Tag: Northwest England

River Pilots exhibition at the Merseyside Maritime Museum


They are the quiet men of shipping.

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.

Action man

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.”

Read more: www.liverpoolmuseums.org.uk/pilots

  • Published in the Daily Telegraph, February 2016.
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Story of the week: Chester city focus for Britain magazine


Chester continues to reinvent itself.

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 history 

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.

Visitor attractions 

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

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This story was first published in Britain magazine this month.

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A world-class hotel in Chester


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* It’s English Tourism Week, so here’s an idea for a English Tourism Week escape — first published by the Daily Telegraph this week.

A Chester hotel has been named the world’s best small hotel

Edgar House [pictured above], a seven-bedroom boutique property in Northwest England, beat hotels in New Zealand, Costa Rica and Thailand to take the top spot in the Tripadvisor Travellers’ Choice Awards announced this week.

The results are based on reviews and opinions collected over the past year from TripAdvisor readers. This is the first year the hotel has entered the small hotel category.

“Guests always comment on the personal touches and attention to detail — from the ducks in the bathroom to the little treats o the pillow at bedtime,” says co-owner Tim Mills, sitting by the open fire in the lounge against a backdrop of classical music.

“It’s easy to feel like just another room number in a hotel but we aim to keep on making people feel special and looked after.”

The hotel, set in a period Georgian building overlooking the River Dee, opened in 2013 and welcomes guests aged 14 and above.

The individual rooms are stylish while artworks from Chester’s Castle Galleries adorn the walls throughout and a new cinema room with a large screen and gourmet popcorn is available downstairs.

Restaurant Twenty2, a fine-dining restaurant under head chef Neil Griffiths, opened within the building last November.

The 24-cover dining room opens Wednesday to Sunday for Sunday lunches, afternoon teas and evening meals.

The Roman city of Chester will see the opening of its new £37 arts centre, run and programmed the arts producer Chester Performs, later this year.

The stately Chester Grosvenor Hotel celebrated its 150th anniversary last year.

“Chester is my favourite English city. It’s compact to explore and a great base to explore the wider region,” says Midlands-born Tim.

“It’s a small city of romance — a perfect place to propose.”

Katrina Michel, Chief Executive of Marketing Cheshire, adds: “Chester is a world class heritage city and now we have another world class hotel to welcome visitors.”

Read the Telegraph review, Edgar House.

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Liked this? Try also A home from home in Chester.

Story of the week: World Town Crier Championship in Chester


There’s a man who stands in the middle of Chester each day in tights and shouts at people.

But don’t worry. For David Mitchell, the Town Crier of Chester, it’s just a job.

“I booked a town crier to wake my bride to be on our wedding day. He had to cancel, so I hired the outfit and did it myself. When his job subsequently came up, I applied,” explains ex-teacher David, whose book For Crying Out Loud! will be published by Avenue Books in September.

“It’s an unusual job interview, whereby candidate and panel stand on either sides of the River Dee.”

This year David is inviting 40 more town criers from places as diverse as Bromsgrove and Baltimore to the historic Roman city of Chester.

He will be hosting the 2010 Chester World Town Crier Tournament [pictured above], the event reaching a rallying-call crescendo after three rounds with the final on June 19 in the Town Hall Square.

Festival season

The event also kicks off Chestival, a month-long arts festival running until July 14.

Amongst the Regency frilly-frocked competitors, look out for Martin Wood, the town crier of Shrewsbury, who at 7ft 2in is the world’s tallest crier.

Check out, too, the vocal delivery of the in-form favourite for the title, Judy Campbell from Australia.

Judy is the first woman to win the Australian National Championship and the only woman to be placed in the top three at the 1997 World Championships.

For David, bringing the tournament to Chester reflects the close historical links between the city and the art of crying.

“Chester is the only place in the world to retain a regular proclamation at a fixed point at a fixed time (the Cross, at noon, Tuesday to Saturday, May-August) and has done so since 1553.”

Historically town criers have provided a cornerstone of community life.

William the Conqueror is credited with importing their trademark call of ‘Oyez’ (it means ‘listen up’ in French) but bell-totting criers also appeared in the Bayeux Tapestry and there are references in The Old Testament in (Book of Proverbs, Chapter 8, verses 1-3).

New shoots

Far from a dying art, town crying is today enjoying something of a renaissance thanks to its tourist appeal.

There are currently around 200 town criers across the UK alone.

The Chestival programme also brings the Chester Mystery Plays (June 17-20), a Midsummer Watch Parade (June 18-20) and Fireworks concerts (June 25-26) to the city.

You can’t miss the events. Chester’s very own town crier will be shouting about them from the rooftops.

“Town crying is a historic form of communication,” says David.

“Chester lends the perfect historic setting to a world-class event.”

Oyez to that.

What did you think of this story? Post your comments below.

This story was first published in Hotline magazine in 2010.

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