I’m finally catching up on posting assignments over the autumn and the first stop? Blackpool.
The nights may be drawing in, but autumn finds brassy Blackpool bathed in “artificial sunshine”.
The world-renowned Blackpool Illuminations along the promenade (pictured above) have been extended this year until 3 January, building on a tradition that began in 1879, when arc lamps replaced gas lights to bring winter cheer.
Illuminations aside, the kiss-me-quick seaside resort continues to reinvent, shaking off its bawdy image with new places to eat, stay and party.
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.”
The city in England’s northwest has flirted with shopaholic footballers’ wives and Roman heritage fans over the years.
It remains home to the largest stone-built Roman Amphitheatre in Britain and to the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain’s richest men.
But the opening this year of Chester’s new flagship arts centre, Storyhouse, ushers in a new era as a cultural destination with its vibrant summer festival programme backed by a slew of new places to stay, eat and drink.
“Chester is bigger than it thinks sometimes and, as a returned Cestrian, I see it as an increasingly cultural, creative city,” says Alex Clifton, Artistic Director at arts producer Storyhouse [pictured above].
“Our new arts centre will be a beacon to light up the city after dark.”
The £37m building, adapted from the city’s 1930s Odeon Cinema with an added new wing, will feature two theatre spaces, an arthouse cinema, the new city library and exhibition space when it opens this winter.
Prior to that, the Chester Summer Music Festival returns in May, while the Open Air Theatre in the Grosvenor Park starts its run on July 1st with As You Like It and Stig of the Dump.
Roman legions founded the city of Deva as the largest fortress in Britain around AD70, encircling it with their trademark Roman city walls.
Today Chester wears its rich Roman heritage with pride (you can still walk around the city walls to soak up the historic ambiance), but it also celebrates its status as a living city through shopping, family attractions and a vibrant nightlife.
The centrepoint remains the ironwork Eastgate clock, Chester’s answer to Big Ben.
The clock was conceived for Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee in 1897, albeit not actually completed until two years later, and today towers above the shops and cafes of Eastgate Street, the main shopping thoroughfare.
The latter is also home to the Chester Grosvenor Hotel, which last year celebrated its150th anniversary and retains its Michelin-stared restaurant under head chef Simon Radley.
One of ten key features of the city centre is the distinctive split-level Rows, the two-tiered medieval shopping galleries finished in black-and-white timber.
The Three Old Arches that form part of the Rows in Bridge Street are said to be the oldest shop front in England, but these erstwhile medieval merchants’ shops are packed today with contemporary boutiques.
Heading north along St Werburgh Street, Chester Cathedral has dominated the cityscape since 1092.
Originally constructed as St Werburgh’s Abbey, the sandstone Benedictine Abbey was transformed into a cathedral in the 1540s by decree of Henry VIII.
An oasis of cool and calm, its cloisters and stained-glass windows are its most distinctive features, while a stroll around the cathedral gardens is perfect for some quiet contemplation.
It’s not Chester’s oldest holy site, however. That distinction goes to St. John’s Church, which is believed to date from the 7th century and today houses community events on the fringe of the Grosvenor Park.
Heading south via The Cross, where the town crier still delivers a regular proclamation of the day’s news during summer, Bridge Street leads to the River Dee.
The river was Chester’s best form of defence during medieval onslaughts from Wales and now boasts summer leisure cruises.
Strolling along The Groves, the tree-lined promenade that lines the riverbank, is a perennially popular mooching spot. From here, the city walls lead to Chester Castle, home to the Cheshire Military Museum.
The opening of new cultural attractions this year will keep Chester evolving but the residual charm of the 2000-year-old city is unlikely to change.
“For me, Chester has always been ahead itself for its size with quality attractions,” says Rachael Hill, owner of Heald Country House, a winner at last year’s Marketing Cheshire annual awards.
“Chester has everything a city has to offer without being too enclosed and is the gateway to glorious countryside.”
Side panel: Live like a local — Alex Clifton, Artistic Director, Storyhouse
When I’m not preparing for the opening of Chester’s new arts centre, I love:
Going for tapas at Porta, the informal sister restaurant to Joseph Benjamin
Taking the kids to the Falconry Centre at Chester Cathedral to admire the birds of prey
Nipping out of rehearsals for the Open Air Theatre for a lunchtime dip in the River Dee
Stopping for a pint at The Malborough and getting stuck into the huge list of whiskeys
Stopping for afternoon tea at Tea on the Walls, a hidden-gem cafe with elevated views
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This story was first published in Britain magazine this month.