Canalside

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A panorama showing Tarvin Bridge Lock and the rather impressive Lock-Keepers house. The white building further down the canal was once a flour, and later a feldspar mill. Ample parking can be found just beyond the bridge in the distance and one can either head off towards Chester from there or walk up to Tarvin Lock and then back.

This is walking guide to the canal. For a history of the canal see Canal and Boatyard. From Boughton to Mollington, the Chester Canal worms its way through the centre of Chester, forming a moat for the walls between Cow Lane Bridge and the Watertower. Overall, the canal is 19.5 miles long, has 17 locks and runs from the River Dee to Nantwich. It is now part of the Shropshire Union Main Line. The Tow-path is also part of the Mercian Way a 230 miles (370 km) long cycle path that runs from Salisbury in Wiltshire to Chester. For a zoomable, scrollable, map, click on the "walking man" icon to the right.

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Walking the canal - points of interest

This is a short walk down the Chester Canal from "Tarvin Bridge Lock" to the connection with the River Dee. The Chester Canal was instigated in 1772 and completed in 1779 to link the River Dee with Nantwich. Opposition from the owners of the Trent & Mersey Canal to a junction with their waterway at Middlewich meant that the owners of the Chester Canal had to settle for Nantwich as the terminus for their venture but, because of a lack of funds, even that plan could not initially be achieved and Beeston became the initial terminus of the Canal with the first traffic being carried in 1775. This canal was designed to carry 14 foot wide Mersey Flats, so the canal and bridges are wide enough for this. The original cost of the canal was £71,000 in 1779 money. Even after the link to Nantwich was completed in 1779, Beeston was again the end of the canal for a considerable period at the end of the 18th century, since the lock just to the east had collapsed and defied all attempts to repair it.

In 1790-1805 the Ellesmere Canal (Wirral Line) connected Chester with the River Mersey and trade greatly increased; growing further in 1835 when the canals were connected by the Birmingham & Liverpool Junction Canal and the Middlewich Branch Canal to the industrial Midlands and the Staffordshire Potteries. In 1846 the canals became part of the Shropshire Union Canal, which in turn came under the control of the London & North Western Railway (L&NWR) Company in 1846/7.

Map: Tarvin Bridge Lock to Chemistry Lock

The section of the tow-path between Tarvin Bridge Lock and Chemistry Lock. As well as the marked altar find a further Roman altar standing almost four feet high was discovered by a gardener in 1821. The altar marked the position of the well head for the springs supplying Roman Chester and was dedicated to the "Nymphs and fountains of the twentieth legion (Valeria Vitrix)". Yet another altar (RIB 447) was discovered nearby in 1849 and is now in the Grosvenor Museum. A "pig" of Roman lead cast in AD 74 was also discovered nearby at Tarvin Bridge, in 1838, and is thought to have been intended to be used for lead water pipes or cistern lining.

Tarvin Bridge Lock

There is plentiful parking at the shopping complex at Tarvin Bridge where the Roman "Watling Street" crosses the canal. There are steps down to the tow-path by the bridge. The tow-path is prone to flooding with an inch or two of water under the bridge, especially when a boat passes, so suitable footwear is advised. The Lock-Keepers "cottage" at Tarvin Bridge Lock is a substantial building and now a private residence which has been very well restored. Just a little further on beyond the lock is a former Toll House - an unusual survival of such a building, interestingly not original to the building of the canal. Some writers describe this as a building for use by a "Lengthsman" - a worker responsible for the maintenance of the canal, but this is almost certainly a toll-house given the large windows. One basis on which tolls were collected was the use of water as boats moved through the locks. In order to save water, and hence money, boats would frequently travel in pairs as the canal locks are broad enough for two boats to fit in the lock chamber at once. Examples of such pairings can be found on the page relating to the supposed "murder" of Charles Moston which took place further up the canal beyond Christleton. The canal lock itself is c.1774 by Samuel Weston for Chester Canal Company, with later repairs. It is constructed of orange and blue brick in English bond with stone quoins, copings and piers. It has a pair of wooden gates to the west and modern steel gates to the east. The "by-wash" of the lock can be heard on the side of the tow-path away from the canal, where it runs in an almost concealed gutter. The by-washes of the locks on the Chester canal take many different forms, but all have the purpose of allowing water to pass the locks. Water is constantly fed into the canal to maintain the level when locks are used and against other losses

Heading towards Chester from the lock one soon passes a three-storey white building gable-end on across from the tow-path, with an obvious mooring-ring set in its canal-facing wall. This is marked on older maps as a "corn mill" and is the first of several former corn mills to be encountered along the canal. It later worked as a feldspar mill (the mineral feldspar was used in glass and tile making) and the hoist-post can still be seen above the upper window on the gable-end. The canal greatly reduced the cost of transporting corn and other goods. The 20-mile journey from Chester to Nantwich by road took 11 hours, while the canal trip took eight hours and reduced the cost of transport to 15 pence for every pound of the road-transport cost. As a horse could draw 20 tons on the canal, far fewer horses would be required to transport the same quantity of goods by canal as opposed to overland. In fact, one of the arguments in favour of the canal (Chester Courant, October 29th, 1771) was that while the canal would use-up a certain quantity of land, the increased efficiency of transport (25 horses on the water doing the work of 800 on the land) would mean that less land would be needed to grow horse-fodder and there would be more land freed-up by the construction of the canal than was consumed by the digging of it. "Old Curmudgeons" still argued that "much good land would be spoiled" by the construction of the canal.

At Tarvin Bridge the canal crosses the original border of the City of Chester by the Bridge Inn (built 1899). The Bridge Inn made national headlines in 2012 when an entire bay of the frontage was demolished from ground to roof level by a car crash. After the pub the tow-path is bordered by some streets of neat, brick-built, 19th Century terraced housing - Churton Street and Churton Road.

A panorama showing the view towards Chester along the canal towpath from "Chemistry Lock". Watching the lock being operated is quite fun. The chamber of the lock can be closed off by gates. These come together at an angle pointing uphill (said to be the invention of Leonardo daVinci) so that the gates are held shut by water pressure and both cannot open at once. A balance beam projects from the landward side of the gate over the towpath to provide leverage to open and close the gate, and balance the (non-floating) weight of the gate to allow the gate to swing more freely. The upper gate is as tall as the canal is deep, plus a little more for the balance beam, winding mechanism, etc.; the lower gate's height equals the upper gate plus the lock's rise. A paddle is a valve which alows the lock to be filled and emptied. A gate paddle simply covers a hole in the lower part of a gate; a more sophisticated ground paddle blocks an underground culvert. The white post is a snubbing post, used to stop a horse drawn boat as it enters the lock - otherwise a fully laden boat could smash through the lock gates.

Chemistry Lock to the Steam Mill

Chemistry Lock in Boughton was built c1773 by Samuel Weston (active 1768-1804) for the Chester Canal Company and named after the former chemical factory which stood nearby which, acording to some accounts, produced naphtha. Other sources have the factory producing materials for the leather tanning industry such as "gallic acid" or "tannic acid" from oak-galls or "oak-apples". A Thomas Jones and a Robert Lewis Jones are both recorded as having operated factories nearby at the start of the 19thC: these were located on the south side of the canal just a few feer upstream of Chemistry Lock and could be reached from Tarvin Road by the now (almost) vanished "Chemistry Lane".

Chemistry Lock has formerly been named "Spitalfields Lock" after the leper hospital of St Giles which was founded nearby before 1181 and did not survive the Civil War - in July 1643 the Chester garrison set fire to the hospital barns and demolished "the old chapel of Spital Boughton with the stone barn next to it". Across from the towpath the lock cottage is listed and dates from around 1800. The sluiceway for the by-wash of Chemistry Lock, runs in a circular-section culvert under the cottage and the detached privy, across the small yard. The privy, now conventionally drained, was designed to discharge into the sluiceway beneath, as if a monastic "rere-dorter". Hopefully, the conversion was made before the establishment of the City Baths in 1849 as the water for those baths was drawn from the canal "downstream" of here.

Samuel Weston is believed to have come from Cheshire, possibly near Runcorn. He was appointed engineer on the Chester Canal in 1772 after previous experience as a "staff-holder and leveller" for James Brindley and later as a canal contractor. He worked on the survey of the Chester Canal in 1769, which failed to get parliamentary sanction. When a new canal scheme was proposed in March 1770, Weston was appointed as surveyor of a canal from Boughton to Middlewich at 10/6 a day (52.5p). That canal would have joined the River Dee near Barrel Well Hill, i.e. above the weir at the Old Dee Bridge and was expected to have cost (according to Weston's estimate) £32,395. In September 1770 plans were changed so that the canal would circle around the north of the city and join the Dee at the bend on the New Cut, where a series of sluices drained land recovered by from the Dee Estuary. This plan also failed to get approval. The third attempt, with a different route between Tilsone and Wardle and a branch to Nantwich was successful and Weston was appointed engineer at £20 a year, with his son as clerk. He only stayed with the Chester Canal Company for a few years before being paid off in January 1774 and moving on to canal work in the south of England on the Oxford Canal. His son also became a noted canal engineer both in England and in America.

Map: Chemistry Lock to Hoole Lock Bridge

The section of the tow-path between Chemistry Lock and Hoole Lock Bridge. Thw map on the right of the pair, like that of the other paired maps on this page, is taken from "open street map" and follows their licence terms. The map on the right is an OS 6-inch series map from about 1900. The scale of the maps is such that each map shows a patch of ground about 500 metres across. The narrow road heading northward from the "T" of Tarvin Road in the older map is the now vanished "Chemistry Lane".

Heading towards Chester there are some small terraced canalside cottages on the opposite bank which sit remarkably low on the waterline. These cottages are unusual in that they face the canal - normally they would have their back to it. The fact that they face the canal may be taken to mean that they were used by the families of boatmen. Canal boatmen's families originally lived ashore, and only from the 1830s (as canals started to suffer competition from the burgeoning railway system), families (especially those of independent single boat owner/skippers) began to live on board, partly because they could no longer afford rents, partly to provide extra hands to work the boats harder, faster and further and partly to keep families together. However, a plaque on the buildings indicates they were only built in 1895 by the Chester Cottage Improvement Company, formed in 1892 and in which the duke of Westminster took a leading role. The more substantial terrace which follows dates from 1900-1901 and may be "homes for hero's" built at the time of the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

A Canalside Gallery: Chemistry Lock to The "Steam Mill"

You can click on any image to enlarge it.

On the towpath side the 1853 Water-Tower and attached beam-engine house of the waterworks at Boughton looms overhead. It was designed by J. F. La Trobe Bateman, a noted water supply engineer and then consultant engineer to the Chester Waterwork Company. Springs at Boughton have provided Chester's Water Supply since the founding of Roman Chester and the path of the watercourse which the springs fed, in part known as Flookersbrook once defined the northern border of Chester. The water tower with attached engine house and boiler house forms the most prominent component of the former Tower Works, a river abstraction and water treatment works built for the Chester Waterworks Company in 1851-3, powered by a Cornish beam engine manufactured at Adam Woodward's Queens Foundry, Manchester. The site incorporated 3 sand filters and a brick-vaulted reservoir. The water tower was heightened from 70 to 84 feet in 1884 by jacking up the 268,000 gallon capacity tank and adding the upper courses of brickwork. In 1913, a diesel engine house was added to the complex. Other additions included a Davey horizontal steam engine, site offices and laboratory. In recent years the original roof of the Tower was replaced by a lightweight steel roof structure.

A panorama showing Hoole Lane Lock and the Mission Church (said to be by John Douglas(1900)), with the Shot-Tower of the Leadworks visible in the distance.

Hoole Lane Lock number 40 (built c.1773 by Samuel Weston) is next to the former Canal Church and Anglican Mission Chapel (St Paul's) built in an "Arts and Crafts" style (some suggest by John Douglas) and now converted to residential use. A part of the fence between the towpath and the road near the lock is actually made of recycled railway line.

Map: Hoole Lock Bridge to City Road Bridge

The "Schools" marked on the next map just to the south of the canal were founded in 1851 and were later known as the Chester Ragged and Industrial Schools for Boys and Girls. The land on which the Boughton school was built was donated by the Canal Company. The ragged schools were free in order to attract the poorest children. They were open in the evenings and on Sunday from 2-4pm for the benefit of those who could not attend during the day. In 1853, the feeding of the most destitute children was begun. In 1855 industrial training was introduced. Dormitories were opened in 1858. In 1863 the Boughton school was certified as an Industrial School. Thereafter, magistrates could send children there instead of to prison. The government paid for their upkeep. These schools were inspected by the Home Office not the Board of Education. The Ragged School Society then entered into negotiations, culminating in 1911, with the transfer to the City and County Councils jointly, of the Industrial School site and premises, together with the Society's remaining assets, with a view to them being used as a place of detention under the Children's Act of 1908 or for such other uses as the Councils might subsequently decide. The site of the school now houses a 1960's health center.

The section of the tow-path between Hoole Lock Bridge and City Road Bridge has the best surviving buildings from the Industrial Revolution in Chester.

After Hoole Lane bridge the canal is flanked by a modern housing development (Wharton Court) which echos the architecture of the warehouses which once lined this section of canal. The wooden sculpture "Waves of Wood" (2008) can be seen over the hedges - it is inspired by canalboat tillers. On 17 July 2009 sixteen flats at Wharton Court were destroyed following an explosion on the first floor: more than thirty firefighters from Chester Fire Station tackled the resulting fire. Waitrose's £13m store has a towpath frontage and was opened in November 2014: the development also included a "new" footbridge over the Shropshire Union Canal.

Opposite the towpath the landscape is dominated by the 168 foot "shot-tower" of the Leadworks, and on the towpath side by the "Steam Mill". The shot-tower, which dates from around 1800, is the only remaining historic shot-tower in Britain and supplied shot for British muskets during the Napoleonic Wars. William Watts of Bristol (originally listed in his tax returns as a plumber) took out a patent (number 1347, filed 10th December 1782, granted on March 28th, 1783) for his new technique for making lead shot, a process:

The Leadworks in 2014, awaiting redevelopment.
  • "for making smallshot perfectly globular in form and without dimples, notches and imperfections which other shot hereto manufactured usually have on their surface".

According to a legend (of which there are many versions), William Watts, while watching the rain fall, possibly in a dream, noticed that the raindrops formed perfect spheres as they fell. Watt's patented technique, was to allow molten lead, to which the deadly poison arsenic had been added, to be poured from the top of a tower, passing through a griddle to separate it into pellets before landing in a wooden vat of water below. During the fall, the pellets became spherical, and the various sizes obtained could be graded using sieves. Whatever, the truth, Watts' shot was very regular and smooth, unlike the lead shot produced by a moulding process, which had a ridge where the mould parted. This led King George II to remark of it:

The "Steam Mill" with the "Miln" Livery, probably about 1914. Note the canalside cottages to the left. The actual Steam Mill is the older and lower building to the right of the "Miln" building.
  • "I wish all the men in my army were so regular like this shot"

Related patents include that of Henry Mortlock Oumanney, of the City of Chester, Esquire, for an invention being — "An improvement in the manufacture of shot, shells, hollow shot, and other projectiles". Henry Mortlock Oumanney went off to Australia in the 1830s as a young surveyor and became the first European to discover the Mortlock River during an expedition in 1835.

The Leadworks was fortunate that when the railway came to Chester in the 1840's, it passed very close by, so that sidings could be constructed for loading lead and lead products directly onto wagons. The shot-tower was in use until 1986 and the Leadworks as a whole closed in 2001 when production was moved to Sealand Road. The move was in part brought about by environmental concerns about the toxicity of lead. Some theorists have even put forward a convincing case that the increasing crime wave of the 20th Century was brought about by the use of tetraethyl lead in petrol and the decline in crime over the last decade of the 20th century was brought about by the removal of lead from petrol and paints.

From 1841 to 1871 Chester enjoyed thirty economic boom years. The main evidence for this is the extent of migration to the city and population growth, but prosperity was also reflected in a large rise in the number of businesses and in the amount of rebuilding in the city centre. The arrival of the railways reasserted Chester's importance for transport and consolidated its function as a service centre for the region. A limited growth in manufacturing further diversified the economy. In choosing their route through the City, and given the main imperative of creating efficient communication with Ireland through the new port of Holyhead, the railway avoided the City Centre, locating Chester Station in a then outlying area of marshy land known as Flookersbrook after the stream that ran through it. The land was previously only occupied only by market gardens and a single row of cottages.

The "Duck-Lady" feeding ducks at Hoole Lane Lock.

The prominently marked "Steam Mill" beside the Canal dates from 1834 and was built partly over and partly alongside the original mill, which was the first steam-driven commercial flour mill using Boulton and Watt’s rotative engine in 1786 and predates the often-quoted Albion Flour Mills in London by three months - while work at the Albion Mill had started earlier, the Chester engine was the first to be completed. The Albion Mill in London was later gutted by fire, but the shell of the building was the inspiration for William Blake‘s "dark satanic mills". The interior of the Chester mill was notable for a blown-air seed-transport system upward, and a gravity system downward, which were removed on conversion of the warehouse to offices.

Often missed are the Mill Offices in cobbled Steam Mill Street, a very short distance from the canal. This baroque 1897 building has a central clock in an ornate stone surround (dated 1897). The third part of the mill complex is the surviving part of the original Steam Mill from c1785 whose boilerhouse and engine house have since been demolished. The middle wing facing Steam Mill Street stands in the position of the Steam Mill shown on Weston's map of Chester dated 1789 (engraved by Hunter) and incorporates what may be original cast-iron columns and beams; the 4-storey north wing facing the Chester Canal is probably early C19; the external features of the middle and south wings are probably 1840s. The square internal chimney below roof level survives at the junction of the middle and south wings.

Writing in the 1830's, Hemingway listed the area around Steam Mill Street with his usual snobbishness:

  • "the environs of Frodsham Street, Love Street, Steam Mill Street, Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Commonhall Street, Cuppin Street, Pepper Street, and Lower Bridge Street were all of inferior grade"

He is a little more specific about Steam Mill Street being "not of the most reputable description":

  • "..an opening leading to the canal in the olden time designated Horn lane but now called Steam Mill Street. It is said to have received the former appellation from one or both of its boundary banks having been formed of the hoofs and horns of cattle brought there from the various tanneries with which the neighbourhood abounded; its latter cognomen is derived from a corn mill at the top of the street occupied by the Messrs Frost's who have built on the opposite side of the way an extensive warehouse with which the mill is connected by a stage thrown across from the respective upper stories in each building. In the description of the city in the fourteenth century this was called Chester lane and by Webb somewhat more than two hundred years ago we have it named Starre lane. The houses in this street are in general small and paltry and the neighbourhood not of the most reputable description. A small chapel has lately been erected here used as a place of worship by the Primitive Methodists more generally known by the appellation of Ranters."

Hughes also notes how this was a poor part of town:

  • "Returning to the main street we soon arrive through poverty hunger and dirt at Hoole Lane the corner of which is now embellished with a neat little structure known as the Chester Ragged Schools for the use of those tattered little specimens of humanity ever found about the streets of all populous towns."

A Canalside Gallery: The "Steam Mill" to Cow Lane Bridge

The stretch of canal opposite Wharton Court is often home to several pairs of swans, who build their chaotic nests in the reeds on the far bank, as well as a multitude of ducks who will head fearlessly towards anyone loitering on the canal bank in the hope of a slice of bread. In 2015 there was controversy over a proposed new by-law in Chester when Cheshire West and Chester Council wanted to make it ‘illegal’ for anyone to feed waterfowl on the Shropshire Union Canal. A proposed "Public Space Protection Order", aimed at tacking the City's "Pidgeon Problem" would make it a breach of the law "to feed any bird" in the City. This wonderfully broadly drafted PSPO also makes it an offence to "lie down on the ground" in Chester. As of 2015 it became unlikely that the law would actually ban feeding ducks when Chester's then new MP Chris Matheson asked "Are they going to go after me and my two girls when we feed the birds along the canal?"

Map: City Road Bridge to Cow Lane Bridge

The section of the tow-path between City Road and Cow Lane Bridge. The major changes between the old and new maps were wrought by the construction of the Inner Ring Road and the replacement of older housing.

Harkers Arms to Cow Lane Bridge

A relic of Mowle & Co., on the canal bridge on City Road.

The Old Harkers Arms was a Victorian factory before it was converted into a pub in the 1990's. It takes its name from the fact at one time it had been a canal-boat chandlers cum rope and twine factory run by a Mr Harker. It has had other uses: between 1864 and 1866 William Collinson started a large new factory here housing 'vast amounts of machinery' and employing 250 hands who turned out 2,000-3,000 pairs of boots a week. Collinson did not, however, stay in manufacturing. Around 1875 the factory was taken over by Alfred Bostock & Co., a Stafford shoe firm, but by 1892 Bostocks had left and the premises were occupied by Mr Harker the rope and twine manufacturer.

Harker's City Road window display of string and twine.

The adjacent City Road bridge (1863) has ironwork which was produced at the Egerton Iron and Brass Foundry, which was operated by James Mowle & Co. in 1871 and Mowle and Meacock by 1892. The foundry was located between Crewe Street and Albert Street, but had been demolished by 1910 when Egerton Street school was built on the site. Mowle and Co appear to have partly specialised in lead-manufacturing equipment (they were quite close to the Leadworks) as in 1880 they provided a horizontal single-cylinder steam engine driving a lead rolling mill at Sheldon, Bush and Patent Shot Co, Bristol.

A (very) small park by the canal close to the former site was opened in May 2006. The park contains a sculpture in stainless steel and blue glass which commemorates Chester's lead industry; 'Spheres of Reflection' by CW&C Landscape Architect Edd Snell was inspired by lead drops impacting on the surface of water.

"Union Bridge" was construced by Thomas Lunt (1770-1851), born in Tattenhall, who was a Quaker, and developer of Chester in the early 19th Century. Although the land between the south bank of the canal and the gardens to the north of Foregate Street was still fields in the 1770s, development started there before 1800. Queen Street was the first to be built up, by John Chamberlaine and Roger Rogerson after 1778, but the earliest planned development was Bold Square, built c. 1814 by Thomas Lunt, a foundry owner and builder, and comprising two terraces of small houses facing each other across a strip of garden. Lunt erected Union Bridge across the canal at his own expense and on the north bank built much of Egerton Street (c. 1820), which included a terrace on the west side and five pairs of slightly larger semidetached houses on the east. South of the bridge, Seller Street was developed in 1818-19 by the brewery owner Alderman William Seller. Lunt built both the Commercial Hall and the Union Hall, trading premises on either side of Foregate Street. Lunt also turns up with some practical suggestions in the "Mechanics Magazine" of 1835 (where he suggests the "firewall" for steam vessels):

  • Steam boat Explosions - Mr Thomas Lunt of Chester suggests that the danger arising from explosions on board of steam vessels might be very materially diminished by the formation of a permanent iron partition between the engine house and the passengers cabins. The hint seems worthy of consideration - Liverpool Mercury August 21 1835
Lunt's "Union Bridge" over the canal between Seller and Egerton Streets. It has worn rope-marks in the stonework where the tow-path passes beneath it. The Town House fronting onto the canal was built 1829-33.

Lunt's "Union Bridge" connects Seller Street with Egerton Street. The Egerton's were no friends of the Chester Canal. The original plan for the Chester Canal was for a canal linking the south Cheshire town of Middlewich on the Trent and Mersey Canal with the River Dee at Chester, with a branch to Nantwich, providing a route for produce (including salt) from Nantwich to reach Chester and, beyond it, the sea via the Dee Navigation of 1737. However there were difficulties with the Trent and Mersey Canal Company, and its owner the Duke of Bridgewater (Francis Egerton), who were jealous of their own lucrative traffic and put up a prolonged and robust opposition to any link with the proposed Chester Canal. The overall canal project was seriously undermined by a requirement that the new canal should end at least 100 yards away from the Trent and Mersey Canal at Middlewich, requiring overland portage rather than allowing for a functional junction. As a result, the Middlewich branch of the Chester Canal was not begun, and the branch to Nantwich became the course of the final section of the initial Chester Canal. When the canal between Chester and Nantwich opened in 1779, it was a dead end and attracted little traffic other than a moderately successful and fast passenger trade, leading to financial disaster for its backers who at one stage saw the share price in the canal company fall to 1% of the initial value.

The surviving (1838) frontage of the Independent Church in Queen Street, in 2015. To get to it from the canal tow-path requires a bit of a detour

Further steam mills along this stretch of canal included the Milton Street ("Wiseman's Cestrian Corn") Mill, built in the 1830's, later a furniture warehouse and then the "Mill Hotel" since 1987. The building retains many of the original iron stanchions employed in its construction. For many years the Mill Hotel has run a floating restaurant on a converted barge - the "L'Eau-T Cuisine". This is wider than a conventional narrowboat and is a "push me pull you" with a rudder at both ends, so it can go back and forth on the canal without turning. The glass bridge crossing the canal was built in 1990. The was the site of a Roman cement mill.

Queen Street does not appear on the Lavaux Map of 1745, but does appear on Mutlow_and_StockdaIes_Map of 1795. The evidence points to Queen Street having been constructed fairly rapidly around 1777, with much development by two individuals in particular: John Chamberlaine and Roger Rogerson. The development of the street was connected with the development of the canal which was announced in 1771 and of which the first section was opened in 1775. The undeveloped land upon which the street stands was in part the old parade ground of Roman Chester and later the "Jousting Croft" and an area for archery practice. Fletcher, writing in 1791 says of it:

  • "Queen street has been built within these few years its situation is pleasant and airy in it is a large well-built chapel - the place of worship of a sect of Independents, also a reputable academy for the education of youth, kept by Mrs Sellers."

Hemingway writes of the end of Queen Street adjoining the canal:

  • "The further end of this street has several excellent buildings two or three of which with a commodious building behind was long celebrated as an excellent classical seminary for youth under the direction of Mr Stolterfoth who still occupies one of those dwellings the present respectable proprietor of this establishment who has for many years conducted it is Mr Wood."

Queen Street was built at the time of a hope of economic recovery in Chester which was not to happen. Between 1762 and 1840 key elements of Chester's traditional economy withered and finally died, and the city struggled to find new roles. Previously important manufacturing trades vanished and were replaced only in part by new industries. From the 1770s city development was especially concentrated north of Foregate Street, beginning with Queen Street and expanding later to include Bold Square and Seller and Egerton Streets before 1820.

John McGahey's 1855 "balloon view" showing the area around Cow Lane Bridge. The Cattle Market is the area of pens to the right. The king-post of the crane at the woodyard just to the left of the bridge can still be seen today. Queen Street, in the lower left corner has since been cut in two. The frontage of the Queen Street "Independent Chapel" (1777) can also still be seem today.

While imagining himself at the end of Queen Street, by the canal, Hemingway writes:

  • "Whatever flourishing accounts our old historians may have given us of the greatness and extent of the city yet contrasting the graphic representation just mentioned with a present actual view. I am led to this conclusion that the buildings and population have been more than doubled since the middle of the seventeenth century. Perhaps the point we have just been surveying namely the upper end of Queen street is one of the most advantageous from which to contemplate this fact. At the period mentioned the site of the present Brook street and what is called New Town which now contains probably not less than five hundred dwellings was an entirely open country with hardly a human habitation to give diversity to the prospect Looking westward to Cow lane and eastward to Boughton those thickly intersecting streets running from Foregate street to the Canal in all this intermediate space which is upwards of half a mile had no existence if we except a few inconsiderable houses which might probably be standing in Horn lane now called Steam mill street though even that is doubtful."
The canal from Cow Lane Bridge in the early 1900's, showing the short branch crossed by a arch under the tow-path.

The port of Chester declined so drastically that by 1840 Chester's wharves were of little importance, and the city also suffered problems with its road and canal traffic. It was only the coming of the railways and the building of Chester Station at the end of this period that boom returned (see: Industrial Revolution). Queen Street used to extend northwards fron Foregate Street through to the canal but was severed by the construction of a service-yard during the Tesco development. Queen Street played a significant part in the Georgian and Victorian development of religion in Chester. The only remnants of which are the surviving facades of the Independent Chapel and its associated Lecture Hall. Both the Independent Chapal and the Catholic St Werburgh's had their own graveyards, now lost under modern development. Development of the industries along the canal corridor was supported by dense terraced Victorian housing for industrial workers. Competition between the various religious denominations for the souls of these workers was fierce. There was a floating "Bethel Chapel" on the canal here:

  • "That the boat people appreciate the effort made for their welfare is quite evident from the fact that when they come back to Chester they almost invariably come to the Bethel of their own accord. On the Sunday previous to the day on which I am writing, fifty seven people came to the evening service, not one of whom had been solicited to attend. Other indications from time to time appear of the interest felt by many of the people themselves in the services. Conversations have been overheard which give the key to the character and condition of the speakers, and indicate how they look upon the work we are doing. “How should we know anything”, said a man, the other day, to a companion after the evening service, “when we never go to any place to hear it – no chapel, nor anywhere else. We know nothing but eating and drinking, and cursing and swearing, and steering and driving”"
The canal from Cow Lane Bridge in 2016. The white building can be seen in the 1900's photo.

Approaching Cow Lane bridge, the huge and complex brick building opposite the towpath was originally Chester’s first 1997-seat "super cinema", the Gaumont Palace, Brook Street, which opened on the 2nd March 1931. The cinema finally closed on the 9th December 1961 and is now a "Mecca" Bingo Club.

On the towpath side, John McGaheys "balloon" view of Chester from 1855 shows a large crane. The black-painted "king-post" of this crane is still visible today just beore Cow Lane bridge (Nr 123E). Just before this crane was a small bridge that is shown both in the McGahey "Balloon View" and in early photographs, which crossed a very short branch of the canal belonging, it would appear, to the "Shropshire Union Railway and Canal Company". McGahey, who lived quite nearby shows a factory of some kind near the end of the short branch, with thick, black smoke belching from its tall chimney-stack. The only other places in McGahey's view which produce such copious amounts of smoke are the gasworks in Cuppin Street and the gasworks by the River Dee.

There is a winding hole by Cow Lane Bridge. Cow Lane gets its name from its being the route to the nearby cattle market which was located at "Gorse-stacks". For centuries, livestock were driven in from the surrounding countryside to be sold at Northgate Street and later, after the inhabitants of Northgate Street complained about the noise and smell in the 19thC, just here. The cattle market remained an active and vibrant part of the Newtown area until it was demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road in the 1960s. From the latter half of the century the Gorse Stacks area has changed significantly: major land-uses have disappeared, radial routes have been bisected and degraded by the inner ring road and the fine-grain street pattern has been replaced by large floorplate uses and open sites. Fortunately the canal towpath is shielded from most views of this modern "improvement".

A panorama showing the "winding hole" (a turning place for canal boats) at Cow Lane Bridge and the backside of the "Cinema" building. "Gorse Stacks", where the green containers are, took its name from being a place where gorse was once dried as firewood for the City bakers. At the time this photograph was taken work was underway to construct a new bus station.

Earlier views of this part of Chester might be judged from Joseph Hemingway’s 1829 “Perambulation of Chester” in which he describes Brook Street as being "respectable" in appearance (as compared to "mean and miserable" Frodsham street):

One of John McGahey's preparatory sketches for his "balloon view of Chester" shows the course of the canal from Lunt's Bridge (bottom) to the River Dee (top).
  • "The next opening presented by Foregate street is on the north side named Frodsham street formerly called Cow lane and still more remotely Coole's lane It is one of the principal entrances into the city from Manchester Warrington and Frodsham the houses are generally of the meanest description the street narrow filthy and iuconvenient and but ill accords with the more distant approach at the beautiful hamlet of Flookersbrook and the respectable appearance of Brook street. This street has excellent capabilities of being widened and improved there being abundance of vacant ground behind particularly on the east side where the houses are most miserable but as the property has a great number of owners who are generally in humble circumstances there is no immediate prospect of any material improvement here."

This stretch of canal is a popular place for boats to moor, but its also a popular route for people staggering home after a night on the booze, so unfortunately there have been plenty of cases of things like watering cans and planters "going missing" from narrowboats overnight. If you are going to moor here overnight its best not to have anything "loose" on the roof.

Cow Lane Bridge to Northgate

An older version of Cow Lane Bridge with the Cathedral in the background.

The length of SS Great Eastern was marked out on the City Walls by William Haswell, a master mason, commissioned by a Mr Musgrave, who owned a wood-yard next to Cow Lane Bridge - possibly the one shown in McGahey's "balloon" view. The 692 feet is the distance from the marking to the Phoenix Tower, now visible ahead. That is quite a large ship, about twice as long as the Cathedral (which you can also see from this point) and over five time the height of the Cathedral tower. SS Great Eastern was an iron sailing steam ship designed by Isambard Kingdom Brunel, and built by J. Scott Russell & Co. at Millwall on the River Thames, London. She was by far the largest ship ever built at the time of her 1858 launch, and had the capacity to carry 4,000 passengers from England to Australia without refuelling. Brunel knew her affectionately as the "Great Babe". He died in 1859 shortly after her ill-fated maiden voyage, during which she was damaged by an explosion. After repairs, she plied for several years as a passenger liner between Britain and North America before being converted to a cable-laying ship and laying the first lasting transatlantic telegraph cable in 1866. Finishing her life as a floating music hall and advertising hoarding (for the famous department store Lewis's) in Liverpool, she was broken up in 1889. Her length of 692 feet (211 m) was only surpassed in 1899 by the 705-foot (215 m) 17,274-gross-ton RMS Oceanic, ten years after the Great Eastern had been scrapped.

Musgrave's woodyard seems to have had its own short branch of the canal for loading and unloading, although all that remains of this today is a short stretch of brickwork that would have formed the abutment of the bridge carrying the tow-path over this branch.

In icy weather the next section of the tow-path beneath the Northgate can be treacherous (it is often muddy too), so an alternative route is to get up onto the City Walls by the Falconry Center as shown in the map below and walk along the walls to Morgan's Mount. Just after the Mount, by the Ring Road bridge, it is possible to get back down to the canal tow-path at the Northgate Staircase locks. To get onto the walls, head up through the "King Charles Park" and use the flight of wooden steps to reach the walls walkway. The canal can be seen below the walls by looking over the parapet.

The "Phoenix Tower" stands almost on the site of a corner tower of the original layout of Roman Chester. 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, and repaired thereafter. 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. What Charles was probably watching was the confused later stages of the battle when retreating Royalist forces were attempting to get back into Chester. There the retreating Royalist cavalry choked up the streets, allowing the Parliamentarian musketeers to fire into the confused mass of horsemen and leading to a rout.

After the Phoenix Tower it becomes plain that the canal is entering a deep cutting. Looking at the Braun and Hogenberg map (from 1581), we see something extending along the north wall of the city and down the east wall towards the Eastgate. Is this a road or possibly a ditch? Nowadays the canal, sitting in its rather deep cutting, follows the line of whatever this is along the north wall. There was a Roman ditch (fosse) before the wall but the depth of the cutting along the north wall seems excessive. However Simpson's "Walls of Chester" does seem to suggest that very little extra work was needed for the construction of the canal cutting:

  • "The contractor for the canal when making his excavations found that he was exactly on the line of the old Roman fosse, and that, instead of excavating solid rock, he had only to clear out the accumulated earth and rubbish: by this economy he was enabled to make a considerable fortune."

The above version suggests that hardly any actual rock needed to be cut. However, maybe it is just an "urban legend", although it seems that at one time the plans were for a tunnel to be used for this section of the canal and these were changed when work began. This was the first section of the Chester Canal to be constructed (1774) and its opening was reported in the Chester Courant as something of a gala occasion:

  • "Near Cow Lane Bridge was launched a large barge, called Egerton, 70 feet long, 14 feet wide and 70 tons burthen. Immediately after, she proceeded, full of people with french horns etc playing on board, under the walls of the city, along by the Phoenix Tower, thro' the rock that has been cut open at the Northgate, to the dam at the end of the canal now finished, being about 200 yards to the westwards of Northgate, where several cannon were fired. From thence she was conducted thro' six bridges and five locks now erected on the Christleton quarry; and afterwards was re-conducted to Cow Lane Bridge".

A Canalside Gallery: Cow Lane Bridge to the Northgate

The tow-path hereabouts hugs the steep cliff below the City Walls. As it turns around the corner below the tower it is possible to see some some rope groves worn in the rock from the taut towing lines of boats. Similar marks can be seen at several places along the tow-path. Other marks along the cutting walls may be "pudlocks" ("put-logs") to support wooden scaffolding when the cutting was being dug, or they may be the support holes for some form of lean-to shelter. In his novel "The Ambassadors" (1903), Henry James wrote of Chester as "the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands" and seems to have spent some time wandering the City Walls. In his essay "An Observant American In England", James writes of his 1872 visit to Chester how:

  • "A shaded mall wanders at the foot of the rampart; beside this passes a narrow canal, with locks and barges and burly watermen in smocks and breeches.."

Map: Cow Lane Bridge to Morgan's Mount

The section of the tow-path between Cow Lane Bridge and Morgan's Mount. In icy weather the section of the tow-path beneath the Northgate can be treacherous (it is often muddy too), so an alternative route is to get up onto the City Walls by the Falconry Center as shown and walk along the walls to Morgan's Mount. Just after the Mount, by the Ring Road bridge, it is possible to get back down to the canal tow-path at the Northgate Staircase locks.

On the far side of the canal the slope is slightly less severe. Chester first established a Workhouse in 1575 when a building just outside the Northgate "near the quarry in the Gorse Stacks" was converted for this purpose. The city records for 1575 mention the "House of Correction":

In a watercolour by Moses Giffiths (1747-1819), the "House of Correction" is placed on the northern bank of the canal.
  • "This year there was a collection made in the city and of some worshipful in the county for a stock to set the poor on work and a house of correction built under the city wall near unto the Northgate which house was removed out of the corn market and was first placed there by Mr Webster for the butchers of the city."
The Northgate Locks are on the Chester Millennium festival trail.

Hemingway writes of the 1787 visit of the prison reformer John Howard to Northgate Gaol and the "House of Correction". In a watercolour by Moses Giffiths (1747-1819), the "House of Correction" is placed on the northern bank of the canal and must have been a damp and gloomy place. It included workrooms on two storeys. In its courtyard a narrow space in the face of the quarry was used in the 17th century to confine refractory youths, and during the Interregnum, Quakers, for a few hours in a tortured position where they could neither stand, sit, kneel, or lie. It was known, euphemistically, as "Little Ease". In the 1770s a workshop and two 'dungeons' were added. It was closed in 1808 and was briefly a school which was sold in 1817 to Joseph Fletcher, who converted the buildings into dwellings. Nothing remains today and the site is occupied by an electricity sub-station.

One sad memorial along this stretch of tow-path is that of David Spencer – known as "Young Spen" – who died aged just 23 after falling 60ft from the walls between Frodsham Street and Northgate Street. In fact, over the years there have been several deaths at or near this spot. Hemingway writes of one lucky escape from before 1831:

  • "Before I leave this gate I shall mention a circumstance that occurred near the spot luring the time the footway was repairing which may be considered extraordinary. A young gentleman who was mounting the wall at the east end in order to save the trouble of going round lost his balance and fell over. He alighted on the canal towing path below which in depth is little less than twenty yards and then rolled into the canal from whence he was speedily extricated having neither sustained a broken limb or a serious fracture. It appears his fall had been broken by striking against a projecting portion of the wall about midway in his descent which alone can account for the little injury he received."

Not everyone was so lucky. Noting in his chronicle of the year 1826, Hemingway writes:

  • "The body of a young man named Thomas Reeves was discovered in that part of the canal nearly opposite the Phoenix Tower and not more than a yard from the shore on the towing path side. The circumstance of a severe wound on the head the tattered appearance of some parts of his apparel and above all the finding his hat upon the walls at the distance of about eighty yards from the place opposite to which he was found naturally suggested a suspicion that after a struggle with some murderous villains he had been thrown over the parapet wall."

And for 1816 Hemingway records:

  • "The body of Samuel Williams collector of the Northgate tolls found in the canal under the old house of correction. It was supposed he had been murdered"

The cutting in which the canal runs reaches its deepest beneath the Northgate. The new Northgate was built in place of the former medieval gatehouse in 1810 by County architect Thomas Harrison for the City Council. There appears to have been a bridge of some sort here since the middle-ages - the City Treasurer's accounts for 1569 contain an entry which reads: "for making the north-gate bridge new, great joists, thick planks £4/3s/2p". The present bridge dates from around c1790 and its construction may have been supervised by Thomas Telford. Hemingway describes the older Northgate as follows:

The Northgate, the Bridge of Sighs and the "Long Cottage" (a former Toll House and possible rope factory), just above the Northgate Locks. The large building with the courtyard is St John's Hospital and the courtyard contains almshouses.
  • This ancient gate adjoining which was a mean and ruinous gaol was an inconvenient and unseemly pile of building. It consisted of a dark narrow passage under a pointed arch with a postern on the east side and the entrance to the prison. Immediately under the gate way at the depth of some thirty feet from the level of the street was a horrible dungeon to which the only access of air was through pipes which communicated with the street. In this frightful hole prisoners under sentence of death were confined; itself a living death.
The "Bridge of Sighs" spans the deep cutting containing the canal.

Certain debtors who were confined to this prison had privileges. In records from the time of Henry VII, it is stated that any freeman of Chester, who had been imprisoned for debt could, upon swearing an oath before the Mayor and Sheriffs that he would pay as soon as her was able, and reserving for himself "only mean sustenance", had the right to be discharged from custody. Fifty years later any freeman imprisoned for dept could petition the Mayor and aldermen and declaring his inability to pay, was allowed to live in what was termed the "Free House" (or "Franchise House"), and was free to walk at large within the "liberties of the house" which extended along the walls between the "Phoenix Tower" and the Watertower, and "towards the Corn Market as far as Bell Yard". These persons were also allowed to attend divine service at "Little St John's" (St John's Hospital), but not otherwise to enter any dwelling.

Writing in an 1836 guide to the walls of Chester Hemingway states:

  • "The canal from Chester to Nantwich runs parallel with this part of the walls passes through Great Boughton, Christleton, Waverton, Hargreave, Huxley, Beeston, Tiverton, Tilston, Ternhall, Wardle, Barbridge, Stoke, Hurdleston, and Acton to Nantwich. The act for cutting it passed in 1772 and it was finished in 1778. This canal was for many years an unproductive speculation to the proprietors. Shares of 100 were at one time sold for a mere trifle or rather given away. Of late years however they have considerably risen in value in consequence of junctions being formed with other canals "

You'll seldom see any boats tied up along this stretch of canal in the cutting. Not only is it cold and damp, but there is always a danger of objects falling from the walls and cutting sides and for that reason narrowboats tend to shun mooring in cuttings. It is frequently the case that parts of the towpath need to be fenced off while a section of unstable cliff or wall is fixed. The wall just before the Northgate is one of the best preserved sections of the Walls of Roman Chester. In 1887 and 1890–2 stretches of the north wall west of the Phoenix Tower and west of the Northgate were reconstructed, and in both locations large numbers of inscribed and sculpted Roman memorial stones were found. The first few were found in 1883, and more were found in 1887. Between 1883 and 1892, over 150 tombstones were found in the north wall. This is still the most spectacular archaeological find made in Chester - and around 35 of the tombstones can be seen in the Grosvenor Museum. Why the tombstones of "revered ancestors" were torn from their graves and used to repair the City Walls is something of a mystery. However, they were well preserved inside the wall and survived unharmed for 1500 years.

Northgate to the basin

A little beyond 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 now 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 Prison to a nearby chapel (in St John's Hospital) and had over-arching iron railings to prevent the prisoners from escaping. During WWII the metal railings were removed to be melted down (like many others) as a source of metal. It is described by Ronald Leigh in his memories recorded at the The Museum of Policing in Cheshire as follows:

  • Prisons unfortunately always seem to be necessary in any form of communal life and Chester seems to be no exception. No doubt the Romans had one but this is no longer apparent. However the site at the one at the Northgate is still on record. It forms part of the actual Northgate and the dungeons were in the sandstone rock of its foundations. The place of execution was also in the jail itself and prisoners before their execution were taken outside the walls to the church of Little St. John, which stood on or near the present site of the Blue Coat building. It was found that whilst taking this last walk, friends of such prisoners frequently staged attempts to free them. In order to foil such attempts by these footpads thieves and felons, the authorities in 1793 built the small bridge which can still be seen, less its protecting railway between the City walls in the west side of Northgate over the moat/canal to the Blue Coat school.

The Bridge of Sighs, as this structure is known, is bridge number 123H. It is sometimes called the "Bridge of Death" in view of what was coming for some of those who crossed it. It was planned to remove the bridge when Northgate Prison closed in 1807, so it was only ever expected to be a temporary structure, which despite its flimsy construction has now lasted well over 200 years.

The Northgate Staircase Locks were the deepest in Britain when they were built and are unusual in that they are cut out of solid rock. Operation of a staircase is more involved than a single lock - it is possible to send down more water than the lower chambers can cope with - it is usual to have the whole staircase empty before starting to descend, or full before starting to ascend, apart from the initial chamber.

The sandstone here is typical of this part of the River Dee Geology and shows signs of "cross-bedding". The Chester basin rock system is part of the "Sherwood Sandstone Group" which extends from Devon northwards as far as Armagh in Ireland and Gretna, Dumfries and Galloway in Scotland. This "New Red Sandstone" was deposited as a result of the erosion of the Variscan mountains in what is now France and transport northwards by a Nile-like river flowing through a vast desert. The Chester Pebble Beds Formation are part of this series and are river-formed sandstones with some conglomerates and siltstones of early Triassic age. One of the internationally recognised "reference sections" for these strata is the railway cutting nearby at Northgate stadium, but this same type of rock can be seen in several places around Chester, including here alongside the canal. The formation extends from the south Devon coast northwards, up to the Cumbrian coast on the west side of England, and to the Doncaster area on the east side.

The City Walls above this part of the cutting saw a lot of action in the Civil War. Hemingway writes:

  • "The assault upon the city by the parliamentarians in this point appears to have been most vigorous, as well as most fatal to the besiegers. I have been informed by a gentleman of unquestionable veracity that in cutting the canal between the North gate and the basin a vast number of human skulls and bones were dug up as well as various implements of war."
Northgate Locks in about 1900. The tall chimney-stack is at the long-vanished Northgate Brewery.

A monument to the canal itself stands on the towpath here. It is fairly recent, but the inscription on it is pretty hard to read. One side refers to the refers to the Shropshire Union Canal and the other to the Chester Canal. The two sides also bear depictions of the seal's of both companies. The monument is constructed of slate and granite. Why grantite one might ask? - there isn't any for miles.

The flight of the three Northgate Locks then descends to beneath the railway and ring-road bridges as the cutting in which the canal runs becomes less deep. Northgate Lock Keeper's Cottage dates from c1790 and is believed, along with the locks, to have been designed by Thomas Telford. When constructed, the lock chambers were the largest in Britain, dropping boats down 33 feet. "Staircase locks" with two ajoining locks are quite common, although there are less than 20 in Britain with three or more locks and the Northgate Locks were among the first of these staircase locks to be built. Originally (1770's) there was a staircase of five locks, but these were replaced with the present three deep locks in the 1790's. The original “barrel organ” paddle gear on one of the locks has been retained, although it is not always in use.

The railway from this point heads off on what should have been the course of the Ellesmere canal down to Shrewsbury had not Telford virtually bankrupted the Ellesmere Canal Company building his enormous Pontcysyllte Aqueduct leaving an embarrasing gap in the middle of the canal and no money to finish it. The compromise solution was the use the, at that time quite ruinous, Chester Canal to link the sourthern and northern sections of the Ellesmere canal rather than build the final Ruabon-Wrexham-Chester section of that canal. It isn't clear how Telford proposed to cross the River Dee in the 1790's with the original route of the Ellesmere canal: when the Grosvenor Bridge was built in 1827-33 it required the world's largest single masonry arch so that ships could pass beneath. Perhaps Telford would simply have boats "sail" between a pair of tidal locks and/or basins on either side of the river, either with a swing bridge for horses or a chain tow to get the unpowered narrowboats across the river.

Along the City Walls above the canal are Morgan's Mount and the Goblin Tower called in Henry VIII's reign, Dille's Tower and now generally known by the name of Pemberton's Parlour. The road bridge just past Morgans Mount marks the corner of the walls of Roman Chester, and from here on the walls are the extension constructed by Æthelflæd "Lady of the Mercians" (d. 12 June 918). She was the eldest daughter of Alfred the Great, king of the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of Wessex, and his queen, Ealhswith. Æthelflæd was born at the height of the Viking invasions of England. Her father married her to Æthelred, Lord of the Mercians. After his death in 911, she ruled in his place. The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle referred to her as the Myrcna hlæfdige, "Lady of the Mercians".

A Canalside Gallery: Northgate to the basin and boatyard

The corner tower of Æthelflæd's walls is Bonewaldesthorne's Tower (believed to be named after a Saxon) from which a spur wall leads to the Watertower - so called because it once stood in the River Dee. Near the base of the Watertower can be found what is probably the Gloverstone worth a diversion to look at if you are only passing-by infrequently. This lump of rock is of the general class referred to as "Bluestone" (middle Ordovician ("speckled") dolerite - about 460 million years old - twice the age of the local red sandstone). It is not of the local rock type and therefore possibly a "glacial erratic" carried here during the ice ages and dropped into the local boulder clay (this rock type occurs in North Wales), although there has been no real geological examination of the stone to determine whether it is a local erratic or must have been brought from elsewhere by man (there no clear flow of glacial ice from North Wales which could have brought the stone to Chester). Interestingly, it is the same general type of "Bluestone" as was used at Stonehenge.

In his essay "An Observant American In England", the American writer Henry James writes of his 1872 visit of how he found the corner towers (and those running the museum they once housed) as to be::

  • "..two battered and crumbling towers, decaying in their winding-sheets of ivy, make a prodigiously designed diversion. One inserted in the body of the wall and the other connected with a short crumbing ridge of masonry, they contribute to a positive jumble of local colour. These two hoary shells of masonry are therefore converted into 'Museums', receptacles for the dustiest and shabbiest tawdry back-parlour curiosities. Here preside a couple of those grotesque creatures a la Dickens, whom one finds squeezed into every cranny of English civilisation, scraping a thin subsistence, like mites in a mouldy cheese."
A panorama showing the corner where the Ellesmere Canal joins the Chester Canal. The brick building is "Telfords Warehouse" and the white building next to it ("Harvest House") was the head-office of the Shropshire Union Canal until 1920. At this point the canal originally used to go straight on to the River Dee, but the layout was changed when the Wirral line of the Ellesmere Canal was constructed. Still set in the curving wall before the bridge is an iron ring and hook which would have been used for haulage ropes to help boats make the shart turn.

Opposite the Watertower in the corner of the canal bend is the brick-built "Telfords Warehouse" and next to it is a white building which was constructed as the main office of the Ellesmere Canal Company around 1790; it remained a head-office until 1920 by which time it had become the head-office of the Shropshire Union Canal Company. It later became the Tarvin Rural District Council Offices and later still Chester Diocesan Offices. The rear part of the building, which later became part of the offices, was originally built as a tavern - "The Canal Tavern" - around 1815. Until the arrival of the railway at Chester in 1840, a packet service took passengers (by 1801, some 15,000 per year) from Tower Wharf to Ellesmere Port, en-route to Liverpool. Pigot describes the journey as follows:

The Tide-Lock where canal meets Dee in a ruinous state, with "stop-boards" and silting.
  • "From hence to the river Mersey is ahout nine miles and the canal in that distance is not interrupted hy a single lock. A large clean and commodious hoat leaves the Canal Tavern every day ahout two hours hefore high water for Liverpool. The passage along the canal is very pleasant and the sail down the Mersey particularly amusing the intercourse between Liverpool and Chester hy this conveyance is very great, and the payment demanded for the whole distance amounts only to the sum of half a crown."

The packet-boat business was such a success that the landlord of the "Canal Tavern" was able to open further presmises at the "Coach and Horses" (now the "Coach House") in Northgate Street, an inn which dates back to before 1690 and was described by Hughes as being "one of the chief inns of the City" in 1721 and having a large coaching establishment associated with it.

The Branch to the Dee

Opposite the Water Tower, where a newish development of apartments can now be found, the canal tow-path was made in part of the gravestones of those who had lived and died on the water. These stones and any stories they could have told are now gone. The canal was linked directly to the River Dee by a tidal basin. In 1801 the lock was constructed so that craft in the basin could remain afloat when the River Dee was at low tide. The basin was partly filled in around 1950, burying over thirty often part or fully submerged boats which had been laid-up and abandonned here. It is now known as "Earl's Port" after the name of one of the submerged and buried boats - Earl. The modern lock at the riverward end of the Earl's Port dates from the 1960's and was constructed at the same time that a swing bridge between the location of the lock and the River Dee was replaced with a permanent concrete bridge. Slightly to the east of the Earl's Port is a old row of small terraced houses: the first "Social Housing" (Council Houses) as such to be built in Chester (1904), although Chester had a history of "Almshouses" going back centuries.

This 1872 map shows the layout of the Wirral-Chester junction after the construction of the Wirral Line.

When the council decided to re-develop the Earl's Port area, there was a rather run-down scout hut standing on the site, so to clear the way for re-development the council offered to build a new scout hut, a couple of hundred metres away from where the old one stood. In keeping with the general nautical theme of the area the building has been constructed to look like "Noah's Ark". At the same time (1998) the "Dutch Style" lifting bridge was constructed. This modern addition is the only lifting bridge on the Chester Canal.

The Earl's Port in the 1960's, when the locks had been rebuilt in a new location and the basin partly filled in.

The locks on the Dee Branch do not have by-washes, so excess water simply pours over the tops of the gates. In the early 19th Century the canal company did not like the loss of water from the canal system that use of the river lock caused, as well as the loss of income from boats not using the "main line" so they imposed a higher toll for those boats which used the Dee Branch. In 1827, traders from Chester actually refused to use the Dee Branch for six months in protest (which got them nowhere). While boats were often left to sit and rot in the Dee Branch as the canal declined, it was still used, with some of the last traffic being steel-carrying barges taking cargo from the John Summers steelworks at Shotton to the "Wolverhampton Corrugated Iron Company" at Ellesmere Port. The Tidal Lock was also used by riverboats going to Taylor's boatyard for maintenance work and having their bottom's scraped in the Graving Dock.

Some of the corrugated iron may have been used to build the nearby example of a "Tin tabernacle". The "Little Tin Chapel", in Whipcord Lane, otherwise known as the "Sealand Road United Reformed Church", was the city’s only "tin" chapel. This "flat-pack" church held its final service in May 2011, following which it was put up for auction in a fairly sorry state, and has since been converted into a holiday let. Built in 1909, it was supposed to be a temporary structure, but has lasted for over 100 years. Chester's "Tin Tabernacle" provided a place for the Rev Jesse Salt to preach at the waterborne community that passed by, and had a schoolroom for the children of the bargees. The reference to "tin" is of course quite spurious as the corrugated iron from which the chapel was built was coated with zinc rather than tin. William Morris, founder of the Arts and Crafts Movement, wrote a pamphlet in 1890 decrying the construction of corrugated iron buildings "that were spreading like a pestilence over the country".

Currently the Dee Branch Canal bottom lock is not operational due to the ruinous state of the lock gates, the presence of "stop boards" and silting, so it is not possible to take a boat between the River Dee and the canal. If boats couls access the Dee then they can pass the weir at the Old Dee Bridge by a lock built-into the weir and travel upstream for a considerable distance. Walking out onto the riverfront at this point one can see the "Old Port" (Crane Wharf) upstream and just downstream Wilcox point where the River Dee turns into the "New Cut", a "canalised" section of the river which runs as far as Connah's Quay through land reclaimed from the Dee estuary. The "Dee Coastal Path" follows the river downstream and starts just a little way below the Tidal Lock, where Flookersbrook (that rose near Chemistry Lock at the start of this walk) finally empties into the Dee.

Hunter's map of c1782 shows the "Canal to Middlewich" and has some interesting features. First off, the mention of Middlewich, as the canal had opened to Nantwich in 1779 and the branch to Middlewich was not completed until the 1830's due to the resistance of the Trent and Mersey Canal Company. Second, the map shows the original five locks at Northgate Staircase, but does not show the "Earl's Port". The canal just seems to get slightly wider before its connection with the River Dee. Third there is what appears to be a large winding hole by the Phoenix Tower. This may be where the course of the original plans was altered to rub along the City Walls, whereas an earlier proposal was for the canal to run further from the walls through a series of stone quarries to the north of the City and then along what is now the line of the railway.

A Canalside Gallery: Around the Dee Branch basin

Map: The Basins

The final map of this guide - the Dee Branch and the Basins. The Watertower is no-longer a museum as marked on the early map and the Hospital (see Infirmary) has been closed. The old map shows the shape of the Dee Basin and the location of the locks as they originally were, before the swing bridge was removed and the locks moved inland. The modern map is nowadays in error where it gives the Graving Dock the label "David Jones".

Basin and Boatyard

Taylor's Boatyard forms part of Chester's inland port, known as 'Tower Wharf', at the once busy junction of the Chester Canal with the River Dee and the Wirral Line. The wharf was a major cargo terminal, utilising narrowboats and larger 'Mersey Flats', and was also a starting point for passengers travelling to Liverpool. Many of the wharf's buildings and features have since been lost or built upon. Originally the boatyard was larger with a slipway building, travelling crane, and rack saw structures all located at the north end of the present site, but these have since been demolished, along with part of the boundary wall. The boatyard has been added to, and altered, incrementally since its original construction in keeping with the varying trade and development of boatyards and their work, with the flat shed added in the late-C19 (c1892-3), along with the carpenter's shed, paint shed and stores, and erection of the dry dock/graving dock's canopy was approved in 1888.

The Graving Dock in about 1920.

Taylor’s Boatyard at Tower Wharf was for many years run by David Jones, (67 in 2009), who repaired craft there for 35 years, but is now (2010) semi-retired. Parts of the yard date from the 1840s, and it is said to be “possibly the best surviving example” of an historic boat-building yard. In its commercial heyday, the boatyard employed more than 200 people, servicing the huge fleet of canal company working vessels. It comprises a workshop, former saw mill building, former blacksmith’s workshop, covered slipway and dry dock.

The yard has been known as Taylor’s Boatyard since it was leased by Joseph Harry Taylor in 1921 when the Shropshire Union Railway & Canal Company ceased carrying. Prior to 1921, Taylors had a yard on the Dee Basin alongside South View Road. The Dee Basin Slipways were established by Joseph Harry Taylor about 1913. Initially, Taylors operated the Graving Dock, and one of the 90 ft bays - the other half was operated by a Mr Horne, Canal Carrier of Cambrian Road. They also worked out of what was known as "Dandy's Shed". Dandy's Shed was removed when the North Basin was excavated. Taylor’s became very well known to the post-war pleasure boat fraternity as the builders of a well-respected range of elegant mahogany canal cruisers in the 1950s and ‘60s. Much of their other work was maintaining river cruisers and fishing boats from the Dee.

The Taylor family owned and ran the yard until 1972. Bithells Boats then took over the yard for two years before David Jones leased the proprty in 1974. In 2005 there was disappointment over the failure of a Lottery bid which would have restored the yard. It had been supported by waterway enthusiasts including Mr Taylor’s grandson Geoff Taylor, who lives in nearby Cambrian View. Some of the older photographs on this page are reproductions of the informative signage used along the canal and are from Mr Taylor's collection. Taylor's Boatyard still operates under that name, although the Taylor family no-longer have a share in the business.

A panorama showing the Graving Dock and the Roving Bridge. The commemorative plaque to Tom Rolt, who did much to encourage the restoration of the British canal system, is on the brickwork of the Bridge. The Graking Dock is surrounded by fencing because, while the Health and Safety people say the railings are not high enough, the Conservation People won't let them be touched.

The Junction Facilities

At the side of the upper basin is a building which appears to have a roof but no walls. This is actually a covered dry-dock for narrow-boats and can accommodate two boats at once, allowing the hulls of the boats to be maintained. The dry dock at Tower Wharf (known as the "Graving Dock") is believed to date from 1798, potentially making it the oldest surviving example of its kind on the canal system. Although Pevsner assigns a date of 1798 to the Graving Dock, it is believed that it dates to the mid-C19 (it is not depicted on an historic map dating to 1833, but is depicted on the tithe map of 1847). The Graving Dock, which can accommodate a single wide beam boat placed centrally (a 14-foot "Mersey Flat") or two narrowboats side by side, has a brick floor and brick lower walls, with large sandstone blocks forming the upper parts of the side walls and the curved end walls. A pair of lock gates are situated at the north end of the dock, whilst at the south end is a flight of twelve brick steps with stone treads that lead down onto the dock floor, which incorporates a brick drainage channel that runs around the edge. Timber bearers for the boats are located on the floor, and set to the south-west corner of the dock is a steel shutter leading to a sluiceway.

A Canalside Gallery: Around the Upper Basin and Boatyard

Next to the Graving Dock is the lock which connects the upper basin to the short stretch of canal heading toward the lower Dee Basin. This short stretch, known as "Williams Moorings") is home to a few permanently moored houseboats. In the 1970s, the local canal supervisor, the late Philip Williams, instigated the creation of Williams Moorings.

The lock connecting it to the basin is a "graving lock", where wooden beams could be inserted into slots in the sides of the lock (when empty) then the lock filled and a boat drifted in. Emptying the lock again would leave the boat high and dry, so that repairs to the bottom could be carried out. The lock was once provided with a sliding canopy tp provides some protection from the weather but this has log-since been dismantled. The brick structure for storing the beams can still be seen next to the boundary wall. Of course, leaving a boat hanging in mid air would block access to the Dee branch. The "Graving Dock" and the "Graving Lock" are occasionally confused by some writers on Chester. Hemingway records that in 1807: "One of the watchmen named Boulton found drowned in the canal locks at the Tower Wharf. Verdict of the inquest wilful murder"

Northgate Locks in the late 1960's (after the building of the Inner Ring Road). One of the elegant mahogany canal cruisers may well be "Taylor Built".

The Graving Dock had another purpose besides repair and upkeep: so-called "gauging" or "indexing" of boats. On the canal system charges were calculated based on distance and tonnage. For example on the Ellesmere Canal, coke, limestone and rock salt were charged at a penny ha’penny per ton per mile, timber, slate, bar iron and lead ore at tuppence, but all other goods, wares and merchandize whatever was to be at three pence per ton per mile. The distance was easy to calculate as the canals were well surveyed, but the weight was a different matter. What were used for this were "gauges". The process is described as follows:

The Rolt Memorial on the Roving Bridge. Tom Rolt was born in Chester and spent his infancy here. In 1979 he was described as "one of the two major influences in changing public indifference to industrial history." Tom wrote about his canal journeys of 1939-40 in the book "Narrow Boat". After this was published in 1944 it raised considerable public interest and led to the founding of the Inland Waterways Association in 1946.
  • "The boat to be indexed was brought empty into the water filled dock, and vertical grooves were made in the hull at the bow, amidships and stern on each side to accommodate laths; these were lightly nailed in position. Four heaps of large rectangular iron weights were piled alongside the dock, where there were two cranes each of which could pick up weights from two of the heaps. Each crane lowered two tons, consisting of three 600lbs weights and one 440lbs. weight for each ton; thus four tons were added altogether, spaced out equally along the length of the hull. Marks were then made on the six laths at water level. Further four tons of weights were added, and marks made, until the boat held 28 tons of weights. The weights and the six laths were removed and the four ton markings subdivided to give one ton markings. The permanent markings were made on copper strip, by placing lath and strip side by side and stamping the figures from one to 28 tons, using a special series of steel stamps. The six numbered copper strips were then fastened to the hull in the grooves already present. There were six of them to obviate any difference which might be due to uneven loading resulting in the reading at one end being too high and that at the other end being too low; by taking the average of the six readings an accurate reading was bound to result."

The gauging marks not only allowed the tonnage to be calculated, but also made it possible to see whether any of the cargo had "vanished" between loading and unloading.

Next to the Graving Dock is a "Roving Bridge". This allows the horses drawing a barge to cross from one side of the river to the other where the tow-path changes sides, as it does here. The clever design of the bridge allows this to happen without disconnecting the tow rope or tangling it. The bridge bears a memorial to L. T. C. Rolt who was a prolific English writer and the biographer of major civil engineering figures including Isambard Kingdom Brunel and Thomas Telford. He is also regarded as one of the pioneers of the leisure cruising industry on Britain's inland waterways, and as an enthusiast for both vintage cars and heritage railways. He was born in Chester to a line of Rolts "dedicated to hunting and procreation".

The 10-bay former flat builders' shed (a shed used for building flats i.e. broad canal boats), which is in separate ownership to the rest of the site, lies at the northern end of the site and was originally open-sided. The 12-bay narrowboat shed is attached to the south gable end of the former flat shed and is similarly styled, but lower in height and without brick end bays. The shed, which is used for boat repairs and maintenance and incorporates slipways, is open-sided and is covered by a pitched slate roof. All of the buildings, except the flat shed remain in active use, although not all in their original function. The flat shed was used as a fish processing factory in the mid-late C20 and has been derelict since. The warehouse/office range was partly used as a stable in the c1980s. The "North Basin" was excavated in 1999 and re-opened in 2000 providing a focal point for the adjacent new residential development. A swing bridge crosses the entrance to the North Basin from the canal.

A panorama showing the working part of Taylor's Boatyard and the swing bridge to the North Basin. Chester's only surviving "Tin Tabernacle" is by the conifer in the center rear of the image.

Telfords Warehouse was originally conceived by the famous industrial engineer Thomas Telford in the 1790’s, the Warehouse stands as a magnificent example of Georgian architecture and as a reminder of the once thriving port of Chester. The building was constructed partly over the canal to allow boats to be located and unloaded from the full height of the loading bay within the building. The grade 2 listed building from 1802 was originally converted to a public house in the 1980′s by local architect James Brotherhood. In 2000, Telford’s was forced to close due to a major fire which destroyed some of the building’s internal features and took nearly a year to restore.

North from the Basin

Ten sculptures along the 9.25 miles of tow-path provide directions between Ellesmere Port and Chester. Most people will find it sufficient to follow the tow-path and in fact the first way-marker has the directions of Chester and Ellesmere Port the wrong way round! This is not the historic Chester Canal. It is the Wirral Line of the Ellesmere Canal, which was planned in the late 18th Century by supporters of the industries growing up around North Wales and Shropshire. These were mostly owners of various iron, coal and limestone works, as well as millers, and they wanted a canal to transport goods to and from the River Mersey and also south to the River Severn at Shrewsbury. Originally three locks took it down into the Mersey near the villages of Netherpool and Whitby, which now form part of the town of Ellesmere Port, named because of its connection with the Ellesmere Canal. About 100 years after the Wirral Line was opened, its direct link to the River Mersey was replaced by a connection to the Manchester Ship Canal which opened in 1894.

Sources and Links

Probably the most complete history of the canal is that edited by Gordon Emery with contributions from other local authors.