Chester & The The Travel Blues

*Check back in soon for more cohesive editing and more photos.

There is no sensation akin to having lived in a depressive slump for years without relief and suddenly and unexpectedly finding the edge and climbing over. It’s a trap- I peer behind myself constantly, looking at the hole, watching it recede. I half expect dark tendrils to come creeping out of it and pull me back in. Tentative rejoicing, followed by full body contact with life. There have been moments before, even hours, but never full days. Waking up in the morning, fully present, is a strange feeling. I have to lie in my sleeping bag staring at the tent wall for a few moments, trying to identify the mood I’m in. It’s peace? There is no anxiety, no disassociating. The sounds, the sights, the habitation of my body and my mind, unclouded, is unparalleled. So to start to slip back into the funk, the blues, is cruel. “I’ve seen the top! I’ve been to the edge, and beyond!” I approach things tentatively, listlessly, fearful that even things I previously found glorious and exhilarating will bring nothing but mild anxiety and a far-off staring at a horizon I can’t quite make out.

Travelling last time was like this. “I’ll feel better once I’m on the road,” doesn’t hold true. London is overwhelming and alienating. I miss the country-side. I find myself seeking something I can’t put my finger on- is it the quiet of an Epsom pub, a careening car ride to Ashtead for curry? I don’t like being a tourist, I like being a traveller, staying and living and knowing the roads and the cottages and the people, having a regular spot. I want to immerse myself and stay awhile, but this time, it is a day here, a few days there, an economy plane ride, a few more days, another delayed flight, and then back home. Nothing really changes, there’s no finding or searching or staying, it is just a ‘pause’ button. The travel blues are real. Life should be better, away, but it is much the same- dark, wintry, dreary, alienating and much the same. Persevere, since you’re here, anyway.

I like the train and the sensation of movement. A window seat. I could live on the train. I take the Virgin train from London Euston, an old friend, up to Chester to visit a friend I made working at a diner in Guelph. It would be an insult to greasy-spoons to call that shithole a greasy-spoon. Greasy spoons often have good coffee, the kind with the rainbow oil-slick sheen on top that make your guts convulse and your head spin. Greasy spoons have good, burnt-edged crispy home fries, fried eggs with orange yolks and fatty bacon cooked to a delightful chewy yet buttery consistency. She’ll be working most of the time, so I have all of Chester to explore. On the train, I listen to podcasts, watching sheep blip! by out the window, indistinguishable little white blobs. The terrain becomes hillier and more sparse. The trees and hedgerows that mark the south, the lines of blackberry bushes and sentinel elms fade away into rock walls and bleak sky and dirty canals inhabited by houseboats retired here for the winter. It’s not the act of being somewhere I like, but of getting there.

I’m surprised by how lovely Chester itself is. It is a walled city, the Wall dating back to Roman times. Original construction dates back to 100AD, although parts have been repaired and updated. Take a left through a skinny alley and through a half open gate, clamber up a sandstone staircase, and you’re on the wall. There are various access points, all of which seem half hidden. I think they’re the quickest way to get around the city, circling above the foot-traffic and madness below. The Eastgate Clock resides on part of the walkway. There is a local urban legend that it bears only 3 faces, and the side that faces toward Wales is missing, the punchline being that the English won’t give the Welsh the time of day. (This urban legend is easily refuted by circling the clock and seeing that it does, in fact, bear 4 faces.)

A walk around the walls will take you by various site-seeing opportunities, including the Chester Cathedral, The River Dee, the canal and recently discovered Roman ruins, only half excavated because of a slightly less ancient church erected on top of said ruins. Something we aren’t used to in North America with our relatively short history (barring Native American history, which lacked the massive stone structures of European history), the layers upon layers of history and the crowding of people on top of ruins that predate Christianity.

As a broke person, there are quite a few free-cheap things to do in the city. Walk the walls, explore the Chester Cathedral (admission is free and the thousands of stained glass panels are stunning), hike to Wales (a mere 8km to the border), walk the River Dee, walk along the canal. The Chester Indoor Market is a strange conglomeration of eclectic booths, hair salons and hideous cafes. Pick up a bag of shelled peanuts at one of the various Tescos or Pound Lands scattered around the city and head to Grosvenor Park to feed the squirrels.

As a drinker and and eater and appreciator of establishments ranging from hole-in-the-wall to fine dining, there is a huge range of opportunities. Commonhall for that reclaimed wood, throw pillow hipster vibe. Prohibition, a legitimate speak-easy with an unmarked door where you knock for entry. Try the Black Forest cocktail, or any of the classics- they make a mean Negroni. Visit Boyd at Ye Old King’s Head and ask to see the ghost book, a binder kept behind the bar of letters and photos sent in by guests and documenting their experiences with the paranormal at the pub. Peer in the window of Dollectable across the street, a creepy (probably haunted) doll shop. If you’re industry, a chef or bartender, visit the Marlborough Arms for late-night pints until the sun comes up. The Church (as you might imagine, a legitimate church converted into an open, airy bar and restaurant) makes a stellar Espresso Martini.

Coffee in England is bad. Sooo bad. Embarrassingly bad. A ‘bad’ latte in Toronto is ten times better than the average latte in London or Chester or Liverpool. So when you find a gem of a coffee shop, with hot, hipster baristas to boot, you go there over and over again. The Jaunty Goat is the best coffee I found in the country, so far. Dinner at Twenty2 was overhyped. The service was overly formal and stifling and the food was average and overpriced. Geared toward an older crowd, any table conversation veering away from ‘austere’ was frowned upon by other guests. Amusingly, one of our dining companions had seen the chef on Grindr and had previously hooked up with our maitre’d. Try your luck at one of the many chippies open late for fried chicken and chips. The chicken tikka bhuna at Bombay Palace is great after a night of bingo at Mecca Bingo.

And should you tire of Chester, Liverpool is only a £5 return train trip away.

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