SORRY ALL - this post didn't publish on Thursday evening for some technical reason or other, so this one is now out of sequence! I'll try to fix it later!
Wrexham has the look of a town that has having a hard time before the recession struck, and has faltered since. The main shopping street – ironically entitled Regent Street – looks anything but like its London namesake. Empty shops festooned with' To Let' signs stand out like lost teeth, with pound shops and even 99pence shops suggesting widespread consumer hardship.
There are other clues, too. There seems to be a great number of loud youngsters around, many driving soop-ed up and revved-up saloon cars with loudspeakers blaring out rap and hip-hop. There are lots of nightclubs, hot food take-away's and taxi offices suggesting a boisterous and noisy night life. Everything feels a bit aggressive, a bit out of control. To be honest, it feels like the frontier town I had expected Oswestry to be.
As we leave Wrexham on the bus to Chester, we pass through some lush and prosperous suburbs, so clearly it's not just poverty that is bringing Wrexham down. But where do the people who live here go to spend their money? Not Wrexham, it seems.
We are soon into broad and well-cultivated farmland, but then we suddenly beginning dropping into a wide plain with fields and poplars as far as the eye can see. It's strange because I had no sense that Wrexham was other than close to sea level, but it clearly wasn't – it's somewhat higher than the surrounding countryside which we are now quickly dropping into.
We cross the border between Wales and England somewhere between the villages of Rosset on the Welsh side and Pulford on the English – even the name sounds more English than Welsh. The flatness of the plain means we are now speeding into Chester.
Chester is stunning, and it's immediately easy to see why people would want to come and shop here. It's gorgeous – Elizabethan timber-framed buildings everywhere, medieval city walls, The Rows, which are raised walkways lined with shops but at first floor level, with more shops below att street level. It's a joy to walk around and reminiscent of that great medieval city of the north, York.
I took the First service 1 out of Chester for Birkenhead. This was a very different journey into a very different area. First we pass acres of business park, then through a vast and appallingly anonymous retail city called Cheshire Oaks which looked as though it had come straight out of the USA. Then into vast areas of council housing, a monument not only to the slum clearances carried out by local authorities straight after the Second World War, but is also evidence of the post-war imperative to create new homes after the damage wrought by bombing.
All the time, the tall stacks and massive fuel storage tanks of Ellesmere Port and beyond are visible over the rooftops.
I made a mistake when we got to busy Birkenhead. I knew I had to go to one of the Mersey ferry terminals but I for the life of me I couldn't remember which one. So, obviously, I chose the wrong one and ended up catching the bus to Seacombe when in fact I needed to go to Woodside.
Having arrived in Seacombe,I decided to catch the ferry up river to Woodside. It was a plan and a good plan, or would have been if I hadn't just missed the ferry. I therefore had to wait 45 minutes for the next one, which arrived late and when it did arrive promptly went out of service with engine trouble. Eventually, we got underway in the spare ferry and Woodside came up on starboard bow within minutes.
Leaving the ferry terminal, was I soon happily seated on a beautifully-preserved Wallasey tram of a type commonly seen in these parts during the 1920's, with open verandas at each end of the top deck. I tram took me in the time-honoured rattle-and-clang way to the Wirral Transport Museum where this particular tram, along with several others, was lovingly restored.
The museum also boasts a small collection of buses, motorcycles and other vehicles, with model railway displays and a recreation of a motor garage from the 1930's. It was free to look around, though there was every opportunity for people to donate to the museum. And, with all the money raised being spent on preserving some of the less roadworthy vehicles in the collection, it's obviously money well spent.
A tram back to Woodside, then, and the Mersey Ferry across the river to Liverpool. This must count as one of the most spectacular river crossings in the UK, especially as the Mersey is never less than choppy. The view across the river at the Liver Building, the Albert Docks and the cathedrals beyond can truly be described as iconic and it's a view I never tire of.
I'm lucky enough to be staying in the Albert Dock tonight at the slightly swanky Holiday Inn Express. The view across the dock at the Cunard and Liver Buildings at sunset is sensational. But then at these prices it ought to be.
I say farewell to Liverpool tomorrow as I move inland via St Helens and Warrington and Eccles (home of the cakes) to Manchester, in readiness for my multiple assault by bus of the mighty Pennines.