Tag: Chester

Read my latest newsletter for a quick catch-up on my media and travel projects

Travel has been off the agenda for the last few months.

But I’ve still been working and planning, combining journalism projects, media training and tours.

For the quick catch-up, read my latest newsletter.

Please post your comments below and feel free to share with you network. Thanks.

Behind the scenes as Chester Zoo prepares to re-open to visitors

Preparations for post-Covid visits to Chester Zoo.

The moment the gates swing open on Monday morning is one staff feared they would never see.

“We were three weeks away from closing down,” says Jamie Christon, Chief Operating Officer, pulling up the collar of his Chester Zoo fleece against a sudden downpour.

“I went through the four stages of grief in 48 hours. Then,” he smiles, “we decided to fight.”

Chester Zoo found itself threatened with extinction on June 1 when the government ordered it to remain closed indefinitely — despite having put measures in place to make visits Covid secure.

The subsequent fundraising campaign secured over £3m in a week to ensure the zoo, founded in 1931 and home to 135,000 animals, could be saved.

The public support contributed to the announcement by Boris Johnson this week that English zoos could re-open within a partial easing of lockdown measures.

“We had been haemorrhaging money since closing on March 21,” says Jamie. “It costs £0.5m per month to feed the animals alone.”

Fresh start

Mandatory online tickets (including those for members) are now on sale, although visitor numbers will be limited to 3,000 per day — compared to an average of 10,000.

But, while all three wildlife areas, plus the nature reserve, will be open, visitors will notice changes to comply with social distancing.

So, what to expect? I’ve come to Chester Zoo for a preview.

Beyond the gates, I find a series of 2m markers leading to self-scanning ticket booths and the first of 30 hand-sanitisation units on site.

A pressure-value system will operate at the entrance to manage numbers, Jamie explains, so ticket holders are advised to avoid the 10am opening queue.

Walking around the 128-acre site, we inspect some of the pinch-point measures installed at the more popular attractions, such as the elephant and giraffe enclosures.

New protective screens, regularly deep cleaned, stand between visitors and animals and stand-off markings on the floor indicate the line to stand behind.

Footsteps illustrate the viewing points behind the line to maintain social distance between visitors.

The new rules will take some getting used for both the visitors and animals. When we approach the Humboldt Penguins, splashing playfully in their giant tank, a couple swim over curiously.

“Some species, such as the penguins and giraffes, are very social animals,” explains Jamie.

“The eerie quiet of the zoo during lockdown has been disconcerting for us all.”

Day trip

If you’re making a day of it, then 12 kiosks are opening for take-away snacks and all the toilets will be open, albeit with queueing outside likely until a traffic lights system is installed.

The picnic benches have been strategically placed at 2m intervals.

All inside habitats and the gift shop will, however, remain closed for now. Some sections of the play areas for children are still roped off and the ATM is closed.

We finish our tour outside The Oakfield pub, the restored former family home of zoo founder George Mottershead.

It’s also closed, although the beer garden may open in coming weeks as Government regulations evolve.

It may be a while, however, before visitors are allowed back into the cosy library room to admire the archive of Mottershead family photographs over a pint of Deuchars IPA.

Despite the clear markings, the main challenge, I find, will be enforcing social distancing.

This task falls to some 100 furloughed staff who have returned to work, many retraining as welcome staff with a “friendly but firm” brief to ensure visits remain safe.

Looking ahead, there are plans to extend the opening hours to include two weekday evenings until 8pm, plus cheaper afternoon-only tickets as visitor numbers are slowly increased.

The zoo will also run more of the virtual-tour days that proved so popular online during lockdown.

Picnic time

Jamie will be there to open the gates on Monday morning and is hoping for blue skies, the re-opening ensuring the zoo’s conservation work in 40 countries worldwide can now continue.

“My advice is to bring a picnic and make use of the new outdoor spaces. We’re delighted to welcome people back,” says Jamie, who is planning a much-needed UK staycation for the autumn.

“After all, people power saved our zoo.”

Read more at Telegraph Travel.

Lockdown loafing: the truth about Chester’s favourite ghost story

It’s one of the Chester’s favourite ghost stories.

The tale of a mystery figure, dressed as a monk and spotted on a winter evening, walking along the spooky passage by St John’s Church — the one with the coffin in the east walls [pictured above].

The figure has been seen many times over the years, patrolling the passageway beyond the westerner facade, which leads towards The Groves, the riverside walkway.

His presence is linked not with the church, however.

The Hermitage, the hidden building on a sandstone outcrop between the city walls and the river, is alleged to be his home.

The mysterious building, now privately owned and a reputed hotbed of poltergeist activity over the years, is also known by the name on its tucked-away entrance gate, The Anchorite Cell.

The story suggests the mystery man could be King Harold Godwinson, the vanquished Saxon king who got something in his eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

It’s a story we all know from school history classes and one made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.

Waltham Abbey in Essex claims the last resting place of King Harold. There’s even a stone marked with the words:

“This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066.”

But Chester offers a different version of the story.

Local historians suggest that Harold’s mistress, Edith Swan Neck, rescued her lover from the battlefield and brought him to Chester to live out days in The Hermitage.

Disguised as a monk, he blended into the local community of holy men, who made their home at St John’s since the 7th century.

Edith cared for him during his final days, bringing supplies to his secret Chester hideaway.

It’s easy to dismiss the story as ghost-tale tosh but the sightings over the year offer first-hand accounts.

And excavations of the collapsed western facade years later unearthed two human skeletons entwined together in an eternal repose.

It’s a story I look forward to retelling when Chester Ghost Tours return after lockdown, especially if I’m leading a tour around King Harold’s Day, the nearest Saturday each year to October 14th.

Could the mystery monk behind Chester’s favourite ghost story be a long-lost King?

That would be one in the eye for Essex.

Lockdown loafing: the hidden story behind the Roman Gardens

It’s a place I used to take my children to play when they were little. They jumped on the ancient stones in a game of stepping stones.

It’s also the place I watched the Grand Budapest Hotel under a picnic blanket as part of the Moonlight Flicks series of outdoor films screenings.

It may now be eerily quiet under lockdown but I can still learn something new about familiar places on my daily walks around my home city.

The blossom-showered mosaic [pictured above] marks the entrance to the Roman Gardens, which are not, strictly speaking, gardens, nor Roman.

But, according to Chester Tour, we learn the design of the gardens is deliberate to create a winding path towards the river in the shape of a serpent coiled around a staff.

The design is a tribute to Asclepius, the Roman god of medicine.

The gardens were laid out in 1949 to display fragments of the ancient Roman buildings found around the city — the stoneworks there today were originally eslwhere.

Many of the fragments come from the original site of the Roman bathhouse on the east side of Bridge Street.

Others were uncovered during renovations of the city walls in 1887. They had been taken from various buildings across the Roman citadel, established from 74AD, to repair the walls in the late Roman period.

The site never served as a garden. It was originally part of a Roman quarry, later partly home to a 18th-century clay tobacco pipe factory in the and, finally, a cockpit for cock fighting — until it was banned in 1849.

One day we’ll be back at the Roman Gardens, watching a film as part of Moonlight Flicks, or eating ice creams bought nearby at the riverside kiosks.

But, for now, I’m soaking up the silence and seeing familiar places in a new light.