Steve Pratt pays a visit to Chester, a city of mystery, records - and a Roman army that won't go away

Saturday morning shoppers don't quite know what to make of the man in pink tights sitting astride a horse outside Chester Town Hall. Watching as he reads his proclamation are the Lord Mayor and High Sheriff in their robes of office, and blue-gowned members of Chester's Guild Companies.

His voice booms out across the square as he gives a ten-minute precis of the Bible stories that make up the Chester Mystery Plays, presented every five years in the county town of Cheshire. He tells the crowd everything except the box office number in this sort of medieval commercial advertising a forthcoming production.

The rider is Robin Goddard, a true Cestrian born within the city walls and director of the 2003 Mystery Plays. He cuts a fine figure in the rest of his medieval outfit, although perhaps the pink tights and modern spectacles are a mistake.

At dinner the previous evening, he'd confessed that he hadn't been on a horse for years. He needn't have worried the animal, steadied by two attendants, was perfectly behaved and even whinneyed at the right moment when the Town Crier called for three cheers for the Lord Mayor.

Previously an actor in the Mystery Plays, professional director Goddard is rehearsing a cast of hundreds to perform The Prophecy and The Fulfillment on Chester Cathedral Green between June 30 and July 19. The plays are staged in the open air with the audience seated in covered stands.

By reading the banns, as this old form of advertising was known, he revived a tradition that hasn't happened since 1977 - although the plays themselves have been performed every five years after being revived in 1951.

They were first performed on open waggons by Chester guildsmen in the 1300s. Chester's original texts are the most complete in existence. Unlike York Mystery Plays, which employ a usually-famous professional actor as Christ, the Chester production uses amateur players. The cast includes a Jesus who's also played Romeo and a God who appeared in a West End production of a play written by the present Pope.

The Mystery Plays are part of the 2,000-year-old city's cultural heritage and also, of course, a valuable asset in attracting tourists from all over the world. The link between Chester and York extends further than this drama, although Chester has more Roman wall as well as the fullest original Mystery Plays text than the Yorkshire city.

On the subject of records, Chester also has Britain's oldest racecourse, biggest aquarium, and oldest-surviving mill dam. Not to mention, the largest garden zoo and a cathedral with the most complete monastic cloisters in England. Chester - home of the Duke of Westminster, one of Britain's richest people, and the location for C4's soap Hollyoaks - also claims to have more ghosts than any other city. The difficulty is proving it.

Stay within the walls for a weekend and you'll find plenty to see and do, even when the Mystery Plays aren't being staged.

We stayed at The Queen Hotel, recently taken over by the Liverpool-based Feathers group and set for a multi-million pound makeover - something the sadly-neglected railway station across the road badly needs.

The royal in the name refers to Victoria, whose statue stands above the entrance. It shows a slim 6ft tall woman, whereas the monarch was 4ft and as round as she was tall with a 48ins waist (our guide rather ungallantly revealed).

There's another reminder of Victoria in the city centre with the Eastgate Clock, Chester's most famous landmark and said to be the second most photographed clock in the world after Big Ben. The timepiece was designed by local architect John Douglas to commemorate the Queen's diamond jubilee in 1897, although it wasn't actually put up until two years later.

A short stroll into the city from the hotel and a walk around the two-mile walls enable you to get your bearings as well as look out at the Welsh mountains in the distance.

A 45-minute trip on the River Dee, the cleanest river in Europe according to our nautical guide, allows you to discover why a pub called The Red House is painted white, see where Olympic rower Steve Redgrave trained, and view a summer house that changed hands for £85,000.

Back on dry land, best to start at the excellent visitor centre, near the Roman Amphitheatre (the largest of its kind in Britain, giving Chester another record), which contains a History of Chester exhibition gallery, where you can study the different types and styles of architecture on view in the city. Pay attention and you may be able to tell a small gable with blind tracery from a neo-Gothic pierced wooden bargeboard, or Victorian pargetting from a Regency Ionic doorway.

What you can't miss outside among the mish-mash of architecture are the black and white buildings. But they're not always what they seem. A most impressive black and white half-timbered place, now occupied by the Royal Bank of Scotland, turns out to have been built in 1921.

Most extraordinary of all are The Rows, a sort of double-decker high street with two rows of shops stacked on one of top of another. Nowhere else in Britain can you see such two-tiered medieval shopping streets.

Another building bears an old sign of the Chester Cocoa House Company, set up by a temperance movement in the 19th century to counter the 365 pubs, one for every day of the year, within the city. These cafes never caught on and the building is now an Italian restaurant.

Be warned: the Romans haven't left Chester. Every Sunday during the summer the changing of the Roman guard takes place. Twelve soldiers march through the city centre to their original HQ of the Fortress of Deva at the Cross, where they give notice the city is back under their control.

l For general tourist information about Chester and brochure requests call (01244) 402111. On line:

* Chester Mystery Plays box office (01244) 320700. Online:

* The Queen Hotel (01244) 305000