It’s been ten weeks since we moved to Chester, and we have had a lot of Awfully Big Adventures, so I thought it high time to share what we have found so far to do with little ones in and around the city for those who’re new to, or visiting, the area.
Choo choo! We love this little train that chugs at quite some speed round the lake by the play area, and all visitors are dragged there, with us claiming it’s because the girls like it. Secretly Jon wants to apply to be one of the drivers. £1.50 for adults (though I recommend you go for the 3 ride option, as they won’t want to get off) and free for under 3s. It leaves from a proper little station with a waiting platform, and a shop packed full of Thomas goodies.
The play area next to it is fantastic, with a top area for tinies including swings and bouncy ladybirds, and a more adventurous section with zip wires et al down below. It’s carpeted in wood chip which reduces the amount of times Charlotte moans ‘my KNEES!’
Grosvenor Park itself is gorgeous. It’s where they hold the annual open air theatre. It’s just by the river and the footbridge, so we find the best parking is on Victoria Crescent and then strolling over the bridge, rather than trying to find a space in town.
The flood plain that forms one big bend of the river has been left as wild open space. Chester really looks jolly handsome from this vantage point, with all the Georgian houses cascading down to the banks. There’s something of Bath/Oxford/Durham about it. Again, park in Victoria Crescent (or anywhere close by in Queen’s Park/Handbridge) and walk; the kissing gates are JUST big enough to get a double buggy through. It’s absolutely idyllic, and a great place to take a picnic and watch life row past. Last time we were there we saw dragon boat racing, and there are various open water swimming contests. Just beware of the posterior evacuations of our bovine friends who share the meadows…
At some point, when my heart is no longer in my mouth, we’ll take the girls on one of the many river cruises that leave from The Groves (the esplanade with its generous allocation of benches and bandstands by the footbridge/Grosvenor Park, gosh Chester Council must be making a decent income from tourism). There’s one that goes up to Eaton, the Duke of Westminster’s humble abode. You can also hire canoes, pedaloes and small boats, though at eyebrow raising prices.
Allegedly there is also a passenger ferry in summer months (for which you make a small donation) that takes you the 10 metres or so across the Dee from the Meadows to Sandy Lane Aqua Park. If that brings up visions of a Cheshire Sea World, it’s actually just a playground that has a section with various sprinklers on a random programme, so the kids can strip off and have hoots of fun running through them and getting wet.
Literally 5 minutes from our door, even for little legs, which is fantastic. The children’s playground is large and very well equipped and maintained, and there is also an open air gym for adults (which I, unsurprisingly, am yet to try), 9 hole golf course, bowling club, tennis courts and a Croquet Club, who hold the Advanced title for the North, woo! All the paths are marked with metre markers if there are runners in the family. Jon had to explain to me what these were; I thought it was measuring distance to the café and their exciting Sunday morning offer of a bacon buttie, cup of tea and two rounds of golf for a tenner.
If you walk south through the park you’ll get to the Westminster Park shops, where you’ll find Bebbingtons the butchers. It is a fine establishment but do NOT buy anything from there as I recently entered a ‘create a new sausage’ competition and was narrowly pipped to first place, so now face the shame and bitterness of seeing my rival’s sausage on sale. It hurts. This boycott will obviously be lifted when I win next year.
Blacon is one of the less ‘naice’ areas of Chester but has this fantastic city farm come adventure playground come woodland activity centre come youth club. It’s run by a charity so you just make an optional donation. Donkeys, sheep, goats, the world’s fattest pigs, chickens, ducks, rabbits and occasionally a kangaroo (yes, that confused me too). This is pretty much where the girls learnt to walk in order that they could run away from me at speed towards a giant muddy puddle (damn you, Peppa Pig) or the donkey’s hooves.
The Sealand Road retail park (I know, living the dream) has got something for everyone. Our routine has evolved into – T K Maxx/Aldi, to feed my Bargain Addiction, Tesco to scoop up anything Aldi didn’t have, and then Fun 4 All for soft play for the girls. It’s vast, spotless, has a really decent area for under 5s, refreshments, and a ride on Magic Roundabout that costs £1 that I made the mistake of putting them on once so we now get tantrums at my Pol Pot level cruelty for not allowing repeat spins.
No shoes, so remember to wear socks. Otherwise they make you wear their hideous ones and charge you for the opportunity.
Christleton is a picture perfect Cheshire village on the outskirts of Chester. Just gorgeous red brick cottages trimmed in wisteria and a splendid gastropub in the form of the Ring O’Bells who do excellent 2-4-1 burgers on a Monday. There’s a duck pond on Heath Lane which is ever-so-pretty and the ducks will come up to the girls for bread (I know we shouldn’t, but) and obligingly shed their feathers for collection. Further down the lane is yet another playground, probably the best we’ve found. It’s got a sit on digger for moving sand! The slide is built into a hill so no ladder to climb! It’s got a wobbly bridge! And the girls can exercise their need to escape me as it’s in a giant, fenced off field, so no dangers unless wolves are suddenly reintroduced to the North West.
Going the other way into Wales, just past the giant Airbus factory, is this lovely farm which does pick your own strawberries, raspberries, gooseberries and blackcurrants, has a HUGE and very posh farm shop with their own butchers and deli (try the Dragon’s Blood scotch egg and the Welsh Oggy), a great café, chickens, and a wooden castle for the kids to play on, all surrounded by the rolling Welsh countryside. What more could you want? Oh yes, a September family festival with Cerys Matthews and chef Bill Grainger, that’s what! All very Boden/Lattetude.
Bizarrely, this is a regular haunt, and not just because Jon has become obsessed with turning our pond into a cross between Fining Nemo and Monet’s Giverney. Great café, plants and fish for the girls to look at.
Finally, we are spoiled when it comes to toddler groups and activities. This is the pick of the bunch we’ve tried so far:
Messy Church at All Saints Church Centre, Hoole. First Thursday of every month from 3.30-5.45pm. Love, love, LOVE this! As it says on the tin, an afternoon of arts and crafts, followed by a crowd-pleasing dinner of nuggets or hot dogs and ice cream and jelly. The house is quickly filling up with the girls’ efforts including giant beanstalks, musical instruments and felt purses along with some slightly psychotic gingerbread men/angel/alien things which are currently staring at me from the pinboard, with some menace. I bet they come alive at night…
St Mary’s Handbridge, from 10am on Thursday mornings. Beautiful church with a well attended group from babies upwards, and very welcoming ladies hosting. Charlotte likes the toy iron best; Romilly the trampoline. Snacks and drinks for everyone. Outdoor singing on nice days.
Sparks at Hoole Baptist Church from 9.45-11.30am on Wednesdays. Great toys and crafts too.
Diddi Dance at Mollington Grange. Lessons throughout the week but we go on Saturday mornings. It’s a fun introduction to dance and everything is in 3 minute sections, which ties in perfectly to their attention span. Allegedly they’re learning Flamenco at the moment but that’s essentially just an excuse to play with ribbons, hoops, castanets, fans, stamp a lot, pretend to be bulls, and shout ‘Ole!’
So, that’s what we’ve found so far. Still on the list to try are:
Northgate swimming pool (we felt a bit guilty on holiday that the girls seemed to have regressed when it comes to swimming, which is entirely down to us not making the gargantuan effort that is getting two slippery little people changed for swimming, swimming without drowning, and then changed back again). Northgate’s meant to be the best of the local ones in terms of facilities and has a lagoon, though we’re also going to look into the pool at Christleton High, and then at some of the hotels and fitness centres.
Tattenhall Ice Cream Farm (yes, who wouldn’t relish the mash-up between making your own ice cream and petting farm animals, though I can envisage the slight brucellosis issues, Granny and Grandpa we will use antibac handwash, promise!)
Beeston Candle-Making Workshop. Mmm. Charlotte and Romilly and hot wax. Maybe later…
This is a bit further for us so maybe one to save for when Charlotte’s a better traveller, but it’s a huge area and all the local schools seem to have orienteering/camping trips there. Wholesome, outward bound, Blytonesque heaven. Most excitingly, it has A GRUFFALO TRAIL with a seven foot carved monster at the end of it.
Nearby is Blakemere, which is a craft village with regular falconry displays and when they’re a bit bigger they can handle the birds. For bigger kids there’s a Segway trail.
CHESTER ZOO! It’s annoying we haven’t done this yet as obviously it’s our local top attraction, but I am just struggling with the value:time equation. It opens at 10 and closes at 5, but the issue is ours still sleep from 12.30 to 2.30, so we’d only get a couple of hours…But as soon as they start dropping that we’ll be off, and I imagine will be buying an annual pass.
Blue Planet Aquarium. Ditto.
Cheshire Pony Experience. I am BEYOND excited about this one. From age 2, small groups of little people can go and pet and groom and feed the miniature Shetlands, and then get on their backs if they’re up for it. Their giant brother has enquired whether they also teach horseback archery. I think he has a vision of his sisters as junior associates of the Mongol hordes. He keeps trying to give them wooden swords he bought them that are currently confiscated, convinced as he is that some apocalypse is coming our way and they need to be able to slay dragons by their third birthday. Or perhaps he has just been watching too much Game of Thrones…
On that note, he and I are also keen to visit Gladstone’s Library by Hawarden Castle, his old ‘hood. I’d never heard of this, but he left his entire collection to the nation, which has now been supplemented. It looks stunning. You can be a Reader for free and they actually encourage people who work from home to do it from there once a month. They hold regular talks and seminars and offer a ‘Welsh in a Week’ course, which we may be brave enough to do at some point!
We’ll obviously make use of the multitude of canals near us when they’re a bit bigger, and then there’s the whole of North Wales (including gazillions of castles, caves and the Thomas steam train in Llangollen) to explore when we feel confident about taking them on the boat we have at Conwy. But the thought of that just makes me feel a little bit tremulous at the moment!
For newcomers I’d also advise signing up to the New Mums in Chester Facebook page which I am finding invaluable when it comes to local nuggets, and there are regular meet ups too. If anyone has any other advice, or questions, feel free to post in Comments below.
I have to say, I am LOVING Chester. It just seems a pretty perfect place to bring up children, given all the above. It’s a city, so you have access to everything you need, but within 5 minutes we’re out in fields and, depending which direction we take, are en route then to mountains or the sea or forests or canals or rolling farmland. Not to mention, when they’re bigger, the whole Roman heritage, the City Walls, the rows, the fact its ancient name was Deva, which makes me and the girls official Devas…And don’t get me started on Cheshire Oaks, the UK’s biggest designer discount shopping village. This is unusual because most of Chester’s claims evidence a marked inferiority complex eg ‘the biggest M&S outside London’ or even Liverpool has ‘the oldest Chinatown outside London.’