To the west of Chester, you’ll find rambling hills and the not-so-quaint coastline of Flintshire which follows the River Dee out to the Irish Sea. Continue along the headland and you’ll come across white sandy beaches that feel out of place, more suited to Spain than Britain. Due south is mountain territory, with Snowdonia and her sisters peaking through the clouds. Behind them lie lakes that lure you to take a dip, even when it’s snowing (just ask this lady).
To the east is the Peak District, home to many a hiking trail with decent, proper pubs on route. To the north are the Pennine Moors and, beyond that, you’ll find the Forest of Bowland, the Yorkshire Dales and the Lake District. It’s safe to say that, if you’re up that way, you’re never short of places to explore and escape to.
Here are some of my personal favourites
Urchins Kitchen, Delamere Forest - Cheshire
A hide and seek playground.
Even Cestrians might not know of the existence of Delamere Forest. Those that do probably go for the yearly Christmas tree fair, but other than that it sits undisturbed, frequented by the odd rambler or those coming for the newly opened aqua park. When I was younger, we used to visit an area called Urchin’s Kitchen. It’s now overgrown, but back then there was a small clearing between two rocky knolls, giving way to a near-perfect location for playing hide and seek. My sister, cousins and I would entertain ourselves there for hours, only breaking for tin-foil wrapped cheese sandwiches, juice and a Wagon Wheel. On the journey home, our clothes would be muddy, our knees would be grazed and our faces would be beaming from ear to ear knowing that our day in the forest making dens, playing games and hiding from rock-monsters (parents) was a day well spent.
Tockholes, Darwen Moor - West Pennine Moors
For a sledge with an edge.
One snowy day back in the early 90s, we (Mum, Dad, Sister, Nana and Grandad) decided to seek out a suitable sledging hill in the West Pennine Moors. Near the small village of Tockholes we came upon Darwen Moor. Covered in snow: tick. Hilly with big slopes: tick. Short run-off at the bottom with a bramble hedge signalling the edge of the run: ummm, maybe don’t tick that one.
At the top of the hill, I sat at the front of our sledge. My mum sat behind. The speed? Very much in my control. Being the adrenaline junky I was at age 5, I started to go a little faster, pushing the sledge forwards, at which point my mum fell off the back. The pace quickened. Ahead lay dense bramble hedgerow. To my parent’s horror and with no real understanding of how to stop, I kept going - hurtling towards 100 scratches and instant pain. Luckily, hidden in the snow was a tree stump. My sledge hit it at full pelt and catapulted me over the hedge, landing safely on the other side. I stood up, unharmed and asked to go again. It really is a great place to sledge.
'If you’re looking for a day spent relaxing on a beach. Don’t go to the Med. Go to Wales.'
Newborough Beach, Anglesey
Forest and beach in one.
If you’re looking for a day spent relaxing on a beach, don’t go to the Med. Go to Wales.
Anglesey, where Newborough beach is located, has its own micro-climate but Newborough itself has somehow tapped into the Costa del Sol’s weather system and is almost always sunny.
To get there, cross the Menai into Anglesey then take a right at Llanfairpwllgwyngyll (try saying that in a hurry) towards Newborough. You’ll want to bring something to bottle the smell of pine and hot sand that hits you as you meander down the path towards the front. With towels, a picnic and frisbee in hand, head between the dunes and follow the sound of the sea. The stretch itself takes about 45 mins to walk end-to-end, which I highly recommend. Any other exercise is unnecessary. A surf spot this ain’t, but what you’ll get here is a sense of peace, a beautiful spot for a swim and even a few tracks for off-road cycling through the forest.
Hells Mouth (Porth Neigwl), Abersoch
Ignore the wind, it’s all about the waves.
Facing the Atlantic, the wind at Hells Mouth can be a little relentless at times, and the riptide is strong. But for hardy surfers or open-water swimmers used to a little more swell, it’s a four-mile haven of relatively uncrowded waves. In my early teens, I used to check Ceefax (yep) on a Friday night to see what the waves were looking like for the following morning. At 6:30 am, my Dad would drive me the two or so hours from Chester to Abersoch, wetsuit in the back, boards on the roof, snacks in the bag.
On the way, we’d take it in turns to play an album. Mine were mostly Napster-enabled compilations full of artists like the Eels, Rancid and Weezer. His were a mix of soul, prog-rock and Genesis. I’d had a few lessons by then but was still very much a novice. It amazes me now that I had no fear of being out there in the water alone, trying again and again to stand up and catch the incoming wave. No ego. No expectation. Just me, my board and the big blue. Heaven.