A Chester Lightning Tour
This is a whistle-stop self-guided tour round the central streets and history of Chester. It starts at the High Cross and is best done during the daytime, when things are open. It is not suitable for wheelchair users and includes quite a few sets of steps and one very steep street. There is much more information about Chester on this website which can be accessed by clicking on the underlined links embedded in the text. This can give information on a street, an individual building, a specific person or a historic period.
Clicking on the icon on the right will bring up a map of Chester from which it is possible to select a layer showing "listed buildings". Maps are inserted in the text below with "waypoints" marked and "local" maps can be obtained by clicking on the "walking man". The tour can take most of a day, especially with diversions into pubs and cafes (of which there a many), shops (many of those too) and museums (of which there are several) and it is possible to wander off the route to see more. However this tour will take in most of the sights in the city center. The tour can also be done as three separate parts at different times. Industrial and canal history is better covered along the Canalside tour. The weather in Chester can be changable and some parts of the route, especially on the walls can be quite exposed in the rain.
If you prefer an official guided tour then these can be booked at the Tourist Information Center - and possibly also through their website. For a tour of the walls see City Walls. Many of the locations visited on this tour are also on the Millennium festival trail so some of the waypoints for that trail (but not all of them) will be seen around the route.
Not everything is open all of the time and sometimes parts of the walls are closed (they sometimes collapse or need repair for other reasons). The same is true of some buildings: the Medical Museum, Chester Castle, Stanley Palace and the Town Hall have very variable opening times. If you particularly want to see something it is as well to plan ahead and check in advance. There are some links at the foot of the page which might help.
If you need to eat on the way round Chester there are a huge number of choices. This is not a restaurant guide and places to eat come and go quickly in Chester so any guide would be out of date rapidly. The tour starts and finishes at the High Cross which is the center of the shopping area in Chester. As it is a longish walk loading-up with shopping early in the tour is probably not a good idea.
- 1 First Part: High Cross to Eastgate Clock
- 1.1 Map One
- 1.2 The High Cross and St Peter - Start of the tour
- 1.3 Northgate Street - Commercial News Rooms
- 1.4 Northgate Street - Market/Town Hall Square
- 1.5 Abbey Square
- 1.6 City Walls (Roman)
- 1.7 Phoenix Tower
- 1.8 Northgate
- 1.9 Northgate Street
- 1.10 Storyhouse
- 1.11 Cathedral
- 1.12 St Werburgh Street
- 1.13 Gallery: St Wergburgh Street
- 1.14 Eastgate
- 2 Second Part: Eastgate Clock to Newgate
- 3 Third Part: Newgate to the High Cross
- 3.1 Map Three
- 3.2 City Walls (Saxon)
- 3.3 Old Dee Bridge
- 3.4 Minerva Shrine
- 3.5 St Mary's Hill (and Medical Museum}
- 3.6 Castle (Military Museum)
- 3.7 Tom Gould's Grave
- 3.8 Grosvenor Museum
- 3.9 Castle Street
- 3.10 St Olave
- 3.11 Lower Bridge Street
- 3.12 Map Four
- 3.13 Whitefriars
- 3.14 Upper Bridge Street
- 3.15 Watergate Street
- 3.16 Stanley Palace
- 3.17 Back to the Cross
- 4 Sources and Links
First Part: High Cross to Eastgate Clock
This tour is in three parts which were written as a single tour of Chester but which could be done separately. The complete tour starts and ends at the High Cross. The first part ends at Eastgate which is a short way from the High Cross at the other end of Eastgate Street. The second part starts at the Eastgate and ends at the Newgate, again a short walk from both the High Cross and Eastgate. The third part starts at Newgate and ends at the High Cross. Many of the photographs which accompany this article show Chester as almost deserted, but many were taken very early in the morning. Hopefully this tour will be of benefit to visitors, but may also be of interest to those who live or work in Chester, even if they are just passing along a part of the route.
The High Cross and St Peter - Start of the tour
The tour starts at the High Cross a sandstone pillar which stands at what was once the center of Roman Chester. The Romans appear to have started building a substantial legionary base here about 74 AD, as dates from around that time have been found on lead ingots and water pipes. The initial builders were Legio II - the second legion, but they were later replaced by Legio XX (the twentieth) who possibly occupied the site until about the year 400. Chester appears to have been occupied after the Romans left and may have been an early ecclesiastical center. The much rebuilt Church of St Peter at the cross stands on the site of the Roman headquarters building - knowns as the Principia, and was probably initially built from the ruins of that structure. Just inside the door of the church is a surviving example of a medieval fresco (PLEASE DO NOT USE FLASH PHOTOGRAPHY), a little further in is a font with an interesting palindrome on the underside of the lid and nearby is displayed a bible from around 1579.
Back outside St Peter notice the clock on the church tower (it may or may not be correct as it is notorious for breaking down). Chester later became famous for its Clockmakers and St Peter had the first public clock in Chester, an early one was installed in about 1585. The clock that is there today probably dates from 1813. St Peter's bells are considered unsafe to ring, but Chester's enthusiastic Town Crier, whose office possibly dates back to 1553, still performs at the Cross in the summer months, and brings his own bell.
The religious and military histories of Chester are somewhat intertwined. After the Romans left during the so-called "Dark Ages", the losing side at the Battle of Chester (the earliest identified UK battlefield) were accompanied by a large number of monks. A few hundred years later, when a slowly forming England was subject to invasion by Vikings the city was re-fortified by Æthelflæd the warlike daughter of Alfred the Great. Æthelflæd followed a pattern of creating fortified communities with religious establishments which were also both mercantile and andministrative centers. She often re-used Roman sites. Chester was then strategic because of its proximity to the Irish Sea and North Wales, but the location has been on trade routes since prehistory: Chester lies between mineral-rich North Wales (a source of copper in the Bronze Age) and the salt springs of eastern Cheshire. Chester would maintain its strategic importance after the Norman Conquest when it was one of the last places to fall under Norman rule. The powerful Norman Earls of Chester were granted powers that made them almost independent of the King. The Earldom was eventually taken back by the crown and was generally held by the kings eldest son, to give some experience of rule. Some kings favoured Chester greatly: Richard II drew his personal guard from the area and may have hid his Royal Treasure nearby. Its royal connections were not always of benefit, during the Civil War the city was subjected to a long siege and an intense bombardment. After the siege ended the cross was broken down and what is seen today is a reconstruction from the 1970's, which is believed to contain some original parts.
From the cross it is possible to look down three of the four main streets of Chester: Eastgate Street, Bridge Street and Watergate Street. These follow the lines of the original Roman streets in a standard pattern which the Romans re-used time and again. It is also possible to see that the visible streets are arranged on two levels. These are The Rows which developed during the medieval period. While much of what can be seen in terms of building looks like it dates from Tudor Chester it is mostly from Victorian Chester - sometimes called "mock Tudor" or, perhaps more accurately "English Vernacular Revival". There is little else like the Rows in the entire world and just how they came to be in the form they are is discussed elsewhere on this site.
Original "Tudor" buildings date from the period 1485 until 1603. These would have had a wooden frame filled in with "wattle and daub" which was often whitewashed. The wooden frame would be held together with wooden pegs rather than metal nails and many buildings in Chester have such pegs visible (many are false). Tar was sometimes used to protect the wood, giving it a black colour. In Chester most of the "black and white" buildings are actually built of brick with "planks and boards nailed on", and in Chester much of the woodwork was originally left browm and has only been painted more recently.
Gallery: things to see near waypoint 1
Turning into Northgate Street one enters the fourth of the streets which meet at the cross, which again follows the line of the Roman layout. The offset is due to the fact that the site of St Peter was occupied by the HQ building of Roman Chester. Unlike some other medieval cities Chester does not have a cluster of curved and narrow streets, but largely retains the grid pattern of the Romans survives. Æthelflæd also made use of the grid pattern when building her other fortified settlements, but not with quite the same rigour. Frontage onto the streets was valuable for trade so plots tended to be deep and narrow. The width of the plots was originally fairly uniform, given that this was largely planned development which did not grow in an organic fashion from a village but was designed to be a community large enough to be capable of defending itself.
To the right is an example of the Rows and it is fairly obvious that the "half-timber" construction is not original but is largely decorative. Sometimes this is well done, as on the left a little further up the street, but in other places the quality can vary. Stop just after the sandstone building on the left (with the three arches on the front) and take a look around.
The pale sandstone building is the Commercial News Rooms, built in 1807. It was designed by the Chester Thomas Harrison a neo-classical architect who had studied in Italy. This was a club where the gentlemen of Georgian Chester would meet up, read the newpapers and no doubt do business deals. Conveniently, there was a bank on the ground floor. The bank used to print its own notes and some of them feature this building. The next row of buildings are in the elaborate black-and-white style of John Douglas another Chester architect, and were built by Douglas and his pupils around 1900. Thus, while the black and white buildings appear older than the sandstone club, they date from about 200 years later. There are some surviving early black and white buildings in Chester, but none of them are on Northgate Street. The figure of an elderly gentleman in the middle of the black and white building is St Crispin. He was the patron saint of shoemakers and these buildings are known as "Shoemakers Row" as this was once the site of many shoemakers shops. Boot and shoemaking were once major industries in Chester which had several other trades associated with leather. In the middle ages the guilds of the city included Skinners, Tanners, Glovers, Cordwainers (shoemakers), and Saddlers (as well as many others). The guilds were noted for putting on the Chester Mystery Plays, a series of religious plays which were enacted every four years and performed on carts which were dragged around the city, including down this very street. Each play was performed by a specific guild starting with "The Fall of Luficer" performed ny the Tanners and ending with "The Last Judgement" performed by the Weavers. The whole performance took three days, and if you watched it all you got time off from Purgatory. The plays are still performed every four years, although they were banned from around 1575 until revived in the 1950's. The reasons for the ban included the belief that they were superstitious relics, but the ban came at a time (just before Shakespeare) when plays were subjected to political censorship. The Shoemakers, who were known as the Cordwainers, were responsible for the mystery play about Christs arrival in Jerusalem, and they probably managed to work references to shoes into the play.
The city guilds continued to play an important part in the history of Chester. Unfortunately a part of this involved a certain ammount of electoral corruption, which was also quite common elsewhere. For much of its history the only people allowed to trade in Chester were the "Freemen" of the city. There were exceptions for the annual fair. Freemen were supposed to have a vote in the election of the mayor and the aldermen. This was before there was general right to vote for everyone, including for women. In practice, there were times when the aldermen, variously known as the "Assembly" and the "Corporation" effectively elected themselves and elected the local MP. At various times the elections became very corrupt, with vast sums being spent on beer and other forms of persuasion. Matters got so bad that in the late 19th century Chester was actually forbidden from electing an MP for several years by an Act of parliament see: 1883 Reform Act). These attempts to exclude ousiders from having any business in Chester may be one reason why Chester was largely bypassed by the Industrial Revolution.
Street theatre in Chester did not only include the Mystery Plays. Nowadays there are plenty of buskers and sometimes other performance artists, but the tradition is a long one. A local legend holds that when a Norman Earl of Chester was holed-up in a castle in Wales by the Welsh the buskers and vagrants of Chester were marched to his aid - making a lot of noise and leading the Welsh to believe that they were an army on the march. For many years the minstrels (and prostitutes) of Chester would be licenced once a year at the Minstrel Court, after a procession which started near Shoemakers Row. Some carvings of minstrels can be seen on the end of the Row, which is the next waypoint.
Gallery: things to see near waypoints 2-4
Northgate Street - Market/Town Hall Square
Chester's Market Square (or Town Hall square} is dominated by the Town Hall and the first views of the Cathedral on this tour. Before heading into the square it is worth a short detour to the left and take a look at the remains of the "Roman strongroon" (waypoint 4) which is cut into the red sandstone on which Chester stands. The strongroom was the place that the Romans stored both money and the legionary regalia including their eagle standards. Roman soldiers fell into two broad groups - the Legionaries, who were very well trained heavy infantry and the Auxiliary troops who included light infantry and cavalry. Early in the Roman empire only the citizens could become legionaries and it was a job for life (or 25 years, whichever was the shorter). The Auxilliary troops were recruited from around the empire and could become Roman citizens at retirement. Some of the troops who ended up in Britain came from the Balkans, almost the opposite end of the Empire, and retired in Britain when their term of service ended. Tracing the genetics of people living in some parts of North Wales actually shows that their ancestors probably came there in Roman times and it is likely that their descendents formed the basis of a part of the "Romano British" society which persisted after the Roman empire ended. Early writers such as Nennius recorded the Roman ancestry claimed by later Welsh rulers. The Legionaries not only garrisoned the fortress but built and maintained it.
It was under the Romans that Christianity first arrived in Britain and after they left Chester may have been a significant ecclesiastical center. The Anglo-Saxons invaded Britain soon after and initially had their own religion (which still gives the names to most days of the week in English), but Christianity survived in Wales. At length, the Anglo-Saxons started to convert and there was something of a competition to see whether the "Celtic" church or the Church of Rome could gain the most converts. Again, early writers mention this with Bede laying the blame on the practices of the Celtic church for the defeat of Welsh armies at the Battle of Chester in 616.
The "Venetian Gothic" Town Hall (waypoint 5) is frequently open to visitors (and it is free). Allow half an hour to explore the building. Inside are a series of sculptures which claim to tell the history of Chester. They are full of sometimes hillarious errors, and are covered in some detail on the page relating to the Military History of Chester. There is a lot more to see in the building, including a series of portraits of the Grosvenors who had a significant part to play in the government of Chester from the Civil War onwards. The stained glass on the main starcase depicts the Norman Earls of Chester who ran their lands with a great deal of independence from the Crown and some of whom played a significant part in wider history. There is also a painting of HMS Chester which had a role in the battle of Jutland. The Town Hall clock is notorious for not having a face towards Wales - as popular legend states that Cestrians "would not give the Welsh the time of day", but this is untrue: the Town Hall only got its clock in 1980 and the building is based on the "Cloth Hall" in Ypres, which only has a clock face on three sides. The Tourist Information office is located on the ground floor of the Town Hall. Various tours of the city can be booked here and maps, books and other souvenirs are available.
The north-east quarter of Roman Chester became the what is now the "Cathedral" quarter once the Abbery was established. Almost all of the streets within this quarter have religious names. There is an option to visit the Cathedral later in the tour which returns to the Market Square in 20-40 minutes (it might be worth checking on tour times now if you want to take the tour to the top). The next waypoint (number 6) is the Abbey Gateway which is opposite the Town Hall. The Abbey had the right to hold a market here. In addition there were two annual "fairs" where goods were brought from considerable distances. After the fair was over, the "Leavelookers" would ensure that all unauthorised traders were evicted from the city so that the Guilds and Freemen could get back to their normal monopoly.
Gallery: things to see around waypoints 5 and 6
Abbey Square (waypoint 7) is entered by the Abbey Gateway. Be sure to look upwards at the vaultwork above the entrance passage and downwards to note the "wheelers" - York stone slabs inserted into the ground. This gateway may have been built by Richard the Engineer, who worked on the castles of North Wales for Edward I. Richard did well in Chester, gaining the franchise of the Dee Mills and becoming mayor. He is the first Architect of Chester who can actually be named. The square itself is surrounded on two sides by Georgian buildings that have fortunaely not been converted to "mock Tudor". They were built at various times, mostly between 1754 and 1761 and are not as uniform as they appear at first glance. The origin of the stone pillar in the center of the square is not known for certain. The two older looking stone cottages date from 1625 and are said to be associated with secret Tunnels under Chester. The square has often been used as a set for film and television productions. One of the Georgian houses was briefly the home of Charles Kingsley the Victorian churchman and writer. Kingsley is a complex figure who championed Charles Darwins's theory of "natural selection" for what were probably all the wrong reasons. Today, many of his views would be considered racist by some.
Kingsley is not the only famous writer to have lived in Chester. Thomas Hughes the author of "Tom Brown's Schooldays" also lived in Chester for a while. Some lesser known writers also lived in the city. In the medieval period there was Ranulph Higden, a monk who wrote the Polychronicon, one of the first history books ever to be printed. Robert of Chester was another famous monastic writer and translated several important works from Arabic into Latin, including several works on mathematics (although not while in Chester). Writers on Chester itself have included those who produced guidebooks and histories of the city, many of which can be found on the Books page, with links to freely downloadable texts. Modern writers continue to produce guidebooks to the city, some of which are good and others not so good.
There are several good views of the Cathedral from the walk to waypoint 8. Much of what you see is Victorian "restoration" which added a lot of complexity to what was initially quite a simple building. The red sandstone of Cheshire was laid down just before the time of the dinosaurs and is of variable building quality. The darker red stone tends to turn back to sand with the effects of weather, although the paler stone is generally more durable. On this tour round Chester it is worth observing which buildings are built of the paler stone and noting that they are better preserved.
Gallery: things to see around Abbey Square
The next waypoint (number eight) is the Kaleyard Gate in the City Walls. To get there cross Abbey Square and head down cobbled Abbey Street where the City Walls will come into view. More detail on this part of Chester can be found on the Virtual Stroll website, an excellent source of information on the city.
City Walls (Roman)
There is a guide to the entire City Walls elsewhere on this website, and there is more information on other websites such as "A Virtual Stroll Around The Walls". This tour does not include a full circuit of the walls. In a hurry, you can circumnavigate the roughly two mile course of Chester's walls in a little over half an hour - but you will miss a lot of interesting detail. An hour-long gentle stroll will give you time to see the walls. With a few diversions and halts, two hours at the most will get you round. This part of the tour follows a portion of the original Roman course, although the walls have been rebuit and repaired many times over the years. The Kaleyard gate is not one of the original Roman gates of the city, but was made by monks so that they could access their kitchen gardens outside of the city. The gate has a sign on it which indicates the tradition that it was locked at night. All the other gates of the city had tolls for goods being brought into the city, with the "Freemen" being exempt. While the tolls made business more profitable for the freemen they also provided a part of the finance that the city needed to maintain walls and the bridge over the River Dee, annual payments to the Earl or King and at times money for the roads.
At the kaleyard gate it is possible to get up onto what was originally a Roman portion of the City Walls. The Romans built the city walls of Chester without mortar, a technique used only for their most prestigious structures. Therefore those parts which contain mortar are not the original Roman work. If you take a brief detour through the gate a go slightly to the right it is possible to see some of the larger blocks which are believed to be remains of the original walls of Roman Chester. Then return through the gate and head north along the wall walkway keeping the stone parapet to your right. The first Roman fortifications at Chester would have been made of turf and topped by a wooden pallisade. That was similar to the "marching camps" which the Roman legions would build at the end of each days march, pulling up the stakes again the next day and carrying two of them each. There may have been such a marching camp at Chester before the Romans built their permanent fortress. Later, the turf walls were replaced by stone, being built over several years. Over the subsequent years the walls have been repaired and restored many times, at first by the Romans, later by the Saxons, and by various others especially after they took a battering in the English Civil War. Repair to the walls still goes on to this day and for the past few years (as of 2020) it has not been possible to make a complete circuit of the walls due to sections being closed.
The next waypoint (number 9) is the Phoenix Tower also known as "King Charles Tower". This would have been the site of a Roman corner tower of which no trace remains. To the left is the Abbey Green which was once the site of some of the accomodation for the legionary troops. To the right is a portion of the Chester Canal and maybe a narrowboat or two. The Chester Canal was once described as "the first unsuccessful canal" which is a little unfair as it eventually became quite a success. It is a broader than average canal and originally was intended to link Chester with the salt towns to the east. Unfortunately rival canal interests managed to ensure that it did not link-up with the larger canal system and the investors in the canal found themselves seriously out of pocket. The canal was saved when it was extended to the north and south to form the Shropshire Union Canal. The Canalside page describes its route through Chester and something of the life of the canalfolk (at times quite alcoholic) can be understood from the page on the mysterious death of Charles Moston.
One thing that is evident from a walk along the the city walls is that Chester is located on a lowish hill in fairly flat country. The land around is the almost estuarine valley of the River Dee which is rich grassland that is good for dairy farming. It is also sheltered to some extent by the Welsh hills to the west. A major product of the lower Dee Valley was "Cheshire" cheese.
The Phoenix Tower takes its name from the phoenix carving on its side, the emblem of the City Guild of Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers who occupied the tower as a meeting place. Also known as: "King Charles' Tower", this north-east corner tower was probably built in the 13th Century origin, was altered in 1613, damaged 1644-6 during the Civil War, largely rebuilt 1658 and during the 18th Century (around 1773), and repaired thereafter (by 1838, the tower was described as being in a dilapidated condition), most recently in 2012. The tower is very rarely open to the public except on "heritage days", but it is usually possible to climb up the steps for a slightly better view.
Chester was besieged during the Civil War when it took the royalist side. The city was an important port for Ireland, from which Charles hoped to bring in extra troops. Also, the leading merchants of the City relied on the grant of monopolies from the king. By 1645 the Parliamentary forces had tightened the siege around Chester had taken Bristol and ther was a fear that the city would soon fall. Charles brought his army to Chester in an attempt to relieve it, but the Parliamentary forces also marched further troop towards Chester and there was a major battle nearby. The inscription on this tower reads:
- 'KING CHARLES STOOD ON THIS TOWER SEPT 24th 1645 AND SAW HIS ARMY DEFEATED ON ROWTON MOOR'
So, can you see Rowton Moor from here? - hardly at all. The site of the "Battle of Rowton Moor" is over 2.5 miles away, in roughly the same direction as Beeston Castle (which can be seen from the tower on a clear day). It was a part of the final stage of the battle that Charles witnessed from the Phoenix Tower. At some point the King withdrew to the Cathedral tower, but even this was not safe - "skylined" sgainst the westering sun, a captain standing next to him was shot in the head by musket fire from the victorious Parliamentarians who took residence in St Johns Church tower. Charles survived, and fled Chester only to be to be captured later and beheaded on Tuesday 30 January 1649.
As you leave the Phoenix Tower you pass the spot where Edmond Halley, of comet fame, was possibly sitting when he worked out how a rainbow was formed. Halley was in Chester because he had been put in charge of the local mint. There had been a mint at Chester since soon after the burh was established, and Chester had its own hallmark for gold and silver. Around 1700 so much metal had been clipped from the edges of coins that they were seriously devalued, and the government decided to issue new coins. To reassure the public that the recoinage would be fair, Isaac Newton and Edmond Halley were put in charge, both were great scientists but possibly hopeless managers and the recoinage was something of a disaster.
The next waypoint (number 10) is the Northgate. To get there there simply follow the walls which now run along the top of a considerable drop down to the canal. The cutting is partly the defensive ditch of the Roman and partly blasted out to accomodate the canal. At some point in late Roman times this section of wall was repaired and the builders used a large number of earlier Roman tombstones from the legionary graveyard which lay outside of the walls. It isn't certain why they did this: possibly they were Christianised Romans who did not consider it was wrong to do so. One benefit of this is that the stones were fairly well preserved and can now be seen in the Grosvenor Museum which is further on in the tour.
The bridge was the site of Northgate prison, but the new Northgate was built in place of the former medieval Gatehouse in 1810 by County architect Thomas Harrison. The view from the top of the Northgate is a little blocked by buildings but still worth it, especially if you go a little way forward so the view opens up. The hills in the distance are the first range of the Welsh mountains.
There are a few interesting details to spot from the bridge. If you look northwards out of town you can just see a building with a glazed observation coupola on the roof. This was once the home of an early owner of one of the Newspapers in Chester, John Fletcher. Several of the early guidebooks to Chester were written by editors of newspapers, including the guidebook and history by Hemingway (1831) and that by Hanshall (1816). Downloadable texts of these books are available elsewhere on this site and they provide a useful insight into the Chester (and the attitudes) of the past. Next to the gate is St John's Hospital which was almshouses to which a school was later added. The bell on the corner of the building is from SS Galeka: she carried troops of the Australian and New Zealand Army Corps to the Gallipoli Campaign, landing the 6th and 7th Bns., Australian Imperial Force, at Anzac Cove on the morning of 25th April 1915, was later converted to a hospital ship and sunk before the end of the war. A little beyond the canal bridge at Northgate is a narrow stone arch which spans the chasm containing the canal. It is best seen from the bridge crossing the canal outside the Northgate or from the tow-path below. This is a flimsy-looking structure with no railings, and there is no means of accessing it at either end. The bridge cost £20 ($30) to build in 1793, and was designed by Joeseph Turner. It originally went from the Northgate Prison to a nearby chapel (in St John's Hospital). Condemned criminals were sometimes executed at Northgate for a brief period after 1801, by hanging, and the bridge gave them the last opportunity to visit a church, hence it's name - the Bridge of Sigh's. Finally, on a lighter note, take a close look at the chimney of the building between the walls and the canal and see if you can spot the fish and the rat (the fish appears to have vanished).
Gallery: things to see around Northgate
From Northgate it is possible to head on along the walls past a few more towers to the Watertower and look at the Canal and Boatyard but this shortened tour does not do that. Instead drop down off the walls into Northgate Street and head back towards the city center. On the right is the old Fire Station which is now a French-style restaurant. One reason for locating the Fire Station here is said to be that everything else is downhill, hence the early fire-engine could get to fires quickly, although a better reason was that this was the site of an early water cistern.
Many of the shops in this part of Northgate Street are small independent retailers and some retain their victorian shop-fronts and awnings - down a narrow road to the left is Handel Court with more small shops. It is named after the composer George Frederic Handel who stayed in this part of town when putting the finishing touches to his "Messiah" while on his way to Ireland for the first public performance. Handel wrote the music for the piece whereas the words were proposed by Charles Jennens (who was educated at the King's School in Chester). Chester was the port for the sea-crossing to Ireland although the crossings could be rough and were frequently delayed by poor weather. Chester's port was some distance to the north of the city as the River Dee had by this time silted up and large boats could not always reach Chester.
Because Chester was a port it was also a major "coaching center" before the advent of the railways. There were several coaching-inns located in Northgate Street and evidence can still be seen of them in the form of a sign on the corner of King Street which gives the distances to other towns. Some of these journeys would take days over poor roads. George Borrow stayed at The Pied Bull in 1854 before touring Wales on foot, something which he documented in his book "Wild Wales".
Another thing to note hereabouts is that some of the houses have bricked-up windows on the upper floors. One reason for this was the "Window Tax" - a property tax based on the number of windows in a house. It was a significant social, cultural, and architectural force in England, France, and Ireland during the 18th and 19th centuries. To avoid the tax some houses from the period can be seen to have bricked-up window-spaces (ready to be glazed or reglazed at a later date). In England and Wales it was introduced in 1696 and was repealed 155 years later, in 1851.
"Storyhouse" is housed in a former Odeon cinema and is a major Chester arts venue, including an 800 seat theatre and a cinema. There is plenty of information as to "what's on" just inside the door. The building also houses Chester's public library (it is through the cafe and upstairs). This includes a full set of street and business directories dating back many years, which is useful if you are in Chester for research purposes. You do not need to be a member to take books off the shelves and read them.
Chester's "Art Deco" Odeon is actually an a-typical example of the style. It was not designed by Harry Weedon (who despite a long career never actually designed a cinema), but by Robert Bullivant a member of Weedon's team, and opened to an invited audience on October 3rd 1936 with Ned Sparks in "Two’s Company". A far more detailed history of the cinema in Chester can be found on The Black & White Picture Place.
Just before reaching the Town Hall there is a pile of old stonework. The large column is often listed in guidebooks as being Roman, but it isn't. On the wall behind the stonework are two round yellow signs. This indicate that there is an "Emergency Water Supply" hidden somewhere underground hereabouts in case of fire and signs like this have been in use since WW2. There was a very major fire very close to this spot when the previous Town Hall burned down prompting the building of the new one. Chester's "traditional" indoor market is hidden away behind the Town Hall. It features the usual market stalls selling cheese and meat, fruit and vegetables, fish etc.
The next waypoint is the entrance to the Cathedral which was passed-by earlier in the tour.
Chester Cathedral stands to the east of the square. It is free to enter and there are paid guided and "audio" tours. The early history of the Cathedral is not known in detail, but Chester appears to have already been an important religious center at various times between the departure of the Romans in about the year 400 and its refortification by Æthelflæd around the year 900. On the ground floor is the somewhat battered shrine of Werburgh a member of the Mercian royalty who died about the year 700 and whose relics were brought to Chester in about 873. Her cult was promoted by Æthelflæd when she re-fortified the city in about 907.
The next major development was the promotion of the Abbey by the first Norman Earl of Chester. In 1092, at Hugh of Avranches's third invitation Anselm of Bec came from France to England to found the Benedictine Abbey at Chester. Building work on the Abbey would contine for the next few hundred years. The Benedictines of the Abbey were not the only religious house in the city. The Dominicans (Blackfriars) and Franciscans (Greyfriars) arrived in the early 13th century, they were soon joined by the Carmelites (Whitefriars) and each had their own friary within the Saxon walls to the west of the city. There was also a Benedictine Nunnery, but very little remains of these other establishments.
Many guidebooks state that building work on the abbey ended in the 1540's, implying that it was then completed. However this is a little misleading. In 1541, as part of the Reformation, the Abbey became the Cathedral. Internally, it remans one of the best preserved medieval monastic buildings in the country. The cathedral's finances, already inadequate before the Civil War, deteriorated steadily during the late 17th and 18th centuries. by 1677 the chapter was forced to resort to borrowing. In that year £100 was borrowed for roof repairs; a loan of £150 was raised towards the cost of a new organ in 1685. By the mid 1690s it became necessary to borrow to discharge the cathedral's ordinary debts, including tenths, taxes, and salaries. Such loans continued to be necessary throughout the 18th century; meanwhile the excess of expenditure over income mounted steadily to reach nearly £1,300 by 1799-1800. The perennial financial difficulties of the cathedral resulted in repairs to the fabric being undertaken only when judged essential. Plans for restoration started to be made in the early 19th Century, but major "restoration" only started in mid-century. In the second half of the 19th century the cathedral "restoration" added the flying buttresses, the parapets along the lines of the roof, the corner turrets on the main tower and the many pinnacles and the gargoyles - none of which appear to have been part of the original plans and which mostly derive from Victorian ideals. Fortunately, the roof of the medieval abbey was wooden rather than the stone usedd elsewhere and this is probably the reason it did not collapse during the years of neglect.
One of the best paid tours is the "Cathedral at Hight" which involves an ascent of the tower accompanied by one of the well-informed guides. It takes about an hour - but expect lots of steps and some fairly narrow passages. On a clear day the view from the top is spectacular. Exploring the rest of the Cathedral can easilly take at least another hour. The Virtual Stroll website contains many illustrations of the Cathedral.
The next objective after the Cathedral is the Eastgate, but it may be time for refreshment. The Cathedral has a cafe in the old refectory which housed the King's School after the Reformation. One interesting feature is the pulpit set in the wall, another is the hammer beam roof (a very skilled "reconstruction"). There are alternatives nearby.
The tour continues down St Werburgh Street and the detached bell-tower of the Cathedral can be seen ahead. This was made with local materials, sandstone, slate and what appears to be lead. In fact the lead is "lead coated steel" whaich was manufactured at the Leadworks in Chester and has the corrosion resistance of lead and the stiffness of steel. This is one of very few buildings which still exist and use this form of cladding.
In St Werburgh Street itself is another one of John Douglas's compositions - it takes up almost an entire side of the street and features the first and last Norman Earls of Chester and Queen Victoria, who looks a little out of place on a "Tudor" building. Keep an eye open for a shield on the wall to the left with a "Liver bird" and a grass-hopper. This was the emblem of Martin's Bank which once occupied the building. Many of the more interesting buildings in Chester are banks: they wanted to appear that they had money and also wanted to look impressive so as to inspire confidence. The chimneys are ornate which reflects the origin of chimney stacks in Elizabethan times - a fire set in a wall rather than a fire in the middle of the floor (and a hole in the roof) was once the latest technology and those who had a fireplace would adverise their wealth with an ornate chimney stack.
At the bottom of St Werburgh Street one emerges into Eastgate Street and the High Cross is visible on the right. The next objective is the Eastgate which is on on the left, but do feel free to explore the Rows and the shops. Eastgate Street has always been the most prestigious location in Chester. The house of the Roman commander and his principal officers fronted onto it, and the road to London left via the Eastgate. For very many years the most notable department store in Chester was "Browns" which is still the most prominent building on the street.
Gallery: St Wergburgh Street
The Eastgate and its clock are among the most famous, and most photographed, structures in Chester. The bridge which it forms over the road can be accessed by stairways on either side and from the top it is possible to look along the full length of Eastgate Street and, past the cross, into Watergate Street. In the opposite direction is Foregate Street which this tour does not take in and which is another major shopping street. In the distance the blue wateertower at Boughton stands on the site of the springs which supplied water to Roman Chester and are still involved in Chester's Water Supply today.
Just before the Eastgate on the left is a bank with a lot of coats of arms on the frontage. This was once the Grosvenor Club and the ground floor was the home to a Welsh bank. The coats of arms are based on those of the historic counties of Wales and it is possible to work out which is which county. The sandstone cameo is Owen Jones a Welsh foundling who did well in Chester and left some apparently almost worthless land to the city. It turned out the land was rich in lead ore and worth a good deal more than was first thought.
The clock was designed by John Douglas and commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria (1897), although the clock was only unveiled on the 24th May 1899. An illustration from "The Builder" of June, 1882 may indicate that Douglas had the idea that a clock should be placed here when he was building the bank and Grosvenor Club at that time, as a clock, with stone supports is shown standing atop the Eastgate. Only in 1992 was an electrical mechanism fitted to replace the original wind-up mechanism. The original clockwork is in storage at the Grosvenor Museum. In 1996 the clock faces were restored with their original colours. The clock tower has four, 4ft 6 inch dials that were originally gas lit, but are now powered by electricity.
If you are doing the tour in parts then then the Eastgate is a possble place to break off. So far about a third of the area of Roman Chester has been explored. The next waypoint on the full tour is the Newgate. It is possible to reach it by walking south along the walls from the Eastgate.
Gallery: things to see near waypoint 15
Blue Plaque on Eastgate
The Owen Jones cameo;
Watertower on site from where water was supplied to Roman Chester;
Second Part: Eastgate Clock to Newgate
The next part of the tour takes in the Amphitheatre, St Johns, the Hermitage and the banks of the River Dee. It is a shortened version of the St Johns Trail (missing out Grosvenor Park) and is mostly traffic free and outside of the City Walls. There are few shops on this part of the tour. Optional extras include a boat trip on the River Dee. Boat trips will add from half an hour to two hours depending on the trip selected. To reach the Newgate from Eastgate it should be possible to simply head south along the city walls. If (as is sometimes the case) a part of the walls is closed then there should be diversion signage.
Just next to the Newgate is the Old Newgate, or Wolf Gate (also known as the Pepper Gate and Wolfeld Gate), is a gateway through the city walls dating to the early thirteenth century. According to one of many versions of the tale: in 1573, Ellen, the daughter of Alderman Rauff Aldersey defied her father and eloped through the gate at night to marry a draper. Her father persuaded the city to lock the gate at night for many years, leading to the expression ‘when the daughter is stolen, shut the Peppergate’ which is the local equivalent of ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’.
From the top of Newgate there is a good view of the remains of the Roman Amphitheatre and beyond that the "other" cathedral in Chester: St Johns. Down to the left is the remains of a Roman corner tower. At this point the Roman and the Saxon walls meet. The walls of Roman Chester would have headed westwards along the north side of Pepper Street, but the Anglo-Saxons extended the Roman Walls down to the River Dee. creating a much larger defended space and taking advantage of having the river as a defence along one side. The objective of the Romans was to provide a military base for a professional army and protect them against the local populace. The Anglo-Saxons were creating a fortified town which could also accomodate the people living within about a days travel in times of raids by the Vikings and others. So the Anglo-Saxons needed more space.
There are some steps on the far side of the gate which descend to the street level. One minor diversion here is to take the lift to the top of the car-park. It is located in the tower with a stone lion on top of it. The view from the top is not as good as that from the top of the cathedral, but it is free and there are far fewer steps.
The next waypoint is in the center of the Amphitheatre. On the way is the base of a Roman Corner Tower at the foot of the walls. This would originally have been on the inside of the walls but when the walls were rebuilt over the centuries they did not quite follow the line of the Roman original. This is another part of the City Walls which took a battering during the Civil War. The Parliamentary forces had brought the seige of Chester close about the City Walls and made a breach by bombardment with cannon. Once a breach was made an assault was attempted but this was repulsed. Almost all of the buildings outside the walls were destroyed by the defenders in the early part of the Civil War so as to deny shelter to the attackers. One of the few survivors was St Johns.
There is a more detailed guide to the Amphitheatre elsewhere on this site. For the purposes of the trail it is sufficient to say that the things to see are the reconstructed remains of the "stands" surrounding the arena, the shrine to Nemesis by the north entrance, the mural and the east extrance. The simple way to see them is to walk clockwise from the entry signage to the north entrance, go down the steps to have a look at the shrine to Nemesis then walk over to inspect the mural. From there, turn left and climb the steps in the east exit.
Roman aphitheatres were major public venues, circular or oval in plan, with perimeter seating tiers. They were used for events such as gladiator combats, chariot races, venationes (animal hunts) and executions. About 230 Roman amphitheatres have been found across the area of the Roman Empire. Only half of the Amphitheatre has been evcavated and there is often a debate as to whether it is worth excavating the rest. There may be little left to find under the buildings which cover it.
The east exit of the Amphitheatre leads to the ruinous western end of St Johns which is the next waypoint.
St Johns is often said to be "Chester's Hidden Gem"; It's not really that hidden, being right next to the Amphitheatre and plainly visible from the banks of the River Dee, you can't really miss it. The church has ruins at both ends, of which more below. It reputedly sells the cheapest cup of tea in Chester and also has a second-hand book-stall (a row of pews) which is worth a rummage. Donations of second-hand books and hard cash are always welcome. The inside of the church is quite different to the outside and it is like stepping into another world. St Johns was the original Cathedral of Chester before the Norman Conquest. Just when it officially lost Cathedral status is not clear. Allow at least half an hour to explore it.
St John's history is notable for a chronic shortage of building and repair funds and for parts of the structure falling down (it steadfastly carries this tradition on today). It is also steeped in ecclesiastical history and was known for a notable relic as well as being one of the most often painted churches in England. In 1468 the central tower collapsed destroying a great part of the choir. The steeple was rebuilt in 1470. At the end of the nave two bays are wanting of which the foundations only were laid. Of two large western towers at the west end the foundations only of the southern had been laid and this tower was in fact, never built. The northern tower had made more progress. The lower story is Norman but the tower was completed in the time of Henry VII (1485 - 1509). By about 1550, the church was reduced in size. The transepts were entirely destroyed at the Reformation when the size of the church was reduced to adapt it for parochial use only. Those parts of the church which were no longer in use had the lead removed from their roofs and "given" to the king, while all of the bells save one were removed.
The rebuilt central steeple lasted until 1572, when the steeple again collapsed. The church was kept in good condition in the earlier 17th century, but suffered severe damage, especially internally, after its capture by the parliamentarians. During the siege of Chester (1645-46) in the Civil War, the north-west tower was used to mount a gun battery. The weight of the guns and the shock of their discharge must have done much to weaken the structure. Packets of papers were also shot over the city walls, encouraging the towns folk to surrender. When this failed, snipers were placed at the church tower's summit. From here they were able to take pot shots at anyone seen in the streets beneath them. After the Civil War attempts at repair were made, but, on Good Friday (15th April), 1881 the north-western tower collapsed.
There is a lot to see here and some useful signage is scattered around the interior. There are also some volunteer guides who may or may not be there. This is a very short guide to St Johns, which has a much richer history than presented in this brief tour guide. Standing near the door may well be one of the "Chester Giants". In Medieval and Tudor times, Chester’s magnificent Midsummer Watch Parade was renowned throughout the country. First held during the mayoralty of Richard Goodman in 1498, it was organised by the City Guilds and took place in the years when the famous Chester Mystery Plays were not performed. The outstanding features of the show were the Giants – enormous structures made of buckram and pasteboard and carried by two or more men. Giants were a common feature of Tudor pageantry in England and Europe, but Chester was unique in that the city paraded a whole family of Giants. The Midsummer Watch Parade survived much longer than the now world-famous Mystery Plays, which were banned in 1575 and not revived until recent times. In 1599, Mayor Henry Hardware prohibited the Parade and ordered the Giants to be broken up. The first new giant was taken for a walk through the streets of Chester at midsummer 1989. The parade at midsummer that year was the first for over 300 years.
Tradition ascribes the foundation of St. John's to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. In the vestibule of the church is a stained glass window showing the legend of how he selected the site guided by a white hart. Curiously, churches associates with white harts occur all along the River Dee. They are also generally associated with holy wells or springs. Inside the church proper one finds a completely different building to what appears outside. The lower parts are Norman and date from when Peter de Leia, bishop of Lichfield (consecrated in 1067) removed his episcopal see to Chester in 1075 and the church became a cathedral. The old St John's just would not do as the home of an important bishop, and so had to be rebuilt. The basic plan of the new church followed the standard Norman design, with a choir to the east, a central crossing with a tower above, transepts, a nave to the west and a pair of towers at the western end. However not all of this was to be completed. To the left of the entrance are some stone cross heads. These are probably older than any part of the present church building.
A memorial window to the memory of local archirect TM Lockwood (by Shrigley and Hunt, 1901) is in the north aisle of St Johns. Appropriately, the window depicts the architect Hiram Abiff and is full of masonic symbolism - such as the pillars labelled "Boaz" and "Jachim" and the tiled floor. Nearby, on the pillar, is a surviving medieval painting. The west window is by Edward Frampton (1845-1928) and was given by the 1st Duke of Westminster in 1890. The window depicts twelve scenes from the history of the church. The top right pane shows a boat on the River Dee. This is a reference to Edgar the Pacific, (c. Aug 7, 943 – July 8, 975) who was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great and was famously crowned both at Bath and at Chester (in 973).
The ruined eastern end of St John calls to mind the Anglo-Saxon elegy "The Ruin": "Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon.." (Wondrous is this worked-stone, by fates broken..) it has even been suggested that the poem is about Chester, although the ruins are early Norman. Note that there are both round arches and "pointed" arches - the pointed (ogival) arches are a characteristic feature of Gothic architecture and were first used in India and the Middle East. They enable higher structures to be built than the round arches. In one of the arches of the ruined choir an ancient oak coffin can be seen set into the masonry. Within the coffin is inscribed "Duft to Duft" ("dust to dust" - based on the wording of the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer). Signs in the churchyard state that the coffin and inscription dates back to the 11th Century, was found during the 19th Century by grave digger Benjamin Carter and that the rector at the time (Richardson) ordered the coffin to be set high into the wall. However, others say that the coffin is actually 15th Century and was found in the Nantwich area, having been brought to Chester as a curiosity - and that Richardson brought the coffin from a boat in the canal in 1813.
From the ruins at the eastern end of the Church head downhill towards the River Dee and the Hermitage, which is the next waypoint.
One of the most unusual buildings in Chester is the Anchorite's Cell or 'Hermitage', a small sandstone building by the River Dee at The Groves. The present building is believed to date from the mid 14th century and was one of two 'cells' built as religious retreats for reclusive monks or hermits. It is now a private dwelling and there is no access to the grounds.
One hermit may have been none other than Harold Godwinson, once king of England and supposed survivor of the Battle of Senlac Hill (sometimes called the "Battle of Hastings"). Harold's connection with Chester is actually quite a bit more than myth, although the story that he lived on here after his supposed defeat in 1066 takes quite some believing. In 1063 Edward the Confessor's military leader Harold son of Earl Godwin, attacked Gryffudd ap Llywelyn's palace at Rhuddlan in Flintshire using Chester as his base and made himself master of the Vale of Clwyd. Following either Gruffydd's death (apparently at the hands of his own troops) - or simply the fact that Gruffydd had fled - Harold married his widow. The popular story is well known - Harold fights at the Battle of Hastings, gets shot in the eye with an arrow and dies.
According to Gerald of Wales, King Harold II fled only badly wounded from the Battle of Hastings to Chester where he survived as an anchorite (blind in one eye of course) in "The chapel of St. James", close to St Johns Church. The story does seem remarkably persistent.
The Queen's Park Suspension Bridge connects The Groves with the affluent Queen's Park area of Chester. This is the second bridge on this site, being built in 1922/3 to replace an earlier bridge. The 1923 bridge bears a striking resemblance to the 1922 Porthill Bridge in Shrewsbury - so much so that many people, even Chester residents, might have problems telling which was which in photographs. However, Chester's bridge has real shields rather than the tiny ones in Shrewsbury and a huge sign saying which one it is. Unfortunately, it appears that the arms of Ranulf de Meschines and Ranulf de Gernon have been switched around on the suspension bridge.
Young people today have a habit of placing padlocks on bridges. These typically have a romantic message written on them - and are often known as "Love-Locks". Notable examples of such bridges include those in Paris, Serbia (where it started) and elsewhere. In 2013 there were a bondage-lovers paradise of such locks on the Suspension Bridge, and then, they started to disappear. It turned out that a local resident had taken it upon himself to remove them. However, exposure in a "U-Tube" video seemed to end that. Flash-forward to 2014: as reported in the Chester Chronicle, Cheshire West and Chester Council have stated that the locks could make the bridge dangerous, as they could make the bridge "sway" in high winds. The Chester bridge had just 330 locks attached to its railings - weighing a total of about 24Kg or 3.77 stone. Undoubtedly fears were sparked after part of the Pont de Arts in Paris collapsed under the weight of 700,000 of the locks in 2014. To be fair enough, this is not about an extra 25kg of weight in the case of Chester, but more about the wind-resistance that the locks might create. Like many suspension bridges the Chester bridge exhibits some "spring" when walked across. It is a common belief that any troops which cross it are required to "break step" to prevent excessive vibration.
This tour does not cross the Suspension Bridge but returns to the north bank and heads west along the River Dee along "The Groves". The building which looks a little like a Greek or Roman temple across the River Dee stands on the site of the WW2 "Western Command" an important regional comntrol center, and is now a part of the University of Chester. There are extensive "bunkers" in the rock beneath it, but these are not open to the public.
A Gallery of Jacobs Well and the Hermitage
Jacobs Well in Grosvenor Park, 2014
Detail from Jacobs Well, 2014
Doorway from old St Michael Church, 2014
The Shipgate arch
Jacobs Well and St. Mary's Arch, 2014
The Hermitage (2013) - local legend says that one hermit was....
The Public Toilets on the original site of Jacobs Well
The steps shown in Bell's watercolour, and the Hermitage in 2019
The riverside below St. John's church was corporation property and used as a public walk by 1717. In the mid 19th century the rise of tourist excursions to Chester turned the Groves into a popular resort. Pleasure boats could be hired on the river by the 1850s, and in the later 19th century band concerts throughout the summer became a major attraction. The concerts were at first arranged by a private committee, which built a bandstand in 1913, but were taken over by the city council in 1927. In 1745 the Dee Side walks extended from Souters Lane to a point east of St Johns. By 1783 the promenade was called the Groves. In 1881 the river bank from Souters Lane to the Old Dee Bridge was faced with rubble from the fallen tower of St Johns church, and the avenue was extended to the west, an improvement carried out at the expense of Charles Brown to commemorate his mayoralty.
Boating excursions upstream are available from landing stages at the Groves. There are short trips of half an hour and longer ones of two hours. These were originally to view the newly completed Gothic Eaton Hall, and were an attraction by 1821. It is also possible to combine a boat tour with a circular "hop-on-hop-off" bus trip, but the city within the walls is perhaps best explored on foot as due to the layout of the road system the route of the bus tour is mostly outside of the walls.
This part of the tour follows the Groves as far as the point where it meets a corner of the walls and then turns away from the river under the shadow of the walls, following the path upwards to the Roman Gardems. There is a sign to indicate where the path starts, just past the bar and restaurant.
The lower part of the Roman Gardens was re-modeled in 2000 to provide a path down to the River Dee - a path which is snakes back and forth like the snake in the roman symbol for medicine. In fact many of the plants here are medicinal herbs, some of which would have been known to the Romans. The upper part of the Roman Gardens contains a selection of Roman Relics collected from around the City, none of which originally stood on this site. Most of the columns that can be seen in the Roman Gardens came from the exercise hall of the Roman bath house (thermae). They were once 6 meters tall and supported the stonework of the central section of the hall. The largest column currently in the Roman Gardens came from the assembly hall of the headquarters building (Principia). The Roman Gardens also houses a reconstructed hypocaust which was the Roman system of under floor heating. An under floor cavity was filled with hot air from a furnace to heat the rooms or baths above. Several hypocausts have been found in excavations in Chester. The hypocaust in the Roman Gardens has been reconstructed using the pillars (pilae) recovered in 1863 from one of the rooms in the main bath building (thermae) of the Roman fortress. In the Roman Gardens there is a semi-reproduction (done in 2000 by artist Gary Drostle) of a Capricorn Mosaiic (discovered at St Michael's Row, 1909-10) which actually survived in Chester until the 1960's when it was destroyed by contractors. The capricorn was the symbol of Legio II - the first unit to be stationed at Roman Chester.
The less-weathered masonry in the City Walls marks the site of a breach, battered through the wall by Parliamentary cannon, when Chester was besieged during the Civil War. By September 1645, Chester's loyal stand for King Charles I was nearing an end. The suburbs had been taken. The Royalist garrison and all the citizens took refuge inside the City Walls. Parliamentary troops mounted cannon (and snipers) in the tower of St Johns Church, just to the east of where the Roman Gardens are now sited, and bombarded the South Eastern defences. The tower was probably much weakened by this which contributed to its later collapse. On Monday, 22nd September 1645 this stretch of the City Walls were bombarded from 12 noon until 4pm. Thirty-two shots were fired, making a breach wide enough for ten men abreast to enter. Two Royalist soldiers were killed trying to fill the hole with beds and woolpacks. That night, the Parliamentarians tried to storm the breach, but were beaten back after fierce fighting.
The north exit of the Roman Garden brings one back to the Newgate. The whole tour contines along the top of the walls, but this is another suitable break point if the tour is being done in parts.
Third Part: Newgate to the High Cross
The third part of the tour starts from the Newgate, heads down to River Dee and over to the Minerva Shrine. It returns via the Medical Museum, the steepest urban street in England, Chester Castle, the Military Museum and the Grosvenor Museum. Of these much of Chester Castle is closed other than possibly some days in the summer and the Medical Museum has only occasional opening. The Military Museum has a small charge but the Grosvenor Museum is free. The final part of the route is through the center of the city and can include a possible visit to Stanley Palace which also sometimes has irregular opening hours.
City Walls (Saxon)
The walls of Roman Chester headed north from Newgate along the side of what is now Pepper Street. The Saxons extended the City Walls down to the River then then followed the River to eventually loop back at meet the Roman walls at their northwest corner. This broke up the highly organised lines of the Roman defences but significantly increased the walled area and made use of the River Dee as a boundary. The benefit of this extension was that there was room for people living outside of the walls to seek refuge in times of trouble. The Norman Chester Castle was built within the Anglo-Saxon walls but outside of the Roman ones.
The apparently mediaeval house one passes in Park Street was actually built as recently as 1881 (by Kelly and Edwards - whose better work includes the 1883 Greysfield House, at Barrow) and bears the legend, "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life". This is sometimes said to be the inscription on an "ancient" (some say Roman) coin found on the site, - it is also found in Proverbs [14:27] (so unlikely to be on a Roman coin). However almost the same words: "TIMOR . DOMINE . FONS . VITAE" were struck onto a (now incredibly rare) issue of silver shillings of Edward VI in 1549, as well as on the gold half-sovereign of the same year (and some groats amd other coins). Edward VI was 9 years old when he was made King in 1547. It was feared that ambitious men close to him may grab his power and use it for their own needs. Therefore these shillings of his reign (only from 1549) were inscribed with this legend. He was dead within a few years, in 1553. the most likely explanation is therefore that the coin found was from Edward VI - and that just because something is written in latin, that does not mean that what it is written on is a Roman relic! Also in 1549 came the execution of Thomas Seymour (Jane Seymour's brother), a guardian of Edward VI whose crime was providing Edward with "pocket money" stolen from the Bristol mint while bad-mouthing his brother who held the official purse-strings. Maybe the decision to mark the coins thus and Seymour's fate are not unrelated.
Next to it are the "Nine houses" (of which there are six remaining) - these are early almshouses.
Heading on down this Saxon extension of the walls, views ot the River Dee soon open up with the Suspension Bridge visible in the middle distance. To the right are some Victorian Streets which are often used as film locations, and the Albion Pub, which is a bit of a shrine to WW1 and often has something interesting written on the blackboard on the door. "Barnaby's Tower" is where the walls meet the River Dee again, and just after are the "Wishing Steps": so called because if you can run up and down without taking a breath any wish is supposedly granted. A little further are the "Recorder's Steps" which lead down to the Groves and have some innacurate signage in the form of a stone plaque in the outside of the walls.
Gallery: things to see near waypoints 23-25
The Wolfgate has an amusing legend;
Listen to the audio recordings in the two chambers on the Newgate;
Note the statue of a lion;
Note the house with "Fountain of Life" inscription;
The first bridge here was Roman, of which little is visible except at very low in dry weather. The Saxons appear to have rebuilt the bridge around 900. Various replacement bridges were constructed over the years. One such bridge collapsed under a flood in 1227 - as recorded: "pons Cestrie totus cecidit". In 1279/80, 1297 and 1353 the then bridge was again swept away. Legend says that when an exasperated King Edward I crossed over the then delapidated wooden bridge on his way to fight the Welsh, he decreed that if a stone bridge was not constructed he would sack the city. The present stone bridge was probably built about 1357. The bridge was widened, upstream, by Thomas Harrison in 1826, to provide a footway, partly corbelled. The bridge is built of the local red sandstone and is notable for the variation in the span of the arches, the widest being 18 m (60 ft). The size differences are due to the variable quality of the river bed.
The weir was built in sandstone in 1093 for Hugh of Avranches. It was designed to provide a head of water for the Dee Mills and to improve navigation above the weir. Throughout the centuries the weir has been used to power corn, fulling, needle-making, snuff and flint mills, and at times to pump water uphill to the city and generate electricity. At times the mills were very profitable and a local saying about the profligate was that "if they had the rent of the Dee Mills they would spend it".
The weir is at the normal tidal limit of the River Dee, although spring and neap tides will often flood over it. One consequence of this is that the mills could not be operated continuously but had to stop working at high-water, when there was insuffient downstream flow to operate the wheels. For canal boats wanting to pass between the non-tidal section of the River Dee and the Shropshire Union Canal, which joins the river downstream, there is a tricky weir passage at the city end of the bridge that can only be made at certain states of the tide. This is the United Kingdom's only example of a "weirgate".
The next waypoint is the Minerva Shrine. This is just across the River and is worth the walk both to see the shrine and for the views up- and downriver and back towards the City. If you want to skip that then jump down to Medical Museum.
The Minerva Shrine in Edgar's Field is the only surviving rock-cut Roman shrine which is still in situ at its original location in the whole of western Europe. The quarry dates from around AD 100 when it was being used to quarry stone for the construction of the Roman fortress (and, years later, possibly also Chester Castle) just over the River Dee. It may have been the shrine of quarry workers, or it may have been used by travelers about to cross the River Dee (by a ford) - Minerva was Goddess of both craftsmen and travelers. There are some Roman cut sandstone slabs and blocks near the play area in the park. They are plainly dressed, with the Roman chisel marks still visible, and would have come from the foundations of large Roman buildings inside the fortress of Deva. One plant found growing in the park is "Spotted Medic" (Medicago arabica) a flowering plant of the family Fabaceae. It has a small yellow flower and distinctive dark, purplish patches on the clover-shaped leaves. It is native to the Mediterranean basin but is now found throughout the world. It was possibly brought to Britain by the Romans as a medicinal herb.
Edgar the Pacific, (c. Aug 7, 943 – July 8, 975) was the great-grandson of Alfred and was famously crowned both at Bath and at Chester (in 973) possibly as the first king of all England. King Edgar is said to have prayed in the minster (monasterium) of St Johns after being rowed along the River Dee by a number of sub-kings. Edgar was a very small man, recorded as being less than five feet tall. William of Malmesbury, reporting on Edgar's slightness of height and build, records that at a banquet that followed the meeting at Chester, Kenneth, King of Scots, commented jokingly that it seemed extraordinary to him how so many provinces should be held by "such a sorry little fellow."
From this side of the river there are good views of the Grosvenor Bridge which crosses the Dee a little downstream. The Grosvenor Bridge is not on this tour but is a short walk from Chester Castle. The Grosvenor Bridge, was designed by Thomas Harrison and officially opened in 1832 although it was not finished for traffic to cross it until 1 January 1834. At its opening, the Grosvenor Bridge was the longest existing single-span stone arch road bridge – at 200 feet across and 60 feet high – in the world (the Trezzo sull'Adda Bridge completed in 1377 had been longer, but was destroyed during a seige 1416). The Grosvenor Bridge held the world record for thirty years when it was surpassed by the "Cabin John Bridge" in the USA, 220 feet across and 57 feet 3 inches high. The Grosvenor Bridge is still the longest masonry arch in the UK, and number 19 in the world. The next bridge downstream is much lower: nothing could tell more clearly of the decline of "tall ships" plying their way to Chester over the 13 year period between the two bridges.
Gallery: things to see around Edgar's Field
The view to the Grosvenor Bridge
St Mary's Hill (and Medical Museum}
The large Neo-Georgian County Hall, used to house the offices of Cheshire County Council, was built between 1938 and 1957, (work was delayed by WW2). In 2009, County Hall was vacated by the Council, and the University of Chester bought County Hall in Chester from the City Council for £10.3m. By 2010 the former local authority’s offices had been transformed into libraries; IT and art therapy labs.
The Medical Museum (in the basement) descibe themselves on their website as follows:
- "The Museum, based at the University’s Riverside Campus on Castle Drive, contains a permanent collection of curiosities from the world of medicine, nursing, midwifery and social work which features an original letter from Florence Nightingale, written from the Crimea in 1856. The First World War: Returning Home exhibition commemorates the 100-year anniversary of the conflict and provides an insight into what a soldier invalided back from the Front would have found on his return to Cheshire. Using local examples wherever possible, the exhibition covers aspects such as medical advances, the psychological effects of war, volunteering and volunteer nurses, a doctor’s country practice, home life, food and recipes, rural life and social welfare. This exhibition has been refurbished with the generous help of the Heritage Lottery Fund and Big Heritage and the volunteers are in the process of expanding the exhibition to cover more about the inter-war years."
The basement was once the proposed home of a "nuclear bunker" for the council, but the plans fell through. The nearby Bear and Billet was built in 1664 as the Bridge Street town house of the Earls of Shrewsbury who held the hereditary serjeancy of the nearby Bridgegate. It was possibly, given its proximity to the Dee Mills used as a grain warehouse (in the gable are double doors and a bracket for a hoist). The building became an inn in the 18th century, although it continued to be owned by the Shrewsbury family until 1867. Its name is taken from the heraldic device of the Earls that consist of a bear tied to a billet (or stake). The front of the Bear and Billet contains well over 1664 individual panes of glass.
St Mary’s Hill has a gradient of over 36 degrees, making it the steepest residential street in England, if not the world - although the current record is thought to be held by Ffordd Pen Llech in Harlech.
Unfortunately, St Mary on the Hill is not normally open for visitors, which is a pity, because the inside is very spectacular. Round the back of the church is an old graveyard with a somewhat battered sundial. Sundials such at this were used to set the time of the church clock before the introduction of standard "railway time".
Gallery: things to see near waypoint 31
..to St Mary on the Hill (seldom open)
Castle (Military Museum)
Chester Castle is one of the few castles in England or Wales that has been in constant use since first erected. For almost 2,000 years - even before the castle was built, armies have used and fought over this location. At times it has housed a mint, a prison, courts and local government offices. The Roman fortress, Æthelflæd's (Alfred the Great's daughter) burh, the small earthwork and timber castle of the Normans, and the larger stone castle created by Ranulf de Blondeville and Henry III were successively built near to, if not directly upon one another.
The Military Museum (there is a small entry fee) isn't plugging some gung-ho idea of the military but rather telling the story of boys who went away (and sometimes came back). One interesting display recounts the well-known story of how when Sir Charles James Napier had captured the Indian state of Sindh, he sent the famous message "Peccavi" ("I have sinned") as an improvised code. In fact he never sent the message and the museum tells the real story of how this urban myth was created. That it is apocryphal is truly fascinating given that Napier was under explicit instructions that he was not to attack Hyderabad, Sind's capital - by attacking, he had sinned. Napier was stationed at Chester Castle from 1840 due to the possibility of Chartist riots. "Napier House" at the Castle is named after him. The medals on display include the Victoria Cross awarded to T A Jones for his amazing single handed capture of 102 of the enemy in WW1. He was affectionately known locally as 'Todger' Jones and while he never married, he is said to have many descendants in the area. This is a museum where one needs to look for the understated, where you could walk past something without noticing it's significance. The best example of this is a pen, used to sign the Japanese surrender in WW2 and given to General Arthur Percival. Lt. Gen. Percival had surrendered at Singapore to General Yamashita in 1942 and spent the next few years in a POW camp. Prior to the signing of the Japanese surrender her was brought to the USS Missouri on the express orders of the US CIC Douglas McArthur to witness the signing of the Japanese surrender - and then presented with one of the pens.
Gallery: things to see near waypoint 32
The Courts and Prison were designed by Harrison
John McCafferty - last man to try to take the Castle
The Military Museum is just here.
Tom Gould's Grave
The prominent clock is said to be notable because it was one of the earliest "turret" clocks to have a "Denison" gravity escapement. In fact the Rhyl Advertiser of 23rd August 1879 claimed that the Chester Savings Bank clock was the very first clock to have this form of escapement. This form of escapement mechanism is preferred for turret clocks because their wheel trains are subjected to large variations in drive force caused by the large exterior hands, with their varying wind, snow, and ice loads. The clock at "Big Ben" which also uses such a form of escapement and that clock was completed in 1854 and installed in 1859. It is often said that Joyce and Co. copied the mechanism from "Big Ben", so the dates are a little confusing. If fact, much ink has been spilt over the argument as to priority. Joyce themselves claim that the clock installed in 1853 which would make it a year earlier than "Big Ben", but others have claimed that the clock was altered later. The 1851-3 building on which it sits is the most happily composed and detailed of James Harrison's office-building designs in Chester.
One often overlooked item of military history in Chester is the grave of Thomas Gould, who is buried under the roundabout between Grosvenor Street and Grosvenor Road.
This is the site of the graveyard of St Bridget (since demolished). The grave marker is shaped as a casket and inscribed:
- IN MEMORY OF THOMAS GOULD LATE OF THE 52ND REGT. OF FOOT LI. DIED IN NOVEMBER 1865 AGED 72 YEARS 46 OF WHICH WERE SPENT IN THE SERVICE OF HIS COUNTRY. HE WAS PRESENT IN THE FOLLOWING ENGAGEMENTS. VIMERA, CORUNA, CROSSING THE GOE NEAR ALMEIDA, BSACO, PUMBAL, REDINHA, CONDEIXA, FOZ D'AVOCA, SARUGAL, FUENTES DONOLE, STORMING OF CUIDAD RODRIGO AND RADASOS SALMANCA, SAN MUNOS (fallen prisoner), ST MILAN, VITTORIA, PYRENEES, STORMING OF THE FRENCH ESTABLISHMENT OF VERA (wounded), NIVELLE, PASSAGE OF THE NEVE ORTHES, TARBES, TOULOUSE AND WATERLOO. HE RECEIVED THE PENINSULA MEDAL WITH 13 CLASPS AND THE WATERLOO MEDAL. THE STONE IS PLACED OVER HIM BY A FEW FRIENDS
The Grosvenor Museum was founded in 1885, and its origins are linked to the start of the Chester Society for Natural Science, Literature and Art, founded by Charles Kingsley in 1871. Charles Kingsley was a Canon of Chester Cathedral from 1871 to 1873. He brought together many local naturalists, and the Society built up large and important natural history collections. The building of a local museum was first suggested in 1871, to house the collections and use them for teaching. Kingsley wrote many fictional works, but also wrote the lesser known "Town Geology" based on lectures he gave while in Chester.
The museum holds Chester's biggest collection of local and international history. It covers 2,000 years of Cestrian life spread over three floors of a classic 19th century building. It is truly one of the most interesting "local" museums in England and a "must see" when visiting Chester. And best of all – it's completely free! The museum houses the largest collection of Roman tombstones from a single site in Britain. With a few exceptions, all the stones in the gallery had been reused at some time to repair the City Walls. The tombstones on display tell you something about the lives of the soldiers, slaves, women and children who lived in Roman Chester. The "Natural History" section includes an original William Smith geology map (first published in 1815). It was not the world’s first geologic map, but it was the first to map such a large area in such detail and had a major impact on the development of geology. The museum houses over 700 pictures of Chester and a superb permanent collection of silver. 20 Castle Street, behind the museum (through the Museum Shop), is a town house that takes you back to home life from the 17th century to the 1920s; including a Victorian kitchen, a Georgian drawing room, a nursery and even a fully fitted Edwardian bathroom. Exploring the museum takes at least about an hour.
The Grosvenor Museum houses the "History Hub" - just turn left on entering. This comprises a small library of books relating to Chester and a few computer terminals which can be used to access historical databases. Helpful staff are on hand to assist with enquiries.
Gallery: just a few of the things to see in the Grosvenor Museum
Castle Street (formerly Castle Lane) links Lower Bridge Street (opposite St Olave Street) with Grosvenor Street. Its history is intimately linked to that of the Gloverstone district of Chester and to the military. The building surrounded with a high wall is the former military gaol. The gaol used to be connected by an underground passage to the county court buildings but this has now been blocked. Some years ago a collapse of part of the surface of the central courtyard revealed a well which enabled it to be stated that the gaol stands on the site of the outer gatehouse of the Chester Castle - possibly the site of the tower were Richard II was held captive.
The first house on the right has a round window high above the street. An inscription around the window reads: DOMINUS ILLUMINATIO (almost the opening words of Psalm 27: "The Lord is my light") ANNO DOMINI 1707. "Dominus Illuminatio Mea" (the correct quote) is also the motto of Oxford University.
At the very end of the street is an amusing sign which reads "Commit no nuisance", and yet another "Chester Imp" looks down and winks.
The church of St Olave was founded in the 11th century. Its dedication is to Olaf II, a Norwegian king. At the time that the church was founded, the area around Lower Bridge Street was largely occupied by Scandinavians (including Vikings), and it is thought that this is the reason for the dedication. The present church building dates from 1611. Olaf II Haraldsson (Óláfr Haraldsson c. 995 – 29 July 1030), later known as St. Olaf (and traditionally as St. Olave), was King of Norway from 1015 to 1028. Son of Harald Grenske, a petty king in Vestfold, Norway, he was posthumously given the title Rex Perpetuus Norvegiae (English: Eternal/Perpetual King of Norway) and canonised at Nidaros (Trondheim) by Bishop Grimkell, one year after his death in the Battle of Stiklestad on 29 July 1030. His remains were enshrined in Nidaros Cathedral, built over his burial site. His sainthood encouraged the widespread adoption of Christianity by Scandinavia's Vikings/Norsemen.
The saga of Olaf Haraldsson is forever enshrined in Norwegian history as a symbol of strong national pride. Norway commemorates Saint Olaf through his symbolic axe in the national coat of arms and through Olsok Day, the July 29 holiday memorializing the battle where Olaf supposedly found martyrdom. However, modern historians mostly agree that Olaf was inclined to violence during his conquests and, in some cases, brutality against the pagan-divided kingdom.
The tour now heads uphill back towards the High Cross. The Rows once extended down Lower Bridge Street but these parts of them were gradually enclosed by people turning them into an additional first floor room. The end-wall of the small building across the lane at the side of St Olave has its timbers exposed and the location of the former Row can be made out. A minor diversion down St Olave Street will reveal a few other features of interest - a bricked up opening in the side of the church and a stone slab saying how the church benefited from "Queen Anne's Bounty".
Gallery: Castle Street / St Olave
Lower Bridge Street
There are several notable historic buildings in Lower Bridge Street. These illustrate the transition from "Tudor" architecture to the later Renaissance architectural styles. As they buildings are not arranged in a convenient order it is worth reading this entire section before proceeding.
The Dissolution of the Monasteries redistributed large amounts of land to the wealthy around 1540, resulting in a secular building boom, as well as a source of stone. The building of churches had already slowed somewhat before the English Reformation, after a great boom in the previous century, but was brought to a nearly complete stop by the Reformation. Brick was something of an exotic and expensive rarity at the beginning of the Tudor period, but during it became very widely used in many parts of England, even for modest buildings, gradually restricting traditional methods such as wood framed daub and wattle and half-timbering to the lower classes by the end of the period. The real explosion of new architecture co-incided with the "triple whammy" of the Restoration (1660), Bubonic Plague (1665-66) and Great Fire of London (1666). The change is well-illustrated by comparing the Bear and Billet (1664) with Bridge House (1676). They are a dozen years apart in time, but very different in style.
Those who can remember historical dates might recall that the "Tudor" period ended in 1603 with the death of Elizabeth I and was succeeded by the Stuart period (ending in 1714). George I came to the English throne in 1714 and gave his name both to the Georgian era (1714-c.1830/7) and the Georgian style of architecture. In fact, the term "architect" only became popular during the Georgian era. This contrasted with earlier styles, which were primarily disseminated among craftsmen. Architectural developments between Stuart kings Charles I and Charles II were "interupted" by the Civil War and the interregnum of the Protectorate (1649-1660).
Towards the top of the street Bridge House (1676) is one of the few examples in Chester of a Baroque style building. Styles rapidly evolved (see Park House from 1715) into a recognisably Georgian style. The Baroque and related neo-classical forms have not contributed much to the four main streets of Chester, possibly because they usually require a wide frontage. Gamul House would have been half-timbered when Charles I stayed there but around 1671 the medieval front was replaced in brick and the thatched roof also replaced. This was due to an edict from the Chester Assembly following the Great Fire of London. The style (especially with the ovoid upper windows) has Baroque elements, but internally it retains much of the medieval layout. Early bricks were somewhat irregular and so the corners of many early brick buildings are provided with stone quoins to give a clean edge.
By the 1980's Lower Bridge Street was suffering seriously from neglect, delapidation and even dereliction. It has since been largely restored with almost every building or group of them having some pleasant architectural feature.
The Falcon at the top of Lower Bridge Street was the first building in Chester where The Rows were "enclosed": that is, made into an extra room at the front of the building. This was in 1643 during the Civil War siege and was followed by further exclosures which peaked in the first half of the 18th Century. Looking back on Lower Bridge Street it is possible to see that only one building has a surviving length of Row. Enclosure took place elsewhere but not to the extent of what happened in Bridge Street.
Gallery: things to see in Lower Bridge Street (waypoints 36-38)
Non-conformist Matthew Henry is believed (according to the artist A. B Bamford) to have lived at No 1 Whitefriars ("The Old House") during his tenure at Chester (there is no "blue plaque"). Much of his writing was done in a summer house in Bollands Court, which was still standing well into the twentieth century, but has now gone. His chapel was in Trinity Street (see that page for more on Henry) and was demolished in the 1960's. Originally constructed in 1588 and extended in 1658, part of the cellar of "The Old House" is said to incorporate stonework of the original Roman walls.
Whitefriars was originally one of the roads within Roman Chester which ran along the inside of the fortress walls. These roads were used to move troops quickly along the inside of the walls. As Roman Chester is never believed to have come under attack they were probably never actually needed for that purpose. Whitefriars takes its present name from the Carmelite priory (established around 1277) which occupied a site between Commonhall Street, Weaver Street, Whitefriars and Bridge Street.
Upper Bridge Street
Number 55, with a prominent statue of Charles I (cut down to fit the niche) dates from 1889 and is the work of Thomas Edwards. One interpretation is that it is meant as an architectural "joke" or a pointed comment on "mock Tudor", another is that the original occupant, an antique and art dealer, thought that it might attract business.
Despite all the black and white "Tudor" architecture there is little of pre-Georgian building to be seen in Upper Bridge Street. The exceptions are St Micheals's Rectory built in 1659
Gallery: things to see between waypoints 39-39 and 1
Cowper House and crypt
Back at the cross, turn into Watergate Street which has such architectural delights as "God's Providence House", the Leche House and Bishop Lloyd's House. These three buildings each retain some original features but all have been altered over the years. The best preserved is the Leche House which, although it is in use as shop premises is well worth a look.
The first interesting house, "God's Providence House", is famous for the inscription on the Row fascia reading "God's Providence is mine Inheritance", said to be in thanks for deliverance from the plague of 1647-8. While the Civil War siege of Chester had been lifted with the surrender of the City on the 3rd Feb 1646, the effects of famine and other privations were such that in 1647 the plague broke out. From June 22nd until April 20th 1648 over two-thousand died of disease, over a third of the population, and at times all business was suspended. It is worth noting that the house bearing the inscription was built in 1652 (the earlier building having been destroyed in the Civil War), by which time the plague was over. The wording may actually be a family motto.
Leche House has an original undercroft which dates to the late 14th century and is of good quality sandstone ashlar and originally measured 14.6 x 5.8 metres internally. In the late 15th century the house was rebuilt with the upper storeys consisting of a timber framed box of posts carrying roof trusses, tied by beams at their feet and resting on a sill beam placed on the undercroft. In many ways Leche House is one of the easiest buildings to understand in terms of the structure of a typical Rows building. It has a surviving full height hall, a chamber above the Row and some smaller rooms to the rear. There is a passage running through the building from front to rear, and this supports a gallery giving access from the rear stairs to the chamber over the Rows.
Just next to Bishop Lloyd's House is a covered entrance-way which leads to the street to the rear. Just at the end of this alleyway, to the right and over the wall is the base of a Roman pillar down in the bottom of a "hole". The front gable of Bishop Lloyd's House displays an abundance of 17thC carving including the Legs of Man (for the bishopric), three horses heads (for the Lloyd family) and the arm of James I (1603-1625). There are also the biblical scenes and heraldic beasts (including an elephant and castle). Inside, the two undercrofts have walls of red sandstone rubble, with brick barrel vaults added in the 18th century. Leading from the row level to the third storey is a Chinese Chippendale staircase. The larger room on Row +1 level has an ornate 17th-century plaster ceiling and a massive fireplace. The ceiling is almost identical to that at Tudor House in Bridge Street, and is believed to be from the same artisan and to have been made in-situ.
On the north side is the impressive "Georgian" Booth Mansion (1700 - so before George I). Booth wanted his house to be prominent from the High Cross and so the frontage is angled and encroaches into the street, for which Booth was "fined" £10 and charged an annual additional rent of £0.25. The current owners are still required to pay a token £1.00!
Gallery: things to see near waypoint 40
Stanley Palace in Watergate Street was said (by Nikolaus Pevsner) to be Chester's finest Elizabethan house. It was built in 1591 for lawyer Sir Peter Warburton of Grafton, Vice Chancellor of the Cheshire Exchequer and then the city's MP. When Warburton died in 1621, the property was inherited by his (sixth) daughter; Elizabeth, who was married to Sir Thomas Stanley, a kinsman of the earls of Derby (hence it is also known as Derby House). On the death of her husband Elizabeth married Sir Richard Grosvenor of Eaton Hall (his third wife), she died in 1627 at her "Blackfriars home" (probably Stanley Palace) & was buried with the Grosvenors' at Eccleston. Like her first husband Elizabeth's second husband had his share of bad luck: Grosvenor stood surety for the debts of his son-in-law, Peter Daniell, but in 1629 Daniell defaulted on his debts, and for almost ten years Grosvenor was incarcerated in the Fleet Prison.
The building itself has suffered some changes since the late 16th century, however , original parts of the house have survived, e.g. exterior timbers on the ground floor and in the upstairs long gallery. There are some early floorboards in the long gallery. On the ground floor, the ceiling in the Queen Anne Room has the Stanley's Coat of Arms, bearing Three Stags Heads & the Eagle & Child, with the words Sans Changer, 'without changing'. Sir Peter, the second Baronet, who died in 1683 is supposed to have added this room. The "eagle and child" motif in the staircase window is a reference to the story of Sir Thomas Latham (a Stanley ancestor) who had no son by his wife but one by a mistress. To get the child accepted by his wife, Sir Thomas had the infant placed in an eagle's nest where he and his wife just happened to find it.
What we see today is not entirely original as the house has been in part demolished with the south-west wing bring rebuilt early in the 18thC and the north wing built in 1935. Being labelled as the most haunted house in Chester, there have been numerous reports of various phenomena happening over many years.
Back to the Cross
From Stanley Palace it is easy to return to the High Cross by heading back up Watergate Street. By now it should be easy to understand roughly how Chester has developed over the years. The Romans laid out their rectangular fortress with four principal streets within their walls. Very few civilians lived within the fortress. After the central Roman government abandonned Britain the Romano-British maintained what may well have been an ecclesiastical and trade community. The "pagan" Anglo-Saxons migrated to Britain and settled the land from the east, forming a fluctuating border near Chester with the Christian Welsh. The Anglo-Saxons were in turn invaded by the Vikings and Chester was re-fortified by by Æthelflæd as part of the Anglo-Saxon defences, extending the circuit of the walls to provide a refuge for those living in the hinterland. The local "earls" gained significant regional power and Chester was one of the last places to fall after the Norman Conquest. The Normans built Chester Castle as the administrative center of a border province which became wealthy and powerful under the Earls of Chester. The Crown then took control of it and used it as a base for the invasion of Wales and Ireland. The Rows provided a convenient way of maximising the mercantile use of the main street frontage. Civil wars came and went with the local magnates trying to choose the winning side, but it's importance as a port dwindled as the River Dee silted up and ships became progressively larger. Except for the Leadworks, the Industrial Revolution largely bypassed Chester and while the original half-timbered buildings were replaced in neo-Classical stone and Georgian brick much of The Rows were kept. The dredging of the River Dee and the creation of the Canal and Boatyard failed to recover its fortunes but the arrival of the railway at Chester Station and growth as a retail center saved it. The defensive walls became a promenade. It developed a somewhat unique local architecture and many of the the Georgian stuctures were hidden behind Victorian "mock Tudor" facades of variable quality.
Sources and Links
Opening Hours and Tour Times:
- St Peter:
- Town Hall:
- St John's:
- Chester Castle:
- Military Museum:
- Medical Museum;
- Grosvenor Museum:
- Sick to Death:
- Roman Experience:
- Bishop Lloyds Palace: (not very clear)
- Stanley Palace: (not very clear)
Other useful pages
Chester in specific historical periods
- Before The Romans;
- Roman Chester: see also Amphitheatre;
- Dark Ages: see also Werburgh, Ecgbert, Vikings, Æthelflæd, Plegmund, Farndon, Battle of Brunanburh and Battle of Chester;
- Medieval Chester: see also Chester Castle, Cathedral, St Johns;
- Tudor Chester;
- Stuart Chester and Civil War;
- Georgian Chester;
- Industrial Revolution (see also Canalside);
- Victorian Chester;