Stuart Forster talks to David Atkinson, a Green Badge Guide offering Chester walking tours exploring the dark history of one the most haunted places in England.
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2,000 years of history mean that Chester has the reputation of being one of Britain’s most haunted cities. That’s down to deadly events in old buildings, a dark medieval history, multiple outbreaks of plague and numerous witch trials. Gorily, severed heads used to be displayed on spikes above the city’s Eastgate. Chester is a great place to visit if you appreciate dark tourism.
Chester walking tours
“Chester has got a rich history but a very dark vein of history,” says tour guide David Atkinson. “In a city that’s 2,000 years old, there’s been a lot of events.”
David is a freelance travel writer and during the COVID-19 pandemic undertook training by the Institute of Tourist Guiding to become a Green Badge guide in Chester. He leads tours of his home city, Chester, and in North West England and North Wales.
“A lot of what I do is walking tours around the Chester area. But I also work with cruise tours. Cruises come into the port at Liverpool and Holyhead in Anglesey, North Wales,” explains David. Coaches transport tourists to Chester or take them on wider sightseeing itineraries of the region.
“Chester is a really historic city. It’s got 2,000 years of history. That takes you from its origins as a Roman city, in 74AD, all the way through The Beatles, and the various gigs they played in Chester in the 1960s through to our modern history. So it’s got that huge historical span,” says David of the city where he lives and works.
“It’s a really compact city. You can walk around on foot very easily. And when you do, you kind of walk back through the mists of time and all the key periods of British history. In Chester you will find examples of Saxon history. You will find stories of Viking Chester. You will find many examples from the time of the Norman Conquest. During the English Civil War King Charles I visited Chester. He stood at the High Cross in 1642 to raise an army.”
David suggests that Chester’s Georgian and later Victorian buildings evoke scenes from the likes of Jane Eyre, the Charlotte Brontë novel. Recently, visitors have been saying Watergate Street reminds them of Bridgerton, the historical-romance television series that aired on Netflix to popular acclaim.
“You’re walking through the pages of the history book, basically,” he says of touring the city.
Things to do in Chester city centre
“The city’s really come alive again after the Covid pandemic. It’s really, really busy with visitors. Thanks to domestic visitors from the UK on weekend city breaks and international visitors combining Chester with other places around the UK or as part of a cruise.”
In autumn, the student community returns to Chester and a lot of cultural events occur. They include the Chester Literature Festival at Storyhouse and live music events around venues in the city.
“In terms of seasonality, autumn is a good time of year to visit Chester but you are running the gauntlet of the weather slightly. There are lots of cultural events until Christmas. There’s Chester Christmas Market on Town Hall Square. A whole bunch of stuff is happening around half-term week and Halloween, in terms of dark Chester,” says David hinting at the city’s ghost tours and haunted hotel experiences.
“It’s an amazing 1930s Art Deco building – a former cinema. It’s the cinema where I went to see Star Wars with my Dad when I was eight years old,” says David recalling a childhood day out. “The building has been reborn into a cultural hub.”
Places to eat in Chester
Travellers who appreciate good food will find plenty of places worth visiting in the walled city.
“There’s a really good café scene. There’s lots of pavement dining, particularly on Watergate Street, the main alfresco dining street in the city. One of my favourite places ins the Turkish café-bar. Pars Khave.If you’re here in Chester in the springtime that’s when the cafes on Watergate Street put their tables out on the pavement outside,” says David, suggesting an area to dine in Chester.
Things to do in Chester
“Overall, it’s very lively and you can come for a weekend. A lot of people will go to Liverpool and Manchester, the two big powerhouse cities in the northwest of England. Chester has a very different vibe to that. There’s a more historical vibe, a strong cultural vibe and a lively going out scene as well.”
Summer in Chester
“Chester Races runs from Easter through until September. The races, also known as the Roodee, are a huge thing for Chester. They are very historic as the races were founded in 1539. It’s the oldest continuous racecourse in existence in the UK. It brings huge numbers of visitors into the city on race days throughout the summer,” says the Green Badge Guide.
He suggests that history lovers visit in mid-June to experience the Chester Heritage Festival. Taking place from 17-28 June 2023, it showcases the story of the Cheshire city and its people.
“In 2023 the festival will coincide with the return of the Chester Mystery Plays based at Chester Cathedral. The mystery plays are a series of biblical stories from the Creation through the Resurrection. They were first performed in Chester in the 1300s and were performed as medieval street theatre and ran until the 1600s. They were later banned but were revived in the 20th century and are now on a five-year cycle and will be on from June of next year,” says David.
Chester ghost tours
“My tour is called Dark Chester, which is a dark history tour of Chester. It’s separate to the ghost tours of Chester. I work with the company that runs the ghost tours and lead them – they are separate but on a related theme,” he explains.
“There’s one particular Saxon church in Chester, St John’s Church. It’s slightly outside the city walls, going down towards the River Dee, closer to Grosvenor Park. It’s a place that people who live in Chester will probably walk past all the time. Visitors heading for a boat ride on the river will also walk past. What they don’t do is look up into the ruins on the eastern side of the church,” says David of one of the key locations on his Dark Chester tours.
St John’s dates from 689AD and is still a working church. But it has ruins on both ends.
“On the eastern flank, if you look up, very high up in the ruins of the facade, there’s a coffin. It’s buried high up in the wall of the ruins of St John’s Church. Most people just miss the coffin,” says David of the historic place of worship. It’s a regular fixture of his walking tours in Chester.
“We stand there and I wait for the penny to drop. I slowly see people among the group nudging each other, as if to say ‘hang on, there’s a flipping great coffin stuck up in the wall of that church over there.’,” says the tour guide.
St John’s Church Chester
“It’s a really atmospheric place. The people of Chester call it the thin church, which is not a reference to the ruins. It’s more the fact that it’s one of those places in Chester where a world that you and I know and understand and another world, which we can’t explain, is at its thinnest point. It’s one of the places in Chester where you feel you can step across the line. The mysterious coffin high up in the wall adds to that atmosphere,” he adds.
David recommends viewing the church at dusk or when moonlight is illuminating the words dust to dust on the front of the oak coffin.
The name of the individual buried in the coffin and the exact details of how they got there is unknown. One theory is that it is a plague coffin.
St John’s was Chester’s main place of worship before Chester Cathedral was founded in 1092, after the Norman Conquest. It was a place of work and study for monks. Therefore there’s a theory that it may be the coffin of a monk who had ideas above his station and asked to be buried closer to God.
My Haunted Hotel
One of the newest tourism projects in Chester is at the Old King’s Head (48-50 Low Bridge Street; tel. 01244 325855). “It’s for the brave, it’s not going to be for everybody” warns David.
“It’s a famous old pub built in the 1600s. It used to be a B&B. The people who run it, they’ve turned it into a hotel dedicated to paranormal investigation. It’s called My Haunted Hotel. If you’re booking it, you’ll join a paranormal investigation group. They make you sign waiver forms if you do it and they will broadcast your experience on their YouTube channel,” he explains.
“On a Dark Chester tour, I’ll always stop outside the Old King’s Head and talk about its dark history. Since the spring of 2022, the rooms upstairs are used for all-night vigils. The pub downstairs continues to operate as normal,” adds David about the historic Chester premises.
“If you book, they’ll give you equipment to monitor paranormal activity during the course of the night. They’ll encourage you to call out the spirits and they get some amazing footage. It lays claim to being one of the most haunted pubs in Britain,” says the tour guide.
Multiple ghost stories are associated with the Old King’s Head.
“There’s a room decorated like an old-fashioned children’s nursery with dolls and a rocking horse. The people who do investigations often find that when they are calling out the spirits or registering activity, they talk about hearing the voices of children,” says David of the paranormal experiences.
There are, of course, plenty of other places to spend a night in Chester if the My Haunted Hotel experience doesn’t appeal.
Hotels in Chester
Search for accommodation in Chester via Booking.com:
Walking tours of Chester
David Atkinson operates his Dark Chester tours throughout the year. They start at 6.00 pm on Saturday evenings and have a duration of approximately 90 minutes. The walking tours are priced at £10 per person. Launched in June 2022 they are proving popular. Private tours can be arranged.
Book the tours at Chester Visitor Information Centre at Chester’s Town Hall Square. Planning a trip to Chester? Call 01244 405340 to make a booking over the telephone.
Find out more about David’s Dark Chester tours via the DarkChesterTour Instagram page.
David is the producer of the Haunted Chester: A Spooky Stroll around the Roman-Walled City audio tour.
Map of Chester
Zoom into the map of Chester to see points of interest around the city:
Travel to Chester
Chester is approximately 200 miles, or a 4.5-hour drive, northwest of London. Under normal traffic conditions, Chester is about 45 minutes’ drive south of Liverpool.
The BusyBus tour company offers a range of sightseeing tours, including tours of the surrounding region from Chester and excursions to Chester from Liverpool.
Books about Chester
Keen to know more about Chester and its dark history? You can buy the following books from Amazon by clicking on the links or cover photos:
Chester: City of Ghosts by Mary Ann Cameron:
Haunted Chester by David Brandon:
Chester: A History by Simon Ward:
Chester Through Time by Paul Hurley and Len Morgan
Photos illustrating this post are by Why Eye Photography unless otherwise stated. Three of the images were supplied courtesy of David Atkinson.
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