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Central county too often overlooked

Costa Rica

Cheshire is a county too many of us hurry on through, on our way to somewhere else. But this convenient, centrally placed destination has lots to offer, as Gareth Huw Davies discovered. He explored from the borders of Wales to rugged Pennine slopes, and many a quiet village in between, to compile his list of must do things. It includes a perfect little cathedral city, a famous space age symbol, dining with his own private chef, and a tour around the “real” Cranford.

Serene city

Chester has sailed serenely through the centuries with many of its finest features intact. I made a near complete high-level circuit of old Chester on over a mile of Roman walls, for a splendid, high-level overview of the Roman Garden, the Amphitheatre, the cathedral and the River Dee, with the Welsh mountains beyond. The Rows are mediaeval shopping galleries running the length of streets in the historic heart. The Eastgate clock is Britain's most photographed timepiece after Big Ben. Out of town (a taxi or bus ride away) is the Blue Planet Aquarium and the excellent zoo, a spacious place dedicated to rare animal breeding and conservation. Chester offers many treats for a pampering weekend, including high tea at the Grosvenor Hotel, and £10,000 necklace inspection at Boodle's.

Deep Space

Cheshire is a big, busy sweep of Central England, stretching from the Welsh borders, through the gentle lowlands of the Cheshire Plain, to the Pennines' heather clad moors and dry stone walls. Stand on any high ground, and Britain's most famous space symbol leaps out of the landscape. The giant Lovell telescope at Jodrell Bank dates from the earliest days of space exploration, in 1957. It still quietly probes the cosmos, one of the world's biggest and most powerful radio telescopes. Cheshire is crosshatched with canals, footpaths, quiet country lanes and cycleways. The village of Bollington, on the edge of the Peak District National Park, offers a walking spree. Eight well-signed paths head out from the Bridgend Centre – maps and guides provided.

Cranford comes home

Knutsford has won back its identity as the 'real' Cranford. When the BBC dramatised Elizabeth Gaskell's books about a Victorian town on the cusp of change, they passed over her native Knutsford, and filmed instead in Lacock in Wiltshire. But Gaskell's 'little, clean, kindly country town,' which still has bags of history and original buildings, hit back with the Real Cranford Walking Tour. My guide led me past Gaskell's childhood home, and places which inspired the locations where her self-reliant women characters lived and worked. They include the building that was the model for the tea room run by Miss Matty, played by Judy Dench. Call at the Courtyard Coffee House. It doubles as a museum of penny farthing bicycles. A number hang proudly (and quite safely, I'm sure) from the ceiling.

Garden Glory

Tatton Park is one of Britain's most spacious and magnificent estates open to the public, run by the local council on behalf of the National Trust. The historic gardens were recently voted the best in Central England. One of the oldest features is the deer park. Herds of red and fallow deer roam free in wide open spaces, as they have since 1290. The magnificent Japanese Garden is the finest of its sort in Europe. The recently-restored Pineapple House is one of the estate's many historic glasshouses. Another is the Fernery, designed in the 1850s by Paxton, of Crystal Palace fame.
Tatton is one of the 25 Cheshire Gardens of Distinction. They range from city centre (Chester Cathedral's garden), to remote and mysterious (Dunge Valley Hidden Gardens in the Pennines.

Fine Dine

To qualify for your own personal chef, you helps to be a head of state, or a fully bankrolled member of the hyper-rich. But for one evening at least, as I sat in Leah Stevenson's kitchen watching her expertly dice and chop and stir and reduce, while pausing briefly to take her latest delicious course out of her bright red electric Aga, I knew what it's like. Leah, a young Cordon Bleu chef, saw a business opportunity in hosting dinner evenings for a select few, and set up in a converted barn near Macclesfield. On her 'Demo & Dine' evenings she prepares a four course meal from scratch in front of guests, who are given the recipes to take home and try. She also offers a course in cupcake making.

Hill top haven

Hilltop Country House had the smart touches you'd expect in top of the range B&B - soft fluffy towels, breakfast served on Wedgwood china, and definitely no foil-wrapped butter or plastic milk portions. But it was the extras in my room, the home-made meringues, fresh raspberries from the garden and a nostalgic display of Winnie the Pooh prints that clinched it for me. Martin and Clare Gardner converted their rambling 1693 farmhouse, near Prestbury village, to a superior B&B in 2009. Their garden is a bonus, a marvellous five acre spread of terracing, parterres, beech hedges, stone walls, cleverly situated benches, old stone troughs, lily ponds and a small waterfall. Paths and steps lead to all parts. Look for the proud carving of Dennis, their ginger cat.

The writer travelled with Virgin Trains.

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