West End theatres, his stories have been translated into 58 languages and he has sold more than 200m books worldwide.
Many of his creations have already been adapted for stage and screen, notably Willy Wonka and Matilda, while Steven Spielberg’s new film of The Big Friendly Giant (BFG), staring Wolf Hall’s Mark Rylance in the title role, premieres on July 22.
But most people don’t realise that Dahl was Welsh — born just outside Cardiff to a Norwegian family on September 13, 1916. The day is now commemorated globally as Roald Dahl Day and Wales celebrates Dahl’s literary legacy this year with a programme of cultural events to mark the 100th birthday of the world’s favourite children’s author.
“I read Dahl for the first time with my two young children and Danny Champion of the World had me in floods of tears,” says Lleucu Siencyn, Chief Executive of Literature Wales, one of the festival organisers.
“Dahl’s appeal for me is to draw on his own personal experience to convey a real sense of humanity.”
I’ve come to Cardiff to follow in the footsteps of the great storyteller, exploring the formative places that fired the literary imagination of the young Dahl.
Dahl’s Oslo-born father, Harald, had come to the Welsh capital to seek his fortune in the late 19th-century iron-making and coal-mining boom. The latter established a successful ship broking business, Andresen and Dahl, from a rented office on Bute Street in modern-day Cardiff Bay [see map, above].
My first stop is the Norwegian Church, established by the Norwegian Seamen’s Missions, where young Roald was christened in 1916. Today the building is known as the Norwegian Church Arts Centre and plays home to concerts and exhibitions. Check out the upstairs Roald Dahl gallery for changing exhibitions.
Round the corner is Roald Dahl Place, home to the Wales Millennium Centre, a key venue for events this summer. It is close to here that, at the age of nine, Dahl set out for boarding school in Weston-super-Mare, Somerset. He would travel to and from school in on an old steamer ship from Cardiff Docks and suffered from terrible homesickness for his family in Wales.
Writing in Boy: Tales of Childhood, he says:
“On a clear day you can stand on the esplanade at Weston and look across the fifteen or so miles of water and see the coast of Wales lying pale and milky on the horizon.”
Dahl was born and spent his early childhood in the Llandaff district, a leafy community a couple of miles outside of Cardiff. He attended Llandaff Cathedral School, situated in the shadow of the towering Gothic cathedral, from the autumn of 1923 onwards.
It was here, aged just seen years old, that he developed his particular sense of mischief while admiring the Sherbet Suckers and Tonsil Ticklers at the sweet shop on the High Street.
Dahl recounts the legendary story of the Great Mouse Plot, a scheme to leave a dead mouse in a jar of Gobstoppers to frighten the misery-guts female proprietor. He writes:
“Mrs. Pratchett was a small, skinny old hag with a moustache on her upper lip and a mouth as sour as a green gooseberry.”
Today Llandaff remains a leafy enclave on Cardiff’s doorstep. After a stroll around the genteel village green, I join Dahl fans to admire a blue plaque, commissioned by the Llandaff Society, to mark the site of the former High Street sweetshop.
Somewhat underwhelming, the erstwhile sweet shop is now a Chinese take-away.
Dahl would often spend childhood holidays in the stately Pembroke shire resort of Tenby. The family stayed in the same property, The Cabin, every year.
The Grade II-listed property remains in the ownership of the Dahl family with inspiring harbour views and it is available to rent as a holiday home to this day through Coastal Cottages. The Blue Plaque outside now commemorates the Dahl connection.
Dahl also holidayed in Laugharne, Carmarthenshire, and is known to have visited Dylan Thomas’s writing shed on the estuary.
The tiny shed may even have inspired him to build his own writing hut at his home in the Buckinghamshire village of Great Missenden, Bucks, where the Roald Dahl Museum and Story Centre today welcome visitors from across the would
While the captain is struggling to navigate the treacherous tides of the River Mersey, one of the Liverpool River Pilots will shimmy up a rope ladder, come aboard and peel off their waterproofs to reveal a neatly pressed suit before extending a firm handshake and taking conduct of the ship.
It may sound like a scene from the new Bond film but for Chris Booker, Chairman of the Liverpool Pilots, it’s another day at the office.
Liverpool Pilotage Services was founded 1766 and this year celebrates its 250th anniversary.
The Merseyside Maritime Museum is now hosting the exhibition In Safe Hands: The story of the Liverpool Pilots [pictured above] to explore the vital role of the service in navigating ships in and out of the Port of Liverpool for more than two centuries.
I met Chris at their offices on the Birkenhead side of the river, historic paintings of pilot ships at sail alongside whiteboards of calculations and twin high-tech simulators.
It was at the controls of one of the latter that Chris planned the meticulous set of manoeuvres for Cunard’s Three Queens event last May to mark the 175th anniversary of the first transatlantic crossing.
“We gave our time for free, only being paid for the piloting on the day,” says softly spoken Chris.
“The event brought 1.5m people to Liverpool but we don’t get carried away. We’ve simply got a job to do.”
As we pour over a huge chart of the approach to Liverpool in the Chart Room, Chris points out the natural features that make the waters some of the toughest in the world to navigate.
“Liverpool has a lot of idiosyncrasies: strong tides, westerly weather and a series of locks,” he explains.
There are also some 5,000 wrecks beneath the surface — hence ships entering the Mersey rely on the skills and knowledge of pilots to ensure their safe passage.
Unusually, captains entering UK waters must hand over conduct of their vessel to the pilot coming aboard, integrating him into the team on the bridge. It’s an agreement only also observed in Panama.
“We are not advisors,” says Chris. “We take control.”
Life at sea
Later, over lunch at the Woodside Ferry Terminal, sunlight glinting off the Echo Arena across the Mersey, Chris tells me about his love affair with the sea, a romance that started aged 12 on a coaster with his father, sailing from Yorkshire to Holland.
“I remember it like yesterday,” he smiles. “It was a defining moment.”
Chris went onto study at the Hull Trinity House Academy in before serving an apprenticeship at sea. At 16 he was flying to New York to join a ship trading down the east coast to Central America.
After years as a captain and master with the Mobil oil company, he joined the Liverpool Pilots in 1995. The pilots, already captains, undergo a further seven-and-a-half years of training to gain their full qualifications.
“Having gone round the world as a captain, I wondered, at first, if I would get bored on the Mersey but, just last night, I was piloting gas tanker into the Mersey with one engine in bad weather,” he says.
“It was properly dry-mouth, hands-shaky scary.”
Now aged 52 and with three grown-up sons at sea, Chris has had more than his fair share of sea-faring adventures — from fending off pirates in Nigeria as a teenage cadet to charting an undiscovered sea mount off the coast of the Philippines.
“I remember sailing from Japan to Canada and we could smell the pines before they even appeared on the radar,” he smiles. “I loved the adventure and I’d do it all again.”
We finish our coffees and watch the unusually calm water of the Mersey ebb and flow outside.
It’s a big year for the Liverpool Pilots with more events to be announced (details from the website) to add to the latest chapter in Liverpool’s rich maritime heritage.
But Chris says the Liverpool Pilots will continue quietly with their valuable work. “All the other visitors to a ship want something but the pilot is different,” he says.
“The service we provide is a proper challenge but, ultimately, we’re just there to help.”