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:
His hometown of Shrewsbury marks his birthday on February 12 each year by hosting an international festival of natural sciences. And his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution.
But the naturalist Charles Darwin [pictured above] embarked upon his lifelong quest for knowledge as a small boy in the Shropshire market town and often drew on experiences from his great-outdoors childhood in his later writing.
I’ve come to Shrewsbury, with its half-timbered buildings and historic English Bridge, to join a walking tour in the footsteps of the town’s most famous son.
Down House, Darwin’s Kent home since 1842 may be better known, but the lesser-visited childhood haunts reveal a more human side to the man behind the black-and-white photographs of the stern Victorian scientist.
“Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary on a global scale,” says DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival Organiser, Jon King, “but Shrewsbury is where they were formed.”
The tour starts at the Arts and Crafts-era Morris Hall, the public meeting space with the granite Bellstone in the courtyard a symbol of the unique geology of Shropshire.
Darwin was born in 1809 at Mount House, on the fringe of the town’s Quarry Park, and was loved exploring these geological features in the fields behind his house as a boy.
We move onto St Chad’s Church, where Darwin was baptised, and stroll past the town’s historic Market Hall to the Unitarian Church he attended with his mother, Susannah, whose father was Josiah Wedgwood of the pottery empire fame.
Charles had been born into a well-to-do family, his father, Robert, a respected local doctor, and boarded at Shrewsbury School from 1818, the former school building now converted into the town’s library, while the modern-day school has relocated across town to the banks of the River Severn.
The small square in front of the original school building is today home to a statue of Darwin but, as my tour guide Jon points out, he sits with his back to the school entrance, having not enjoyed the drab rote-learning of his schooldays.
Indeed, his teachers at the time branded him “an average student”.
Darwin later attended university in Edinburgh and went on to Cambridge, but he rebelled against his father’s wishes for him to train as a doctor or a clergyman.
He preferred to indulge his passion for natural history by studying earthworms and barnacles amongst others on a series of study tours.
It was only when he was offered a place on an expedition ship, The Beagle, in 1831, the chance came for him to prove himself.
Standing outside the Lion Hotel today, we can still imagine the young Charles rushing to take the next stagecoach to plead for his place on the expedition at The Admiralty in London.
The unpaid role as the resident naturalist on the five-year voyage would change the course of history when the ship sailed from Plymouth on December 27 with Captain Robert FitzRoy at the helm.
We finish the walk under Darwin’s Gate, a public art installation with three seemingly free-standing columns symbolising the three key influences of his formative years, namely the local geology, his religious views and his early study of scientific classification.
“Darwin attracted more criticism than any other scientist, but he simply saw life with more clarity than most of us,” says Jon. “He was an early pioneer of the stewardship of nature, not control — ideas that still resonate today.”
Darwin died in 1882, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, but remained a Shropshire lad at heart. Indeed, the poetic closing words from On the Origin of Species, could have been written about his Shrewsbury upbringing:
“From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”
It is based around an autumnal visit to the Peak District village of Eyam, otherwise known as ‘the plague village’.
But my visit on a sunny September day proved prescient not just for a spooky Halloween story slot in Telegraph Travel, but also as a reminder of how history repeats itself.
Given the announcement of a new national lockdown in England this weekend, the story of Eyam feels more appropriate than ever — despite being over 350 years old.
Here’s a flavour of my feature:
The village of Eyam has been dramatically thrust back into the spotlight this year, however.
The history-repeating parallel between the heroic sacrifice of our 17th-century forefathers and the global response to the Coronavirus pandemic today has made it an unlikely haven for dark tourism fans.
While I find it busy with walkers sipping coffees around a flower-garnished village green on an autumnal day, it’s dark past hangs like mist over the peaks.