Chester’s a fantastic place to visit with kids and a great family city-break destination – there are some big, well-known attractions, including Chester Zoo and the Blue Planet aquarium, but for the warmer months there’s also lots to do outdoors, much of it for free. On our last visit, all my boys really wanted to do was charge and leap around the city’s part-excavated Roman amphitheatre, chasing imaginary dragons with imaginary swords – not historically accurate, but fun all the same. The largest amphitheatre to have been uncovered in Britain, it was probably used for gladiatorial combat, cockfights and public executions. You can see Roman finds in the nearby Grosvenor Museum.
We also followed the Chester Giants parade – a procession of 3.5m-tall papier-mâché puppets accompanied by street performance. The event heralds a whole summer of outdoor fun in and around the city, including the Midsummer Watch (June 21 and 22nd), a two-day midsummer spectacle with more giant historical figures parading through the centre to celebrate 500 years of the city’s ancient past. Then there’s the highly acclaimed Grosvenor Park Open Air Theatre (July 5th–-Aug 25th, free to under-12s with accompanying adults), a ‘bring a picnic and watch a show’ experience by Chester Performs, who produce the only professional, full-time open-air theatre outside London. Chester Performs is the main producer of arts and media events at indoor and outdoor spaces around the city. On the Open-Air Theatre bill this year are Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream and Othello and a new adaptation of the swashbuckling adventure story Cyrano de Bergerac – perfect for a family summer day out.
There’s also the brand-new, family-friendly MBNA Chester Music Festival, with concerts in both the Town Hall and the 11th-century Cathedral, featuring internationally acclaimed musicians and soloists from northwest England’s leading orchestras. It’s running now until June 16th. Then June 26th to July 13th sees the return of one of the country’s largest community events, The Chester Mystery Plays, with a cast of local schoolchildren and community groups reviving the ancient tradition of bible storytelling in the cathedral.
Through July and August, Saturdays at the Roman Amphitheatre will be given over to free activities aimed largely at young audiences, including ‘medieval mayhem’, mad hatters’ tea parties, giant board games, bicycle bingo, and, for tots, dressing up, dancing and storytelling. Additionally, over nine summer weekends, Chester’s charming Roman Garden Park will be transformed into an open-air cinema with audio streamed through headphones in the style of a ‘silent disco’.
Chester also offers riverboat rides, pedaloeing and mini-motorboating along the Dee (with ice-cream stalls and cafés at hand to restore energy levels), city open-air-bus tours (some in quirky old-fashioned vehicles) and a miniature railway in Grosvenor Park. Or a short walk over Queen’s Park Bridge will take you to the unspoilt Meadows, a haven of wildlife within minutes of the city centre with its great shopping and eating. The best place to stay with kids is the very friendly and central Crowne Plaza, which has both family and interconnecting rooms, plus a very good swimming pool with a toddlers’ section.
For details and full summer events listings, see the MBNA Guide.