We have divided the story of the River Dee into three parts:
- 1 Upper Reaches
- 2 Middle Reaches
- 3 Lower Reaches
- 4 The Middle Reaches of the Dee
- 4.1 sources and links
- 4.2 Erbistock and Overton-On-Dee
- 4.3 Bangor-on-Dee
- 4.4 Vegetation
- 4.5 Roman Bovium - where was it?
- 4.6 Holt & Farndon
- 4.7 Poulton and Aldford
- 4.8 Heronbridge
- 4.9 Almost Home
- 5 The Dee at Chester
From the source of the river at springs on the slopes of Dduallt above Llanuwchllyn in the mountains of Snowdonia, through Wales, to its emergence from the Vale of Llangollen; here the young river flows swiftly and the majority of erosion takes place, cutting relatively narrow, steep-sided, "V"-shaped valleys, often with interlocking spurs.
Once the main River Dee approaches the Cheshire border and the Carboniferous Coal Measures, it turns sharply northwards before meandering up to Chester. This long stretch of the river drops in height by only a few feet. The rich adjoining farmland has many remnants of abandoned coal workings and deep clay-pits used to make bricks and tiles. A number of these pits are now being used as landfill sites for domestic and commercial waste. Downstream of Bangor-on-Dee and to the east of Wrexham, the river becomes the natural border between Wales and England, a role it performs for several miles as it meanders between the twin villages of Holt and Farndon, Cheshire where a medieval sandstone bridge stands at an important crossing point. Approaching Aldford, it passes entirely into England, then flows under the A55 road and continues northwards to Chester. Through England and the Welsh borders to Chester; the "middle aged" river slows down and the valley becomes broader. Both erosion and deposition of material takes place, leading to the formation of meanders and occasional changes of course which have in cases left pockets of England "stranded" on the Welsh side of the River Dee.
Back in Wales, below Chester to Hilbre Islands and the sea; the river is now in "old-age" and while there is little erosion a lot of material is deposited. In the case of the River Dee this deposition has had a significant impact on the economic development of Chester, effectively turning a major port into a relatively quiet backwater. The estuary is important for birdlife and has been designated both as a "Site of Special Scientific Interest" and under the "Ramsar Convention" on "Wetlands of International Importance", especially as waterfowl habitats.
The Middle Reaches of the Dee
As this geological map below shows, the surface rock type changes rapidly as the River Dee exits the Vale of Llangollen. In rapid succession the Carboniferous limestone (blue) is succeeded by millstone grit (grey), coal measures (black) and then Permian sandstone.
In terms of geological history, the river at this point passes the geological boundary marking the "Permian-Triassic Extinction Event", informally known as the "Great Dying". It was the Earth's most severe extinction event (so far), with up to 96 percent of all marine species and 70 percent of terrestrial vertebrate species becoming extinct. This marked the end of the Paleozoic era, the first of the three great divisions of geological time that drew to a close around 250 million years ago. The Permian Mass Extinction almost wiped all life from the earth.
At the start of the Paleozoic era, all life was confined to bacteria, algae, sponges and a variety of somewhat enigmatic (in evolutionary terms, experimental) forms known collectively as the Ediacaran biota - the latter exhibited a vast range of morphological characteristics in which almost all forms of symmetry were present. A large number of different "body plans" appeared nearly simultaneously at the start of the era - a phenomenon known as the "Cambrian Explosion". In "On the Origin of Species", Charles Darwin considered this sudden appearance of solitary group of trilobites with no apparent antecedents, and absence of other fossils to be "undoubtedly of the gravest nature" among the difficulties in his theory of natural selection. He reasoned that earlier seas had swarmed with living creatures, but that their fossils had not been found due to the imperfections of the fossil record - which is possibly due to the absence of "hard parts" in earlier creatures.
During the late Paleozoic, great forests of primitive plants thrived on land forming great coal beds and both the first large, sophisticated reptiles and the first modern plants (conifers) had developed. Whatever the cause of the mass-extinction, it took about 50 million years for life on land to fully recover its biodiversity. Nothing resembling a coral reef shows up until 10 million years after the Permian extinction, and full recovery of marine life took about 100 million years. In reaching this point in it's journey to the sea the Dee has crossed this 300 million years of geological history and is half-way to the present and half-way to the sea.
Downstream from here, the Cheshire Basin is a fault-bounded "graben" structure which was flooded on several occasions in the Permian and early Triassic periods resulting in the laying down of massive halite (salt) beds. These beds have been mined both by cavern working and hot water brine extraction for over 200 years, although salt had been extracted from springs since iron-age times. Iron-Age Britons probably traded Westmorland stone axe-heads for salt. Some of the Cheshire meres result from collapse following the removal of salt, but others (possibly most) are of glacial origin having developed in natural depressions in the glacial drift left by receding ice sheets. The "New Red Sandstone" was laid down in the Triassic, and so in the Vale of Llangollen alone the River Dee crosses almost 100 million years of geological history. Rising up from the Cheshire plain are a number of small sandstone ridges and scarps formed from the Lower Triassic Sherwood Sandstone, such as the northern end of an outcrop which runs through central Cheshire between Malpas and Tarporley (the Peckforton Hills), while in the east the sandstone gives rise to Alderley Edge. The sandstone is cemented together with the ferric iron oxide haematite (Fe2O3), evidence for a hot, arid desert and this iron gives the rocks the eponymous red hue. Three different mechanisms led to the production of the rocks which underlie the Cheshire plains:
- Sedimentary Bedrock formed approximately 271 to 309 million years ago in the Permian and Carboniferous Periods. These rocks were formed from rivers depositing mainly sand and gravel detrital material in channels to form river terrace deposits, with fine silt and clay from overbank floods forming flood-plain alluvium, and some bogs depositing peat; includes estuarine and coastal plain deposits
- Sedimentary Bedrock formed approximately 246 to 251 million years ago in the Triassic Period. These rocks were formed by wind-blown dustin mainly in hot dry environments where potential evaporation was greater than precipitation; often characterised by dunes, loess and evaporites.
- The smoothness and roundness of the pebbles within the "Chester Pebble Beds" formed approximately 246 to 251 million years ago in the Triassic Period indicates that they were transported by prototypic river Dee: a large and powerful braided-river system, probably on the margin of an arid, desert mountain range.
The only ocean formed rocks are south of Whitchurch, where Mudstone, Siltstone, Limestone And Sandstone sedimentary Bedrock formed approximately 172 to 204 million years ago in the Jurassic (at Prees Heath) and Triassic Periods. These rocks were formed in shallow seas with mainly siliciclastic sediments (comprising of fragments or clasts of silicate minerals) deposited as mud, silt, sand and gravel. There are no Cretaceous or later rocks in Cheshire so the bounday between the Cretaceaous and Tertiary where the dinosaurs became extinct (or rather, became crocodiles and birds) is not visible. The reason for the absence of these later rocks (anything formed after the New Red Sandstone), anything after 200 million years ago, was either never formed or was worn down and transported away by later geological processes.
- Geology of Britain from the British Geographical Society - a very good zoomable map;
- The Permian Mass Extinction almost wiped all life from the earth;
- The Sandstone Trail stretches for 34 miles/55 kilometres and offers superb, unbroken, and often elevated walking on 225 million year old Triassic sandstone.
- Cheshiretrove on local geology;
- River Dee Geology - where when is where on the Dee;
At Erbistock, near the famous 17th century Boat Inn is are the remnants of a hand-operated chain ferry which once crossed the River Dee at this point. Historian Alfred Neobard Palmer suggested that the name of the village derives from "Erbin's stoke" meaning Erbin's stockaded ford.
One of the key flow-measuring locations for the Dee Regulation Scheme is at Manley Hall, a gauging station which opened in January 1969 at a weir near Erbistock. When the flow at Manley Hall falls to 10 m³/s, additional flow is released from Bala Lake (Llyn Tegid). If that is insufficient, flow from Llyn Celyn is used to maintain 10 m³/s at Manley Hall. In extreme drought situations water from Llyn Brenig is released.
Overton-on-Dee is seven miles (11 km) from Wrexham and exactly twenty-two miles from both Chester and Shrewsbury. The churchyard of St Mary the Virgin dominates the high street and is famous for twenty-one very ancient yew trees. The yew trees are traditionally one of the "Seven Wonders of Wales" as referenced in the following verse, penned by an anonymous 18th-century English traveller:
- Pistyll Rhaeadr and Wrexham steeple,
- Snowdon's mountain without its people,
- Overton yew trees, St Winefride wells,
- Llangollen bridge, and Gresford bells.
Six of the "Wonders" are in a small pocket in the north-east of the country. Pistyll Rhaeadr, at 240ft high it is the UK tallest single drop waterfall; Wrexham steeple, 135ft high is actually a tower on the is largest mediaeval Parish Church in Wales (although a stone bears the faded legend, "This steeple was completed in 1506."); Snowdon is the highest mountain in Wales, at an elevation of 3,560ft above sea level, and is seldom without people; St Winefride wells at Holywell, Flintshire, claims to be the oldest continually visited pilgrimage site in Britain; Llangollen bridge (over the Dee) was built in the 16th century to replace a previous bridge built in about 1345 and the bells of All Saints' Church at Gresford are said for the purity of their tone.
At 1,500 to 2,000 years old, the oldest tree at Overton predates the church, whose earliest stonework is probably Norman. In 1992 the village celebrated the 700th anniversary of the granting of a Royal Charter to Overton by Edward I in 1292 with a visit from Elizabeth II who planted a new yew tree. Overton is situated in an exclave of the traditional county of Flintshire known as Maelor Saesneg (English: "English Maelor"), sometimes called "Flintshire Detached", and was the administrative centre of that part of the administrative county between 1889 and 1974. Strangely, the community (parish) and county boundary between it and Erbistock (in historic Denbighshire) is, in part, on the west side of the river due to oxbow formation in the river.
During the 12th Century Overton returned to Welsh Rule when in 1130 Powys was divided into two parts, with Overton being part of Powys Fadog. Soon after this date it is believed that Madoc ap Meredydd, Prince of Powys built a castle near to the village. The precise location of the castle is not known but it is supposed to have been on a cliff edge overlooking the Dee. In the 1530's Leland, a Tudor traveller noted the castle to be ruinous and about to fall into the Dee. It was likely that the castle was close to the river in the Asney area to the north-west of the village. The castle would likely have comprised a Motte and Bailey with later stone fortifications. One probable theory for the demise of the castle is a change in the course of the River Dee leading to erosion of the river bank and subsequent collapse of the castle remains.
Charles Darwin (12 February 1809 – 19 April 1882) often stayed with his sister at her home at The Brow, Overton (see the Feb 2009 "Overton Oracle"), and no doubt regaled his young nieces and nephews with tales of his famous voyage on HMS Beagle (1831-36). The Brow was the home of Edward and Marianne Parker (Darwin's elder sister) from 1824 to 1858. Charles was a keen walker, perhaps examining Overton’s flora and fauna and possibly thinking about his theory of "Natural Selection" - which he appears to have first thought of in 1837 and eventually published only in 1859. Used to jotting down daily notes on animal breeding, he scrawled rambling thoughts about career and prospects on two scraps of paper, one with columns headed "Marry" and "Not Marry". Advantages listed under "marry" included "constant companion and a friend in old age ... better than a dog anyhow", against points such as "less money for books" and "terrible loss of time." One diary entry from 1838 has him staying at the Brow on July 12, shortly before he proposed to Emma Wedgwood - her grandfather Josiah Wedgwood had made his fortune in pottery, and Charles Darwin was her first cousin; their shared grandparents were Josiah Wedgwood and his wife Sarah. The Darwins had ten children: two died in infancy, and Annie's death at the age of ten had a devastating effect on her parents. Charles was, despite his earlier thoughts about marrying, a devoted father and uncommonly attentive to his children. Whenever they fell ill, he feared that they might have inherited weaknesses from inbreeding due to the close family ties he shared with his wife and cousin,
Apart from the sandstone of the Lower Triassic there are few rocks in western Cheshire from the Mesozoic era which followed the era in which the rocks of the upper reaches of the river were laid down. The extinction of nearly all animal species at the end of the Permian period allowed for the evolution of many new lifeforms and animal life during the Mesozoic was dominated by large reptiles that first evolved a few million years after the Permian extinction: dinosaurs, pterosaurs, and their aquatic cousins such as ichthyosaurs, plesiosaurs, and mosasaurs. This middle part of geological history came to a shattering close with the Cretaceous–Tertiary Extinction Event, caused by one or more catastrophies such as massive asteroid impacts or increased volcanic activity. The following age, sometimes called the Tertiary was to become the Age of Mammals, ending with the most recent Ice Age, at the end of the Pliocene epoch. It is in the most recent era, the Quaternary, that the local geology picks up again.
The rocks throughout western Cheshire are overlain by Quaternary glacial deposits, largely consisting of till (or boulder clay), with local deposits of silt, peat, sand and gravels. It is across this flat plain that the river now makes its way, changing in character from the tempestuous Welsh river to a mostly placid English one that meanders about in no real hurry. While the river still has far to go it is already only 30 feet above sea level and along the flood plain from the weirs at Erbistock to the weir at Chester the River Dee often has the character of a long narrow lake. The British Geological Survey has conducted intensive studies of the hydro-geology of the Cheshire Plain. Buried channels detected in the vicinity of the Mersey and Dee estuaries may represent former pre-glacial courses of these rivers (that is routes followed by the rivers before the last, Devensian, glaciation of the area about 18,000 years ago). After the Late Devensian glacier which invaded the area from the Irish Sea had wasted from the plain, the rivers were able, once again, to exit into Liverpool Bay, cutting their courses during the last 15,000 years or so through the vast spreads of glacial debris and sediment which had accumulated beneath and around the margins of the ice-sheet.
It is not clear when "mankind" first settled on the River Dee, but hominid remains dating back over 200,000 years have been found at Bontnewydd in Denbighshire. These were not modern human remains, but the remains of our close cousins, the Neanderthal's. Subsequent periods of glaciation would have driven hominids from Britain (or killed them off) many times. Perhaps the Neanderthals came back several times, only to be displaced by the more "modern" humans of today. It has often been suggested that the Neanderthals were the origin of tales concerning "fairy folk", gnomes, elves, and all the other humanoid "others" that crop up over and over again in mythology, especially in the mythology of the dark-haired Celtic races. Reconstructions seem to indicate that the Neanderthals were a fair-haired (or red-haired) people and their DNA will be fully sequenced soon. There have even been rather alarming suggestions that in the not-too-distant future it may be possible to recreate Neanderthals by a modified cloning process. There are however serious problems with the "Neanderthals as Welsh fairy-folk" theory, because the most recent Neanderthal sites anywhere seem to be from no later than 30,000 years ago and, as we shall see later, humans in Wales cannot be descended from ancestors who lived there more than 10,000 BC.
Using genetic analysis Stephen Oppenheimer and Brian Sykes genetic have sought to demonstrate that the post-Roman Anglo-Saxon invasions of the Dark Ages contributed just a small fraction (5%) to the English gene pool. Two thirds of the English people reveal an unbroken line of genetic descent from south-western Europeans arriving long before the first farmers. The bulk of the remaining third arrived between 7,000 and 3,000 years ago as part of long-term north-west European trade and immigration, especially from Scandinavia. As for the Celts - the Irish, Scots and Welsh - history has traditionally placed their origins in Iron Age Central Europe - along the Danube. Oppenheimer's genetic synthesis argued the Celts to have arrived via the Atlantic coastal route from Ice Age refuges including the Basque country. A low estimate for population of Britain around 9000 BC is 1,100–1,200 people, in 8000 BC 1,200–2,400, in 7000 BC to be 2,500–5,000, and in 5000 BC to be 2,750–5,500. Another method gives a much higher estimate, so that by 4000 BC the population of Great Britain was around 100,000 while that of Ireland was some 40,000, and by 2000 BC 250,000 and 50,000.
This has remained a much debated area of research. Work published in 2015 concludes that the advent of agriculture (~3750 BC) and later metallurgy (~2300 BC) also brought a change in genetic structure in Ireland indicating that there was a substantial influx of early farmers of predominantly Near Eastern origin to the island during the Neolithic (3343–3020 BC), and a Bronze Age (2026–1534 BC) influx with substantial Yamnaya steppe genetic heritage.
- Manley Hall at "GaugeMap" - shows the flow of the River Dee live (even on Twitter);
- Overton Conservation Area;
- Bontnewydd Cave;
- THE SEDGWICK-DARWIN GEOLOGIC TOUR OF NORTH WALES;
Glaciation has been a rare event in Earth's history, and before the current ice age cycle, which began 2 to 3 million years ago, Earth's climate was typically mild and uniform for long periods of time. There are many theories for the origin of Ice Ages. The consensus is that several factors are important:
- atmospheric composition (the concentrations of carbon dioxide, methane);
- changes in the Earth's orbit around the Sun known as "Milankovitch cycles" (and possibly the Sun's orbit around the galaxy);
- the motion of tectonic plates resulting in changes in the relative location and amount of continental and oceanic crust on the Earth's surface, which could affect wind and ocean currents;
- variations in solar output;
- the orbital dynamics of the Earth-Moon system; and;
- "Nuclear winter" caused by the impact of relatively large meteorites, and volcanism including eruptions of "super-volcanoes".
Ice ages were never good for mankind, but 70,000 years ago things were to get a whole lot worse. The human line had produced a variety of species, including Homo habilis, H. ergaster, H. erectus, H. neanderthalensis, H. sapiens (us), and possibly already by that time H. floresiensis, often called "the Hobbit". Then, according to the "Toba Catastrophe Theory", the consequences of a massive volcanic eruption drove the world's human population to the very brink of extinction when the Toba caldera in Indonesia underwent an eruption of category 8 (or "mega-colossal") on the Volcanic Explosivity Index. Possibly only 3-10 thousand humans survived the fall-out of acid rain and "nuclear winter" deepening the already existing ice age. Almost all survivors probably lived in Africa (with possibly small groups in India and Homo floresiensis on Flores). It was this tiny population, expanding out of Africa that was to become the population of the entire modern world. Genetic evidence also suggests that today's humans are descended from a very small population of between 1,000 and 10,000 breeding pairs that existed about 70,000 years ago.
During one of the last cold phases of the present Ice Age (it is called the "Devensian" and named after the River Dee), a huge glacier, referred to as "The Irish Sea Glacier", flowed southwards from its source areas in Scotland and Ireland and across the Isle of Man, Anglesey and Pembrokeshire - about 700 km from its source areas to its southernmost margin. It is sometimes referred to as an “ice stream” since it appears to have been constrained not by ice-free land areas but by highlands which were themselves buried beneath ice. At the time of its maximum extent the glacier extended all the way to the coasts of Somerset and Cornwall, along the south coast of Ireland, and even reached the Scilly Isles. To the east, the glacier was bounded by the Welsh Ice Cap, sitting 2.5 kilometers thick on top of Snowdonia. Part of this Ice Cap comprised the "Bala Ice Stream", which is believed to have followed path of the Dee. The Late Devensian, from 25,000 to 10,000 years ago is the part that played a pivotal role in moulding the landscape we see today.
The Vanishing Monastery
There is no settlement in this part of the River Dee floodplain other than Bangor-on-Dee, and holiday cabins and caravans at Almere.
The Welsh name for the village of Bangor-on-Dee is "Bangor-is-y-Coed": 'Bangor' meaning 'place of the choir', is so because of its early origins as a monastic settlement, whilst 'is-y-Coed' translates as 'below the wood' on account of its wooded setting. It was possibly called Bovinium by the Romans (Bovium "ten miles from Chester and twenty miles from Whitchurch" has been "located" at several sites - Tilston, Stretton, Heronbridge, Holt and/or Beeston). It was more clearly called Bancornburg by the Saxons, Bancor then Bankerbur but it wasn't until 1291 that first reference was made to its present title, with the final element 'bury' (OE burh = 'fortification, fortified place') being consistently lost only in the fourteenth century. The monastery was reputedly the largest in western Britain, and was established in 560 by Saint Dunod. The original site of the monastery is uncertain but it is believed to have covered low-lying meadows originally to the south of the River Dee, yet it was an important religious centre in the 5th and 6th centuries. William of Malmesbury, gives a description of the extent and magnificence of Bangor's ruined monastic buildings which is couched in terms of twelfth century monasticism and is believed to be a gross invention. However Bede (writing before 731) gives the population of the monastery as exceptionally large:
- "Most of these priests came from the monastery at Bangor where there are said to have been so many monks that although it was divided into seven sections, each under its own abbot, none of these sections contained less than three hundred monks, all of whom supported themselves by manual work. About twelve hundred monks perished in this battle and only fifty escaped by flight" - Bede H.E. II, 5.
The sheer size is astonishing - a concentration of over 2,100 monks in any one Celtic mother church would be unique in Wales. The Welsh Triads go one better and specify 2,400 monks forming a "Perpetual Choir" at Bangor. Such numbers of people and densities are not to be encountered in Wrexham Maelor until the latter half of the eighteenth century when the Industrial Revolution was well under way.
While most versions of the story have the abbey established around 560, some stories, such as those recorded by Samuel Lewis, imply a much earlier date:
- "It was the site of the most ancient monastery in Britain, which having also been intended as a school for religious instruction, became a great seminary for learning. From this institution, the foundation of which is ascribed by some to Lucius, King of Britain, under whose auspices Christianity is said to have been firmly established in this country, the place obtained its British name Ban-Gôr, which was changed by the Saxons into Banchornabyrig, a name descriptive of its importance as a privileged town. Pelagius, the noted arch-heretic, who is affirmed to have been a native of Britain, was educated at this monastery, of which he became abbot, about the commencement of the fifth century. The Pelagian heresy was principally eradicated by St. Germanus, who is said to have introduced considerable improvement into the institution."
If, as Lewis states, Pelagius (c. 360-418) was educated at Bangor-on-Dee, then the monastery must have been in existence well before 380, when Pelagius moved to Rome, and therefore would have existed under Roman rule in Britain. Late Roman and sub-Roman christian churches are known in the Dee valley (such as at Eccleston), but Lewis canot be correct when he says that Pelagius became abbot around 400 as he was in Rome at the time and never returned to Britain.
- Whiles thus thy Britons do in languour pine, Proud Etheldred shall from the North arise, Seruing th'ambitious will of Augustine, And passing Dee with hardy enterprise, Shall backe repulse the valiaunt Brockwell twise, And Bangor with massacred Martyrs fill
When Augustine demanded of Dionoth, then Abbot of Bangor-on-Dee, that he acknowledge the authority of the Bishop of Rome the reply of the Briton was a memorable one:
- "We desire to love all-men, but he whom you call "Pope" is not entitled to style himself the "father of fathers" and the only submission we can render him is that which we owe to every Christian."
Cadvan, Prince of wales (around A.D.610) came up with an even more interesting theological argument when discussing the matter with the Abbot of Bangor on Dee:
- "All men may hold the same truth, yet no man can hereby be drawn into slavery to another. If the Cymry believed all that Rome believes, that would be as strong a reason for Rome obeying us, as for us to obey Rome. It suffices for us that we obey the Truth. If other men obey the Truth, are they therefore to become subject to us?"
This monastery was destroyed in about AD 616 after Aethelfrith, the King of Northumbria, defeated the Welsh, at the Battle of Chester now thought to have taken place near Heronbridge. Samuel Lewis writes of it as follows:
- The Saxons, having defeated their opponents, and taken possession of Chester, advanced to Bangor, where they entirely destroyed the monastery, and committed its valuable library to the flames. They then intended to penetrate into Wales, but their passage over the Dee at this place was disputed by Brochwel Yscithrog, Prince of Powys, who successfully resisted all their attacks, until relieved by Cadvan, King of North Wales; Meredydd, King of South Wales; and Bledrus, sovereign of Cornwall. The confederate princes called to their aid the services of Dynawd, or Dúnothus, abbot of Bangor, and one of the fifty monks that had escaped the general massacre of his brethren, who delivered an oration to the army, which he concluded by ordering the soldiers to kiss the ground, before the action commenced, in commemoration of the communion of the body of Christ, and to take up water in their hands out of the river Dee, and drink it, in remembrance of his sacred blood. This act of devotion infused a confident courage among the Welsh, already ardent for revenge for the calamities they had recently endured; and they encountered the invaders with such bravery as entirely to defeat them, with the loss of above 10,000 men, compelling Ethelfrid, with the remainder of his army, to retreat into his own country.
Beethoven set the song "The Monks of Bangor's March" (WoO. 155 (26 Walisische Lieder) no. 2 (1809-10)) to music, the original poem having been written by Sir Walter Scott.
As noted above, the exact location of the monastery is unknown and it may well be that the meandering of the Dee has wiped all trace of the site from the face of the land. The movements of the River are mentioned by John Leland (1506-52), Library Keeper to Henry VIII and later 'King's Antiquary' who visited Bangor in about 1539. Leland had read the standard 'historiographies' and monastic chronicles which account for a 'hearsay' element in his narrative, but also has pertinent things to say about the local topography, in particular providing evidence to the shifting within his lifetime of the course of the middle Dee:
- "This is Bangor where the great abbey was. A part of this parish, that is as much as lies beyond Dee' on the north side, is in Welsh Maelor, and that is as half the parish of Bangor. But the abbey stood in English Maelor on the hither and south side of Dee. And it is ploughed ground now where the abbey was by the space of a good Welsh mile, and yet they plough up bones of the monks and in remembrance were dug up pieces of their clothes in sepulchres. The abbey stood in a Fair valley and Dee ran by it. The compass of it was as a walled town, and yet remains the name of the gate called Porthwgan by north and the name of another called Port Clays [Porth Klais] by south. Dee since changing the bottom runs now through the middle between the two gates, one being a mile and a half from the other, and in this ground be ploughed up foundations of squared stones, and Roman money is found there."
This would indicate more of a "Monastic City" than a monastery. Interestingly, there is a place called "Porthwgan" northwest of Bangor on the 100ft contour, and a "Cloy Farm" as well as two "Cloy Houses" to the south east, again on the 100ft contour. These two "poles" are almost exactly 1.5 miles apart. Is it possible that erosion between the early 7th Century and Lelands time was sufficient to destroy an entire monastic city, when the river's course changes since the boundaries between parishes were fixed are clearly not that extensive? One possible explanation is that the monks did not all live in the immediate vicinity of their "mother church", but were scattered through a series of settlements along this part of the River Dee. There are churches, both dedicated to St. Deiniol (son of Abbot Dunod), at Marchwiel and Worthenbury and these may be regarded as ancillary to Bangor, or even as properties of that house. Legend has it that Abbot Dunod Fawr, was the son of son of Pabo Post Prydain and that the family, having lost their land in the "Old North" of sub-Roman Britain, were given land by the king of Powys, Cyngen ap Cadell upon which Dunod embraced the religious life. While, this legend does not fit with the timeline at all, it perhaps provides a tenuous link between the monks of Bangor-on-Dee and Æthelfrith of Northumbria.
The River Dee between Worthenbury (anonther "burh" place-name) and Holt is unique in its combination of being; one of the most tortuous stretches of meandering channel on a major British river, and it's crossing the fluvial-tidal transition in a location where the interaction of river and tidal processes can be observed in a relatively unmodified setting. Worthenbury is certainly of Anglo-Saxon origin: the place is recorded in the Domesday Book in 1086 as "Hurdingberie" at which time there were "five hides which pay geld" and "land for ten ploughs". Later, in 1300, it was termed "Worthinbury" and other variations such as "Wrdynbur’" appeared at other times during the 14th century.
Something of the post-glacial vegetation history of Maelor Saesneg is known from studies of abandoned river meanders of the River Dee in the area between Holt and Worthenbury which suggests that the natural vegetation, possibly from the later prehistoric period, was of open oak and hazel woodland on the drier surrounding areas with areas of damper alder or willow carr woodland adjacent to the floodplain or in adjacent valleys, with sporadic occurrences of lime, elm and holly. Arable and pastoral agriculture became important in the land surrounding the Dee floodplain. Cereal cultivation included possibly wheat and barley but also oats, the latter being typical of Romano-British and later periods. Hemp pollen also identified, probably cultivated for fibre used in rope making, probably before the beginning of the 18th century. Both Welsh and English place-names indicate the presence of more extensive natural woodland in the past, especially along the southern and north-eastern boundaries of the area. Many of the sources are relatively late, but some most probably date back to the early medieval period, in perhaps the 7th or 8th centuries. Anglo-Saxon place-names which probably indicate clearings in the woodland include that of Lightwood Green from Old English leoht 'bright, light', and the name Penley derived from the name Penda and Old English leah 'wood or clearing', which is also present locally in the Welsh form Llannerch Panna, 'Penda's clearing'. The place-name Musley, to the west of Lightwood, possibly also contains the element leah. The Domesday survey of 1086 records an extensive area of woodland at Bettisfield, three leagues by two leagues across wide, an area of almost 7 kilometres by 5 kilometres across (a league generally being reckoned to be about one and a half miles). Woodland is also signified in both elements of the Welsh name Bangor Is-y-coed, bangor meaning 'wattle enclosure' with the suffix is-coed; 'below the wood'. Writing of Bangor Is-y-coed, Samuel Lewis (writing as recently as 1848) states:
- The adjacent scenery in many places is beautiful and richly picturesque, the noble sweeps of the Dee being frequently overshadowed by thick hanging woods, which fringe its elevated bank.
His description of Overton Bridge introduces contemporary perceptions of land-use and potential: '
- The surrounding scenery is beautifully picturesque, being composed of a great diversity of features in pleasing combination and agreeable contrast. From a ridge near the village is seen, on one side, an extensive plain of verdant meadows, enlivened by the windings of the River Dee, skirted in front by fertile and richly wooded slopes.
Thomas Pennant, in the late 18th century, makes reference to the remnants of ancient woodland to be seen in the Threapwood area.
- Bangor-on-Dee Conservation Area;
- More on the monastery;
- Worthenbury Conservation Area;
- More on the monastery;
- Samuel Lewis on Bangor-on-Dee from British History Online;
Shocklach Castle lies just to the east of the River Dee at Castletown about a mile north of Shocklach along thr B5069. All that remains is the base of the motte and a defensive ditch. The River Dee is normally tidal up to Chester Weir. This boundary is exceeded for spring high tides and extreme tides when tidal influence can affect river levels as far upstream as Shocklach, 15 kilometres upstream of Chester Weir.
Prior to reaching Holt the passes Crewe Hill, a country house enlarged from a farmhouse for the Barnston family of Churton Hall in the early 19th century. In about 1890 it was extended, including the addition of a dining room to the rear. Internally there is a central, galleried Great Hall rising through both storeys. The gallery contains a collection of items of antiquarianism including richly carved doors of oak left, right and to rear, a perhaps late C16/C17, brought in open-string stair leading to a gallery with barleysugar balusters supported on two richly carved posts over the front of the hall and a "Jacobethan" oak ceiling.
- Crewe Hill at English Heritage;
Roman Bovium - where was it?
"Bovium" is the name of a place in Roman Britain which is known only from an entry in the Antonine Itinery, a listing of routes and facilities for the cursus publicus, the official courier service of the Roman Empire. Facilities would include means for rest and refreshment. Establishments of this type also had to provide facilities for changing relays of horses used for the carriages and gigs of the couriers, and for the storage of government goods in transit.
Bovium is among 18 places in the Antonine Itinerary which still lack positive identification. It is described (in Iter II) as being 10 miles from Deva (Roman Chester) and 20 miles from Mediolanum (Whitchurch) - i.e. twice as far from Whitchurch as from Chester - somewhere along a line from Tarporley to Gresford, depending on the length of a Roman Mile. The Roman mile (mille passus, lit. "thousand-pace") consisted of a thousand paces of two steps each. It is believed to be about 0.92 modern statute miles, which leads to the difficulty that 30 Roman miles would be 27 statute miles and it is only about 18 miles (as the crow flies) from Chester to Whitchurch. Either this means that "10" and "20" miles are broad estimates, and/or that Bovium was not on a direct line from Chester to Whitchurch. As one writer noted:
- "The problem has formed the centre of a number of discussions, which need not be considered here. Like others of its kind, it has produced theories in which the few available facts have been treated with the usual excess of imagination, if not with complete disregard. The roads themselves are still incompletely known; the exact character of few, if any, of the sites along them has been determined by excavation, and their existence is only known by the quite uncertain evidence of chance finds of pottery, coins, and the like." - Grimes, THE MAGAZ1NE OF THE HONOÜEABLE SOCIETY OF CYMMRODORION VOL. XLI., (1930).
The Roman road left the south gate of the fortress at Chester and crossed the River Dee at approximately the same point as the Old Dee Bridge. It then runs south of same line as the present Eaton Road. At Heronbridge the Roman road runs slightly east of present road. The road appears to have changed direction slightly c.1.6 km south of the centre of Eccleston. Alignment continued through Eaton Hall Park, where it crosses the Dee to the north of Aldford Church, by a ford. South of the river it is marked by a track between two rows of old thorn trees up to the south side of the castle motte close to the church. The road appears as a terrace just south and independent of the motte's earthworks and then as a large agger running up to the churchyard. At the church a change of alignment is made to SSE, marked by a line of hedgerows with old oaks and with traces of the agger and then by a green lane continued by more hedgerows with clear remains of an agger 24ft wide and 1 ft high. This can be seen where Edgerley Lane crosses it (SJ43055675 - see map on left below). To the south the agger lies mainly to the east of the hedge. The hedgerow line continues nearly to the Farndon-Barton Road and a parish boundary follows it. The road then proceeds through Barton to Stretton, then after another turn to the SE, the course is taken up for 5 miles by the road through Tilston and Malpas. At Kidnall Hill the old road is sunken and rough. Just beyond Malpas the straight road ends.
Bangor on Dee is 13 miles from Chester and 10 miles from Whitchurch. It has been suggested that the site of the Roman camp of Bovium was in a field called 'lolyn's Strand' or 'lolyn's Beach', on the bank of the Dee, near Bangor Bridge at Sesswick in the Parish of Bangor. This field is liable to periodical flooding and was laid totally flat after “all kinds of mounds and hillocks” were cleared away in the mid-nineteenth century; there being no record of any remains resembling the walls or ramparts of a Roman camp being found. Seemingly the main reason for locating the camp at 'lolyn's Strand ' is that along one side of it runs a narrow drainage ditch with the Roman-sounding name of "The Foss". However, Bangor on Dee seems to be a long way off the direct route between Whitchurch and Chester, and the distance to Chester is larger than the distance to Whitchurch. If Samuel Lewis is to be believed the monastery at Bangor dates back to Roman times and this could advance the case for it being Bovium.
Holt is 8 miles from Chester, 11 miles from Whitchurch, and was the site of a Roman kiln-works which supplied clay tiles and pottery to the Roman fort of Deva Victrix, eight miles away (Roman Chester). The works was located just downstream from the modern town and in the early 20th century, six kilns, a bath house, sheds and barracks were found there on the banks of the River Dee. In its favour, Holt was therefore a known Roman site and stands at a crossing point of the Dee. Counter-arguments against Holt being Bovium are that it is a long way off the line of the Roman Road and is closer to equidistant between Chester and Whitchurch.
Tilson is 10 miles from Chester and 8 miles from Whitchurch, perhaps a little too close to Whitchurch to be Bovium. The Roman road has been discovered in fields outside the village about 30cm below the current surface, as have the remains of a building.
Grafton is 9 miles from Chester and 9 miles from Whitchurch. Grafton has a population of 3 and is very close to Stretton.
Stretton is 9 miles from Chester and 9 miles from Whitchurch. Stretton means "settlement on a Roman Road" (from the Old English stræt and tun). The line of the Roman road here-abouts has been the subject of some revision and it is unclear whether the settlement is actually on the line of the Roman road or to one side of it.
Heronbridge is 2 miles from Chester and 16 miles from Whitchurch. It lies directly on the Roman Road linking the two and there was a known community living there in Roman times and possibly even a small dock for river traffic. However, it seems far too close to Chester to support facilities for the Cursus and may have been a largely civillian settlement.
Alford is 5 miles from Chester and 11 miles from Whitchurch and lies directly on the lne of the Roman Road linking the two at a point where the road crossed the River Dee. It is the closest settlement to the location derived from the Antonine Itinerary in terms of distance ratio. No Roman remains are known there. Most of the building stock was constructed as a designed village in the middle of the 19th century by Sir Richard Grosvenor, 2nd Marquess of Westminster, a number of buildings in the village being designed by John Douglas. The remains of Aldford Castle consisting of earthworks and a few fragments of stone can be found immediately to the north of the church it is a late 11th or early 12th century earthwork motte and bailey fortress, founded by Richard de Aldford.
The route of the Roman road between Chester and Whitchurch was much studied by William Bennet (4 March 1745-1820), Bishop of Cork and Ross (1790–1794) and subsequently Bishop of Cloyne (1794–1820). The "Bishop Bennet Way" is named after him. The way starts near Beeston Castle and finishes near Wirswall on the Cheshire-Shropshire border.
- Watling Street (west) on Revealing Cheshire's Past;
- Roman Roads near Chester - from "CheshireTrove";
Holt & Farndon
Holt (yet another candidate for Roman "Bovium") was the site of a Roman kiln-works which supplied clay tiles and pottery to the Roman fort of Deva Victrix, eight miles away (Roman Chester). The works was located just downstream from the modern town and in the early 20th century, six kilns, a bath house, sheds and barracks were found there on the banks of the River Dee. The site of the Roman works depot was excavated in 1907 by T Arthur Acton, FSA, of Wrexham, following its rediscovery by A. N. Palmer, in 1907. The work continued for eight years with the costs being borne by Acton himself. He died in 1925 and no trace of his notes of the excavation could be found, when the material now known as the "Holt Collection" was acquired by the National Museum of Wales.
Following the defeat of Llywelyn ap Gruffydd, the last independent Prince of Wales in 1282, Edward I gave John de Warenne, the 7th Earl of Surrey, the lordships of Bromfield and Yale. To secure his newly gained lands, John built Holt Castle between 1277 and 1311, also known as Lion’s Castle, to control a nearby strategic ford across the River Dee. In 1296 de Warenne, as leader of the English army in Scotland, defeated the Scottish forces at the Battle of Dunbar. Edward I deposed the Scottish King John Balliol and made de Warenne Regent of Scotland. It was a job that only brought him trouble. William Wallace led a revolt and defeated de Warenne and the English at the Battle of Stirling Bridge on September 11th 1296. De Warenne was forced to flee the field of battle and make his excuses to Edward I. During the middle of the 14th century the castle came into the ownership of Richard Fitzalan, the 10th Earl of Arundel; in whose family it remained until the mid 15th century when the 12th Earl died without issue. Richard III granted the castle to Sir William Stanley in 1484, who held it until his execution by Henry VII in 1495, when it again reverted to the Crown. A long siege during the Civil War brought about the decline of the Castle - it fell in 1647 and by order of Parliament Holt was slighted later that year, and many of its stones were later robbed-out by Thomas Grosvenor being floated downstream on barges to build the original Eaton Hall near Chester.
Farndon (see map) lies on the English border with Wales. Edward the Elder is said to have died here. Across the bridge, which marks the border, is the Welsh village of Holt. It was here, in 1643, that 'grenados' were used during the 'English' Civil War (against the Welsh). Sir William Brereton (MP for Cheshire), attacking the bridge for the Parliamentarians stated: "for which end they had also made a towre and drawbridge and strong gates upon the bridge soe as they and wee coceived it difficult if not altogether ympossible to make way for our passage". Despite this he, Thomas Middelton and their forces took the bridge when they cast "some grenados amongst the Welshmen". This was possibly the first use of grenades in the UK. Also in the Civil War, Sir Marmaduke Langdale, wishing to send King Charles notice of his having crossed the Dee at Farndon Bridge and pressing on the Parliamentarians, bade Colonel Shakerley convey the message as speedily as possible. The latter, to avoid the long circuit by the bridge, galloped to the Dee, took a wooden tub used for slaughtering swine, employed "a batting-staff, used for batting of coarse linen," as an oar, put his servant in the tub, his horse swimming by him, and once across left the tub in charge of the man while he rode to the king, delivered his message and returned to cross over the same way.
The "bridge of screams"
Thomas Pennant, in his book Tours in Wales (1874), (citing a MS communicated by the Reverend Mr Price, Keeper of the Bodleian Library), states that the nephews of Defydd ap Gruffydd were ‘drowned in the River Dee’ at Holt Bridge by their guardians, John de Warenne, Earl of Surrey, and Roger Mortimer the younger, on a journey from Chester to Dinas Brân: Madog ap Gruffudd of Dinas Brân, Llangollen, having died four years earlier, in 1277, leaving the two young sons with no trustees. Mortimer was appointed by King Edward I to be their guardian. This, and perhaps a double drowning recorded on graves at Farndon (St Chad's) churchyard, possibly led to various legends about the 'Bridge of Screams'. Some comments on these legends can be found here.
A painting of Holt Bridge (before 1762) by Richard Wilson, is not topologically accurate and appears compositionally related to his better known Lake Avernus (1765) an allegorical depiction of the entrance to the underworld. Some historians believe that Farndon was the location of the first ever competitive horse race with riders, in a local field on the banks of the River Dee. Also by the riverbank is a fine example of the Chester pebble beds - now a "Site of Special Scientific Interest".
The soils of Cheshire are one of it's most recent geological features. Brown sands occur sporadically across the Cheshire Plain, with denser concentrations on the Mid Cheshire Ridge, mostly on moderately sloping ground and occasionally on valley sides and close to outcrops of Triassic sandstone. It accounts for 12.6% of the area of the county, mostly under mixed arable (principally barley, potatoes and wheat) and grassland, with some market gardening and horticulture. Its main drawback is that it suffers excessively from drought. Typical (argillic) stagnogleys are the most widespread soils in Cheshire. They cover a third of the county, forming flat to gently undulating topography, with stunted hedgerow oaks a typical feature of landscapes formed by these soils. These soils are ideal for grassland and have been a major factor in the development of the dairy industry in the county since at least the fifteenth century, and probably much earlier. There is also a little market gardening and arable is restricted to the more favourable areas. Surface wetness is a major problem with the exploitation of this soil type. Alluvial gley soils, while common along the Dee are overall of minor importance in Cheshire. The relief produced by these soils is almost flat and subject to periodic flooding. They account for only ~2% of the area of the county and are under permanent grass, often used as meadowland.
Hereabouts dwelt the Wreocensæte (Old English: Wreocensǣte, Wocensǣte - their name approximates to "Wrekin-dwellers") and may be the origin of Wrexham. They were to become the most northerly of the three Mercian subject kingdoms facing Wales, with the Magonsæte to their south, and the Hwicce furthest south. Their kingdom may have covered much of modern Cheshire and Shropshire and is roughly equivalent to that of the pre-Roman and Romano-British Cornovii whose principal cities during Roman times were given by Ptolemy as Deva (Chester) and Viroconium Cornoviorum (Wroxeter). Maps showing the range of Wreocensæte settlement include Chester and the Wirral. "West Chester" is mentioned by Richard of Cirencester as being a settlement of the "Carnabii" (probably the Cornovii).
As noted above, place name evidence suggests that this area of the lower Dee valley, covered by heavy glacial boulder clay, was wooded and ill-drained at the time of the Mercian settlement in the seventh or eighth centuries. This is reflected in names such as Horsley, Hoseley, Ridley and Mersley with the suffix "ley/leah" denoting woodland clearing. The name Holt itself means a wood and the adjacent township of Isycoed: below the wood. The Cheshire Domesday entries for Allington and Sutton in Exestan hundred also indicate the presence of woodland in this area. Marshy locations are denoted by the place name Morton and Hugmore with "mor" representing a poorly drained area. From this ill-drained wooded area the new borough of Holt was laid out after Edward I’s final conquest of Wales in 1282 by absorbing lands from the townships of Hewlington, Eyton Fawr, Eyton Fechan, Oderay, Crewe Parva and Morton. Freeholders of these settlements were compensated with demesne lands in the nearby bonded (unfree) settlements of Marford and Hoseley. There was still sufficient population in Holt to repel an attack by the men of Owain Glyndwr in 1402. Glyndwr’s forces had just left Wrexham in a ruinous state having burned most of the dwellings there (Wrexham is now home to Owain Glyndwr University). Holt later decayed and was eclipsed by Wrexham and finally lost its special municipal status in 1886. Weekly markets had ceased by the mid 16th century and the last fair was held in 1872.
- Holt Local History Society on the Roman remains;
- Holt Castle on e-castles;
- Chester Landscape History on Holt;
- Information on the "Holt Collection";
Poulton and Aldford
By 15,000 years ago the ice of the last cold period of the present ice age was once more was in retreat. Studies by K. Lambeck et al. show that the sea level was much lower than that of the present day (much water being piled up in the ice). However the Ice Age had one last deadly card to play. It is named the "Younger Dryas" after an alpine flower which still can be found in the Welsh mountains. It is also known as "the Big Freeze" and was a geologically brief (approximately 1,300 ± 70 years) cold period that occurred around 10,000 BC. Over a decade or so, mean annual temperature in Britain dropped to approximately 5°C. Humans were probably driven out of Britain (or died out) once again. Glaciers returned to the highlands of Wales. Theories about its origin have included the failure of the Gulf Stream, which brings warmer water to Britain from the Caribbean. When it ended, the humans who recolonised Britain became the stone-age ancestors of it's modern population.
On this journey down the Dee we have met with five extinction events:
- At the head of the river the Cambrian-Ordovician event (488 million years ago) when volcanoes, some of which sit close to the source of the Dee killed off the Brachiopods and gave birth to Welsh gold.
- At the Ordovician-Silurian event (450 million years ago) which gave birth to the Caledonian mountains and Welsh slate.
- The late Devonian extinction (364 million years ago) of which more can be read here and which led to the deposition of Welsh Coal.
- The end of the Triassic (200 million years ago) was involved in the formation of the red sandstone that is so characteristic of Chester and the mineral deposits that were to become the basis of the the brick industry.
- Most famous of all (so far), the K-T event (65.5 million years ago) which ended the "Age of the Dinosaurs", but which left few marks on the geology of the Dee.
Now we meet with the sixth, the so called Holocene Extinction - a massive change in the ecology of the planet in part due to the Ice Age cycle but to a large part wrought by a single species.
Poulton lies on the western bank of the Dee and is home to the Poulton Project, a landscape archaeology research project jointly established between Liverpool University and Chester Archaeology. The starting point was the investigation of a medieval chapel site, but the discovery of flints at Poulton along with large quantities of Roman material, occasional Saxon ware and numerous burials has extended the historical scope of the project back at least as far as the 7th millenium BC. In the Lower and Middle Palaeolithic ("Old Stone Age") hunting was based on big game animals, such as mammoth, bison, rhinoceros and lion. By the late Upper Palaeolithic, when evidence for occupation of Cheshire becomes clearer, these species were extinct and the dominant food animals included reindeer and wild horses.
The first traces of mankind at Poulton are small, "microlithic", tools and weapons for hunting and fishing that were used by nomadic hunter-gatherers in the Mesolithic ("Middle Stone Age") from the end of the Lower Dryas to c.6500 years ago. In the early part of the period, it is believed that the Mersey still flowed through the "Deva Spillway" (which runs north of Chester Zoo and is followed by the Canal) to enter the Dee estuary between Blacon and Chester. The sea level around 9000 years ago was still around 20m (66ft) lower than it is today and extensive areas of what is now the sea off the North Wirral would have been low lying wetlands - although whether there was a late-existing land-bridge between Britain and Ireland is still hotly disputed. The warmer climate changed the Arctic environment to one of pine, birch, and alder forest; this less open landscape was less conducive to the large herds of reindeer and wild horse that had previously sustained humans. Those animals were replaced in people's diets by pig and less social animals such as elk, red deer, roe deer, wild boar and aurochs (wild cattle). Part of the badly damaged skull of an auroch was found on the Roodee in Chester, buried in river silt, although it is not clear if the animal had been killed by hunters or simply died close to the riverbank.
In the Neolithic ("New Stone Age") forest clearance and agriculture arrived and a Timber Circle ('wood henge') was constructed at Poulton. From the Bronze Age (around 4000 years ago), Poulton has a cemetery group of barrows and evidence of cremations as well as some coarse pottery. Towards the end of the Bronze Age the ring-ditch of the ritual enclosure was ceremonially closed. The people at this time may well have spoken a language which was the ancestor of modern Welsh. As this site argues, the peoples of the east of England may already have been "Anglo-Saxons". In Britain, the Bronze Age is considered to have ended around 700 BC with the introduction of iron.
In more modern times, RAF Poulton was a World War II Royal Air Force airfield at Poulton, Cheshire from 1 March 1943 until 1945. It was used as an Operational Training Unit and Tactical Exercise Unit for Hawker Hurricanes. It is now disused.
The remains of Aldford Castle ("Blob Hill") consisting of earthworks and a few fragments of stone can be found immediately to the north of Aldford church on the eastern bank of the River Dee. It was founded by Richard de Aldford as a motte and bailey castle in the 12th century overlooking a ford across the River Dee. The iron bridge at Aldford was built in 1824 by William Hazledine for the 1st Marquis of Westminster. It is built in cast iron and has yellow sandstone abutments forming a single arch measuring 50 metres. It has cast iron railings and double gates at the crown of the bridge. On the opposite bank, Eaton Hall is the country house of the Duke of Westminster. The hall is set within an estate covering an area of about 4,400 hectares within which is parkland of about 500 hectares and formal gardens of around 20 hectares. Watling Street crossed the river Dee just downstream of the Iron Bridge in Eaton Park. Downstream from the bridge there is a recorded change in the river bed, sandstone paving with gravel shoulders shelving away to the normal mud bottom. This is probably the site of the supposed ford.
While the people of the north and east of Britain may have always been the "Welsh" and the people of the south and west always the "Saxon", there were some changes of ownership of land. The River Dee marks a significant boundary of the "Saxon" incursions and is believed to have been the site of the "Battle of Chester":
- ...And her Æðelfrið lædde his færde to Legercyestre, & ðar ofslóh unrím Walena (..and here Aethelfrith led his fyrd to the Castle of the Legion and there slew uncountable Welsh)
What is known for a fact is that there was a major battle at Chester in post-Roman times, and that may have later been drawn into the Arthurian legends (despite it being a Northumbrian victory over the Welsh). Dates given for the Battle of Chester vary, but 616 seems a reasonable estimate. Battle of Chester: Æthelfrith of Northumbria against Kings Selyf Sarffgadau of Powys and Cetula (possibly Cadwal Crysban of Rhôs) and possibly also Iago ap Beli. The Battle of Bangor-is-Coed follows in quick succession. King Bledric of Dumnonia is killed in the fighting. A large number of Saint Dunod's monks are slaughtered (said to be in keeping with Augustine's prophecy that if "they would not accept peace with their brethren, they should have war with their enemies"). Some have argued that the battle of Chester drove a wedge through British territories in the north-west and separated the British of the ‘old North’ from their compatriots (British combroges, later cymry) in what became Wales. However this older view that the battle cut the two British areas off from each other is now "generally understood" to be outdated, as Æthelfrith died soon after, and there is "almost no archaeological evidence for Anglo-Saxon settlement within the pagan period in Cheshire or Lancashire".
The Roman and later site at Heronbridge stands on the west bank of the River Dee two kilometres south of Chester city centre, between the river and the line of Watling Street. The elongated oval site is visible in satellite photographs. Founded in the late first century, the site was continuously occupied until at least AD 350. It has been extensively investigated by the Chester Archaeological Society. At Heronbridge, it is worth pausing to consider how the threads of time come together. In geological terms the Dee has crossed 300 million years of history and the surface rocks here are those formed from arid, wind blown sands shortly after a mass extinction that came close to wiping life from the face of the earth. In terms of human evolution this was probably an iron-age crossing of the river, and possibly a stopping point en route to the ritual site at Poulton. Later it became an outlying Roman settlement of Chester and later still the probable site of a major battle between the Brythonic people of Wales and the Saxon "invaders", each with their own church and language. Even the name of the place is heavy with allusion: "Cern" means "horn" or "bumb, boss" in Old Irish and is etymologically related to similar words carn in Welsh and Breton, and is the probable derivation of "Kernow" (Cornwall), meaning horn'[of land]'. Possibly derived from a Proto-Indo-European root *krno- which also gave the Latin cornu and Germanic *hurnaz (from which English "horn"). The same Gaulish root is found in the names of tribes such as the Carnutes, Carni, and Carnonacae - and, of course, the "Cornovii". "Herne the hunter" echo's the call of that horn.
The Roman invasion of Britain marks the formal end of the British Iron Age, although some believe that the Iron Age still continues (unless recently superseded by the age of the "Bakelite People", or the "Paleosilicic"). By AD 43, the time of the main Roman invasion of Britain, Great Britain had already been the target of planned or actual Roman invasions, starting with Julius Caesar's failed expeditions in 55 and 54 BC. Augustus prepared invasions in 34 BC, 27 BC and 25 BC, but these were called off. "Barking mad" Caligula planned a campaign against the British in 40, but its execution was bizarre, he had the troops gather sea shells, referring to them as "plunder from the ocean, due to the Capitol and the Palace" - then he went home. Finally, in 43, Claudius mounted an invasion under Aulus Plautius, leading four legions, totalling about 20,000 men, plus about the same number of auxiliaries. The legions included Legio II Augusta and Legio XX Valeria Victrix, both of which were later to be associated with Chester. Following the successful suppression of Boudicca, a number of new Roman governors continued the conquest by edging north. Cartimandua was forced to ask for Roman aid following a rebellion by her husband Venutius. Quintus Petillius Cerialis took his legions from Lincoln as far as York and defeated Venutius near Stanwick around 70. This resulted in the already Romanised Brigantes and Parisii tribes being further assimilated into the empire proper. Sextus Julius Frontinus was sent into Roman Britain in 74 AD to succeed Cerialis as governor. He subdued the Silures and other "hostile" tribes of Wales, establishing a new base at Caerleon for Legio II Augusta and a network of smaller forts fifteen to twenty kilometres apart for his auxiliary units. During his tenure, he probably established the fort at Pumsaint in west Wales, largely to exploit the gold deposits at Dolaucothi. He retired in 78 AD, and later he was appointed water commissioner in Rome. The new governor was the famous Gnaeus Julius Agricola. He finished off the Ordovices in North Wales and then took his troops north along the Pennines, building roads as he went. He built a fortress at Chester and employed tactics of terrorising each local tribe before offering terms.
Just where "Bottoms Lane" joins the riverside path is a stone fairly professionally inscribed with the very faded words "Capt J Wardle 1710". Whether this is a gravestone or some other type of memorial is unknown. The 1872 OS map shows a Boundary Marker on or near the site of this "Wardle" stone and it could be that someone just carved their name on a stone which was already there.
There is higher ground ahead and the river will soon swing into the series of turns it makes at Chester. But that rising bank ahead has grim associations. It was the site of Chester's place of execution, both by burning or hanging (see: St Giles Cemetery). The following tale about the gallows features the passing river and is found in Joseph Hemingway's History of the City of Chester - written in 1831 (a link to the full text can be found on the Chester Books page):
- About the centre of this elegant group of buildings, thirty years ago, stood that memento mori to the passing traveller, vulgarly called the gallows, where many of our unfortunate fellow creatures have forfeited their lives to the violated laws of their country. A short time prior to this period, this terrific engine of death had its station exactly on the opposite side of the road, which, on account of its elevated situation, received the appellation of Gallows Hill, which, by a precipitate descent, and without an enclosure, went down to the Dee. There is an incident connected with this place of execution worthy of recording. In May, 1801, as three malefactors, convicted of burglary at the spring assizes, were conveying to execution in a cart, one of them, named Clare, when opposite the gallows, and just when the vehicle was turning, gave a sudden spring, and threw himself upon the top of the precipice descending to the river, and jumped, rolled, and tumbled along till he was precipitated into it. The weight of his irons sunk him to the bottom, and before he could be brought up, life was entirely extinct. Although the unfortunate fellow thus evaded the letter of his sentence, in escaping being hanged by the neck till he was dead, yet the finisher of the law was unwilling to forego his official duty, and the dead body of the criminal was tied up after his breath had departed. The most afflictive part of the tragedy was, that the two poor men who were in a like condemnation, were kept in a state of awful suspense until the dead carcase of the drowned man was tied up beside them.
The river is again mentioned by Edmund Spenser (1552–99) in Marriage of the Thames and Medway:
- "..and following Dee, which Britons long ygone, did call Divine that did by Chester tend."
Sources and Links
- James Farley 360 view of the Earls Eye flooded.
The Dee at Chester
At Chester, the river passes around the Earl's Eye meadow, a protected green space between the Boughton and Handbridge suburbs of the city. The river is crossed by a ferry from Boughton to the meadows, and a little further downstream, by two bridges. The first is the Queen's Park Suspension Bridge, which forms the only exclusively pedestrian footway across the river in Chester. The second is the Old Dee Bridge, a road bridge and by far the oldest bridge in Chester, being built in about 1387 on the site of a series of wooden predecessors which dated originally from the Roman period.
On the slopes of Gallows Hill, the River Dee once stood the impressive pumping station of the Chester Water Company. The Boughton area has been the source of Chester's water since Roman times as there were natural springs at the site of the present waterworks. The water supply of Roman Chester can be dated precisely to A.D. 79 by lead distribution pipes stamped with the consular date. Since the large intramural bathhouse was also dedicated in that year, it would appear that the two were planned together. The aqueduct ran from the springs at Boughton, where, in the 90s or later, the Twentieth Legion built a shrine with an altar dedicated to the nymphs and wells. Chester's ancient boundaries are defined to north of the River Dee by the stream which is in part known as "Flookersbrook" and empties into the River Dee after a long and winding journey around the city from the springs at Boughton. About the year 1300 water was taken from a further spring at Christleton known as the 'Abbot's Well' and conveyed by earthenware pipes installed by monks under a patent granted by Edward the First, to cisterns situated at Boughton and in the cloisters of the Monastery (now the Cathedral). The spring had been given to the monks in 1282 by Sir Philip and Isabel Burnel of Malpas. As elsewhere, aqueducts at this time were built only by religious houses. Earthenware pipes found in 1814 near Dee Hills House may have been part of the scheme.
In 1537, Doctor Wall (the last warden of the Franciscans) began the building of lead conduits at Boughton for conveying water to the Bridge Gate. A more northerly line for Walls pipework would have been necessary to supply the friary, and Wall perhaps changed the line of the aqueduct when he knew that the friary was to be dissolved. It came to be used as a public supply, but did not meet all the town's needs. In 1573 the then mayor, Richard Dutton, brought an unnamed workman from London to build a conduit from the Dee to the High Cross. By 1574 the corporation gave a contract to Peter Morris (or Maurice, possibly even Maurits) to excavate a spring at St. Giles's well in Spital Boughton (near St Giles Cemetery) and convey the water in lead pipes to St Bridget's church. Morris was almost certainly Dutton's contractor of the previous year, for a Dutch hydraulic engineer of that name was active in London in the 1580s. A more effective attempt to alter Wall's conduit was made in 1583, when the Assembly decided to have it realigned along Foregate Street and Eastgate Street to a cistern at the High Cross on the corner of Bridge Street. The site was chosen by four benefactors of the scheme, the three Offley brothers and John Rogers of London. A stone cistern house was decorated with the arms of the city, the earls of Derby and Leicester, one of the Offleys, and Dr. Wall. The pipes were lead. By 1586 the scheme was causing problems: the spring did not provide enough water and the mason had overspent. To produce a better supply other springs were diverted to the head of the conduit, work paid for by a voluntary subscription and mostly completed in 1586–7. It included a well house at Boughton, where the flow was turned on at five every morning and again between four and five in the afternoon to fill the cistern.
The Dee provided a plentiful source of water throughout the year, but since it lay below most of the town the only way to use it before the 16th century was to draw it out in buckets and fill barrels on water carts. In the year 1600 the Mayor and Citizens, granted to one John Tyrer the right to raise water from the Dee at the Bridgegate, erect a tower upon the Gate, install a cistern, engines or other instruments for raising water and to open streets and lay pipes. Later in 1622, by grant from the Mayor and Citizens of the City, John Tyrer undertook to build waterworks at Spital, Boughton, and in 1632 he conveyed the Waterworks at the Bridgegate and Boughton to Sir Randle Mainwaring and others. Some years later the Waterworks fell into decay. It had been severely damaged in the Civil War. The Assembly leased the works in 1673, but they may not have been restored to full working order, for in 1681 a reservoir elsewhere was under consideration, and in 1690–1 they were apparently not operational. The conduit from Boughton to the Cross was also no longer working. The conduit house at the High Cross was turned into a shop as early as 1652, and the lead was ordered to be taken up in 1671, though the building itself, or a successor built on its footings, remained standing on the corner of Bridge Street and Eastgate Street until the late 1880s. After describing the Tyrer waterworks by the Old Dee Bridge, Hemingway writes:
- Possibly these did not answer their purpose effectually for in 1622 Tyrer had a new grant of a tower erected for a water work and a well place ten feet square near Spittle Boughton with full power for the conveyance of water to a cistern or conduit near the high cross. - see also ZCHD/1/13, 13 September 1622.
In 1692 the Mayor and Citizens granted to John Hopkins of Birmingham and John Hadley of Worcester the right to make new Works at the Bridge Gate for raising water from the River Dee. By 1698 these two gentlemen were in debt and sold out to a consortium of eight shareholders later known as the Waterworks Company, by whom, and by those claiming under them, the Undertaking was carried on until the first water company with statutory powers was formed in 1826 and the intake removed upstream to Barrel Well Hill near Boughton Church (where the white intake building with blue railings marks the site today). Tyrer's water tower, a tourist landmark, was pulled down along with the Bridgegate in 1782. The council took a sustained interest in the water supply after a cholera outbreak of 1849. The sanitary committee noted that there were not enough standpipes, that sewage from Boughton was seeping into the Dee just above the works, and that much of Handbridge was badly supplied. In response the Waterworks Company took on John Frederick Bateman, one of the greatest Victorian hydraulic experts, as its consulting engineer. Bateman wanted to build a tunnel under the River Dee to catch springs in the rock, which he hoped would not need filtration; the company spent over £1,000 on the scheme, but it was dropped in 1851. The Company was re-constituted by the Act of 1857 and another intake constructed about a mile and a half above the City on the western side of the Dee - upstream from Huntington brook, from where water was piped to Barrel Well Hill. The water tower at Barrel Well, which ensured adequate pressure and allowed storage, was opened in 1867 and is a well-known Chester landmark. Public drinking fountains were provided in several of the main streets in the later 19th century, most prominently one donated in 1860 by the former mayor Meadows Frost at the junction of upper and lower Bridge Street and Grosvenor Street.
Uffington House in Dee Hills Park overlooks the River Dee and was built in 1885 for Thomas Hughes, the author of Tom Brown's School Days, being designed by Edward Augustus Lyle Ould with visible influence from John Douglas. Uffington House is constructed in red brick with stone and terracotta dressings and a red tile roof over three storeys with additional cellars and an attic. Uffington House's architectural features include turrets surmounted by spires. Thomas Hughes, was a social reformer as well as a children's writer and in July 1882, was appointed as a county court judge and moved to Chester. His work as a judge seems to have been congenial to him although, according to John Telford, "his rough and ready justice became a byword for constant reversal on appeal". During the 1880s, while living in Chester he wrote four biographies, including Daniel Macmillan (1882) and David Livingstone (1889). He moved into Uffington in October 1885. His daughter, Lilian Hughes, perished in the sinking of the RMS Titanic in 1912.
The river bank between the Suspension Bridge and the Old Dee Bridge is known as The Groves and this stretch of river contains many features of interest. Some of these are discussed in detail elsewhere on this site and include St Johns and Hermitage, parts of the City Walls including the Recorder's Steps, and the Bridgegate. "Vanished" features of interest include Jacobs Well, now moved to Grosvenor Park, which was one of a series of wells/springs along the north bank of the River Dee at Chester (these also included the "Castle Wells" - one of which is notable for having had a skeleton in it and "Billy Hobby's Well" - of magical repute).
Above the Old Dee Bridge, the river has a weir, which was built by Hugh of Avranches to supply power to his corn mills. Throughout the centuries, the weir has been used to power corn, fulling, needle, snuff and flint mills. The same weir was used as part of a hydroelectric scheme in 1911 with the help of a small generator building which is still visible today, used as a pumping station for water since 1951. However. the first water pumping station here was that set up in 1600 by John Tyrer who pumped water to a square tower built on the city's Bridgegate. Other than by use of a ferry, or low-water fords, the weir was the lowest crossing point on the river prior to the construction of bridges. For this reason Chester has been an important military site since at least Roman times and Chester Castle was in part built to defend this important river crossing. On the weir is a fish pass and fish counting station to monitor the numbers of salmon ascending the river. A residual flow of at least 364 Ml/d is maintained over Chester Weir in all but the most testing of droughts, safeguarding the passage of migratory fish and limiting the ingress of saline water over the weir during high tides. Across the bridge from Chester Castle in Edgar's Field is a remarkable relic of Roman Chester - the Minerva Shrine - the only surviving rock-cut Roman shrine which is still in situ at its original location in the whole of western Europe. Edgar's Field take its name from 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 the recently recalled 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. The Chronicle of Chester Cathedral records the meeting thus (versions vary as to the number of oarsmen):
- A.D. 972. This year Edgar the etheling was consecrated king at Bath, on Pentecost's mass-day, on the fifth before the ides of May, the thirteenth year since he had obtained the kingdom; and he was then one less than thirty years of age. And soon after that, the king led all his ship-forces to Chester; and there came to meet him six kings, and they all plighted their troth to him, that they would be his fellow-workers by sea and by land.
In common with his brother Edwy and others of his predecessors in the House of Wessex, Edgar was a very small man, recorded as being less than five feet tall. William of Malmesbury, reporting on Edgar's slightness of height and build, records that at a banquet that followed the meeting at Chester, Kenneth MacAlpin, King of Scots, commented jokingly that it seemed extraordinary to him how so many provinces should be held by "such a sorry little fellow." Edgar had alreadyt seized the Northumbrian and Mercian kingdoms from his older brother, Edwy ("The Fair"), in around 955 and became king of all England on the death of Edwy (959). Edgar's reign was a peaceful one, and it is probably fair to say that it saw the Anglo-Saxon kingdom of England at its height. Although the political unity of England was the achievement of his predecessors and the previously warring Saxons and Danes that had settled, it was Edgar who saw to its consolidation. The Church had more than a small part in this. According to one legend, a feud between Edwy and st Dunstan began on the day of Edwy's consecration, when he failed to attend a meeting of nobles. When Dunstan eventually found the young monarch, he was cavorting with a noblewoman named Ælfgifu and refused to return with the bishop. Infuriated by this, Dunstan dragged Edwy back and forced him to renounce the girl as a "strumpet". Later realizing that he had provoked the king, Dunstan fled to the apparent sanctuary of his cloister at Glastonbury, but Edwy, incited by Ælfgifu (whom he later married), followed him and plundered the monastery. Though Dunstan managed to escape, he refused to consider a return to England until after Edwy's death.
Subsequently, the Church forced the divorce of Edwy and Ælfgifu on the grounds of consanguinity (they were second cousins), also, a pro-Dunstan, pro-Benedictine party began to form around Athelstan Half-King's domain of East Anglia and supporting Edwy's younger brother Edgar. One of Edgar's first actions upon becoming king was to recall Dunstan from exile and have him made Bishop of Worcester (and subsequently Bishop of London and later, Archbishop of Canterbury). The fact that Edgar became king in 959, but did not have his coronation until 973, fourteen years later, perhaps indicates just how much was happening "behind the scenes" before his boat-trip on the River Dee. Unfortunately, "peace" was not to last - Edgar was dead by 975 and followed in 978 by his son and heir Edward ("the Martyr"), who was murdered in circumstances that are not altogether clear - Henry of Huntingdon wrote that his mother killed Edward herself. Edward's younger half-brother (aged only about 10-12 at the time) became king and is remembered as Æthelred the Unready. Perhaps due to poor advice, Æthelred ordered the massacre of all Danish men in England to take place on 13 November 1002, St Brice's Day. As a result a series of Danish invasions was triggered that led to the eventual loss of the English throne to the scandinavians Sweyn Forkbeard, Cnut the Great, Harthacnut and Harold Harefoot. Edward the Confessor regained the throne for the English in 1042, but after his death in 1066, he was succeeded by Harold Godwinson, who was defeated and supposedly killed in the same year by the Normans under William the Conqueror. By curious co-incidence a Chester legend has a surviving Harold living at the Hermitage by the River Dee - just about the spot (next to "Jacobs Well") where Edgar the Pacific would have stepped off his barge on the way to St Johns.
A little further downstream stands the Grosvenor Bridge (designed by architect Thomas Harrison of Chester, which was opened in 1833 to ease congestion on the Old Dee Bridge. This bridge was opened by Princess Victoria five years before she became Queen.
Hereabouts 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 name of the cottage led to at least one interesting exchange in the courts: of which 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."
Local legend has it that, during a 1963 gig in Chester by The Beatles (they played at The Royalty on May 15th, their only gig in Chester that year), John Lennon heard about the house and was intrigued by the name, and the song "Nowhere Man" was inspired by this cottage. Local folk-law holds that more recently, in 1980 the name was so sought after that there was litigation over whether the neighbors could call their house "Next to Nowhere". No evidence for the truth of this latter tale can be found and it seems unlikely that any case could be made out.
On the other side of the Grosvenor Bridge is the Roodee, Chester's race course and the oldest course in the country. This used to be the site of Chester's Roman harbour until, aided by the building of the weir, the River Dee silted up to become the size it is today. One curiously remaining reminder of this site's maritime past is a stone cross which stands in the middle of the Roodee which exhibits the marks of water ripples. At the end of the Roodee the river is crossed again by a further bridge, now carrying the Chester–Holyhead railway line, before leaving Chester. It was the scene of one of the first serious railway accidents in the country, the Dee Bridge disaster. Nowadays, it is possible to cross the river Dee at this point by a footbridge (this has steep steps at either end) and L. T. C. Rolt - writer of "Red for Danger: A History of Railway Accidents and Railway Safety" (1955)) first gained his interest in trains while 'spotting' them from the trembling wooden footbridge as they passed on the far more sturdy replacement of the original bridge. Rolt was born in Chester and there is a commemorative plaque for him on the roving bridge by the canal dry dock.
Chester as a Port
The natural and extensive anchorage which once existed on the site of the Roodee may well have influenced the Roman choice to build a fort here and it is possible that a flotilla of the "Classis Britannica" was stationed here. One of Chester's Roman tombstones is that of a newly promoted centurion who "naufragio perit" (perished in a shipwreck). In case the body was recovered, there is a space on the tombstone for the words "Lies Here" to be inserted - but they were never added. A sandstone "quay" at the Roodee is often identified as part of the "Roman docks" although this is now thought to be a later Roman defensive structure, with the actual dock being a wooden platform at then end of a large pier-like structure extending from the "quay" out across the tidal mudflats that then occupied the site of the present day racecourse.
The site of the City initially had many practical advantages. Here was the tidal limit where a ford was practicable and safe. The elevated sandstone ridge on which the City was founded was dry and proof against flooding, but water could be obtained from springs. Building stone of a perhaps only passable quality could be quaried locally and bricks could be made from the glacial boulder clay to the north and east of the city. The site was well-protected by the rivers curve around the southern and western flanks. Marshes protected the city to the south-west (Saltney) and north-east (Gowy), but were sufficiently distant that malaria and other swamp-related issues were few. Although well-protected by these natural features, the City could be approached without difficulty from the south and east.
Anglo-Saxon sources imply that naval forces were stationed here in the tenth and eleventh centuries. By the late 14th century the main anchorage of the city had become the "Portpool" which appears to have been roughly in the area of the present day Crane Wharf. It was described by Leland as "a dock within two bowshots of the northern suburbs". The abbot of Chester, was at one time charged with extracting illegal levies (vadia) from traffic on the road from Portpool to the Northgate - the "Portpool Way". Goods shipped included fish, timber, bark, and coal, but also slate and millstones from as far afield as Ogwen (Caern.) and Anglesey. In the other direction, there was traffic with Cheshire ports such as Frodsham and Runcorn. There was also long-distance trade, above all with Ireland, which by 1237 was a major source of foodstuffs. Irish corn was Chester's speciality, but money could be made in both directions as Ireland lacked the salt necessary for trade in fish and hides. However there were already ominous signs of trouble ahead: in 1377 a report described:
- "The ruineth state of the river that preventeth ships approaching the City walls of Chester."
After the treaty of Medina del Campo opened up trade with the Iberian peninsula in 1489, Spanish iron, and wine from Portugal, Spain, and Gascony became the basis for a dramatic expansion in Chester's overseas trade, which allowed other Mediterranean commodities to reach the city, and provided new markets for hides and cloth. 48 ships arrived in 1497-8, 60 in 1500-1 and 56 in 1525-6. Chester's trade with Spain focused on the Basque region and involved iron. Besides iron, small quantities of angora, silk and velvet, liquorice, train oil, woad, and Cordovan skins were sometimes carried. Trade with Portugal and Andalusia through the northern Spanish ports brought cork, dyestuffs, figs and raisins, litmus, pepper and herbs, oil, sugar, wax, and sweet wines to Chester from c. 1509. The share of the port's trade controlled by Cestrians fluctuated. Dubliners dominated the Irish Sea trade, and there was strong competition for the rest of the overseas trade from English, Welsh, and Continental merchants. In 1538-42, during Chester's trading zenith, 40-45 per cent of traders were Chester freemen. Most were probably only occasionally involved, and between 1500 and 1550 there were forty or so significant Chester merchants who shipped through the port. Their trade was predominantly in importing iron and wine and exporting hides and cloth, but few were specialists. Even though Richard Grimsditch's main trading effort was with the Continent, for example, he also bought Irish cloth, while Henry Gee in 1532 shared a cargo which included canvas, buckram, glass, honey, black soap, velvet, trenchers, a round table, and a bedcase. However, Liverpool was beginning to develop as a port and this would eventually spell doom for trade in Chester.
By 1600 Chester had little outgrown its City Walls. In 1610 William Camden wrote:
- "This Citie, built in forme of a quadrant foure square, is enclosed with a wall that taketh up more than two miles in compasse .. neither wanteth any thing there that may be required in a most flourishing City, but that the Ocean, being offended and angrie (as it were) at certaine Mills in the very chanell of the river Dee, hath by little withdrawne himselfe backe, and affordeth not unto the citie the commoditie of an haven, as heretofore."
The Irish Trade
Despite the foreign trade, Chester was primarily the country's natural gateway to Ireland, being served by a fair road to the Midlands and London. At this time the roads of North-Wales to Bangor and Holyhead were poor. Throughout the 16th century Chester was the largest port in north-west England, although it carried only a small proportion of the country's trade, ranking 12th in a list of 18 provincial ports in 1594-5. In 1636 the port of Bristol was rated at £1,000, Chester £26, Liverpool at only £25. Liverpool was still regarded as a creek of the port of Chester. However Chester's ships were small and the port was unfavourably located for trading with England's main markets overseas (except Ireland). Silting of the Dee continued and the port began it's long decline.
The extent of this "ruin" can in-part be appreciated by comparing the Braun and Hogenberg map (c.1581) with that of John Speed (1605) - only a quarter century later. In the former maps the Watertower still stands in the river, whereas in the latter the tower is now on the eastern bank. Later maps show how the Watertower was soon stranded even further from the water - see for example the Lavaux Map of 1745. However much of the "local" trade with Ireland did not enter the city: by 1600 coal pits at Mostyn were supplying coal directly to Dublin and Saltney Marsh cut off the City from the coal and lead industries of North Wales. The active craft guilds of the Middle-Ages did not develop capital and the City companies of the 17th and 18th centuries were generally composed of small employers, acutely aware of their privileges, very energetic in their resistance to any encroachment on their monopolies, yet showing little enterprise or enthusiasm to develop trade with Africa and America, even while vessels well capable of this trade were being built at Chester.
Trade was not the only way to extract value from the connection with Ireland. Chester was the main port used for sending English troops levied in other parts of the country to quell the Second Desmond Rebellion (1579–1583) in Ireland, one of the most important events in the Tudor conquest of Ireland – a century long process which saw all of Ireland under English control by 1603 - and also wrecked by war and ravaged by plague. Vast numbers of troops in the City also brought the threat of plague to Chester, and, through drunkenness, an enhanced risk of fire, both of which broke out in this period, but also gave the inhabitants of Chester the opportunity to extract money from troops before they set sail. After the rebellions, trade with Ireland continued but did not develop into prosperity. In March 1619 the mayor of Chester informed the Privy Council that:
- "The City had no ships .. trading only in small barks of thirty or forty tons - for the most part used for importing of passengers and cattle betwixt Ireland and England."
In the 1640's attempts were made to remove the weir on the Dee, as this was believed to contribute to the silting of the river by reducing the tidal scour. The attempts were entirely unsuccessful as they were opposed by local commercial interests, notably by the Gamuls, who had acquired both the mayorality and the lease on the mills.
The Civil War and the plague which followed brought ruin to Chester and trade was reduced to a standstill. The French traveller Albert Jorevin de Rocheford passed through shortly after the Civil War and noted:
- "Chester is esteemed one of the strongest towns in England, on account of its fine high walls, through many towers by which it is defendod, and its strong castle, standing in the highest part of the town, which it commands. It has been much damaged in the late wars. Under the usurpation of Cromwell, the town was almost utterly ruined after having sustained a long siege."
de Rocheford goes on to describe his efforts to travel on to Ireland from Chester:
- "Chester may be reckoned among the good seaports, since it is the ordinary passage of the packet boat, messengers and merchandize going from England to Ireland. The first thing I did on my arrival at Chester was to learn when the packet boat would sail for Dublin; it had set off some days before; but I found a trading vessel laden with divers merchandize, in which I took my passage for Ireland. This vessel was at anchor in the gulf, near the little village of Birhouse, eight miles from the town. Here are some large stone houses for the keeping of the merchandize to be embarked for Ireland, and reciprocally from Ireland to England."
Some goods did better than others, the tonnage of cheese carried, mainly to London, doubled between 1664 and 1676 and exceeded 1,000 tons in 1683 before dwindling rapidly because of French cheese-piracy after 1689. Towards the end of the 18th century and even more so in the opening decade of the 19th, the market for foodstuffs in the expanding industrial centers of south Lancashire and north Staffordshire had a significant influence on the Cheshire cheese farmers. The cheese of south-east Cheshire could be conveyed more easily and cheaply by canal or road to the towns of the Potteries. When supply shifted to nearby markets, farmers began not only to produce a faster ripening cheese than that they had produced for the London trade (shipped through Chester), but also to sell their cheese after a shorter storage period. Farmers also turned to supply of fresh milk, potatoes and other vegetables for the Liverpool and Manchester markets. All these factors contributed to diminish the cheese trade through Chester.
In 1677 a report by Andrew Yarranton (in his wonderfully entitled book: "England's Improvement by Sea and Land - to out do the Dutch without fighting, to pay debts without money, to set at work all the Poor of England with the growth of their own lands.") stated:
- "In the month of July 1674 I was prevailed with by a person of honour to survey the river Dee, running by the City of Chester into the Irish Sea, and finding the river choked with the sands, so that a vessel of twenty tons could not come up to that noble city, and the ships forced to lie at Neston (eleven miles below Chester), in a very bad harbour, whereby the ships receive much damage, and trade made so uncertain and chargeable that the trade of Chester is much decayed and gone to Liverpool and that old great city is in danger of being ruined."
Yarranton's book was not taken seriously outside of Chester and was ridiculed as "a pamphlet". Yarranton himself was to die in 1684 (aged 65). According to John Aubrey: "Captayne Yarranton dyed at London in March last. The cause of death was a beating and throwne into a tub of water.". In 1681 Captain Greenville Collins, noted hydrographer to the Navy and the King, carried out a "A New and Exact Survey of the River Dee or Chester Water", having been commissioned in 1676 by Charles II to chart the coasts of Great Britain. His "Great Britain Coastal Pilot" was first published in 1693 and was re-issued several times in the 18th century.
It had become clear that the trade of Chester would never pay for the necessary outlay on the river, however proposals for a privately-funded navigation had been around for some time. In 1693 one Evan Jones brought forward a proposal for:
- "making the river Dee navigable and bringing up ships of a hundred tons burden to the Roodee"
..at his own expense. This was on the condition that he should have all such lands as should be recovered (upon payment of the usual rent of recovered lands to the crown), one fourth of the clear rents or profits to the companies of the city and that he and his heirs should be entitled to certain duties on coals lime and lime stone. This proposal was rejected. In 1698 Francis Gell made a proposal to the body corporate nearly similar to that of Evan Jones (with some modification of the duties on coals &c and additional security as to the performance of the contract but without any allotment of a fourth part to the city companies). This proposal was also in the first instance rejected but upon being a second time brought forward and a still further security being proposed it was agreed to by the corporation on the 16th of October 1698. In 1700 an Act of Parliament (11 & 12 Wil. III. C. 24, R. A. 11th Apr) "An Act to enable the Mayor and Citizens of Chester to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee", was passed as regards the construction of a channel in the Dee. The preamble of this stated:
- "That the river was theretofore navigable for ships and vessels of a considerable burthen from the sea up to the City of Chester, but that but by neglect of the said river, and for want of sufficient protection against the flux and reflux of the sea, the navigation to the city was almost lost and destroyed."
Pamphleteers from 1699 placed the blame for the silting of the Dee on colliers returning from Dublin, who discharged their ballast in the "Wild Road" (a channel of the river) and this then became trapped in the numerous nets placed by fishermen. Prior to this ships coming from Ireland need not be in ballast due to the import of cattle. The stoppage of the cattle trade occurred in 1680, when the Cattle Act, forbidding the import of Irish live cattle, sheep, pigs, beef, pork or bacon was made permanent, following the petitions of graziers in England who had vociferously argued for the trade to be stopped.
George Sorocold, who could be considered Britain's first "civil engineer", was paid £20 to propose improvements to the river in 1706, but, possibly due in part to frenzied investing elsewhere and then the "credit crunch" of that time, following the collapse of the "South Sea Bubble", nothing was then done until 1732 when a further survey was carried out by John Mackay. In the meantime the improvements to the River Weaver meant that rock salt (which had been discovered near Northwich in 1670) led to increasing trade following the Weaver, down the Mersey and thence to Liverpool. The craft which plied this trade returned back up the Weaver Navigation with coal from the south Lancashire coalfields, and this coal was used for boiling more brine to produce more salt.
The "Canal Scheme"
An arrangement was finally made with Nathaniel Kindersley that in consideration of a depth of 16 feet at high water being provided up to Chester — that was, about 6 feet more than the citizens had previously attempted and failed to obtain — Kindersley would be allowed to reclaim any land in the estuary that he could. To do this he cut a new channel through the marsh for the length of about 10 miles, and made a bank on the estuary side. Through this channel the waters of the river were conveyed, and the old estuary was allowed to silt up. Thus, in course of years, portions of land were to be reclaimed and these could be sold off. There was opposition to the plan, based in the survey of John Mackay. This stated:
- "Between Chester, Flint, and Parkgate 7,000 or 8,000 acres are proposed to be gained from the sea, by which means no less than two hundred millions of tons of tyde will be prevented from flowing there (twice in 24 hours), which on the reflux acquireth the greater velocity to scour and keep open the Lake and Barr : whether these ill consequences (which must certainly attend the present undertaking) are not more likely to destroy the present navigation in Hyle Lake and the River Dee, rather than recover and preserve a better, is humbly submitted to the Right Honourable the House of Lords".
Despite these objections, an act (6 Geo. II. C. 30, R. A. 13th Jane, 1734) entitled, 'An Act to recover and preserve the Navigation of the River Dee, in the county palatine of Chester,' made Nathaniel Kinderley, his heirs and assigns, appointed undertakers of the navigation, and authorized them to make the river navigable to Wilcox Point, with 16 feet water in moderate spring tides. A major construction programme began to divert the course of the river. Known as the "New Cut", the diversion redirected the Dee through an artificial channel some 10 miles long from the city towards Connah's Quay, and took the river five miles south of its original course. "Priestley's Navigable Rivers and Canals" by Joseph Priestley (1831) notes:
- "By an instrument dated 9th of April, 1734, these last-mentioned gentlemen, together with Joseph Davis and William Parsons, of London, and ninety others, agree to raise a joint stock of £40,000, in four hundred shares of £100 each, for the purpose of carrying the act into execution; but, as more money was wanted, it was agreed by deed-poll, on the 17th of August, 1736, to advance ten per cent, on the original subscription, and in a little time afterwards twenty per cent.; and it further appears, that the sum of £47,830 was expended in making a new channel for the Dee, and vesting £10,000 in South Sea Annuities, to answer any claim for damages in making the navigation."
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. The diversion failed to solve the problem of the Dee silting up, however.
From the 1710s, with the renewal of peace, the cheese trade grew enormously under London cheesemongers who used local cheese factors to collect from all over the Cheshire plain and neighbouring counties. About 1730 there were supposedly 20 ships making three round trips each and carrying over 5,500 tons a year (though no more than 1,500 tons a year was ever registered through the port records). The reopening of the Dee in 1737 did not halt Chester's decline as a port. In 1701 Chester shipowners had 25 vessels, and in the early 1710s the total tonnage, no more than 3,400, was less than half that owned at Liverpool. The "New Cut" made the city accessible during spring tides to ships drawing up to 15 ft. in the 1770s. By the mid 1740s a wharf had been reestablished west of the Roodee and there were large timber yards near by. About 1760 the city built a new warehouse for cheese, with its own quay, just to the north, and was planning a further dock, warehouses, and a new road from the Watergate, later called New Crane Street. By the 1730s it had fallen to around 1,650 tons (a tenth of Liverpool's total) and in the late 1750s Chester's 1,000-1,400 tons was scarcely a twentieth of Liverpool's fleet. The linen trade with Ireland reached its peak around the early 1770's. By 1781 New Crane Wharf was lined with the warehouses of the city's merchants and capable of taking vessels up to 350 tons, but Thomas Pennant, writing at this time, commented on the lack of enterprise exhibited by Chester:
- "The number of ships belonging to this place shows the uncommercial genius of its inhabitants; there being only 22 in the foreign trade oontaining in all 1499 tons and 169 men, and 13 in the coast trade whose tonnage is 680 tons, and the number of men 58."
Perhaps this lack of enterprise arose in part through the endemic "theft" by the Guilds and Corporation from the charitable bequests of Owen Jones and others. The Corporation's management of the charities in the 18th century was at best lax and in many respects outrageously corrupt. In many cases, no separate accounts were kept for the municipal charities, but all income was merged into general funds, from which it was diverted to non-charitable purposes. St John's Hospital, by far the richest charity before Owen Jones charity had its leaden "windfall", was the most severely plundered. In addition the Corporation sold what were supposed to be permanent rent-charges in order to pay its debts, let charity property to aldermen and councilmen on long leases at low rents. From the 1740s the Corporation connived with the Guilds' misapplication of the Owen Jones charity, who by the 1780s were dividing the proceeds indiscriminately among their members, whether poor or rich, as each guild came round in rotation. Admission to the guilds was closely regulated (see: Charters), some choosing to admit new members at inflated premiums, others to exclude new guildsmen as their own turn for the Owen Jones "bonanza" approached.
Priestly, writing in 1831 notes:
- "The last act relating to this navigation, was obtained principally with a view of confirming certain arrangements relating to the waste and salt marshes adjoining the Dee, and is totally void of any thing of public interest; it is dated 10th June, 1791, and entitled, 'An Act for confirming an Agreement entered into between the Company of Proprietors of the Undertaking for recovering and preserving the Navigation of the River Dee, and certain Lords of Manors and other Persons entitled to Right of Common upon the Wastes and Commons, and the Old Common Salt Marshes, lying on the South Side of the said River, below or to the North-East of Greenfield Gate, in the county of Flint, and an Award made in consequence thereof' Though Chester is a port into which, in the year 1824, twenty-four English and four Foreign ships entered, yet it falls into perfect insignificance, when placed in comparison with the neighbouring port of Liverpool, into which one thousand five hundred and fifty-four English and five hundred and ten Foreign ships entered its capacious docks in the year above-mentioned. And, as a proof of the small revenue derived from this navigation, we need only to observe, that when the act was passed for making the Ellesmere Canal in 1793, a protecting clause was introduced by the Dee Navigation Company, stipulating that if their annual income should ever fall short of £210, the Ellesmere Canal Company should make up the deficiency."
Hemingway (writing in 1831) records a familiar tale for investors in the scheme:
- In the early part of this great undertaking many individuals were seriously injured and some probably entirely ruined. This is a result of no uncommon occurrence in extensive projects. Embarking the whole or the greater part of their property in speculative schemes in which innumerable contingencies are involved in expectation of speedy and abundant remuneration thousands of individuals suffer the bitterest disappointment from a total failure of their project or what is equally ruinous to them from extreme delay of dividends. From the latter cause numbers of the original subscribers to the Dee navigation suffered severe losses some forfeiting the whole of their subscriptions rather than meet the calls for further advances and others disposing of their shares at an immense loss.
A serious blow for the viability of the Port of Chester was the building of what is now the A5 by engineer Thomas Telford from Shrewsbury up to Holyhead: in 1815 when Telford was appointed to the new road project it was seen as a threat to Chester's Irish trade which had to pass over the narrow Old Dee Bridge. As a consequence a committee was set up which led to the construction of the Grosvenor Bridge over the Dee in Chester, which was completed in 1833.
The River Dee Company was many times accused of being more interested in the reclamation of land for sale or rent than in preserving the navigation in the river and the "New Cut". Kindersley's original company had become the River Dee Company in 1740, three years after the opening of the channel. By 1861 the reclaimed land was raising £8000 in annual rent. In 1846 the Tidal Harbours Commission had criticized the company for its interest in land reclamation at the expense of the new cut. 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. As the "standard" was mentioned in the Act setting up the duties of the River Dee Company, the fact that it had "vanished" meant that they could always say that it was impossible to prove they had not carried out these duries - and argue that any "new standard" was wrongly placed.
In 1839 the Chester and Crewe Railway company, then building its line from Crewe to Chester, had offered to build a dock at Chester. The full proposal was set out in the Nautical Magazine:
- The commissioners went from Preston to Chester. The attendance was very numerous. A body of railway speculators from Manchester had held a meeting a few days before and had promised the good citizens of Chester that if they would patronize their railway from Manchester to Chester they would expend 1,000,000 sterling in making a ship canal from Dawpool at the mouth of the Dee on the Chester side of the river to Chester with a floating basin at one end and a dock at the other end to which the railway was to come.
It abandoned the plan following complaints that this would put much of the trade of the port in the hands of one company - again the obsession with glories past triumphed over opportunities of the present. The same proposal was raised again, but this time the railway passed it on to the River Dee Company (both had the same chairman) and nothing came to pass. This 1845 issue of the Nautical Magazine sums up the sorry state of affairs at the time in no uncertain terms:
- "It appeared that so long ago as 1732 a company obtained an act to enclose the land of the river Dee under the pretence of improving the navigation of the river which was to be made sixteen feet deep and kept so but by a later act the depth was to be only fifteen feet. The company proceeded to enclose the land and have gradually possessed themselves of 6,000 acres producing a revenue of 8,000 a year whilst the river has silted up. The first thing done by the company as soon as a pretext could be found was to remove the standard by which the depth of the river was to be measured. By a clause in one of their acts of parliament 17 Geo II c 28 it is enacted that if the company do not keep the river at fifteen feet deep by the standard they shall forfeit all the rents &c of their lands to certain commissioners who are to lay out the amount on the river until it is fifteen feet deep. Mr Curtis proved that the river was six feet deeper than it is now nineteen years ago. It will be a question for the law officers of the Crown to answer whether the company have by removing their neighbours landmark the standard enabled themselves to keep the land and neglect the river. Every sort of impediment to navigation exists in this river: at the town is an ancient weir or causeway ten feet high which prevents the tide coming up and consequently destroys the scour of the river by the return of the tidal water; the freshes in the river are also prevented from clearing the bed of the river of the sand; water which ought to flow down the river is so abstracted by the Ellesmere canal and emptied into the river Mersey; there is a lamentable deficiency of lights of beacons and of buoys. The usual consequences have followed: shipwrecks, loss of trade, refusal of freights to Chester - so that there is not one third of the trade to the town there was so lately as three years ago"
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. In the impoverished economy, areas away from the glamour of Eastgate Street and upper Bridge Street became progressively more decayed. Stanley Palace became "a decayed mansion", while Gamul House was divided into tenements. 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 crowda of the lowest rabble they engender".
The end of the Port of Chester
In summary, while Chester's decline as a port is sometimes put down only to the silting of the Dee, which is itself blamed on deforestation of the uplands and consequent soil erosion. However, despite attempts to maintain the river, Chester as a port failed to maintain it's importance for several reasons:
- The city was unfortunate in it's location, with the Delamere Forest between it and the northern part of the Cheshire salt fields - that trade, especially after the construction of the Weaver Navigation, and later the Trent and Mersey canal, went to Liverpool and the Mersey, as did the later cotton and silk trades;
- The shift of the cheese trade from the port for shipping to London to road and canal transport to the Potteries;
- The marshes of Saltney hampered transport between the coal and lead mines of Flintshire and Chester (most of the coal trade being destined for Ireland anyway);
- The transfer of the linen trade from Dublin-Chester to Belfast-Liverpool and the replacement of linen by cheaper cotton. Liverpool/Birkenhead did not have a silting problem as the Mersey estuary provided sufficient tidal "scour" in the narrows;
- The new London-Holyhead road, which followed the passage cut through the Welsh hills by the River Dee, avoided Chester;
- The guilds of Chester were conservative in outlook, jealous of their privileges and lacking in enterprise and thus were an inhibiting influence on commerce well into the 18th Century.
It is also notable that the merchants of Chester hardly engaged in trade with Africa and the America's, even though ships capable of reaching those shores and engaging in the lucrative slave-trade were being laid-down at Chester. Hanshall records ship-building at Chester as follows:
- "Beyond the Watergate are Crane-street, Back Crane-street, and Paradise Row, the whole of which lead to the wharfs on the river. For a number of years Chester has carried on a considerable business in shipbuilding. Within the last ten years the trade has wonderfully increased, and even now it is not unusual to see ten or a dozen vessels on the stocks at a time. In fact, there are nearly as many ships built in Chester as in Liverpool, and the former have always a decided preference from the merchants. Indeed, Chester lies particularly convenient for the trade, as by the approximation of the Dee, timber is every season floated down from the almost exhaustless woods of Wales, at a trifling expense and without the least risk. The principal shipwright in Chester is Mr. Cortney, but Mr. Troughton’s is the oldest establishment. There were lately nearly 250 hands employed in the business, two-thirds of whom were in Mr. Cortney's yard, but the trade is at present flat. Six vessels of war have been built by him, and within the last two years (1814-15) two corvettes and two sloops of war, The Cyrus, The Mersey, The Eden, and The Levant, from twenty to thirty guns each. The firm of Mulvey and Co., formerly of Frodsham, have established a yard near the Crane."
Cortney's yard launched a brig in 1804, an East lndiaman of 580 tons in 1810, and in 1813 a West India-man of 800 tons, in addition to the corvettes and war sloops mentioned by Hanshall. Only a very few Chester ships went far afield, for instance in the 1720s to South Carolina for rice, tar, and pitch. In the mid 1750s and the 1770s one or two Chester merchants were in the African slave trade, but mostly in partnership with Liverpool men.