Whilst the iconic name of Chanel is associated with the “Big Four” most prominent fashion capitals of the world, it is a little known gem of a fact that Gabrielle Bonheur Chanel (aka Coco Chanel) had a 10 year love affair with the super wealthy Duke of Westminster, Hugh Grosvenor, between 1923-1933 and Chester was a feature of that power couple’s affair.
Coco Chanel’s Chester connection is an integral part of The Women in Chester guided walk which was recently recommended by National Geographic’s travel writer Sarah Barrell (Why historic Chester should be on your radar this year, 24 December 2022). So we recently caught up with the professional Green Badge Tourist Guides who developed this fascinating tour – Katie Crowther, Isabel Robertson, and Gail Shearer – to find out more about their weekly Women in Chester walk every Sunday morning at 11.30 am.
Tell us more about Coco Chanel’s connections with Chester
She would’ve walked The Rows and The Groves, learned to fish on the River Dee and taken a flutter at the Chester Races. Coco first met Hugh Grosvenor in Monte Carlo in 1923, through an introduction from British socialite Vera Bate Lombardi. Over a 10 year period Coco was a regular visitor of Eaton Hall, the country home of the Dukes of Westminster. Throughout their affair the Duke lavished Coco with extravagant jewels, art, a home in London’s prestigious Mayfair, a parcel of land on the French Riviera… On one occasion the Duke gifted her an uncut green emerald hidden beneath a basket of exotic fruits, grown in the glass houses at Eaton Hall. It is thought Chanel’s iconic two-piece tweed collection was inspired by English country life and her collection featuring navy and white stripes may have also been inspired by the Eaton Hall household staff livery.
Hugh Richard Arthur Grosvenor, Duke of Westminster and Coco Chanel in 1925. Public domain
What inspired your Women in Chester walk?
We met whilst training as Green Badge Guides and quickly became firm friends. We share a passion for the history, buildings, and people of Chester. During our studies we came across stories of amazing yet overlooked women in Chester’s history and wanted to share them more widely. And so, the “Women in Chester” tour was born in the summer of 2022. It’s been a huge success and is a firm favourite with both locals, UK and international visitors to Chester.
What can visitors expect from your walk?
Without wanting to give too much away, we tell stories of a Saxon princess, some unfortunate witches, a suffragette, a pioneer of retail and many more. Chester was founded by the Romans in AD 74, so with nearly two thousand years of history to explore, the challenge has really been which women to feature whilst telling the story of this great city. We tell the stories of some extraordinary women like Coco Chanel and others. But we also focus on ordinary women caught up in historic events such as the Civil War siege of Chester or the world wars. And there are those few who took time to record their experiences and to whom we are eternally grateful. One of our biggest challenges has been to track down accounts of ordinary women’s lives when they barely figure in the history books.
It’s a ninety-minute walk through the streets of the historic city centre. It takes in the both the city’s ancient walls as well as the famous Rows – the two-tiered medieval shopping arcades that form the heart of the city’s shopping unique shopping experience.
We also like to showcase our great city and all it has to offer to visitors from great restaurants to a thriving cultural scene. Even long-time residents will find something to intrigue them on our guided tour; there are little known hidden corners of history all over the City and oodles of fascinating stories to tell about familiar landmarks and unknown heritage gems.
The Rows at Chester
What plans do you have for 2023?
2022 has been quite a year for us! We qualified as Green Badge Guides in May, began our guiding careers shortly afterwards and then started this new venture, the first time for all of us running our own business. It has been great fun to work together and have that support for each other. Each of us brings our own skills to the table, gathered in careers in banking, nursing, teaching and retail but we all share a passion for history and bringing the past to life through story telling.
In 2023 we look forward to expanding our tourist offer with new tours and routes. We already have a database of over 8o Chester women, so the challenge is really which ones to feature next! We are now a firm feature in local and national events and Heritage Festivals. But our ambition remains the same, which is to ensure that as many people as possible hear about the incredible Women of Chester through the ages.
If you are visiting Chester or are a local resident, we’d love to see you on a Sunday mornings starting from the Chester Visitor Information Centre on Northgate Street at 11.30 am. Tickets are just £10 in advance from the Visitor Information Centre or on the day.