Groves

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Grosvenor Bridge, once the largest single span stone bridge in the world.The Old Dee Bridge, Weir and Minerva ShrineThe Castle and the Military Museum. The Grosvenor Museum is very close by.You can take a tour to the top of the Cathedral for a stunning view.The Water Tower once stood in the River DeeThe Phoenix Tower - but can you see Rowton Moor from herePossibly the most painted Church in the world?Did King Harold live here?Edgars Field has a real Roman ShrineHave they got the shields mixed up?The River Dee, from source to seaThe Roodee, once a Roman harbour now a racecourseThe center of the famous "Rows" of ChesterEastgate - a place to start a walk around the WallsNorthgate - a scary prison once stood hereView of Chester from a Balloon
A view of Chester from a balloon showing The Groves on the right hand bank of the River Dee as depicted.

A Walk Along The Riverside

Barrel Well Hill (formerly Gallows Hill) is not so much a hill as a slope down to the River Dee. The obelisk is the monument to George Marsh.

Chester's riverside provides several walking opportunities. This article is concerned with the north bank within the city itself, and the riverside trail from the foot of Dee Lane to the Portpool. The length of the walk including the return to the start by the shortest route, mostly on the Canalside, is about four miles, but there is plenty to see on the way. The links in the text below provide access to local maps and further information about the points of interest along the route.

Hanshall (1823) writes of "The Groves" as stretching from the Recorder's Steps to Barrell Well. He says:

  • “The land beneath the walls is called the GROVES, from a regular line of fine trees which formerly ornamented the river side from the bridge to Barrell Well, but most of them are now cut down, and the road itself is stopped up. The steps which lead from the walls to the Groves are called the Recorder’s steps, and were erected at the expense of the corporation about 1700, for the convenience of Recorder Comberbach, who resided in Duke Street.” - History of Cheshire, 1817, p. 285

Nowadays it is only possible to walk along the northern bank of the River Dee from the foot of Dee Lane, where the tour starts by the steps leading down to the River. There is some free parking here with a four hour time limit and it should be possible to do the walk in that time - although the parking may be full (the writer has never seen an empty space). Looking across the River the extensive area of low lying land is the Earls Eye which occasionally floods, but is generally used as a semi-wild nature reserve. Up-river the Dee has cut a large meander into the higher ground to the east. The spire of St Paul's Boughton is just visible above the trees and roighly marks the location of Barrel Well Hill to which the path along this bank of the river apparently once led. Barrel Well Hill was once the place of Execution at Chester. A myth sometimes heard in Chester is that witches were rolled down the hill in barrels into the River Dee to determine whether they were guilty or not. If they sank they were guilty and if not they were innocent. There is actually no historical basis for this form of "trial by ordeal" and a far more rational explanation is that this was the site of a well which once excavated was lined with barrels to support the sides. It was however the place were supposed witches were hung (not burned) following the Witch Trials.

In fact, there was more than one well hereabouts and the presence of these has helped shape the humam landscape. Elements of the physical geography are obvious: as the slope leading down Dee Lane indicates the course of the river is altered as it enters into a series of bends at Chester. Above these bends is a ridge of sandstone on which the Romans built their legionary camp and later fortress. The river could be crossed here without much difficulty, and yet the makings of a useful seawater port also existed.

The way on to Barrel Well, as mentioned by Hanshall, is blocked by the Dee Hills estate which was developed in 1850s when William Titherington, the owner of the 10 acre estate, broke up his land to build Sandown Terrace, three Italianate houses and Deva Terrace. In 1873 Dee Hill had extensive grounds with pleasure gardens above the river and a tree-lined drive from The Bars, flanked by paddocks to the north and allotment gardens to the south-east. More estate land was being sold for development and in the 1880s Beaconsfield Terrace had been built on the northern part of this land. The drive was now named Dee Hills Park and was lined with larger houses, including the largest: Uffington House. By 1892 Dee Hills House and the remaining gardens had been sold to the government and was being used as the residence of the Army’s district commander. Given Chester's strategic position its involvement with the military did not end with the departure of the Romans.

Disturbed ground across the River Dee from the foot of Dee Lane marks the location of a Civil War gun emplacement which protected a "bridge of boats".

The bridge of boats

Towards the end of the Civil War seige of Chester, in late 1645, the Parliamentarians had largely encircled the city, and linked their positions on either side of the river with a bridge of boats from Dee Lane to the Earls Eye, protected by gun emplacements at the south end. Chester was important to the king as, with the loss of Bristol, it became his only substantial port en route to Ireland from which he hoped to bring fresh troops. There were also many personal divisions between those of the county who sided with Parliament and those of the city who sided with the king.

There is not much to see of the small fort acrosss the river although there is some disturbance of the ground. The royalists countered with a sortie across the Old Dee Bridge (with hand-grenades) and by trying to float fire boats loaded with powder against the bridge of boats, but neither venture succeeded. Randle Holme wrote how two boats were loaded with combustibles (gorse, tallow, pitch and powder) in the hope that they would be carried upstream by an expected high tide. Brereton wrote that the boats were also fitted with carbines and pistols set in a frame of wood which would shoot automatically. One of the boats made it within six yards of the bridge of boats. On December 28th ice floes temporarily broke the bridge of boats and a large detachment of the besiegers was drawn off to counter a royalist force at Whitchurch (Salop.), the defenders were unable to take advantage, apart from bringing in a small quantity of wheat and oatmeal. During the later part of December and early January 1646 the blockade in the Dee was again tightened and the city moved quickly to a stage where surrender was being discussed.

One odd thing to look for are the mooring rings to the sides at the foot of the steps. The shanks of these have been made by using the head of a discarded blacksmith's ball-peen hammer, threading the ring through the hole where the hammer handle would go and setting the flat end into concrete.

From the steps walk along the riverside road with Grosvenor Park on the right.

Billy Hobbies well

Billy Hobby's well, with Grosvenor Park in the background.

Billy Hobby's Well was situated in Billy Hobby's Field before the park behind it was created. It is one of several wells along the north bank of the river hereabouts. Springs at Boughton supplied the Romans and later the Monks of the Abbey with water and even today some of the city water comes from underground sources.

This particular well acquired a magical reputation in Chester. Chester maidens would stand with their right leg immersed in the water, wishing for husbands. Hanshall, writing in 1823, describes it as follows:

  • "In a field at the bottom of Dee Lane is a beautifully clear spring called Billy Hobby's well,- how this name was applied remains to be traced."

..and when Canniff Haight (1904) visited as recorded in his "United Empire", the spring was still flowing and he noted:

  • After straying around the park for a whil, we approach "Billy Hobby’s Well," a spring of excellent water, where we have a drink.

The place-name of "Billy Obbies Field", is used on Tithe Maps from 1745, with an accompanying spring marked at 1791 on Poole's Map and on Murray and Smart's map of c.1800. This suggests that the spring gained its name from the field and not vice versa, with the name possibly representing a local person. In 1867, John Douglas designed a little medieval-style canopy for the well. In his 2008 book, "Haunted Chester", author David Brandon suggests that Billy Hobby was a real character who invented the legend while employed at the park and charged women to access the well on New Year's Eve. He stopped his lucrative side-line when at least one woman caught a chill and died. However the reference to Billy Hobbies Field from 1745 and the fact that Grosvenor Park was not first opened until 1867 would seem to argue against that.

From the well continue along the road between a brick wall on the left and Grosvenor Park on the right. You will eventually reach a turn to the left where the road heads down a ahort slope to the river. Take this turn rather than heading straight on.

A railway travel poster showing the view along the Groves.

Rowing Clubs

On reaching the river the far bank can now be examined in more detail. It displays vertical rock faces in places and these may well have been quarried for stone. It is also clear that the river here is running in something of a gorge. This gorge appears to be natural despite local myths that the path of the river hereabouts was "much altered" by the first Norman Earl. However it may be the case that some of the "quarrying" could have been done by the Earl, or his successors, for construction work - with the river being used for transport down to the weir. The rock faces illustrate how deeply the river Dee has cut into the native sandstone as it passes through Chester.

The earliest record of organised boat-racing at Chester, something that could actually be called a "regatta" is sometimes described as a print of the "Chester Regatta" from 1733. The competitors were people who worked on the river, the fishermen and ferrymen rather than "amateurs". The boats used would not have been special racing boats but the everyday working boats rowed by their owners and their apprentices. Coracles also took part and there most likely would have been wagers placed on the outcome of the races.

It appears that a Regatta was organised in 1814 to celebrate the "Peace of Paris" and this became an annual event (much the same is claimed at Durham). Prize money was offered in races for men (four guineas), women (two guineas), and boys (two pounds), watched by crowds reckoned to be up to 10,000 strong. Firm evidence exists for a regatta in 1819, especially in the form of a hand-bill showing racing "cox-less fours" passing the Hermitage below St Johns and heading up-river. The illustration is accurate as regards the background and so might be assumed accurate as regards the details of the vessels. The boats shown are not the long and narrow racing boats which developed later for improved performance, but appear to be similar to large clinker-built rowing boats with quite a high free-board. These are typically 20-30 feet long, about six feet wide and have over a foot of free-board as well as a heavy external keel and fixed twarts (seats). The oars were pivoted on the hull rather than making use of outriggers.

The use of a smooth-sided "shell" rather than overlapping planks appears to have been pioneered at Chester. This new technique was used by Matthew Taylor of Gateshead in the construction of a smooth-skinned, internally-keeled, four-man boat (the "Victoria", which still survives) used by the Royals in the Henley Regatta of 1855 - the first time that they had competed there. Royal Chester won both the Stewards' and the Wyfold challenge cups at Henley in that year.

From here walk along the river bank towards the Suspension Bridge which is now visible further on.

Parkside

The minutes of the Chester Assembly for Friday, 22nd September 1626 record:

William Stanley sometimes said to be of Stanley Palace actually established the lower bowling green by the River Dee - and lived there. The green gave its name to "Lower Green Street" - now "Parkside".
  • "William Earl of Derby petitioned to have in fee farm a piece of land by Deeside underneath St. John's on which he had built a chamber and enclosed the land. It was ordered that he should be granted his request on payment of 20s. a year rent at Michaelmas"

The riverside below St. John's church was corporation property and used as a public walk by 1717. In 1726 it was leased by the city council to Charles Croughton, an apothecary (under yearly rent of one pepper corn), who secured the river bank and planted an avenue of trees for the public benefit. In the Inland Revenue records, when he was apprenticed to Ralph Sudlow in 1712, he was stated to be the son of Charles Croughton, gentleman, but when he gained the freedom of Chester on 3rd March, 1722, he was recorded as "Charles Croughton of Chester, apothecary, son of Charles Croughton of Chester, silkweaver".

By 1726 Croughton had lately purchased the "Earl of Derby's house and garden near Dee" and wanted a grant of the ground between his garden wall and the river Dee in return. The petition is ZAF/51/109 in the archives:

  • "Petition from Charles Croughton, apothecary, stating that he had lately purchased the late Earl of Derby's house and garden near Deeside within the liberties of the city and praying a grant of the ground between his garden wall and the river Dee leaving a convenient footway through the same or, otherwise, liberty to bring his said garden wall in a direct line from the Bowling Green wall to the corner of the wall of the house of Easemont at the east end of his garden wall."

The wording of the lease was:

  • "Herbage and pasture of piece of ground near St. John's Church, beside the River Dee, from the corner of the Bowling Green house to the garden wall, now in possession of Andrew Kendrick, 187 yards long, with licence for Croughton to carry his garden wall on the north side of the said ground in a direct line from his summer house wall to the house of easement at the east end of the said ground. Croughton to make a fit public walk from north to south 7 yards by 2 yards and plant it with trees and not to enclose it at each end except with a turnpike"

The "bowling green house" was next to the bowling green which Stanley had set out for his own recreation, and the planting of trees which is mentioned in the Croughton lease foreshadows the development of "The Groves".

Head on down the riverside towards the Suspension Bridge which is visible in the distance.

The Suspension Bridge in 2014.

The Suspension Bridge

The Queen's Park Suspension Bridge connects The Groves with the affluent Queen's Park area of Chester. Queen's Park was planned on a greenfield site immediately south of the River Dee and next to the Earls Eye in 1851 by Enoch Gerrard and others. It was developed in the 1850s and 1860s as a middle class residential suburb. The Duke of Westminster originally intended to have the area laid out as a model industrial suburb but Victoria Pathway remains the only part of this vision that was realised. The residential development of Queen’s Park was slow and only four villas and two semi-detached pairs had been built by 1873. By 1910 the total had still reached only 17, although a further 10 houses had been built on St. George's Crescent to the south. The experience there, and at Curzon Park, suggests that the demand for exclusive property in Chester was smaller than the amount of sites available. On the southern edge of Queen's Park some smaller semi-detached houses had appeared in the mid 19th century around Victoria Pathway. There has since been extensive inter-war and post-war infill and eastward extension to the suburb.

The suspension bridge is the only footbridge to cross the River Dee in Chester apart from the footbridge attached to the railway bridge. It was originally built in 1852 at the instigation of Enoch Gerrard, Esq., the "projector and proprietor" of Queen's Park, the developing suburb across the river. According to Thomas Hughes, author of "The Stranger's Handbook to Chester":

  • "It was 'a pretty object in the landscape. Though of such spider-like construction, its capabilities and strength have been fully tested".

Chester Corporation took on the responsibility for this bridge in the early 1920s and decided to demolish it almost at once - presumably because there was some serious structural problem and Chester was already noted for one bridge collapse disaster when the Dee Railway Bridge gave way under a passing train in 1847. The demolition of the suspension bridge took place in August 1922. It was replaced by a new bridge "designed" by Charles Greenwood, City Engineer and Surveyor ("designed" because it is almost a copy of another bridge). The opening ceremony, conducted by the Mayor of Chester, Councillor S.R. Wall, took place on 18 April 1923.

The coats of arms on the Suspension Bridge are those of the Norman Earls of Chester, but two of them have been transposed and one has the wrong colours on it.

Continue along the riverside. The next waypoint is the Hermitage which is on the right, before the bandstand.

Hermitage

The Hermitage in 2014

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 perhaps one of two 'cells' built as religious retreats for reclusive monks or hermits. Until the reformation it belonged to the collegiate Church of St Johns which stands on the sandstone ridge "Redcliffe" above the river. It is possibly the oldest occupied dwelling in Chester.

The cell itself stands on a sandstone outcrop in a former quarry, which is now set out as a bowling green (which does not appear to be used). It was re-modelled in the 19th century, when gothic traceried windows were added. The porch on the north side originally came from St Martin's Church which was demolished in 1897. During its long history, the cell has also been a grain warehouse, the meeting place of the Company of Shoemakers and, more recently in the 1970s, an architect's office. The Anchorite's Cell was refurbished as a cottage sometime in the 1970s and is presently a private dwelling.

The historical record shows that a "hermit" named "John Spicer" was pardoned in 1358 for 'acquiring' land by the River Dee and building an enclosed hermitage. A later hermit John Benet, described as "hermit of St. James, Chester", was accused of receiving robbers, sheltering common malefactors, and keeping a brothel. In 1456, the Mayor and sheriffs of Chester were ordered to "investigate the conduct" of another successor, Jeven ap Bleth' ap Carwet, (recently appointed to the hermitage by the king - a nice guy called Richard III).

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. Harold's January 1064 marriage seemed like a shrewd political move. Aldgyth was the widow of his enemy and the daughter of the ruling house of Mercia. Her father Ælfgar had been a bitter enemy of the House of Godwin. One of Ealdgyths brothers, Edwin was Earl of Mercia while another, Morcar, would also rise to prominence. Outlaws had just become inlaws, and both would join Harold in the defence of the country at the time of the Norman invasion.

Bandstand

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, according to some sources, 1913, but were taken over by the city council in 1927.

Built out of yellow sandstone, with cast-iron columns and a slate roof, other sources will state that the cost of the Bandstand was provided by Charles Brown, sometime mayor of Chester. In fact, Brown died in April 1900 and the bandstand was in fact built in c1880. Brown was Mayor in 1880-81, 1883-85 and from 1891-3. He expected a knighthood but, perhaps, this was forfeited following his involvement in the affairs of a rigged 1880 election which led to the dis-enfranchisement of Chester for five years.

The plinth beneath the bandstand contains a store-room with a covered door but no windows. Brown was a member of the family which founded and, for a number of years, ran the department store 'Browns of Chester', which was so renowned that it was once called the "Harrods of the North". This was not the only bandstand near-by: following thr end of the 1893 Royal Agricultural Show in Hoole, Chester Town Council bought the bandstand for £24, and for a time had it installed in in a rather exposed location in Grosvenor Park, above the hill where Billy Hobbies well stands, unfortunately the bands’ sheet music was continually blown away by winds coming up the River Dee.

A wet afternoon on the Groves.

Jacob's Well

Jacobs Well was a noted landmark which was once located on the site of the mock-Tudor public toilets. It can now be found in Grosvenor Park. It bears the inscription "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again" (John IV, 13) a reference to the original Jacob’s Well in Samaria (Palestine). The same theme is employed in the "Water of LIfe" sculpture in the cloister of the Cathedral. It was moved to its current location in 1923. A watercolour of “St John’s Church, Chester” by George Angelo Bell (1817-1886), now in the Grosvenor Museum, shows the well in its original location (the tower of St Johns has since collapsed), as does, possibly, the 1874 ordinance survey map. The Braun and Hogenberg map (from around 1581) of Chester does not show the well. However the John Speed Map of Chester (1605) appears to show something on the site.

“St John’s Church, Chester” by George Angelo Bell. This shows the original location of the well.

Borings in 1989 about 60m south of the Amphitheatre revealed a very substantial strucure built from Roman concrete beneath the ground. It has been proposed that this was the remains of a Roman bath associated with the Amphitheater, although it is not known whether there is, or was, any association between the well and these proposed baths. Churches associates with white harts/stags occur all along the River Dee. They are also generally associated with holy wells or springs. Examples include Llandderfel (founded in the early 6th Century) and Llangar. Here we have a well just below St Johns a church which has its own story of a white hart. Tradition ascribes the foundation of St. Johns to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. According to the legend he was led to the spot by a white hart.

The local "ghost register" states that the alley next to the original location is haunted by "a monk in a dark habit who occasionally accosts witnesses in 'Haunted Alley' beside St Johns Church, speaking a guttural Saxon-like language." See the Hermitage article for more on this mysterious monk.

From here the route continues along the embankment. The Bishops Palace is above the wall to the right and is best seen by walking out towards the bank of the river

Bishop's Palace

On the early 18th century there was much rebuilding in Chester. Space within the walls was at a premium and it was noisy and crowded. Consequently some of the more important and wealthy citizens chose to live outside the walls where the air was cleaner and they could constuct new mansions with elaborate gardens. By the mid 18th Century several mansions had been constructed between St Johns and the Groves. These were illustrated in a watercolour by Moses Griffiths. Thr largest surviving structure is the Old Bishop's Palace which was constructed from 1751 for Bishop Samuel Peploe to replace a medieval palace nearby. The building was built in three phases with the oldest part being nearest to St Johns and progressive extensions to the west. The last of these was an extension to the west for Bishop Jacobson c.1865. In 1920 the building was sold to the YMCA, later became offices and is now a wedding venue.

Continue along the bank of the river to where a road comes down on the right.

St John by Moses Griffiths showing The Archdeacons House (center), Samuel Peploes house, later the Bishop's Palace and a part of Dee House.

Souters Lane

Souters Lane is a medieval road that led from the area of the Newgate down to the River Dee, and was once called Shoemaker's River Passage. On the Lavaux Map it is marked as "Dee Lane", although the present day Dee Lane is elsewhere. Souter is a Middle English term derived from the word for a shoemaker, which suggests that shoe-related aspects of leatherworking were concentrated in this vicinity in the late Saxon period. The lane follows a natural ravine which almost certainly influenced the precise location of the walls of Roman Chester by fixing the site of the South-East corner tower at the head of the ravine.

The riverside at the bottom of Souters Lane is the place where the boat tours start. Previously known as Bithell Boats, the ChesterBoat Company has, in one form or another, been operating passenger vessels and taking tourists on cruises along the River Dee for over 100 years. A Bithell took place in the Regatta of 1819 as crew of one of the "working" boats.

The Dee Steam and Motor Boat Co offered a regular ferry service on the Dee, with four boats; "Ormonde", "Aldford", "Flying Fox" and "Bend’Or". Two of these are named after noted racehorses owned by the Grosvenors. One of the early Dee steam-boats (previously the "Flying Fox") "survives" as the Lady Charlotte, but is no longer on the Dee.

The passenger vessels were originally wooden with a cloth awning but have gradually been replaced by much larger steel vessels. The flagship, the Lady Diana joined the fleet in 1981 when it was decided that an all-weather all year round boat was required. Her style and appearance was in complete contrast to the traditional launches and was greeted with some criticism at the time. The Mark Twain arrived in 1988, looking a shadow of the vessel that it is today as it was much smaller and has subsequently been made longer.

Across the river the building with the columns was the former British Army Western Command (now used by the University) complex on the southern bank of the river. This was built in 1938/9 when the headquarters outgrew its original home in Watergate House (built by the prolific Chester architect Thomas Harrison in 1820) on Watergate Street. The building was hurriedly completed at the outbreak of World War Two and the headquarters function was duplicated in a vast underground bomb proof space. In 1943 and 1944, secret meetings were held in the underground bunkers between Winston Churchill, General Eisenhower and General de Gaulle

Continue along the embankment to the corner of the city walls which can be seen ahead.

Recorders Steps appear in this guidebook map based on McGahey's 1853 "Balloon view". Jacobs Well may be just visible in the small enclosed area to the right of The Groves. The tower of St Johns collapsed in 1881.

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The City Wall

The east part of south side of City Walls as seen today dates from late 11th to early 12th century, was converted to a raised promenade in 1702-8 and repaired during various periods. It is the usual coursed red sandstone with a rubble core. This part of the City Walls forms a retaining wall with ground level on the inner side being equal to that of the wall walk, but on the outer side ground level is around 7m below the wall walk. The wall is partly built on outcropping sandstone bedrock, with some 24 courses of stone beneath the parapet. This part of the walls is not Roman, but dates from around the year 900 when Æthelflæd, the warrior daughter of Alfred the Great, extended the City Walls down to the river. Her rebuilding of the fortifications of Chester was neccessary because of Viking raids.

The nearby Barnaby's Tower probably dates from the 13th century, was damaged 1644-6 during the Civil War, converted to a feature of the raised promenade of the wall walk and again repaired during various periods. The bastion forms a 3-sided projection from the wall, its platform level with the wall-walk. There is no evidence of any chamber beneath that level. The mock-crenellation as the tower level and parapet were altered at the expense of Councillor Charles Brown 1879-80. The tower stands upon an outcrop of red sandstone.

The sandstone displays interesting "wavy" structure. It dates from the time just before the dinosaurs lived, when the climate was very different, and what is now Chester was located in an arid desert region which at times was crossed by a river something like the present day Nile. The sand which eventually became the sandstone was deposited in the "wavy" structures both by floods and as dunes. The hardness of the stone varies with the lighter stone being, in general, harder. Many buildings in Chester are constructed using this stone.

Continue along the river bank towards a set of stone steps built onto the face of the wall.

Recorders Steps

Before the 19th Century it was not possible to walk from the Bridgegate to the Groves, as the river came right up to the City Walls. The Lavaux Map of 1745 makes it clear there was no way along the outside of the walls between Bridgegate and "The watering place" (for horses). However, by the time of McGahey's 1853 "balloon view" the groves were extended to the bridge.

"Recorders Steps" in 2014 - shortly after this photograph was taken the steps were closed due to a "structural problem". They soon re-opened, having been shored-up with a (hopefully temporary) metal structure.

The Recorders Steps are two flights of stone steps in offset flights of 12 and 15 steps, leading from the City Walls down to the Groves. The lower flight is separated from the wall by a strip of Gothic stonework. On the wall half way up the steps is a plaque which reads:

  • "Erected by the Corporation of this City AD 1700. For the convenience of ROGER COMBERBACH, Recorder"

The usual impression given is that these steps were erected for an aged Recorder who had served the City for years and in retirement wanted to get down to the Groves. However, there is something seriously wrong with either the plaque on the walls beside the steps or the story. Assuming the City Assembly Records are right, then the Recorder's Steps were only built (1720-22) after Recorder Roger Comberbach died in 1719. The 1820 date given on the "listed buildings" record must also be an error. But how the idea came about that they were built for the convenience of Roger Comberbach remains a mystery.

In 1745 the Dee Side walks extended from Souters Lane to a point east of St. John's. By 1783 the promenade was called the Groves. In 1881 the river bank from Souters Lane to the Dee Bridge was faced with rubble from the fallen tower of St Johns church, an improvement carried out at the expense of Charles Brown to commemorate his mayoralty. There is a plaque in the wall which states this and is again a little misleading. It reads:

  • THE EMBANKMENT OF THE RIVER FROM SOUTER'S LANE TO THIS POINT WAS FORMED AND PLANTED WITH TREES AT THE EXPENSE OF CHARLES BROWN, MAYOR OF THIS CITY 1880-1.

The tower of St Johns collapsed on Good Friday, 15th April, 1881 so 1880-1 refers to the term of the mayorality and not when the work on the embankment was done. The plaque is also somewhat misleading in that it gives the impression that there was no embankment before the date given. However the illustration reproduced above shows that while the embankment was not a wide as it is today but it was possible to walk along the foot of the walls to the Old Dee Bridge before the date given on the plaque. Early photographs show there was a path but that the bank was not faced with stone as it is now.

Continue on to the doorway set into the walls. From here there is a good view of the weir. It is also possible to ascend the Recorder's steps and walk alomg the walls to the Bridgegate and descend again there to embankment level.

The Dee Mills just before demolition.

The Weir

The weir was built in sandstone in 1093 for Hugh of Avranches and is the oldest surviving mill dam in Britain. It was designed to provide a head of water for mills on the River Dee. and to improve navigation above the weir. It can be seen that just below the weir there is at least one large rocky outcrop which rises above the water at low tide. The weir is 12 to 15 feet high at low tide, and forms an artificial pond which reaches at least seven miles upstream, so that the highest tides can be detected at Pulford brook and possibly further up-river towards Farndon. There are only a few navigational hazards hidden beneath the water upstream of the weir such as a sand-bar at "Dee Fords" on the far side of The Earl's Eye. The larger pleasure boats which can be seen on the river above the weir can almost reach Farndon where they would not be able to pass under the bridge and would have difficulty turning.

Hugh granted a tithe on the Dee Mills for the benefit of the Benedictine Abbey of St Werburgh (now Chester Cathedral), which he had founded in 1092. 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. The mills ran a legally enforced monopoly, with all Cestrians being forced to have their corn ground at these mills. The millers were reputed to be take many times what they should in tithes. The song "Miller of Dee" was written about these millers, which led to "Miller of the Dee" becoming an insult in Medieval culture, meaning a thief or a cheat. 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. This meant that for centuries the mills would be worked at times of day which varied with the tides.

In 1866 the River Dee Fishing Board was established with powers to protect the salmon fisheries through licensing and the establishment of a hatchery. A fish pass at the weir, first proposed in 1869, was built in 1913 or 1914 by agreement between Chester corporation, the River Dee Fishing Board, and the owners of the weir. It comprised a 'ladder' of four broad pools, constructed parallel with the weir at the Handbridge end. Herons, Cormorants and other diving birds congregate at the lower end of these "Sakmon Steps" at the appropritate time of year. The fortunes of the fisheries varied in later years. The 1920s were generally good, the 1950s relatively poor. From the 1970s there was a decline in the numbers of fish caught, though there were signs of improvement in the 1990s. The brick building at the far end of the weir is a fish trap. The Welsh Dee is one of handful of ‘index’ monitored rivers for salmon (and sea trout) in the UK. The ‘Dee Stock Assessment Programme’ has been running since the early 1990s – providing an invaluable long-term data set to better understand how and why salmon populations are changing and identify measures to help protect stocks and improve their environment. Trapping of returning adult salmon at Chester Weir – to estimate run size and collect biological information - is a central component of the Dee programme.

After the Dee Mills were demolished, a hydro-electric power station was built in their place. This provided electricity for Chester between 1913 and 1939, using water power to drive generators for the electricity. This was in part the source of electricity used for the city Trams, with the electricity being stored in batteries to accommodate the tidal nature of the river.

Head on past the drum tower (or along the walls) to the Bridgegate.

Drum Tower

Two Victorian postcards of the Groves - a popular promenade - yes, they are the same scene with one painted as if it were day and the other as if it were night. The lady with the red sunshade has put it away but the people are almost the same.

Bridge Gate

The Bridgegate stands at the north end of the Old Dee Bridge and the south end of Bridge Street. Pigot writes:

  • The Bridgegate was in the custody of the Raby family in the reign of Edward III from whom it passed by co heiresses to the Norris's of Speke in Lancashire and the Troutbecks The moiety which belonged to the Norris family was purchased by the Corporation of Sir William Norris in 1624 the other moiety was purchased from the Earl of Shrewsbury as representative of the Trouthecks in 1660 when a suite of rooms in a house near the Bridge still vested in the Shrewsbury family was reserved for the use of the Earl and his heirs whenever they should visit Chester which house now belongs to John Johnson Cotgreave Esquire.
The older Bridgegate.

The "suite of rooms" were at the building which is now the "Bear and Billet" pub, a little way up Lower Bridge Street. Built in 1664 to replace a building destroyed during the civil war, the Bear and Billet is one of the finest examples of a black and white half timbered building in Chester. A drawing of 1820 shows it as the Bridgegate Tavern and it is believed to have acquired its present name soon after.

The "original" Bridgegate was a spectacular building. Not only had it a house perched on top, but it also had a tall octagonal tower. This was in fact a water-tower. In the year 1600 the Mayor and Citizens, granted to one John Tyrer the right to raise water from the Dee at the Bridge Gate, erect a tower upon the Gate, install a cistern, engines or other instruments for raising water and to open streets and lay pipes. During the English Civil War, when Chester was besieged by Parliamentary forces in 1645, King Charles I entered the City via the old Bridgegate and stayed the night at Gamul House home of the then Mayor, Francis Gamul on Lower Bridge Street. During the same Civil War the gate was badly damaged by cannon shot and the earlier square tower was replaced by an octagonal one, The gate was taken down in 1781 as it was both narrow and blocked to use of the walls as a promenade.

The present arched Bridgegate was built in 1782 (designed by Joseph Turner). The gate here was originally referred to as the 'South Gate'. It has also been known as 'Welshgate' as before the construction of the Grosvenor Bridge in 1832 the Old Dee Bridge was the lowest bridged crossing point on the river to North Wales.

From the Bridgegate cross to the Old Dee Bridge.

Old Dee Bridge

The Old Dee Bridge is the oldest bridge in the City. A bridge on this site was originally built by the Romans (see Roman Chester) which probably had stone piers carrying a timber carriageway. The remains of the bases of the Roman piers are said to be visible in the river bed just downstream of the present bridge. During the medieval period, successive river crossings were built on the site of the bridge noted in the Domesday Book to replace others lost to flooding; the current Old Dee Bridge dates from 1353, but at least four other bridges existed on the site beforehand. The bridge became a choke point in Welsh invasions, leading to both ends of the bridge being fitted with sentry posts. Although the bridge formed the only crossing at that point, residents were reluctant to repair the bridge, leading Richard II of England to pay for the crossing to be restored in 1374 with large towers and a drawbridge to further deter Welsh raids.

The weir contains a boat lock at the end nearest the Bridgegate. This is not in use, but is the only surviving boat-loack in a weir in Britain. The lock is only usable by shallow draft boats at high tides.

At the far end of the Bridge walk past the houses on the right and the Ship Inn to arrive at the entrance to the park.

Edgar's Field

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Edgar's Field is a smallish public park at the south end of the Old Dee Bridge which was given to Chester by the then Duke of Westminster in 1892. The park is named after King Edgar, who in 973, is supposed to have been rowed up the River Dee by eight (or six) British princes. The first fortress of Roman Chester would have had earthen ramparts. The second fortress of Roman Chester was constructed of local sandstone, which was quarried from across the river to the south of the fortress. Traces of the quarry can still be seen today at Edgar's Field in Handbridge. Looking carefully it is possible to see some chisel marks.

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. The plant propogates by burr-covered seed pods. 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. It forms a symbiotic relationship with the bacterium Sinorhizobium medicae, which is capable of nitrogen fixation. The leaves and roots of Spotted Medick are reported to contain biologically active terpene saponins with antibacterial and antifungal properties.

The conspicuous "Weathervane" on what is often called "Weathervane Hill" is acutually a sewer vent pipe as well as a weathervane. There are similar vent pipes elsewhere in Chester. The vents are the openings in the "diver's helmet" at the top.

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) as the first king of all England. The religious rites used in his coronation (use of anointing etc.) were devised by St. Dunstan and have been in use ever since. King Edgar is said to have prayed in the minster (monasterium) of St Johns after being rowed along the River Dee. Edgar maintained a large navy against the threat of the Vikings and Chester may have been one of his principal military ports. It was the fact that he managed to maintain peace which gave him his title.

Edgar's Field, Minerva Shrine and the "Weathervane".

Minerva Shrine

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. It dates from around AD 79, during the time of Vespasian, when the same area 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.

The way onward is on the opposite side of the park from the entrance used, and on the far side of the "weathervane".

Napier House and the Agricola Tower seen from Edgar's Field across the River Dee

Chester Castle

Chester Castle is visible across the river from the Minerva Shrine. Most of what can be seen is relatively modern, but the square Agricola Tower dates from around 1190-1200. The Tower is described at length in in Samuel Lewis's 1848 Topographical Dictionary of England:

  • Of the ancient castle, built by the Conqueror, there remains only a large square tower, called "Julius Agricola's Tower," now used as a magazine for gunpowder. Though of modern appearance, having been newly fronted, it is undoubtedly of great antiquity, and interesting as the probable place of confinement of the Earl of Derby, and the place in which Richard II., and Margaret, Countess of Richmond, were imprisoned. In the second chamber James II. heard mass, on his tour through this part of the kingdom, a short time previously to the Revolution. This apartment, when opened after many years of disuse as a chapel, exhibited, from the richness of its decorations, a splendid appearance, the walls being completely covered with paintings in fresco, as vivid and beautiful as when executed; and the roof, from the fine effect produced by the ribs of the groined arches, springing elegantly from slender pillars with capitals in a chaste and curious style, was equally striking.

Except in Winter, much of the castle is obscured by trees from this vantage but better views of it can be obtained further along the walk.

Carvings of Ships

Carvings of "flats" at Edgar's Field.

One the coping stones of the riverside wall below the "weathervane" are several rather crude carvings of sail-boats. These are most likely "Mersey Flats" originally carvel built round-bilged round-sterned sailing barges (boats made with flush hull planking), with a single mast rigged fore and aft with a gaff mainsail and large jib to the stem head. Masts could be lowered or lifted out for upriver work. A few bigger ones, the ’Jigger Flats’, were fitted with a mizzen mast and ventured out to sea as small coasters, to Chester, Wales and the Furness Peninsula.

Although they often varied in size, the boats tended to be around 70ft long (21m) long and 14ft (4m) wide, so that they could fit through the locks on Lancashires's canal network. The most important feature of the Mersey Flat was it's flat bottom. The tidal range of the Mersey is the second highest in the United Kingdom and it's difficult for deep draft boats to move around the river at low tide. So a flat bottomed boat was crucial for keeping the river working.

The exit from the park leads to a riverside path which continues along the south bank. On leaving the park Greenway Street is on the left, but the route continues on along the riverside track.

Greenway Street before some redevelopment was the home of the fishing community in Chester.

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Greenway Street

The River Dee has been one of the most important salmon fishing rivers in the country for 1000 years or more. In the 1830s there were 32 rowing boats used to fish the Dee in Chester. There was a salmon fishing community in Handbridge, much of which was based around Greenway Street (then called Greenaway Street). Much later, in 1913/14, a 'salmon leap' was built alongside the weir, to allow the fish to swim past the weir. It has four pools which act like a staircase for the fish. Joseph Hemingway, writing in 1835, said,

  • "In that useful article, salmon, no market in the kingdom did, some few years ago, excel it; indeed, such was the profusion of that valuable fish, that masters were often restricted, by a clause in the indentiture, from giving it more than twice a week to their apprentices. Though the bounty of providence, in this particular, is yet unabated, such restriction is no longer necessary- some artificial cause, or other very kindly, rendering this fish, at the present day, a delicacy even to the masters themselves... The supply was so great, that after furnishing our own market for the city and neighbourhood, five or six carts were employed in conveying it for sale to distant places".

Once known as Sty or Stile Lane, its current name may be after Joseph Greenway who rented the salmon cage (a piece of equipment for catching salmon) in the 1840s. There are a few older properties towards the upper end of the street, but most of the houses at the river end have been redeveloped. Fishing of salmon was by the use of nets. Before the Dee was canalised into a channel nets placed in the estuary may well have contributed to the silting.

The entrance to Sty Lane Croft is a gate just after Greemway Street. The only way to explore Sty Lane croft on this route is to enter via the gate and then exit the same way.

Stylane Croft

It is possible that "Devil's Ditch" which runs across Stylane Croft in Handbridge was what is commonly referred to as a "linear earthwork", but very little is known about it other than it being marked on early OS maps. Nowadays it is hardly visible at all and without the aid of map would not attract any attention at all. Elsewhere it Britain there are other "Devil's Ditches" and "Devil's Dykes". In many cases Devil’s Dyke or Ditch is a post-medieval name: as so often, a supernatural provenance is ascribed to a monument, landform or structure whose original purpose is lost in the past. Thus the ditch could be a drain, a defensive earthwork from the time of the Viking/Hiberno-Norse occupation of Handbridge or even some remnant of Civil War defences.

Return to the riverside track and continue along it to a white house.

Nowhere

"Nowhere" - it says so on the stone plaque in the middle of the white-washed wall.

On the opposite side of the track to the riverside is a small white cottage. The name of the cottage is "Nowhere", and is displayed on the plaque bang in the middle of the wall. This building is believed to have originally been a secret tavern – when wives asked drunken husbands where they had been, they’d answer ‘nowhere’. The local newspaper reported on the 30th August 1916 that:

  • "At the Chester Police Court today a man named Harry Hand, whose address is "Nowhere" .. was ordered to pay 40/s and handed over to the military authorities for being an absentee under the Military Services Act."

Whether Hand actually lived at the house or was "of no fixed abode" remains a mystery.

Local legend has it that, during a 1963 gig in Chester by The Beatles, John Lennon heard about the house and was intrigued by the name, and the song "Nowhere Man" was inspired by this cottage. There may be a basis for truth in this as the Beatles did play in Chester, but in 1962 at the Riverpark Ballroom. Another Beatles connection is that the Bear and Billet was the birthplace of John Lennon's grandmother. However, biographies of the Beatles suggest that the song's name came to Lennon when he was trying to write the song after a "night out" in Liverpool and was initially "getting nowhere".

Having passed "Nowhere" there are two possible routes to get up onto the Grosvenor Bridge. One is to take a left turn and then a right into the cemetary and walk up through the cemetery to reach Grosvenor Road to the bridge. The other route is to continue under the Grosvenor Bridge and follow the track to reach a set of steps leading up to a metal footbridge. This footbridge leads to the road opposite the cemetery gates. The "Dingle" which the metal bridge crosses would have been on the canal route to Wrexham had this been built. The diversion through the Dingle may be useful if the cemetery gates are locked.

Overleigh Cemetery

Chester's spooky Victorian Overleigh Cemetery at the south end of the Grosvenor Bridge originally had a lake with islands (none of these survive) and two chapels; one for nonconformists and another (on higher ground!) for Anglicans. Like many Victorian cemeteries it started off as a private concern. The original Overleigh Cemetery was opened by the Chester General Cemetery Company on 12 November 1850. In fact, the money ran out part-way through landscaping and fresh shareholders had to be found in something of a hurry. The site was laid out between 1848 and 1850. Its architect was Thomas Mainwaring Penson (1818-64). It is situated in a dark valley and, as the evening draws near, it can be a very spooky place. The gates are locked at dusk. There is a helpful sign saying who to call if you are locked-in, but rather oddly this is placed on the outside of the gates.

If you took the route through the cemetery the general course is to head uphill and towards the bridge. The cemetery gates will bring you out on the approach road to the Grosvenor Bridge.

The Grosvenor Bridge looking down a still and misty River Dee.

Grosvenor Bridge

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. One reason for building the Grosvenor Bridge was that the Old Dee Bridge was frequently congested. It has also been suggested that the construction of the bridge was prompted by the appointment of Thomas Telford in 1815 to oversee the building of what is now the A5 from Shrewsbury up to Holyhead. If this was the case the Cestrians were very slow to act. Following a public meeting at the Chester Town Hall (in those days the "Exchange") on 28th Deptember 1818 a resolution was passed that:

  • "... the existing mediaeval bridge [at Handbridge] and the avenues thereto, which are the principal communication between the great manufacturing counties of Lancaster and York and the whole of the North of England, with the West of England, and with Wales and Ireland, are not only highly inconvenient but absolutely dangerous to passengers in carriages, on horseback and on foot."

It took until 1825 to get the Royal Assent to the Act. By the time the bridge was opened almost twenty years had passed since the first concerns had been expressed about the diversion of trade via Telfords new route into Wales.

Crossing the Grosvenor Bridge gives a good view of Chester Castle from the south. One prominent feature is the large gun platform. A 1745 battery overlooking the river was intended for 12 cannon but only four pieces were mounted. The more impressive battery visible from the Grosvenor Bridge has a date-stone of 1786, but does not appear to have direct military origin from any conflict at the time. What appears to have happened is that a large portion of the castle wall had fallen down and needed to be rebuilt.

Half-way

The end of the Grosvenor Bridge nearest the castle is just over a quarter of the way along the walk, so turning back here will half the total distance. This may be important if the weather is turning or time is getting on for the parking at Dee Lane. There is little or no shelter for the next quarter mile around the outside of the race-course. The way onwards might also be blocked if a race meeting is being held. If returning from this point, Castle Drive leads back to the Old Dee Bridge. If heading onwards walk through the car-park on the upstream side of the bridge towards the river and the riverside path on the north bank.

Chester Castle and the City Walls. The detached red sandstone building on the gun platform in the inner bailey is Napier House. It was originally intended as as armory but was used as barracks and offices. Near the car parked in front of the walls can be seen the stone model of the Grosvenor Bridge.

Prior to the construction of the Grosvenor Bridge there was considerable doubt as to its structural integrity. One way that the Committee were convinced was by the constructiom of a scale model of the bridge which can srill be seen today next to the City Walls by Chester Castle. In engineering terms this borders on trickery, as the well-known Square-Cube Law demonstrates that as a model is scaled up the weight grows faster than its ability to support itself - the reason why elephants have thick legs, while ants can make do with very thin ones. In fact a scale model bridge carved from a single chunk of stone says very little about the strength of the full size equivalent bridge made from an assembly of thousands of elements of masonry.

Passing under the bridge head on along the path between the river and the racecourse

The Roodee

The Roodee from the Ordinance Survey map of 1872

Hanshall writing in 1816 notes that in 1710: "The Roodee inclosed with a cop", and in 1720: "Part of the Roodee cop. being washed down, was rebuilt, and faced with stone." This refers to the raised bank beside which the path (constructed in 2005) loops around the racecourse. In Roman times the Roodee was frequently flooded and ur appears that the Roman constructed a long pier out to the deeper water where the river now runs. In 1587 the Corporation had leased the bank of the river and the adjacent pasture (now the Roodee) to Thonas Lyneal, for him to reclaim

The Roodee is Chester's racecourse. Horse racing in Chester dates back to the early sixteenth century, with 1539 cited as the year racing began, although some sources give a date of 1512 for the first races in Chester. It is also thought to be the smallest racecourse of significance in England at 1 mile and 1 furlong (1.8 km) long. The site was once a harbour during the Roman settlement of the city (see Roman Chester) and during the Early Middle Ages, sometimes referred to as the Dark Ages, but was closed as the river silted up thus making navigation impossible.

Towards the centre of the in field is a raised mound which is decorated by a small cross known as a "rood". It is from this that the race course derives the name "Roodee"; Roodee is a corruption of "Rood Eye", meaning "The Island of the Cross", and is sometimes seen as "roody" in early sources. According to legend the cross marks the burial site of a statue of the Virgin Mary sentenced to hang after causing the death of Lady Trawst, the wife of the Governor of Hawarden. The legend states that she had gone to church to pray for rain but when her prayers were answered by a tremendous thunderstorm the statue was loosened and fell, killing her. As a holy object, hanging or burning the statue would be sacrilege so the statue was left by the banks of the river and the tide carried it down to Chester. The statue was found guilty by a jury of 12 men. If the legend is true, then this is the first recorded case of a jury being used in a court. Less fanciful is a report from 1840 that the stone obelisk is the base of a cross that marked the boundary of the Benedictine Nunnery, the nunnery having been created in the mid 12th century, and dissolved in January 1540. The cross was known as the Rood Dee (the Dee cross), to distinguish it from the cross at St. Peter's Church.

The Chester Racecourse site was home to the famous and bloody Goteddsday football match. The game was very violent and, in 1533, banned by the city, to be replaced in 1539 by horse racing. The first recorded race was held on 9 February 1539 (although other sources list this as 10 January 1511 and some as 1512) with the consent of the Mayor Henry Gee.

Eventually the path around the racecourse leads to the railway viaduct, and an archway under it.

Dee Rail Bridge

An illustration of the Dee Railway Bridge collapse from the newspapers of the time. The Grosvenor Bridge can be seen in the foreground.

In late 1846, the Shrewsbury and Chester Railway, later to become part of the Great Western Railway, first carried traffic. From Saltney Junction, access was gained to Chester via the Chester & Holyhead Railway. This latter line was carried over the River Dee, in the same place where it crosses today, by three 98-foot spans of cast-iron girders resting on stone piers. At the time that it was completed it was the largest cast-iron girder bridge in Britain. Both the bridge and the line had been designed by the great railway engineer, Robert Stephenson. The design was not unlike that of the Tay Bridge, which collapsed some thirty years later. Robert Stephenson was the son of George, of Rocket fame, who was often called the ‘father’ of the railways. Although a span of some 80 m (250 ft) was called for, Stephenson’s bridge had just two stone piers because of concerns about the foundations in the river bed; these were linked by a construction of cast-iron girders on which oak joists were laid that supported the twin tracks.

One thing which immediately strikes the visitor is that the railway bridge is much lower than the Grosvenor Bridge just a short distance upstream. The Dee railway bridge dates from 1846, while the Grosvenor Bridge was completed in 1833. Nothing could tell more clearly of the decline of "tall ships" plying their way to Chester over that 13 year period. When the Grosvenor Bridge was built it was the longest existing single-span stone arch road bridge in the world – at 200 feet across and 60 feet high, a record it held for thirty years. It is still the longest single masonry arch in the UK and number 19 in the world. There may however be other reasons why the Grosvenor Bridge was built on such a spectacular a scale: perhaps an urge on the part of the Grosvenors to have an impressive bridge at the end of their driveway leading to the racecourse.

An illustration of the Dee Bridge after collapse -it features too many carriages. The Portpool, with shipping, can be seen in the background.

The River Dee railway bridge first opened to local freight traffic on 4 November 1846, following its examination and approval by an inspector from the government’s Board of Trade. Additional details emerging from the newspapers and inquest following the disaster revealed that painters working on the structure had observed large deflections of several inches in the girders shortly after this examination. However, neither Stephenson nor his staff seemed to have been informed of the discovery. Just before the bridge was opened to the public, a small fracture was detected near the joint between two girders. Stephenson was made aware of this and deduced it was the result of a casting defect. Piles were placed to temporarily support the faulty girder and a new section was cast as a replacement.

On 24 May 1847, the driver of the 18:15 Chester-Ruabon train noticed something was amiss as his train, crossing the span of the bridge closest to Saltney, began to vibrate strongly. The train had left Chester Station and consisted of one first-class carriage, two second class carriages, and a luggage-van; but it is stated that there were not more than two dozen passengers. The driver boldly opened his throttle to clear the bridge and no sooner had he reached the bank than the bridge collapsed into the Dee, carrying away his unfortunate fireman, who was dashed against the stonework of the bridge and killed. The death toll included a guard, two coachmen and a few passengers (sources vary). Sixteen people (sources again vary) were badly injured, which is surprising considering that the whole train, except the engine, fell into the swirling waters of the tidal River Dee.

Curiously, Stephenson himself had inspected the bridge for safety earlier on the very same day. He had noted that hot coals falling from passing trains could possibly set the wooden parts of the bridge structure alight and had ordered that the bridge deck be covered with tons of track ballast to prevent the oak beams supporting the track from catching fire. Undoubtedly, this massive loading of the structure with crushed stone contributed to the disaster. The ballast was laid in the afternoon, an operation completed just before the ill-fated train left Chester station at 6.15 pm. Many locals saw the accident and rushed to the aid of survivors. A number of observers provided accident inspectors with eyewitness accounts. The brave driver, whose name was Clayton, had just seen his fireman slain, but not only drove his train to Saltney to summon help, yet then recrossed the bridge on the other track to warn oncoming traffic. Stephenson's bridge design was condemned by the inspector of railways as being too weak and generally unsound.

The "warehouse" at Crane Wharf in 2020. The "flagpole" is a practice mast for the Sea Cadets who presumably use it for hoisting and wearing signal flags.

Portpool

The "Portpool" area of Chester is the reach of the River Dee downstream from the Roodee to the where "Finchett's Gutter" (the downstream end of Flookersbrook) empties into the Dee. It stretches inland as far as the Watertower at the northwest corner of the City Walls. The River Dee once washed almost against the City Walls between the Watergate and the Watertower, but silting has resulted in the movement of the river's bed away from the walls. Indeed, the Watertower, built between 1323 and 1325, once stood in the river itself, but some 400 years later, by the date of the Lavaux Map (1745) the river's course had shifted significantly. The Watertower is now some 150 meters from the River. The area is somewhat off the "beaten track" for tourists, but there are a number of historic features worth noting.

On emerging from the runnel under the railway, the new 138 stables for the the racecourse are on the right. The previous stables at Linenhall were unsafe because the racehorses had to cross busy New Crane Street to get to the racecourse, and by 2005 the race company had been trying to locate the stables closer to the course for 25 years.

The route then passes some new housing on the site of the former gas-works and workhouse. This leads to Crane Bank over a boardwalk and alongside what was once a dock after the river dee was canalised.

A very approximate schematic of the Chester end of the River Dee Navigation (thick blue line) showing the dates on which various polders were drained. The location of Roman Chester is shown as a red rectangle.

The long warehouse, (in 2020 sea cadet corps premises), forms a block with a dwelling (No.7) and 3 cottages. This former warehouse, approximately 40 x 8m in plan, dates from the 1750s or 1760s, with the north end rebuilt in the 19th Cent after a fire. The cottages are somewhat later than the former warehouse. All are in brown brick in irregular bond, with grey slate roofs. The former warehouse is on three storeys with the rebuilt north-west end slightly taller than the C18 work; the cottages are 2-storeys. In 2003, as part of repair and flood defence work in the Old Port area of Chester, three small trenches were excavated with the specific aim of finding the remains of three cranes. Remains associated with two crane bases were found. Remains of the third crane were not located, but an archaeological horizon comprising a sandstone and cobbled surface was encountered within the third trench. This suggested the survival of further riverside features in this area of the Old Port.

The riverside path ends where a branch of the canal once entered the River Dee. Just ahead there is a sharp turn in the river. This is the beginning of the canalised section of the river which was formed by reclaiming land from the estuary. The story is told in further detail elsewhere on this site (see: The "Canal Scheme") but in brief, various plans were proposed from 1677 onwards but it was not until 1734 that the required Act was passed. In 1737, the "New Cut" was opened and the whole of the works completed before the 25th of March, 1740. The New Cut meant that subsequently large tracts of land could be reclaimed - part of this area is now known as Sealand, where a large retail park and trading estate currently exist. However, the diversion failed to solve the problem of the Dee silting up: the River Dee Company appears to have been more concerned with reclaiming land and selling it than keeping the "navigation" open. In 1839 the Chester Chronicle accused the River Dee Company of being an enterprise:

  • "with whom territory is the sole object and who care no more for the trade of Chester than for the trade of the Moon".

However a report of the Admiralty Inspectors of the "Dee Conservancy Bill" (1850) places a share of the blame with the City:

  • "We cannot .. fail to express the opinion that considerable apathy and want of attention to the interests of the navigation have been displayed by the authorities of Chester for a long period of years, and that to the neglect of the powers conferred on them by the various Acts of Parliament, the present ruinous state of the Dee Navigation may in part be attributed."

The Act of 1744 had empowered the Corporation to appoint one of two supervisors who were to take soundings in the river and report to the city or county justices if at three successive tides the depth of the channel fell below 15 ft - the corporation of Chester made no effort to appoint anyone until 1799, by which time the Dee Navigation Company had apparently taken the clandestine step of removing the "standard" by which the depth of the water was to be measured.

The port of Chester slipped slowly into oblivion. By the 1830's traditional manufacturing trades, including the making of clay-pipes, clocks and gloves were in serious decline, if not entirely extinct. Ship-building was entering a terminal phase and rope-making barely survived. Both of the two cotton mills had closed by the 1820's, so one of the leading industries of the Industrial Revolution had failed to establish itself in Chester. While in the 18thC. the City Fair's had been dominated by linen (the trade peaked in the 1760's), by 1830 the trade was dead. The reasons for the collapse of the linen trade center around the decline in the Chester/Dublin trade route, as its ends moved from Dublin to Belfast and Chester to Liverpool, as well as the substitution of cheaper cotton for linen. The polarisation of rich and poor was noted at the time - Hemingway thought that there were few places in the country where the gentry formed such a high proportion of the population and he was pleased that the lack of factories meant the absence of "the crowds of the lowest rabble they engender".

Getting back

The Dee Branch of the Canal is the end of the walk along the Groves and the rest of the "Riverside Trail". The Canal and Boatyard are worth a look.

There are several routes to return to the start if needs be. A route to the city walls can be found via Tower Road past the Watertower. This shows how the course of the river has shifted over the years. Between 1323 and 1325, the Water Tower and spur wall from Bonewaldesthorne's Tower on the north-west corner of the City Walls were built at a cost of £100 to protect the harbour. The architect was John (de) Helpston who had also designed castles for King Edward II in North Wales. At the time it was known as the New Tower. The Braun and Hogenberg map (1581) clearly shows that at the time the Tower actually stood in the River Dee (at high tide), but the river now flows some distance away.

From the Watertower the walls can be followed anti-clockwise to return to the Old Dee Bridge. It is also possible to follow the walls clockwise, leaving them either at Newgate or heading on to the Recorder's Steps. An alternative is to follow the Canalside to City Road and then leave the canal tow-path and head back to Dee Lane.

An interesting variant on the path back to Dee Lane takes a route through Grosvenor Park from the Hermitage to Dee Lane.

The bridge between the Watertower and the city walls. This actually once stood in the River Dee. but the course of the river has changed so much that it is now some distance inland.

Admiral of the Dee

The mayor of Chester is also the "Admiral of the Dee". It was not until Henry VII’s Great Charter of 1506 that the role was confirmed, although Admiralty powers were originally granted to Chester in 1354 by the Black Prince. This allowed them,

  • “The searching of the water of Dee from a certain place callled the Iron Bridge to another place called Arnold’s Eye.”

The "Iron Bridge" is Heronbridge, while Arnold's Eye is most likely the Red Rocks at Hoylake The rights granted included that to impose tolls and customs, but these were abolished by the Municipal Corporations Act 1835, although the mayor retained the right to the title, and still carries out the tradition of inspecting the river once a year. When doing this he caries a silver oar, known as the Water Bailiff’s Oar, as an emblem of authority. It is often said that the mayor's title as admiral is unique, but there is also an Admiral of the Humber, dating from 1293. The Admiral of the Humber is one of the titles awarded to the Lord Mayor of Hull. The position of Mayor of Kingston upon Hull was established in 1332 by Edward III. The Lord Mayor of London is also ex officio the Admiral of the Port of London.

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