Meghan, The Queen and the ever-changing face of Chester

So wonderful to see my old city of Chester getting some international coverage last week, with a visit by the lovely Meghan Markle and some old lady (OK, OK, I know it was The Queen!!)  😀

As part of their itinerary, they dropped into Storyhouse in Northgate Street, which in the olden days was the Odeon Cinema, one of my favourite haunts when I lived there. Sadly the Odeon closed years ago.

After standing disused for a while, this 1930s art deco listed building has been wonderfully converted into a library, meeting space, theatre venue and small cinema. Megan and The Queen toured the building before unveiling a plaque to officially open it, and watched a performance by local schoolchildren.

You can find out more about their visit from my old newspaper the Chester Chronicle (I was a journalist there in another life).

 

To me, the Royal Visit demonstrates the changing face of Chester City Centre. I once wrote a film script in which the manager of the Odeon was visited by Cupid himself (a bungling version of Cupid anyway) to set right his disastrous love life. The Odeon no longer exists.

Other scripts and stories I’ve written over the years also reference venues and locations in Chester that either don’t exist anymore or have drastically changed since the days I knew them.

The biggest change has happened to the police and where they work in the city.

My first two novels starring my detective character DC Dominic Strider referenced the former Cheshire Police HQ in Nuns Road, opposite the magistrates’ court.

This seven-storey building was abandoned by the police a decade or so ago – they moved to a new HQ in Winsford. In recompense for leaving Chester, the police opened a new Chester, Ellesmere Port & Neston divisional police station on the Blacon council estate in Chester, and opened a tiny police office in Chester Town Hall.

So in my first two novels – No More Lonely Nights, and Long & Winding Road (both available in paperback and on Kindle) – I have Strider working in the old police HQ in Nuns Road.

By the time I rebooted the character and started writing the 3rd (completed) and 4th (half-completed) novels, the old HQ had long gone. What to do? So I decided to simply ignore what had happened to the old HQ, and just gave Strider an office in the Town Hall police base instead.

On the one hand, this is annoying and ruins any sense of chronology in my books. On the other hand, the ever-changing city centre landscape makes an author like me think on my feet, allowing me to change and adapt my own work so the Chester in my 3rd and 4th books – and beyond – represent Chester just as it is today.

That is the modern, constantly-evolving Chester that Meghan and The Queen enjoyed visiting so much last week.

 

 

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It was all a dream…..

Creatives have long held that some of their best ideas come to them in dreams.

After all, one of my favourite short film ideas (I’m also a scriptwriter) came to me in a fevered dream, although it has yet to be filmed. Perhaps because it was so wacky? (Read on till the end when I’ll tell you what my crazy idea was!)  🙂

So, the other week, out of nowhere I had a dream about my 4th DC Dominic Strider crime novel. Yes, the one I’m halfway through writing. The one based in the historic surroundings of Chester Cathedral. The one with the evil opera singer. Called ‘Till The Fat Lady Sings’.

The plot already centres on antiques fraud. Strider investigates the suspicious death (later confirmed as murder) of the Cathedral Verger. This leads him to discover that the Verger was part of a nationwide scam to steal antiques from every venue the opera singer performs at. Strider works with the Met Police’s Antiques Squad (yes, they actually have one) to follow the singer down to Covent Garden for the final confrontation.

So with that buried in my subconscious, and the thought already rattling around my head that the plot needed a little extra ‘something’ to spice things up, I had this dream….

Strider hears that the fraudsters want to find and steal the most amazing treasure from the Cathedral – the mythical Cheshire Cross of Christ. Legend has it the Cross is hidden somewhere within the Cathedral’s ancient walls, but no-one has ever been able to find it. The crooks start following the clues – like a treasure hunt – to unearth this priceless jewel-encrusted gold effigy.

Playing them at their own game, Strider follows the clues himself, outsmarts the villains, and manages to (eventually) uncover this hidden treasure. It was such a terrific idea (even if I say so myself) that I immediately awoke, leapt out of bed – OK, crawled out of the bed – and grabbed a notepad to scribble it down.

The idea will now be incorporated slowly and surely into the second half of the novel, and I’m presently working out the best way to do that. But what a terrific way to jazz up an already-exciting crime novel.

I just hope my subconscious mind will now rustle up some more tremendous plots while I’m asleep – and maybe even help me find a literary agent into the bargain.

All I need is a name, beamed into my brain. Just one name of an agent who’ll get my books and love the concept of DC Strider. Not that I’ll tell him where I get my ideas from, of course…..  🙂

 

NB My fever dream many years ago, which ended up as an (as yet unfilmed) short film script saw four middle-aged friends reuniting in a country pub after several years. After a lot of laddish banter and much catching up with each others’ lives, one reveals he has terminal cancer.

He then asks the other three to help him with his dying wish: to shock people in the most outrageous way possible. It ends with him hand-gliding over the countryside stark naked – to the open-mouthed surprise of the locals!

It was meant to be heartwarming and life-affirming, as well as very fumy. I pictured Ian McShane (Lovejoy himself!) as the dying man. Sadly, to date, it’s never been made for the screen. The crowd-funding campaign to get this made starts here!! 😀

 

 

Picture perfect

It was wonderful to visit Chester in Easter week, returning to those hallowed grounds I trod all those years ago when I was a local journalist and resident in the city. These are also, of course, the grounds being currently trod by Detective Constable Dominic Strider of Chester CID, hero of my four (and counting!) detective thriller novels.

I took the opportunity of the bright, sunny weather on one of those days to carry out a long, enjoyable self-guided history tour of the Cathedral (it has opened up its quadrangle garden and water feature to the public, and has redeveloped its outer gardens and built a falconry centre in its grounds).

I also explored the City Walls around the Cathedral and revisited the four main shopping streets lined with the glorious Black & White Tudor buildings which form part of The Rows – a unique two-tiered medieval shopping complex that’s the only one of its kind in the world.

I took photos of all these glorious locations, which I present to you today in this blog. They add to the rich tapestry I hope I’ve been weaving over these past months – and are a visual treat for the eyes.

With each step, I was able to point out different locations used in my books to my wife. As my fourth novel, Till the Fat Lady Sings, is actually set in and around the Cathedral anyway, this was perfect timing. So I showed my wife the Verger’s house where he is killed; the back door to the Cathedral where the killer sneaks him in, in order to dump his body; where the car bombing will take place, and such like.

The Cathedral also played a small but important role in my very first DC Strider novel, as one of the benches in its courtyard is where Strider starts falling in love with visiting New York journalist Kate Laughton, who becomes the love of his life! He later shows her round the Cathedral when he gives her a tour of the city, though that’s just mentioned in passing.

Having these real-life locations in my mind when writing my books really helps bring the story evocatively to life. Especially as they are told in the first-person, so everything that Strider sees, touches and senses, I already have done so myself!

So it was superb to be back there, in my home town, back on familiar turf and walking the very steps, paths and passageways that Strider is treading.

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Public Holiday Number One

Easter is nearly upon us. As always my thoughts are never very far from Chester, the setting of my Detective Constable Dominic Strider crime novels & my home and workplace for 15 years.

It’s not a conscious thing I do, but I once realised that my Strider books tend to be roughly set around various public holidays.

The first, No More Lonely Nights (NMLN), happened over the August Bank Holiday period. The second, Long & Winding Road (L&WR), was in the run-up to Christmas. The third, Strider Begins: Road to Nowhere (RtN), took place over Easter.

Setting a novel over a public holiday, to me in hindsight, makes sense. It’s a short period of time so the action is speeded up and more frenetic, plus the holiday itself makes for an interesting background detail.

You could also have less people in authority around, if you set something on a bank holiday – say Strider wanted to visit the Council. He couldn’t because the offices would be closed. Wouldn’t bother him – he’d just break in anyway to find out what he needed.

The good old British weather is another great addition to these novels, creating a vivid and interesting backdrop. From the hot days and sultry nights of NMLN to the crisp, fresh snow that Strider trudges through in L&WR, and to the April showers that threaten to wash away evidence from the crime scene in RtN, the ever-changing British weather is almost a character in itself in my stories.

My fourth novel – which I’m halfway through writing – is set over the summer again, as the opening action scene takes place at Chester Races. The racecourse holds race meetings throughout the summer and early autumn period, so this makes for an ideal setting for Strider’s latest adventure.

But more about this novel later – I haven’t figured out yet how to end it. All I know is that Strider will be hitting old London town and taking down the villain in his usual inimitable style.

All of which leads me to bid you ‘adieu’ and have a very Happy Easter!!

I HEART Chester!!

It was Valentine’s Day this week, and it’s cemented in my mind how one of the loves of my life is actually…. something that’s not even living! Well, not in the usual sense!

I first fell in love with Chester when I was in my late teens, having visited for the day  with my aunt. Walking under the archway of the magnificent Eastgate Clock, taking me from Foregate Street to Eastgate Street, a sudden shiver went down my spine.

I was home!!! 🙂

That was the bizarre yet joyous feeling I had, that somehow this city would play an important part of my life. And so it would come to pass…..

I wrote many of the first drafts of my debut crime novel No More Lonely Nights while living elsewhere. I relied on an A-Z street map purchased from Chester’s local tourist information office to find the best locations for the story: Rowlands Heights flats in Newtown where the body is found; Bridge Street for the jewellery robbery; a pub by the canal, the Blacon estate, the MP’s house in Upton and the old police station.

I finally moved to Chester in the summer of 1995, having completed my year-long journalism course, and started work immediately at the Chester Chronicle as a general reporter, as well as police, courts and health correspondent.

My love affair with my adopted home city continued over the years, as Chester played host to numerous important life events. It’s where I met my first girlfriend, where I met and married my wife, and where we got our first house, in Handbridge overlooking the River Dee.

We moved down to London in November 2009 for work and social reasons, and consider ourselves fully-fledged Londoners now, albeit Northerners in London!

However, we still have family in Chester and relish visiting them a couple of times a year as we get to see the old town once more. As former residents, we see the place with fresh eyes and can be very critical about new buildings, closed businesses, and other changes we don’t agree with.

But I wouldn’t miss these visits for the world. My three other books – Long & Winding Road, written while still living in Chester; Strider Begins: Road to Nowhere and Till The Fat Lady Sings, both written in London – are all set there. My main character, DS Dominic Strider, works for Chester CID. He’s Chester through-and-through!

As much as I love my new home in London, and it IS a fantastic city with a wealth of opportunity, Chester is and will remain my first love. Well, when we’re talking cities of course. Other types of love are a whole new topic in itself!!!!

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Scouting your locations

Happy New Year everyone!

For my first blog about my novels of 2018…. I’m gonna have to wind the clock back a whole month. And yes, I will have to mention the C-word – unavoidably! 🙂

In early December, I returned to my old home of Chester for a week. It is of course the very city in which my crime novels are based, and the stomping ground of my lead character Detective Constable Dominic Strider of Chester CID.

I was there to see family and celebrate my birthday (I turned 36 once again!!!). The weather was dry and crisp: perfect for taking long leisurely walks around the historic shopping streets and ancient City Walls.

My wife and I also dropped into the gorgeous medieval Chester Cathedral to see the annual Christmas Tree Festival (told you I had to use the C-word – Christmas!!)

I’m halfway through writing my fourth novel – Till The Fat Lady Sings. It’s set in and around the Cathedral, and focuses on an evil opera singer who’s holding a concert there, and who brings a wake of death, destruction and thievery with her. And if you think I’m giving the game away here, just consider this book as a Columbo-esque mystery. It’s not so much WHODUNNIT but HOW they’re caught!

This seemed an ideal opportunity to visit some of the locations I use in the book, to walk down the cold flagstones in the quadrangle that Strider will walk down, to check out all the little characterful nooks, crannies and hidden rooms, and gaze in awe at the architectural majesty of the building’s inner sanctum.

It truly is a superb building and totally worth a visit. It confirmed in my mind that I’d chosen the perfect location to focus this fourth story on (the Cathedral received mere passing mentions in my previous books).

And it proves once again the importance of always visiting real-life locations you’re writing about, if you can. It gives your writing the pervading air of authenticity and – hopefully – has the power to transport readers there.

If I can evoke the feeling that you’re actually there inside the Cathedral – seeing what Strider sees, hearing what he hears and feeling what he feels – then I’ll have done my job and done it well! 🙂

 

Stop and start writing

Today (Friday 24 November) is my last day in work before a well-deserved fortnight’s holiday. And will I be resting? Heck no! 🙂

Next week I have earmarked for more work on my fourth Detective Constable Dominic Strider novel, ‘Till the Fat Lady Sings’, about the evil opera singer. And if you think the title gives the ending away, just think of this novel as a Columbo-esque mystery. Not so much whodunnit but how’s Strider gonna solve it??

The problem with having a full-time day job (in government communications) is that I have little spare time left for my books. Weeknights sometimes are OK to do a chapter. Weekends much better – you can blast through a good few of them.

But taking annual leave is, to me, still be very best way to do it. I can devote a specific amount of time to the story, settle down in complete silence, undisturbed by anyone else (my wife will be at work then), and blast through it.

I was fortunate enough to have loads of annual leave accruing this year; so much in fact that it was actually one of my job’s objectives for 2017 to get rid of it all!! What an objective to have to meet, eh??  🙂

So I took the first two weeks in October off and made a cracking start on the novel. I’m now 15 chapters in, so about half way.

This is especially a good achievement in my eyes as the opening chapter took me many weeks to get right. It’s set at Chester Races and had originally been a one-off action scene, never to be mentioned again afterwards. It’s now been changed so it’s the start of a sub-plot which runs throughout the novel till the very end. This of course requires new chapters to accommodate it.

I also deviated massively off my initial chapter plan in order to prolong the murder investigation, introduce new characters, new scenarios and new clues, and create from scratch a romance for Strider with one of the main witnesses.

Over the next week, I plan to take the writing very slowly and carefully, and not rush to the end. This is a marathon, not a sprint. So I fully anticipate reaching the 2/3 point of the book, where Strider pursues the villain down to London to finally prove her guilt and apprehend her.

It will be an intense week, but it will artistically fulfilling, and I know I’ll have fun too seeing where the characters take me next. After all, it’s ‘their’ story. Who knows where we’ll end up this time next week?? 🙂

Chester

In two weeks time I will be visiting Chester itself – the setting for my DC Strider crime novels.

Please look out for further pictures of this beautifully historic city and details of a new video blog I’m planning, about my intense efforts to find a literary agent for my work.

 

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Changing – not losing – the plot

I’m now a good third of the way through my fourth Detective Constable Dominic Strider novel ‘Till The Fat Lady Sings’… and it looks vastly different from how I’d planned it.

I always prepare a chapter structure beforehand to highlight the main plot points and where I think they should land. But they are not immovable or even unchangeable. Everything is up for grabs.

So once I started writing the novel itself, quite a lot of my original ideas changed; some quite drastically!

Chapter 1

Chapter 1 takes place at Chester Races. It originally had Strider chasing a thief across the finishing line, just as the horses came in. Bit like the first five minutes of a Bond film, it was an action scene that had no connection to the rest of the story.

But then it occurred to me that the Races are a fantastic location. It’d be a shame to just dismiss them so quickly.

So I slowly started working out how to stretch that storyline across the remainder of the novel. I can’t reveal too much, but now something sinister happens which spooks the horses during the race. Strider must work out what happened, why and who dunnit.

By its very nature, this means more – new – chapters to write.

After all, if a major public incident has occurred, the police need to take statements. There will be an incident room. Strider has to visit the stables to interview the jockeys. Dotting these extra elements around the book has been creatively satisfying, as I’ve now got an entirely new sub-plot. 🙂

Chester Cathedral

It’s also important to let the story breathe. This can only happen once you start writing.
I tend to go into a Zen-like state to open up the creative floodgates in my mind and let the ideas flow through my fingers into the computer. It’s vital to my process that I don’t stifle this creativity at all, nor put a straitjacket on the plot, characters and their actions.

The characters then tend to dictate where the story is going…. and this can have surprising results!

The main plot is about an opera singer coming to town, her involvement with stolen antiquities, and the disappearance of the Verger in Chester Cathedral. In my original chapter plan, the Verger went missing early on (Chapter 3). In Chapter 5 his body was found.

But as I was writing, it occurred to me that a) I needed to incorporate more mystery surrounding his disappearance, and b) we needed to know who reported him missing.

This led to an entirely new character and a scene in the Cathedral Cafe, which happens to be based in the atmospheric 13th century monks dining hall. That’s Chester for you – full to the brim with stunning real-life historic locations!

Another thing happened then….

The opera singer’s PA (who was originally only a peripheral character) also appeared much earlier than planned. She had a ‘meet cute’ with Strider and the two of them have now embarked on a fling. This took me by complete surprise – which sounds stupid as I’m the author!

But I have fully allowed the characters to dictate the pace and events of the plot. And it just seemed so natural, normal and interesting that Strider and the PA should get together as a couple.

An added bonus: when Strider finally does meet the opera singer and investigates the murder, he has a very personal stake in events. This also creates a love triangle – maybe even a quadrangle – later on in the story.

So the book is changing and evolving chapter by chapter, line by line, and I couldn’t be more excited! I just hope the characters let me know where it’ll all end up! 🙂

 

 

Times they are a changing…

One of the oddest things about setting your novels in a real-life city like Chester, is that the place is constantly changing and evolving. The question is: how do you catch-up with those changes? How do they affect your novels’ timeline? Or do you ignore them altogether?

When I wrote my first crime novel – No More Lonely Nights (available on Amazon Kindle now) – Chester was a fairly stable city. Nothing much was changing. The action took place in the city streets and suburbs. They will never change – and indeed haven’t. How could they?

But then came the second novel – Long & Winding Road (also available on Amazon Kindle). By the time of writing this, a fair few years after the first, Cheshire Constabulary had decided to move out of their seven-storey HQ in Nuns Road, opposite the magistrates’ court. They had a crazy idea that they didn’t want to be based in Chester, the county town of Cheshire, anymore. Instead they wanted to move to an industrial park in Winsford, the complete opposite side of the county. Bizarrely, the fire brigade made the same decision around the same time – and abandoned Chester for Winsford.

L&WR ends with my detective characters DC Dominic Strider and DI George ‘Slapper’ McKedrick telling the Chief Constable they didn’t like this move. Naturally they wouldn’t have been forced to move to Winsford too. But because Cheshire Police Station had been based on the ground and first floor at the HQ building, it meant there would have to be a new cop shop for Chester. This was eventually built on the Blacon estate on the edge of Chester. The police made this a divisional HQ, bringing together the different police areas of Chester and Ellesmere Port & Neston (at the base of the Wirral). Strider and Slapper didn’t want to be based there either.

So the police created a THIRD police station, by taking over some office space in Chester Town Hall. The argument was that Chester still needed a city centre police presence that the public could walk into and meet & speak to coppers face-to-face. Sounds sensible, right? To me, this is as integral to a front-facing police service as having bobbies on the beat. But the police nationally seem to be withdrawing more and more from public life and face-to-face contact these days…

Naturally, Strider and Slapper decided they wanted to be based in the police office in the Town Hall. And because they’d saved the Chief Constable’s daughter from the serial killer – read the novel, it’s all explained in there!! – they got their wish.

That all seemed fine with me. The second novel reflected local history. I was happy. But then came the problems with the third novel… and the fourth, which I’m currently writing….

You see, I decided that the first two books formed a perfect character arc for Strider, and I didn’t want to take his storyline any further from that point in his life. So for books three, four and more, I decided to reboot the series. Go back to the beginning. Let’s look at Strider’s cases from his early days, starting just before he becomes a detective. Plenty of scope for good stories there, and I have ample storylines in mind for them!

But here’s the rub: what the heck do I do about the police station and the disappearing HQ? You see, chronologically, go back to Strider’s roots and you go back to when the old Cheshire Constabulary HQ was still standing and operational in Nuns Road.

But for book three, I brought it up to the modern era, as I felt the story should remain contemporary. I gave Strider a smart phone, for example. He surfs the internet, he uses social media. None of these were particularly prevalent at the time I wrote the first novel.

So, I had to make a careful decision about the cop shop too: do I ignore local history and have him still based in the old Constabulary HQ, which would have looked weird to any Chester-based readers; or ignore what was written about the HQ in the old books and just have him based in the Town Hall police office (the current arrangement for the town’s coppers).

I opted for the latter and chose to conveniently ignore what had been written in the past.

My reasoning: it brings the new books up to date with what’s happened and is happening in Chester (even though they are set BEFORE the older books in time). It makes sense to new readers to just say where he is based and not explain it – they won’t want a history lesson.

And if the X-Men films and Bond films can mess with their own timelines, chronology and continuity (and seemingly get away with it), why can’t I??

 

Write what – and where – you know

My crime novels featuring Detective Constable Dominic Strider are set in Chester and, to a much lesser extent, Ellesmere Port.

I lived in Chester for 15 years – working as a general reporter on the Chester Chronicle for seven of those years, and the rest of time as Chief Reporter for the Ellesmere Port Pioneer. To say I am exceedingly familiar with both those towns is quite the understatement. 🙂

However, many moons ago when I was 15 and first had the idea for what would become my first DC Strider novel – No More Lonely Nights – I was living in the Midlands, where I grew up.

I’d visited Chester just once. I’d been staying with my auntie Shirley (again in the Midlands), and we used to drive out on day trips. One of those trips was to the medieval former Roman garrison, the city of Chester.

Waking underneath the Eastgate Clock, the world’s second most photographed timepiece after Big Ben – I shuddered. I had an innate, raw sensation in my body, an intuition that I belonged in this city. That I was home. And eventually that came to pass, as I moved there at the age of 23 (staying until I was 37 when I moved to London).

However, flash back to when I was 15 and visiting Chester for the first time. It struck me there and then that this gorgeous, historic city would be the perfect setting for DC Strider’s adventures. But I was a mere visitor for the day. What did I know of the city’s history, culture, social fabric, its people, its heart and soul? Nothing.

I bought a map and a local history book, and used both to intricately plot the opening chapters – Strider by the river, the suspected suicide at the Rowlands Heights flats in Newtown, by the station. Other locations sprang from the map and/or book. The Rows were the most obvious ones. These are two-storey shops on top of shops, with a wooden walkway in between.

Characters lived in the suburbs, initially chosen at random by me. It was only once I lived there for real, that I could decide once and for all the perfect locations for people to live and work. Amazingly I’d got it pretty much spot-on at the beginning. The MP lived in middle-class Upton, his secret street walking daughter lived on the council estate in Blacon. Strider lived in a posh house by the river, in The Groves.

It was far easier writing the follow-up book, Long & Winding Road, many years later. I sat in my study, in my house in the village of Handbridge near the City Walls and the River Dee, and wrote it from my own personal knowledge and experience. It was divine. I knew the local hospital, the river, the secret alleyways and streets, the parks, and the Town Hall where much of the action takes place. I’d been there, trodden those same pavements, played on the grass, explored the hidden nooks and crannies the city has to offer, worked in the hospital (I was the paper’s health correspondent) and covered numerous election nights and other events at the Town Hall.

Incidentally, Chester Town Hall was where I shot the first (of many planned) DC Strider short films! In January 2007 I spent two days filming the short ‘Strider Gets Iced’ there, and one further day filming in the now disused Gateway Theatre round the corner. In fact, I was one of the last people to ever work at that theatre before it was closed.

Now, I have a third DC Strider novel in the bag (and am seeking literary representation for it) – Strider Begins: Road to Nowhere. It starts off in the Cheshire countryside before flashing back to his early exploits, and basically takes place in two very well-known locations that are dear to me: Handbridge and the city streets themselves. It culminates in a deadly treasure hunt criss-crossing the city centre, and features a Roman centurion!

Which all leads me to Strider novel No4, Till the Fat Lady Sings, which I have just started writing recently. The opening chapter is all about Chester Races, a hitherto ignored location in my books. Strider is on patrol, watching out for pickpockets, but ruminating not just on the history of the ancient racecourse – one of the oldest in the entire world! – but also of having the privilege to see the races from a private box above the finishing line and having access to the paddocks in the centre of the course. Both are described from memory and experience, as I spent many happy summer days at the races, as a guest of Shell UK in their executive box, and exploring the racecourse and seeing the paddocks, the stables and more.

It’s this personal experience – of seeing your locations with your own eyes, of walking where your characters now walk, breathing the same air, hearing the sounds and seeing the sights that they will experience and describe – that really enriches my work beyond all measure. It gives my novels complete and utter authenticity.

Many Chester residents will know and love these locations too, and I hope for those who’ve never ventured to the city of Chester, the books inspire them to make that trip. It’s one of the ‘jewels in the crown’ of the North of England, and I hope my florid descriptions do it justice. So come along to Chester now, you’ll love it. It’s my kinda town! 🙂