In Roman and Medieval times Chester was a thriving port on the River Dee, so a boating holiday seems an appropriate way of approaching this wonderfully romantic and historic city. But the Shropshire Union Canal doesn't terminate at Chester, it pushes on across the base of the Wirral to Ellesmere Port on the banks of the mighty Mersey, home to the The National Waterways Museum, Britain's premier collection of preserved canal craft displayed in an authentic dockland environment.
Chester represents our most restful out and back cruise. A mere ten hours boating out from Middlewich, it requires just three or four hours a day through pleasant Cheshire countryside on the move for a week's holiday; though you will probably want to boat for a bit longer each day so as to allow yourselves plenty of time for exploring this most beautiful of cities when you get there. At the outset you head westwards along the Shropshire Union Canal to Barbridge Junction where you pursue your leisurely course along the quiet waters of the old broadbeam Chester Canal.
The locks on this section are wide enough to cope with two narrow boats, side by side, and if another boat is travelling in your direction, it both saves water and helps with the workload to share the locks. Suddenly you get your first glimpse of Beeston Castle soaring above the Cheshire Plain on its high sandstone crag. King John is said to have buried treasure here which has never been found - or perhaps the person who found it just didn't tell the rest of the world! It's open to the public under the aegis of English Heritage, so you can go and do a little treasure hunting for yourself. There are other pleasant ports of call on this stretch of canal; the lockside cottage at Beeston Stone Lock where freshly baked home-produce is often obtainable; the little glory hole of a craft shop at Castle Wharf; the neighbouring country auction ring; and the Shady Oak, a convivial canalside pub just made for thirsty and hungry boaters.
Getting into Chester these days by car is a bit of a headache, but the only ache you experience in arriving here by canal is from operating the quintet of locks which, at intervals, drop you down into the heart of the city, where you can moor within earshot of the cathedral without a traffic warden in sight. Make no mistake, Chester is one of the great treasure houses of Europe, and quite the best way to effect an introduction to it is to perambulate its ancient walls.
Familiarity gained by this, gravitate toward the centre, explore the famous galleried Rows, and then go and wallow in the hushed peace of the cathedral. Then you can decide where to eat, a choice not made any easier by a proliferation of enchanting looking restaurants, cafes and pubs.
If recent history holds more appeal to you than the ancient variety, and if, like many of our holidaymakers, you have a real enthusiasm for canals, then Chester may only be a punctuation mark on the voyage towards your real goal of The National Waterways Museum at Ellesmere Port. It's only an extra three hours boating up the Shropshire Union Canal, and though no-one would pretend that Ellesmere Port is a pretty place, it is invigorating in a way you might not have supposed.
To berth in the old transhipment docks of the port, looking out over the wide waters of the ship canal and Mersey estuary,
with Liverpool rising clearly on the horizon, is a fitting climax to any, voyage from Middlewich.
Here, at the The National Waterways Museum, your modern, comfortable hire boat rubs shoulders with its cargo-carrying ancestors.
For a moment, past and present merge inextricably and your holiday on the canal takes on a different, and extremely gratifying, dimension.
Wych House Lane,
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