I went to raise a glass at my nearest vineyard, nestled in the Cheshire countryside at the Carden Park Hotel and Spa estate [pictured above], for a national newspaper feature.
* The edited article was published yesterday in the Sun on Sunday. This is my original version.
The vines stretch out across the estate, the grapes ripening in the sunshine. By late October, they should plump and ripe to pick for the wine-making harvest.
But we’re not in Bordeaux or the Barossa Valley. With English Wine Week starting today, we have given up on the amber-list lottery in favour of a grape British staycation in rural Cheshire.
Wandering through the three-acre vineyard at Carden Park, the Cheshire country-estate hotel around 30 minutes from the city of Chester, feels like a walk in the Napa Valley wine country — without the airport scramble.
Carden Park is home to one of the more northerly of the 770-odd vineyards in England. The majority are found in the Southeast but there are also over 30 vineyards in Wales and nearly 90 across the Midlands and the North.
The vineyard produces on average 7,000 bottles of sparkling Carden Park Estate Reserve wine each year from its two grape varieties, Seyval Blanc and Pinot Noir.
“The sandy soil and microclimate in this part of Cheshire suit those grape varieties to produce the best yield,” says Estates Manager Peter Pattenden.
English wine travel is also booming with an average of 4,449 monthly visits to vineyards according to Wine GB, the national association for the English and Welsh wine industry.
Some larger wineries, such as Chapel Down in Kent and Llanerch in South Wales, have championed wine weekends away, combining meals and accommodation with winery tours.
Carden Park currently offers a more informal, self-guided stroll through the vineyard. There are plenty of options, however, for a wine-pairing weekend of Great British food and drink with wide-screen Cheshire countryside views.
After we had explored the estate, we headed into nearby Chester to meet local wine expert Richard J. Smith. He founded the Wine School of Cheshire and recently opened The Tasting Room in Chester, offering tasting events and wine-appreciation classes.
English wines are, he says, finally give the French and new-world winemakers a run for their money at international tastings.
Traditionally, English wines were sparkling but Richard champions still wines, favouring new grape varieties, such as white-wine Bacchus, that grow well in cooler UK climates.
“The Romans brought vineyards to England but, when I tried my first English wine around 1990, I simply poured it down the sink,” says Richard.
“English wine has transformed in recent years with new winemakers, technology and, of course, the effects of climate change,” he adds, opening a bottle of Pinot Noir with hints of burnt raspberry from the Gusbourne Estate winery in Kent.
We also taste a glass of Atlantic Dry from the Camel Valley winery in Cornwall. It’s fruity and fragrant — perfect with white fish or goat’s cheese.
“Our wineries are often family owned and the grapes are hand-picked,” adds Richard, who has four tastings planned for English Wine Week, and runs regular summer-evening wine cruises on Chester’s River Dee with the local boat company, Chester Boat.
“I love the sense of personality this brings to the new generation of English and Welsh wines.”
Back at Carden Park, it’s time for dinner at The Vines, Carden Park’s new fine-dining restaurant inspired by the estate’s vineyard. The plush-green decor and starched tablecloths create a genteel atmosphere, complemented by a fine collection of wines from around the world.
The hotel also recently opened Vertigo at Carden, new aerial adventure course, while the Spa at Carden is ideal for some next-day recovery after a glass of vino too many.
But, for now, we tuck into lemon sole with local asparagus and roast beef, all washed down with a bottle of Carden Park Estate Reserve Rosé, priced at £47 in the restaurant.
The speciality coffee-bean ice-cream, served with amoretti biscuit, is our new favourite desert.
As the sun sets over the vineyard, we finish our stay by raising a glass to the new breed of English winemakers taking home-grown wines to the world.
Indeed, I used to regularly take my children to this local park, but it was ages before I realised there was a 2,000-year-old historical artefact just behind the swings.
The park is Edgar’s Field in Handbridge and the carving is the Roman goddess Minerva [pictured above].
The shrine is said to have been carved into the sandstone in the second century AD and is believed to the only site in Europe still in its original location, according to experts at Historic England.
Today we’ve come for an audience with Minerva.
Minerva was the patron of arts and craftsmen and, later in Roman history, she became the goddess of war with temples in Rome devoted to her.
She was often portrayed wearing a chiton, which is an ancient Greek garment, and a helmet. Many statues of her show her holding a spear and a shield, to represent her warlike qualities.
But she can often be found offering an olive branch to the defeated as Minerva was a compassionate victor, who had pity on those her armies vanquished.
This is now a quiet park on the banks of the River Dee but it was once a massive quarry, excavating the huge blocks of sandstone to build Chester’s Roman walls.
And this weathered rock shrine was once a site of ancient Roman worship.
The quarrymen, who carved the effigy, would have made offerings and prayed for safety during their gruelling, risky labour.
Sadly, Minerva looks a bit the worse for wear these days — the weather and vandalism have seen to that. But you can still pick out her figure holding a spear and wearing a helmet, an owl over her shoulder on the right.
The awning over the shrine is a 19th-century addition, placed there in the hopes of warding off further damage.
Edgar’s Field dates from the Saxon period and gets its name from King Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, who held a council in or near the field in 973AD.
From here the king visited nearby St Johns Church, which was built in 689 AD. Writings from this time describe the scene of Edgar being rowed up the Dee by eight Saxon, Welsh and Viking princes as an act of submission — a romantic image forever associated with Chester.
Edgar’s Field was laid out as a public park by the first Duke of Westminster, Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, who presented it to the City of Chester in 1892 as an act of philanthropy.
My children are grown up now — but I still come to visit Minerva.
I love the way that Chester may change yet Minerva stands, serene and stoic, keeping watch over the good people of Handbridge from her freeze-frame stone tomb.
I used quieter time over the last few months to tinker away at a creative project, creating a new audio tour to my home city of Chester.
The result is Haunted Chester, a 60-minute circular walking trail based on the tours I lead for Chester Ghost Tours.
Those tours have been in hibernation during lockdown, returning hopefully in May.
But, meanwhile, you can download this self-guided tour to your smartphone and explore with just my voice and a detailed map to accompany you.
It’s the ultimate in social distancing.
VoiceMap uses local writers and guides to create quirky walking tours that offer local-knowledge insights and insider tips.
Here’s what my new tour promises:
If you like ghostly goings-on and spooky stories, then this walking tour around the centre of the historic city of Chester offers tantalising tales of the supernatural.
We’ll visit some familiar landmarks — but don’t expect a dry history lecture.
I know my home city well and will be highlighting some of the hidden corners that you don’t find on typical tours. After all, I’m a local boy and I’ll be sharing my insider knowledge.
On this tour, you’ll hear about:
• Roman soldiers still guarding their historic garrison
• The grisly tale of Chester’s last public execution
• The ghostly monk that haunts the city’s spookiest passageway
• Chester’s only official exorcism
Allow one hour for this walk. There are plenty of cafes and bars along the route for a quick coffee stop.
Whether it’s your first time in the city, or you’re a local keen to learn more about your home, Haunted Chester is the perfect way to see it in a different light.
Download the VoiceMap app to your phone and search for Haunted Chester, or use this link: