Real Chester

Clare Dudman
Publication Date: 
Tuesday, October 25, 2016
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Join novelist Clare Dudman as she explores within the city walls of Chester in this new addition to the Real series. Here is the richly historic city as you won’t find it in guidebooks: a place which looks over its shoulder at its long and very visible past, and the continuing redevelopment and its effects on local people.

Largely established by the Romans, whose legacy is still clearly evident, Chester has been a centre of trade, military power and religion for two thousand years. It thrived in the middle ages, with priories, the cathedral, the castle, trade guilds providing centres around which life flowed. These, in turn, left a legacy of streets and buildings with which Chester lives today, including the famous double decker Rows now full of shops and restaurants.

Chester’s history informs the city and, in turn, the city lives off its history. Tourism is huge. Roman centurions roam the streets alongside umbrella-wielding tour guides, and on Heritage Days visitors can visit Roman and medieval remains hidden by contemporary shops and offices.

Dudman writes of all this and much more, including Chester’s Georgian and Victorian splendours, as she walks the streets and narrow alleyways of this small yet exotic place, bordered by the looping river Dee and the industrial Shropshire canal. Here are the buildings, the powerful families, the upstart merchants and above all the ordinary citizens of a remarkable and historic locale. Drawing on thirty years of residence, consulting documents and guides, Dudman has written a fascinating book that will appeal to locals, visitors and armchair travellers alike.


Review by The Chester Blog

Tuesday, November 8, 2016

Real Chester (Seren Books) by Clare Dudman is a detailed and meticulously researched tour of Chester offering both historical background and modern insight. The author is a former research scientist and teacher who has lived in the city for over 30 years. Claire recently gave  tour of the city as part of October’s literature festival in support of the book launch.

The book is split into sections exploring each part of the city with historical fact sprinkled with modern day observations. For example readers can learn about the history of Chester castle and then feel the frustration and sadness that the area is slowly falling into decay and only accessible on secret Chester tours. Walking the walls the author observes the beauty of our city, whilst commenting on scaffolded areas or derelict buildings and inaccessible towers. The writing is beautifully melancholic and struck a chord with me as a fellow observer and chronicler of the city.  The text is also packed with interesting facts, many of which I hadn’t heard before. Who knew that Bob Monkhouse was the first act at the opening of Alexanders, or that Superdrug once housed the city’s first supermarket (Liptons ) which opened in 1961?  These and many other facts are uncovered during the book’s exhaustive travelogue. Readers will also get a sense of how much goes on in the city via the author’s description of events she has attended, these range from the Civil war battle re-enactment on the Dean’s field to the filming of Foyles War in 2014. The magic of the winter watch contrasts with the equally surreal and hum-drum image of a giant snowman being pushed through the Forum shopping centre.

Offering a warts and all guide to Chester from the Roman foundation through civil war and Storyhouse in the present day, the book is an excellent reference guide for newcomers. The author’s novelist background emerges in the poetic text with references to the many layers of history merging and interacting. A “city of contrasts” is evocatively brought to life , from the past, present and futures, to empty shops alongside designer boutiques, and “alongside the new cultural centre the man in a sleeping bag in a night in December”. Real Chester doesn’t shy away from the city’s perceived failings with the prevalence of betting shops and charity shops mentioned, and the ugly reality of sharps bins next to the homeless day centre. A tour of the Grosvenor shopping centre mentions the security guards on the look out for unauthorised photographers, as well as delving into the scandal of the Roman baths which were destroyed during construction in the 1960s.

Alongside the historical tour, the author includes a number of short asides and interviews, these were my favourite part of the book offering modern insight into Cestrian life. An analysis of the gateway linking the abbey square and Northgate street segues into a description of watching the Midsummer watch parade.  The author’s observation of a trial in session at the Crown court is another highlight. Short interviews with Roman Tours and an interview with the founder of Tip Top productions were also fascinating.

Real Chester is a great book and one which I will certainly refer to again in the future. Easy to read and packed with anecdotes, it will encourage the reader to take a new interest in the city. While Real Chester might not be the vision that the long dead Romans wanted, the book acknowledges that “Chester” is as much evoked by drunk racegoers, Rosie’s and King Kabs as it is by its walls, beautiful scenery and heritage. It might not be perfect Chester but its our Chester.

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