An April 2004 trip
to Chester by Drever
Quote: Chester is a beautiful city famous for its unique black-and-white rows. The basic design is still that of the Roman fortress Deva. Within its only complete city walls in Britain is a treasure trove of archaeological and architectural riches dating from Roman times.
The Normans arrived around 1070. They built Chester Castle and a revival began leading to Chester became a wealthy port serving Scotland, Ireland, France and Spain. In the Middle Ages the town built the famous Rows. Henry VIII in 1541 made Chester a bishopric.
By the 15th century, the River Dee began to silt up and the sea borne trade died. The year 1640s brought devastation during the English Civil War, with the city under siege until starvation forced surrender.
The Roman walls remain almost intact although with more towers and gates added in the Middle Ages. The walls offer a two-mile walkway circuit and give a vivid reminder of what a medieval fortified town was like. Since the 1960s over 600 buildings of every age have been restored. Chester’s famous black and white rows attract many visitors.
Start your investigation of Chester by visiting the Tourist Information Centre in Vicars’s Lane and buy leaflets on ‘Walk Around Chester Walls’, ‘The Unique Chester Rows’ and ‘The Chester Millennium Festival Trail’. You will doubtless add to the collection as you explore the city. Now start with the two-mile Chester Walls walk. It gives you a lofty view of the playing card shaped old city. The walls are about seven feet wide so you won’t be jostled. Following the information in the leaflet you will be able to spot the points of interest and drop down to explore them if you feel inclined.
I always like to know what I am looking at so I found ‘The Chester Millennium Festival Trail’ useful. Following the guide takes in all the important points in the city. Being by now properly oriented in the city you might like to explore in greater depth the Cathedral, Rows and museums.
We stayed in a basic hotel called the Comfort Inn Chester about a mile from the city centre. Sometimes we walked in but usually took the bus. The service was about every half an hour. Coming back after a show in the Gateway Theatre we took a taxi as the buses stopped running around 7pm.
Within the city walls there is only one way to explore particularly as traffic is largely excluded and that is on foot. With the surrounding city walls extending to only two miles the distances within are short.
Attraction | "Exploring Roman Chester"
Often in Britain, beneath our streets are the remains of buildings and cities extending back through the centuries. Nowhere is this truer than in Chester. Parts of the Old Roman fort peek out from the modern city. A part of the Roman Harbour Wall is visible at the base of the wall above the racecourse. Over time the course of the river has shifted and the racecourse sits on the silted up former harbour.
Today’s Chester still has essentially the Roman street plan. The Eastgate recognisably by its famous clock overlies a main entrance to the Roman legionary fortress. Most of the north and east Walls rest on massive Roman foundations.
In Little Saint John Street is the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain. It held about 7000 people. The Romans used it for military practice, gladiator fights and public executions. Archaeologists have so far only excavated the northern part. Close to the amphitheatre in Souter’s Lane is the Roman Garden. The garden designed in 1949 contains Roman stone remains found during excavations, a mosaic, and a reconstruction of a hypocaust, the Roman heating system by which hot air circulated under the floor of a building. Over the road from the garden entrance are the remains of the Angle Tower that was part of the original Roman city wall.
The Grosvenor Museum has many Roman artefacts including gravestones and altars, and displays on the history and construction of the fortress. Builders found the Roman gravestones within the city wall during renovations. They are in remarkably good condition. In a top floor room it is possible try on Roman armour. The weight of the shield alone is daunting. During their short lives Roman’s must have been very fit.
The Dewa Roman Experience in Pierpoint Lane tries to get visitors to experience the sights, sounds and smells of daily Roman life with various characters. Your first experience on leaving a Roman Galley is a stroll along a reconstructed street. Elsewhere archaeological excavations are on display. They show that as you go deeper beneath the streets and buildings of modern Chester, remains of Medieval times, Saxon and finally Roman come to light preserved until recently unearthed by archaeologists.
In Edgar's Field is Minerva Shrine. Minerva was the Roman goddess of wisdom, and this shrine, carved into the rock in a Roman quarry nearly 2000 years ago, is the only one of its kind preserved at its original site.
You have to hunt around and research for what you are looking at in modern Chester for it could be Roman or any age since then.
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The original church dating perhaps to Roman times, in the 11th century was replaced. In turn the first Norman Earl of Chester in 1092 founded the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh on the site. He had cloisters, refectory, kitchens, dormitory, bakery, brew-house, infirmary and a wine cellar built around the church.
About 1250 the monks of Chester influenced by the lighter, more elegant Gothic architecture with its pointed arches built yet again. Building extended over 250 years. They erected their medieval church over the Norman one -- taking down the earlier construction on completion.
The community of St Werburgh's Abbey prospered and grew. The monks prayed, studied and worked in the kale-yard, the hospital and the schoolroom. They were hospitable, entertaining guests from a wide area, including those travelling to and from Ireland through the port of Chester.
In 1540, Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. St Werburgh's converted to the Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary -- seat of the Bishop of the newly created Diocese of Chester. The last Abbot became the first Dean -- continuity and change are the hallmarks of Chester Cathedral.
In the later part of the nineteenth century a major restoration directed by Sir Gilbert Scott took place. His additions to the building's exterior are still controversial. His work on the interior, including the Quire, rescued the Cathedral from falling apart, and improved its appearance to a place of beauty.
Dean Addleshaw in 1975 had a separate Bell Tower built in the Cathedral grounds: the first built away from a Cathedral since the Renaissance. It square shape resembles a Roman watchtower. Other improvements include new stained glass, better heating, brilliant fabrics and sculptures.
The Consistory Court inside the cathedral set up in 1636 is the oldest complete example of an ecclesiastical courtroom in the country and in fact the only one I have seen. In the north transept in a niche in the wall is a Cobweb Picture, a rare example of an unusual 19th art form.
Interacting arches called the Crown of Stone a feature unique to Chester Cathedral hold up the tower itself. In the Lady Chapel stands the Shrine of St Werburgh dating from about 1340. In the Nave are superb mosaic panels dating from 1883. The colourful West Window dates from1961. The delicate carving of the quire stalls dates from 1380 and is among the finest medieval woodwork in the country.
The beauty and the unique features of the cathedral’s inside compensate for its controversial outside.
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Attraction | "Chester's City Wall Walk"
During the 17th century, the walls became the two-mile circular walk that exists today. The city walls are the only complete ones left in Britain. Access to the walls exists at its gates and at other points. There are also various wheelchair access ramps. The width of the wall is around seven feet allowing two abreast walking. It is an easy walk and with a suitable map its height is useful for pinpointing and viewing the main points of interest in the city. Information plaques placed around the walk describe places of interest.
Starting from behind Chester Cathedral and going anticlockwise, we came firstly to King Charles Tower in the northeast corner of the City Walls. Standing here as King Charles I did on September 24th 1645 during the English Civil War between 1642-1646, I couldn’t help but wonder at his feelings as he watched his army being butchered at Rowton Moor by the Parliamentarians.
The Northgate stands on the site of an entrance where once Romans marched into their fortress. Rebuilt with a classical arch in 1807 it operated as a more mundane tollgate. The gate perched on the highest ground in Chester offers sweeping views over the Welsh hills where once danger would have lurked for the Romans.
Pemberton's Parlour, the unusual half-tower on the north wall, is the remains of a medieval round tower. John Pemberton, a rope maker and Mayor of Chester in 1730, used it as a vantage point to watch his men making ropes on the ropewalk below. A tablet in the Parlour carries the names of the Mayors and the officers responsible for maintaining the wall.
Bonewaldersthornes's Tower at the northwest part of the walls operated as the harbour defence. The River Dee had changed course making the Tower useless for its purpose but attractive and extensive gardens now surround it. The city built the Water Tower in the 14th century to extend the City Walls into the new course of the river.
From Norman times onwards the Watergate opened onto the wharves of Chester on the River Dee. The silted up harbour now forms Roodee Racecourse. Just below the wall remains of the old Roman harbour wall peek out. The round arch of the new Watergate was built in 1788.
Our route continued over Bridgegate and finished at Eastgate once like the Northgate an entrance into Dewa. It is now recognisable by its decorative clock, which after Big Ben is the most photographed clock in Britain.
In total the walk took us an hour and a half.
Attraction | "Chester's famous Rows"
If Chester’s Rows were the result of modern planning they would probably gain the highest award. In fact the builders dug down a few feet, hit rock so elected to build the cellars almost at street level. It seems likely the stone from Deva now forms the ‘cellar’ part of the houses as the extent of the Rows coincides with the playing card shaped area once covered by the Roman fortress Deva.
The Rows began in the 13th century with shops or warehouses at street level and a long gallery above reached by steps from the street level. Living quarters were at gallery level. In the Middle Ages this was a hall, open to the roof and heated by a central hearth. In the Tudor and Jacobean period upper residents built floors over the gallery, supported on long poles from street level. Shops at ground level used the space between the posts to display their goods.
When built, having the ‘veranda’ walkway extending along the Rows above the stinking sewer of a street gave fresher air and cleaner feet. Now the raised walkways offer most of the virtues of a modern shopping centre as this level and the street level both have shops. Although the street side is open to the weather surrounding houses shelter the walkways from the wind. The floor above provides protection from the rain. It is a pleasurable experience shopping in the Rows aware of the foul weather while being immune from it.
The Rows with their series of half-timbered buildings joined with long galleries are the most often photographed sight in Chester. There is not one single "Rows" but several complexes of houses in the same style, with the best examples on Watergate, Eastgate and Bridge Street. The ‘Watergates Crypt’ is the largest and best of the medieval stone cellars available for viewing. It houses a restaurant.
At the heart of the city stands the Cross, a market centre from 1407. The Town Crier still issues proclamations from here just as they have done for centuries.
Three round-headed Norman stone arches dominate the front of a building at the end of Bridge Street. These were once part of the oldest shop front surviving in Britain. The street also hides a Roman hypocaust or under floor heating under the ‘Gentlemen, Empires and Clubs’.
A special display entitled "Our House – The Story of the Rows of Chester" housed at the Chester Visitor Centre on Vicar’s Lane tells the story of Chester’s Rows.
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