St Johns Trail
The area around St Johns in Chester is incredibly rich in historical and cultural interest, including being linked to many myths and legends. Wandering about, one comes across references to the "St John's Trail" on which more information can be found here. The "St John's Trail" here on Chesterwiki has no association with St John's and sets out a somewhat longer circular "trail" (it takes about two hours) visiting some of the historical and cultural sites around St John's. Much of the walk is outside of the City Walls. It is also mostly in traffic-free and often greener spaces. The various sights are only described briefly. Much more detailed information on many of the locations can be found elsewhere on Chesterwiki and links are given both in the text and below in the "Related Pages" section.
One possible take-out from the trail is the polarity between historical "truth" and all what might be gathered under the general heading of folklore.
- 1 Map
- 2 Directions
- 2.1 Roman Corner Tower
- 2.2 The Wolfgate
- 2.3 Newgate
- 2.4 "ἀμφιθέατρον"
- 2.5 St Johns (west tower)
- 2.6 The Haunted Path
- 2.7 St John (grounds)
- 2.8 The Ruins
- 2.9 The Graves
- 2.10 A walk in the Park
- 2.11 Ymir
- 2.12 The Lodge
- 2.13 The Marquess
- 2.14 The River Dee
- 2.15 Arches
- 2.16 The Suspension Bridge
- 2.17 The Hermitage
- 2.18 Jacobs Well
- 2.19 The Groves
- 2.20 The Steps
- 2.21 The Wall
- 2.22 The Garden
- 2.23 The Romans
- 2.24 The Siege
- 2.25 The Coin
- 2.26 The Newgate Again
- 2.27 The Other Side
- 2.28 St Johns
- 2.29 Bye for now
- 3 Related Pages
- 4 Sources and Links
- Start at the Roman Corner Tower next to the Newgate.
Roman Corner Tower
The Roman Corner Tower might give the impression that these towers were located on the outside of the City Wall. In fact the Corner Towers were located on the inside of the walls, and in centuries of re-building the ponderous wall has stepped slowly backwards. The remaining base of the former south-east angle tower dates from the late first to early second century. It is purple-grey ashlar sandstone and trapezoidal in plan. Parts of a base-course are visible, then two weathered plinth-courses and parts of an ashlar facing course above, with the rubble core and parts of the coursed rubble inner face rising a little higher. The outer face is segmental in plan to coincide with the quadrant corner of the former fortress wall. Also present are part foundations of an adjoining chamber within the former wall-line west of the tower. The remains of the tower and adjoining fragment of the Roman wall are bonded together, hence built at the same time.
Quite a bit of signage will be encountered in the course of the trail and some of it is decidedly "quirky". Here at the corner tower there is a modern information board, an older sign stuck on the plinth beneath it and a plaque on a nearby pub wall. Some of the "signage" around the trail is itself of historical interest, especially as regards the context in which the signage was placed, be it Viking graffiti or supposed "public information".
- The Wolfgate is right next to the Corner Tower
The Old Newgate, or Wolf Gate (also known as the Pepper Gate and Wolfeld Gate), is a gateway through the city walls dating to the early thirteenth century. Later, it received the name of Pepper Gate, for the spice merchants working on Pepper Street. The present gate is believed to date from 1608, and is the earliest surviving post-medieval gateway in the city walls. It is constructed in sandstone, and contains a wrought iron gate with side-screens and an overthrow.
It has been suggested that the gate's name may be connected with a Scandinavian personal name such as Ulf, Ulfaldi, Wulfadus, or the like and also suggested that the son of Wulfhere, King of Mercia, and brother to St. Werburgh was named Wulfhad. Hence "Wulfhad's Gate may have possibly been a monkish dedication to this Prince and martyr". Legend says that Wulfhere wished to marry his daughter, Werburgh, to Werbode, (a "perverse heathen" according to Chamber's Book of Days). However, Werburga's brothers, Wulfad and Rufinus, objected to the union. Unable to defeat their opposition, Werbode poisoned the King's mind against his sons and obtained his authority to have them arrested for treason. Wulfhere too hastily accepted the fabricated evidence and the guiltless young men were condemned to death. On discovery of the plot, Werburgh decided to become a nun and "Werbode was poisoned by an evil spirit, and died raving mad". This story is unlikely to be true, St Werburgh's brother is now believed to have been Coenred (also spelled Cenred, Kenred or Cœnred) and a further problem with naming the gate after Wulfhad is that the walls in the time of St. Werburgh did not include this section.
According to one of many versions of the most noted tradition about this gate: in 1573, Ellen, the daughter of Alderman Rauff Aldersey defied her father and eloped through the gate at night to marry a draper. Her father persuaded the city to lock the gate at night for many years, leading to the local expression ‘when the daughter is stolen, shut the Peppergate’ which is the local equivalent of ‘close the stable door after the horse has bolted’. There are many other versions of the story which differ in details. Some City Guides will tell the romantic "ghost story" associated with the gate: that in the years since 1573 the ghostly clatter of her horse's hooves have occasionally been heard around the area of the gate.
- The Newgate is right next to the Wolfgate. If you cannot find it then it may be worth reconsidering the sense of going further to avoid the risk of getting completely lost.
New Gate is an arch bridge carrying the walkway of the city walls over Pepper Street. The bridge was built in 1938 to relieve traffic congestion in the city, especially at High Cross and is constructed in red sandstone. It was designed by Sir Walter Tapper (who died before it was completed) and his son, Michael. On each side of the bridge is a tower containing mock loops (unglazed slit windows) and surmounted by hipped roofs. Flights of steps on each side lead up to the towers and to the walkway across the top of the bridge. The structure is decorated with carved shields and Tudor roses.
It is generally believed that the City Walls of Chester were repaired and extended around 907 by Æthelflæd the daughter of Alfred the Great and effectively queen of Mercia (a Kingdom north of Alfred's Wessex). The walls of Roman Chester encompassed a much smaller area than the walls as they stand today and the corner tower / Wolfgate / Newgate area is one of the places where the line of the "new" walls departs from that of the Roman Walls.
- Now cross over to the Amphitheatre at the top of Souters Lane (which used to be called Dee Lane but Dee Lane is elsewhere now). This is probably the only place on the entire trail where one needs to take care about avoiding traffic.
Although the Amphitheatre is Roman, the word comes from the Greek: "Amphitheatron" meaning "behold from both sides". Greek theatres are of a semi-circular design, and the Chester Amphitheatre looks the same as only about half of it is exposed. There has been much debate as to whether the other side should be uncovered or not.
Chester's Amphitheatre lay outside the south-east corner of the legionary fortress, on a bluff overlooking the River Dee. Its main entrances faced north and south, with smaller entrances facing east and west. In between each of these entrances were two doorways giving access to a corridor running around the outside of the building and staircases leading up to the seats. A vomitorium is a passage situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance with a reduced risk of crushing. They can also be pathways for actors to enter and leave stage. The Latin word vomitorium, plural vomitoria, derives from the verb vŏmo, vŏmis, vomui, vomitum, vŏmĕre, "to spew forth." In ancient Roman architecture, vomitoria were designed to provide rapid egress for large crowds at amphitheatres and stadiums, as they do in modern sports stadiums and large theatres. There is a common misconception that ancient Romans designated spaces called "vomitoria" for the purpose of actual vomiting, as part of a binge.
There is a more detailed guide to the Amphitheatre elsewhere on this site. For the purposes of the trail it is sufficient to say that the things to see are the reconstructed remains of the "stands" surrounding the arena, the shrine to Nemesis by the north entrance, the mural and the east extrance. The simple way to see them is to walk clockwise from the entry signage to the north entrance, go down the steps to have a look at the shrine to Nemesis then walk over to inspect the mural. From there, turn left and climb the steps in the east exit.
St John's interior will be left for later, so do no more than glance at the door above which can be made out (faintly) the figure of either St Giles or King Ethelred, with his deer. More of deer later. If there is a mysterious robed figure standing in the doorway, don't worry, it might just be the vicar.
- Leave the Amphitheatre by the east exit and turn right towards the very sorry-looking tower at the end of St Johns church.
St Johns (west tower)
Often said to be "Chester's Hidden Gem"; It's not really that hidden, being right next to the Amphitheatre and plainly visible from the banks of the River Dee, you can't really miss it. The church has ruins at both ends, of which more below, and while the outside has been "restored" the inside retains many original Norman and early Gothic features - once inside it is like being in a different building, if not being in a different age.
St John's history is notable for a chronic shortage of building and repair funds and for parts of the structure falling down (it steadfastly carries this tradition on today). It is also steeped in ecclesiastical history and was known for a notable relic as well as being one of the most often painted churches in England. In 1468 the central tower collapsed destroying a great part of the choir. The steeple was rebuilt in 1470. At the end of the nave two bays are wanting of which the foundations only were laid. Of two large western towers at the west end the foundations only of the southern had been laid and this tower was in fact, never built. The northern tower had made more progress. The lower story is Norman but the tower was completed in the time of Henry VII (1485 - 1509). By about 1550, the church was reduced in size. The transepts were entirely destroyed at the Reformation when the size of the church was reduced to adapt it for parochial use only. Those parts of the church which were no longer in use had the lead removed from their roofs and "given" to the king, while all of the bells save one were removed.
The rebuilt central steeple lasted until 1572, when the steeple again collapsed. The church was kept in good condition in the earlier 17th century, but suffered severe damage, especially internally, after its capture by the parliamentarians. During the siege of Chester (1645-46) in the Civil War, the north-west tower was used to mount a gun battery. The weight of the guns and the shock of their discharge must have done much to weaken the structure. Packets of papers were also shot over the city walls, encouraging the towns folk to surrender. When this failed, snipers were placed at the church tower's summit. From here they were able to take pot shots at anyone seen in the streets beneath them. After the Civil War attempts at repair were made, but, on Good Friday (15th April), 1881 the north-western tower collapsed.
- Once past the ruined tower look out for the gate leading in the grounds of St Johns
The Haunted Path
The local "ghost register" also states that the area is haunted by "a monk in a dark habit who occasionally accosts witnesses in 'Haunted Alley' beside St John's Church, speaking a guttural Saxon-like language." The first modern sighting of the ghost comes from a rather trustworthy source (if the story is to be believed). In 1941 a Franciscan Friar and a man were walking the grounds of St Johns church when "a robed monk" is said to have appeared before them. The two men turned in a different direction only to be again confronted by the mysterious "monk" who was talking to them in a strange language. The story goes that both men were interested in languages and so, after some research, they came to the conclusion that the monk was speaking Anglo-Saxon. Another encounter with the monk is said to have happened in December 1973 when a college lecturer was making his way home around midnight. He used the cobbled alley near the church when the robed monk appeared before him on the footpath. The monk tried speaking to the man but the man did not understand. The identity of the ghost will be revealed later.
- In the absence of ghostly encounters, enter the church grounds. If you do meet a ghostly monk, you may try the Anglo-Saxon phrase: "ferþu hal, god cyning" ("go well, good king") - and don't fear to shed a tear, he probably deserves it - this (perhaps troubled) spirit isn't one to be dispelled by "bell, book and candle".
St John (grounds)
Back in 2011, Nick Horrigan was commissioned to create the artwork from the tree stump of a diseased Whitebeam that was being removed from the rear of St John the Baptist Church. Here is a place to consider your "journey" (for that is the name of the resulting structure). Should you sit on the central stone like on a throne? Folklore says you can eat the leaves of the whitebeam, but no more than seven at a time, because they do contain some poison. Traditionally the whitebeam is used for the making of cogs from its very hard and tough wood as is the hornbeam tree (beam meaning tree in Anglo-Saxon). Its over-ripe berries can make a syrup to flavour venison and its wood can also make bows and spears, and was sought in the middle ages for cross-bow stocks, but also musical instruments. Many whitebeams are hybrids within a larger grouping which includes Rowan. Another member of the family which often hybridises with Whitebeam is the service tree (Sorbus torminalis) - it has its own song Voici La Saint Jean: "Midsummer (St John’s Day) is here". The original Voici La Saint Jean song has no reference to a wild service tree wood or anything like it, so this would seem to be a late addition from Évelyne Girardon or another. The reference to the wild service is in the chorus: Vole vole mon coeur au bois d’alisier, vole vole mon coeur (Fly, fly my heart to the wild service tree wood, fly, fly my heart). Whitebeam berries can be used to produce many liquer's, wines, spirits and even beers.
With all this talk of bows and pikes, and musical instruments and alcoholic drinks, how appropriate that the Minstrel Court should be held at St Johns (at Midsummer). Dating from the time of Ranulf de Blondeville and his rescue from Rhuddlan Castle by minstrels and various vagrants, these (and "women of a certain notoriety") would gather here to pay an annual due, and as the 1744 Vagrancy Act, (17 George II., c. 5.) puts it: be "exempt from the pains and penalties of vagrancy". The Minstrel Court was revived in 2008, with musicians playing throughout the day on medieval instruments including bagpipes, hurdy-gurdy, shawm, and harps, storytelling performances, displays of arming a knight, historic craft demonstrations and a range of medieval characters including soldiers, weavers, doctors, nuns, pilgrims and scribes - many of which were "travelling" professions. As the scupture perhaps reminds us - not all who wander are lost.
On the fence in the direction of the River Dee there is some helpful signage. From here the Hermitage can be seen below through gaps in the shrubbery. And yes, the path here is made of gravestones, for this lawn was once a part of the churchyard. It is not a sign of disrespect to walk on them when they are used as a path or floor-stones - inside many English churches the floor is literally full of graves as people sought to be buried as close to the altar as possible.
Thomas de Quincey, another who wandered, lived briefly hereabouts. Through the efforts of his uncle, Colonel Penson, he received the promise of a guinea (£1.05) a week to carry out his later project of a solitary tramp through Wales. From July to November 1802, De Quincey lived as a wayfarer. He mentions "Priory House" in his "Confessions of an English Opium-Eater". Perhaps De Quincy was thinking of the founding of St John's when he wrote: "Such traditions, or any others that (like the stag) connect distant generations with each other, are, for that cause, sublime; and the sense of the shadowy, connected with such appearances that reveal themselves or not according to circumstances, leaves a colouring of sanctity over ancient forests, even in those minds that utterly reject the legend as a fact."
- Keep heading east to the ruins of the choir at the east end of the church. These are best explored by simply wandering about although there is some more detailed history on the St Johns page of this site.
The eastern end of St John calls to mind the Anglo-Saxon elegy "The Ruin": "Wrætlic is þes wealstan, wyrde gebræcon.." (Wondrous is this worked-stone, by fates broken..) it has even been suggested that the poem is about Chester, although the ruins are early Norman. Note that there are both round arches and "pointed" arches - the pointed (ogival) arches are a characteristic feature of Gothic architecture and were first used in India and the Middle East.
In one of the arches of the ruined choir an ancient oak coffin can be seen set into the masonry. Within the coffin is inscribed "Duft to Duft" ("dust to dust" - based on the wording of the funeral service in the Book of Common Prayer). Signs in the churchyard state that the coffin and inscription dates back to the 11th Century, was found during the 19th Century by grave digger Benjamin Carter and that the rector at the time (Richardson) ordered the coffin to be set high into the wall. However, others say that the coffin is actually 15th Century and was found in the Nantwich area, having been brought to Chester as a curiosity - and that Richardson brought the coffin from a boat in the canal in 1813.
- From the ruins exit onto the path between the church and Grosvenor Park. Turn left and head away from the slope down to the River Dee. Although if the weather is unsuitable it is possible to shorten the walk by heading downhill here to the River.
Many of the gravestones from the original graveyard of St Johns survive and have been re-used as paving near Vicars Lane. In the inscriptions are some of interest: an "Iron Master" lies next to an "Ostrich Feather Manufacturer".
The other thing to note hereabouts it what appears like a lamp-post towards its base but has a weather-vane like arrow and what looks like a diver's helmet at the top. This is in fact the vent for a drainage system. There are several of them dotted around Chester.
- Enter Grosvenor Park by the gate which leads to the Rose Garden. The layout of the Rose Garden is similar to that of a "solar cross".
A walk in the Park
Grosvenor Park is the only large park within the centre of Chester. It is famous for its tame squirrels and its formal gardens. It is bounded by the River Dee to the south, Vicars Lane and Union Street to the north, Dee Lane to the east and the footpath from the Amphitheatre to The Groves to the west. There are entrances along each of the park boundaries.
Known as Union Street by 1816, Union Street was formerly "Barker's Lane" a continuation of Vicars Lane whose early name records the presence of tanners in the area as oak bark was used in the Tanning process. There was a pub on Barker's Lane called The King's Arms, the same as the King's Arms on Union Steet. In 1828 it changed it's name to The Union Arms before reverting back to The King's Arms in 1850. After closing, the inn was extensively enlarged towards the rear and became the Grosvenor Skating Rink. The skating rink later became The Broadway Dancing Academy Ballroom, nicknamed 'The Ack', a favourite haunt of American servicemen stationed around Chester during WW2. In the 1950s, the Ack was renamed The Riverpark Ballroom. The Beatles played here on four consecutive Thursdays in 1962: 16th, 23rd (John Lennon's Wedding Day), 30th August and 13th September. The Riverpark Ballroom closed the following year, 1963, and was demolished, together with adjoining buildings, as part of road-widening for the incorporation of Union Street into the Inner Ring Road.
In 1865 Cheshire was hit by a cattle plague and the following year there was an outbreak of Cholera. At the time people believed that this was due to drinking water being contaminated by surface drainage from places where dead cattle had been buried in haste. Another theory is that the outbreak was due to the poor state of the sewers in Chester - they were soon refurbished (remember the sewer vent?). At a meeting of the Assembly in May 1866 it was decided to provide two places for Cholera wards within the City in case the outbreak reached Chester. One of these was located in a disused farmhouse on the land which was to become the park. The heftiest women from the local workhouse were selected as potential nurses but there was some concern that they were neither honest nor sober, had no training and that it was unwise to put them in charge of either patients or medicines. Fortunately Frances Wilbraham (1815-1905) of Kings Buildings (King Street), a wealthy member of the local gentry volunteered to oversee them. The first two case of cholera appeared on 1st September 1866. One was a woman from a tenement in Goss Street the other Alderman John Trevor, a former mayor and editor of the Chester Chronicle: both were dead within days. The ward in the park was soon full of the sick and dying, but Francis Wilbraham nursed them tirelessly and by November the outbreak began to abate. The Duke of Westminster called Frances Wilbraham the "Florence Nightingale of Chester". The farmhouse was demolished before the park was opened.
In 1867 the second Marquis of Westminster, an extensive landowner in and around the city of Chester, commissioned the landscape designer Edward Kemp (1817-91) and the Chester architect John Douglas (1830-1911) to lay out a public park on a site, which was purchased at his behest.
The mature trees, including the avenues of holly and lime, were planted during the development of the park in the 1860/70s. The lime trees lining the main avenues have been traditionally maintained in keeping with the Victorian fashion for creating a pyramidal form, which gives rise to their rather strange appearance during the winter months. Many new specimens have been introduced since then, including two Californian redwoods, (Sequoiadendron giganteum), planted in the mid 1970s. These two trees were raised from the seeds of the famous Giant Redwood named "General Sherman" growing in the Californian National Park whose recorded height is 274.9 feet with a mass of over 1,900 tonnes, the largest known living single stem tree on earth, and about 2,000 years old. The two redwoods planted in Grosvenor Park are not expected to attain such astounding dimensions, but may nevertheless develop into very large specimens, given a few thousand years...
- Keep heading east until you approach a hexagonal wooden pavilion
Ymir (pronounced roughly “EE-mir;” Old Norse Ymir, “Screamer”) is a hermaphroditic giant and the first creature to come into being in the Norse creation myth. As the first giant, he’s the ancestor of all of the other giants – and, since almost all of the Norse gods are partially descended from giants, he’s their ancestor as well in that pantheon. Another name for Ymir in some Old Norse poems is Aurgelmir (“Sand/Gravel Screamer”).
The Ymir in Grosvenor Park (by Philip Bews and Diane Gorvin) is a tactile sculpture carved from a block of Portland stone, height 95cms. Originally situated in the Garden for the Blind, there was an accompanying tablet in Braille. It has been moved to a more prominent position near the pavilion and the statue is now mounted on a plinth to make it easily accessible, but the mounting does not meet the original intention, which had the figure emerging directly from the ground.
- Keep heading east until you reach a black and white "half-timbered" lodge.
The Lodge was originally the Park Keeper's Lodge and was Chester City Council's Parks & Gardens Office until 2001. The design of the Lodge and Billy Hobby's Well are the first recorded instance of John Douglas's employment at the hands of the Grosvenors. The ground floor of the Lodge is made of stones with half-timbering on the second storey. This is Douglas's first known use of black and white. The masonry detailing is Gothic. There are seven carvings representing the Norman Earls of Chester and one representing William the Conqueror.
The restored carvings in 2018
The Earls of Chester are not without their own seasoning of possibly dubious myths that some would see as actual history. Most sources would give the first earl as Hugh of Avranches and some would say, probably wrongly, that he was the nephew of William the Conqueror: other sources have the first earl as the ill-fated Gherbod the Fleming - not represented here. It has been claimed that the Grosvenors are descended from Earl Hugh, but there is little (or no) evidence for this (although it may explain the absence of Gherbod). Later Earls of Chester have both ancient and more modern tales about them which may or not be true.
A children's railway runs in a loop on the east side of the park near to the north gate on Union Street. There is a pond in the centre of the loop. The railway was built in 1996 to commemorate the centenary of the Duke of Westminster's railway at Eaton Hall. It has a gauge of 7.25 inches (18 cm) and a circuit of 0.25 miles (0.40 km). The Duke's railway was a 15-inch gauge railway.
- Head south towards the statue at the end of the avenue of trees.
This is a marble statue of the park's donor, Richard the Second Marquis, in Garter robes. There was originally a suggestion that it should be bronze, but it was later decided to go for a larger than life marble statue. It was sculpted by Thomas Thornycroft and erected in 1869 at the junction of four avenues. At the time it was thought to be a single piece of Sicilian marble (thought to be the single largest carved from a single block in modern Britain at the time), however it was later found that there was a join at the shoulder. Almost certainly the Marquess will have a pidgeon on his head. The plinth is inscribed: "Richard: Second Marquess of Westminster: K.G. The Generous Landlord: The Friend of the Distressed: The Helper of all Good Works: The Benefactor to this City: Erected by Tenants Friends and Neighbours; AD 1869".
This is the second inscription: the first was changed because it had "2nd" in figures (now written as ‘second’) and had spawned the joke of "the tuppenny Marquess" (two old pence were written as ‘2d’).
- Pass the statue and continue straight on to the semi-circular viewing platform.
Further down the slope and slighly to the left is "Billy Hobby's Well". The well had a magical reputation in Chester. Chester maidens would stand with their right leg immersed in the water, wishing for husbands. In his 2008 book, "Haunted Chester", author David Brandon suggests that Billy Hobby was a real character who invented the legend while employed at the park and charged women to access the well on New Year's Eve. He apparently stopped his lucrative side-line when at least one woman caught a chill and died. However the reference to Billy Hobbies Field from 1745 and the fact that Grosvenor Park was not first opened until 1867 would seem to argue against that.
- Leave the platform to the right when facing the river and follow the path just inside the park boundary.
The River Dee
There are hundreds of grey squirrels (Sciurus Carolinensis) living in the park. They are extremely tame and will happily run up to take nuts from your fingers. Local folklore says that Grosvenor Park was the first place in Britain where they were introduced from the USA. This is incorrect as grey squirrels were first recorded appearing in nearby Denbighshire, across the Welsh border, in the 1820s. Systematic introduction began when a Thomas Unett Brocklehurst liberated a pair from Henbury Park, Cheshire, in 1876. They seem to have been brought to Chester soon after. The invasive grey squirrel is rapidly driving the UK's native Eurasian red squirrel (Sciurus vulgaris) population to extinction, although the loss of habitat has also played a role.
- Keep heading east until you reach a stone archway over the path
Some ancient relics of old Chester were also re-erected in Grosvenor Park:
- the Old Shipgate Arch – this medieval arch formerly stood at the west of the Bridgegate and was taken down in 1831. It was moved about quite a bit before it ended up here.
- St. Mary's Arch – the archway and wing walls were removed from St Mary's Benedictine Nunnery (adjacent to the Roodee). The Nunnery had lain in ruins since Henry VIII's Dissolution of the Monasteries in the 16th century. The arch and walls date from around the 13th century. They also have a mystery of their own.
- a doorway from old St Michael Church - at least that is what the label on it says. However, it actually looks virtually identical to the gate which used to be at "The Bars".
- Jacobs Well drinking fountain – this little stone arch had a fountain for people and a dish for their pets. It is now dried up - for the simple reason that it was also moved from elsewhere. Above the well is the inscription "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again" (John IV, 13).
Doorway from old St Michael Church
The Shipgate arch
Jacobs Well and St. Mary's Arch
Detail from Jacobs Well
Jacobs Well in original location
- Past the arches follow the path to the park gates. The Hermitage is visible from the gates. From here it is possible to walk out on the Suspension Bridge before heading along the Groves from the red kiosk.
The Queen's Park Suspension Bridge connects The Groves with the affluent Queen's Park area of Chester. Queen's Park was planned on a greenfield site immediately south of the River Dee and next to the Earls Eye in 1851 by Enoch Gerrard and others. It was developed in the 1850s and 1860s as a middle class residential suburb.
Chester Corporation took on the responsibility for this bridge in the early 1920s and decided to demolish it almost at once - presumably because there was some serious structural problem and Chester was already noted for one bridge collapse disaster when the Dee Railway Bridge gave way under a passing train in 1847. The demolition of the suspension bridge took place in August 1922. It was replaced by a new bridge "designed" by Charles Greenwood, City Engineer and Surveyor ("designed" because it is almost a copy of another bridge). The 1923 bridge bears a striking resemblance to the 1922 Porthill Bridge in Shrewsbury - so much so that many people, even Chester residents, might have problems telling which was which in photographs. However, Chester's bridge has real shields rather than the tiny ones in Shrewsbury and a huge sign saying which one it is. Unfortunately, it appears that the arms of Ranulf de Meschines and Ranulf de Gernon have been switched around on the suspension bridge.
One of the most unusual buildings in Chester is the Anchorite's Cell or 'Hermitage', a small sandstone building by the River Dee at The Groves. The present building is believed to date from the mid 14th century and was one of two 'cells' built as religious retreats for reclusive monks or hermits. Until the reformation it belonged to the collegiate Church of St Johns which stands on the sandstone ridge "Redcliffe" above the river. The cell itself stands on a sandstone outcrop in a former quarry, which is now set out as a bowling green (which does not appear to be used). It was re-modelled in the 19th century, when gothic traceried windows were added. The porch on the north side originally came from St Martin's Church which was demolished in 1897. During its long history, the cell has also been a grain warehouse, the meeting place of the Company of Shoemakers and, more recently in the 1970s, an architect's office. The Anchorite's Cell was refurbished as a cottage sometime in the 1970s and is presently a private dwelling.
One hermit may have been none other than Harold Godwinson, once king of England and supposed survivor of the Battle of Senlac Hill (sometimes called the "Battle of Hastings"). Harold's connection with Chester is actually quite a bit more than myth, although the story that he lived on here after his supposed defeat in 1066 takes quite some believing. In 1063 Edward the Confessor's military leader Harold son of Earl Godwin, attacked Gryffudd ap Llywelyn's palace at Rhuddlan in Flintshire using Chester as his base and made himself master of the Vale of Clwyd. Following either Gruffydd's death (apparently at the hands of his own troops) - or simply the fact that Gruffydd had fled - Harold married his widow. The popular story is well known - Harold fights at the Battle of Hastings, gets shot in the eye with an arrow and dies.
According to Gerald of Wales, King Harold II fled only badly wounded from the Battle of Hastings to Chester where he survived as an anchorite (blind in one eye of course) in "The chapel of St. James", close to St Johns Church. The story does seem remarkably persistent. Rudyard Kipling wrote a story, The Tree of Justice (1910), describing how an old man (blind in one eye) who turns out to be Harold is brought before Henry I. A very similar story "Wallingford Castle" was printed in the Metropolitan Magazine (see volume III, January June 1837 page 410).
In 1332, the monks of St Johns Church in Chester supposedly discovered his alleged remains, still "fragrant" and clad in leather hose, golden spurs, and crown. Admittedly, they were a bit short of cash at the time and a few pilgrims would have brought in some money. Supposedly, there is a 'secret passage' which links the Hermitage with St John's, so that the Hermit could attend mass without revealing himself. Others give the story of the discovery of his bones in 1770. There is even some uncertainty as to whether the Hermitage may have been relocated. And the ghost mentioned earlier> - Harold, who it appears can survive anything.
Jacob's well is another, possibly ancient drinking fountain, now appearing to be dried up. It can be found in Grosvenor Park Chester. Beside the fountain is the inscription "Whosoever drinketh of this water shall thirst again" (John IV, 13) a reference to the original Jacob’s Well in Samaria (Palestine). The same theme is employed in the "Water of LIfe" sculpture in the cloister of the Cathedral. That the well has dried up is unsurprising as the well is not on it's original site. Previously it was sited where the public toilets are located on The Groves, by the path heading down from St Johns Church to the Hermitage. Apparently there was an ancient "House of Easement" next to it. It was at that time a working well and a noted "landmark" on the Groves. It was moved to its current location, in Grosvenor Park in 1923. Churches associates with white harts/stags occur all along the River Dee. They are also generally associated with holy wells or springs. Examples include Llandderfel (founded in the early 6th Century) and Llangar. Here we have a well just below St Johns a church which has its own story of a white hart. Tradition ascribes the foundation of St. Johns to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. According to the legend he was led to the spot by a white hart.
- continue along the Groves to the west, away from the suspension bridge
The riverside below St. John's church was also corporation property and used as a public walk by 1717. In 1726 it was leased by the city council to Charles Croughton, an apothecary (under yearly rent of one pepper corn), who secured the river bank and planted an avenue of trees for the public benefit. Croughton had lately purchased the Earl of Derby's house and garden near Dee and wanted a grant of the ground between his garden wall and the river Dee in return. The wording of the lease was: "Herbage and pasture of piece of ground near St. John's Church, beside the River Dee, from the corner of the Bowling Green house to the garden wall, now in possession of Andrew Kendrick, 187 yards long, with licence for Croughton to carry his garden wall on the north side of the said ground in a direct line from his summer house wall to the house of easement at the east end of the said ground. Croughton to make a fit public walk from north to south 7 yards by 2 yards and plant it with trees and not to enclose it at each end except with a turnpike"
Along the Groves below the wall of the Bishop's Palace there is a wrought iron gate which used to bear the letters "YMCA" (because the palace later became the YMCA). The gate is still there, but unaccountably the letters YMCA are not.
In 1745 the Dee Side walks extended from Souters Lane to a point east of St Johns. By 1783 the promenade was called the Groves. In 1881 the river bank from Souters Lane to the Old Dee Bridge was faced with rubble from the fallen tower of St Johns church, and the avenue was extended to the west, an improvement carried out at the expense of Charles Brown to commemorate his mayoralty.
Boating excursions upstream are available from landing stages at the Groves. These were originally to view the newly completed Gothic Eaton Hall, and were an attraction by 1821. In the mid 19th century the rise of tourist excursions to Chester turned the Groves into a popular resort. Pleasure boats could be hired on the river by the 1850s, and in the later 19th century band concerts throughout the summer became a major attraction. The concerts were at first arranged by a private committee, which built a bandstand in 1913, but were taken over by the city council in 1927.
- Keep walking along the Groves until the corner of the City Walls. The Recorders Steps are on the walls just ahead but the route then continues up the footpath on the right, at the base of the walls.
The Recorders Steps are two flights of stone steps in offset flights of 12 and 15 steps, leading from the City Walls to the Groves. The lower flight is separated from the wall by a strip of Gothic stonework. The usual impression given is that these steps were erected for an aged Recorder who had served the City for years and in retirement wanted to get down to the Groves. However, there is something seriously wrong with either the plaque or the story. Assuming the City Assembly Records are right, then the Recorder's Steps were only built (1720-22) after Recorder Roger Comberbach died in 1719. The 1820 date given on the "listed buildings" record must be an error. But how the idea came about that they were built for the convenience of Roger Comberbach remains a mystery.
The east part of south side of City Walls as seen today dates from late 11th to early 12th century, was converted to a raised promenade in 1702-8 and repaired during various periods. It is the usual coursed red sandstone with a rubble core. This part of the City Walls forms a retaining wall with ground level on the inner side being equal to that of the wall walk, but on the outer side ground level is around 7m below the wall walk. The wall is partly built on outcropping sandstone bedrock, with some 24 courses of stone beneath the parapet.
The nearby tower probably dates from the 13th century, was damaged 1644-6 during the Civil War, converted to a feature of the raised promenade of the wall walk and again repaired during various periods. The bastion forms a 3-sided projection from the wall, its platform level with the wall-walk. There is no evidence of any chamber beneath that level. The mock-crenellation as the tower level and parapet were altered at the expense of Councillor Charles Brown 1879-80. The tower stands upon an outcrop of red sandstone.
The sandstone displays interesting "wavy" structure. It dates from the time just before the dinosaurs lived, when the climate was very different, and what is now Chester was located in an arid desert region which at times was crossed by a river something like the present day Nile. The sand which eventually became the sandstone was deposited in the "wavy" structures both by floods and as dunes. The hardness of the stone varies with the lighter stone being, in general, harder. Many buildings in Chester are constructed using this stone.
- Heading up the path at the base of the walls will lead past the tower and into the lower end of the Roman Gardens.
The lower part of the Roman Gardens was re-modeled in 2000 to provide a path down to the River Dee - a path which is snakes back and forth like the snake in the roman symbol for medicine. In fact many of the plants here are medicinal herbs, some of which would have been known to the Romans.
The upper part of the Roman Gardens contains a selection of Roman Relics collected from around the City, none of which originally stood on this site. Most of the columns that can be seen in the Roman Gardens came from the exercise hall of the Roman bath house (thermae). They were once 6 meters tall and supported the stonework of the central section of the hall. The largest column currently in the Roman Gardens came from the assembly hall of the headquarters building (Principia). The Roman Gardens also houses a reconstructed hypocaust which was the Roman system of under floor heating. An under floor cavity was filled with hot air from a furnace to heat the rooms or baths above. Several hypocausts have been found in excavations in Chester. The hypocaust in the Roman Gardens has been reconstructed using the pillars (pilae) recovered in 1863 from one of the rooms in the main bath building (thermae) of the Roman fortress.
In Chester's Roman Gardens there is a semi-reproduction (done in 2000 by artist Gary Drostle) of a Capricorn Mosaiic (discovered at St Michael's Row, 1909-10) which actually survived in Chester until the 1960's when it was destroyed by contractors. The capricorn was the symbol of Legio II - the first unit to be stationed at Roman Chester.
The less-weathered masonry in the City Walls marks the site of a breach, battered through the wall by Parliamentary cannon, when Chester was besieged during the Civil War. By September 1645, Chester's loyal stand for King Charles I was nearing an end. The suburbs had been taken. The Royalist garrison and all the citizens took refuge inside the City Walls. Parliamentary troops mounted cannon (and snipers) in the tower of St Johns Church, just to the east of where the Roman Gardens are now sited, and bombarded the South Eastern defences. The tower was probably much weakened by this which contributed to its later collapse. On Monday, 22nd September 1645 this stretch of the City Walls were bombarded from 12 noon until 4pm. Thirty-two shots were fired, making a breach wide enough for ten men abreast to enter. Two Royalist soldiers were killed trying to fill the hole with beds and woolpacks. That night, the Parliamentarians tried to storm the breach, but were beaten back after fierce fighting.
The site of the Roman Gardens was previously occupied by a clay tobacco-pipe factory which was in production from at least 1781 until 1917. The foundations of a brick building have been found alongside the City Wall which runs to the east of the Gardens. Chester was the centre for a flourishing clay tobacco-pipe industry. Chester's pipes were exported in great quantities. The earliest clay tobacco-pipe kiln ever found in Britain has been discovered in Chester.
The apparently mediaeval house one passes in Park Street was actually built as recently as 1881 (by W. H. Kelly - whose better work includes the 1883 Greysfield House, at Barrow) and bears the legend, "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life". This is sometimes said to be the inscription on an "ancient" (some say Roman) coin found on the site, - it is also found in Proverbs [14:27] (so unlikely to be on a Roman coin). However almost the same words: "TIMOR . DOMINE . FONS . VITAE" were struck onto a (now incredibly rare) issue of silver shillings of Edward VI in 1549, as well as on the gold half-sovereign of the same year (and some groats amd other coins). Edward VI was 9 years old when he was made King in 1547. It was feared that ambitious men close to him may grab his power and use it for their own needs. Therefore these shillings of his reign (only from 1549) were inscribed with this legend. He was dead within a few years, in 1553. the most likely explanation is therefore that the coin found was from Edward VI - and that just because something is written in latin, that does not mean that what it is written on is a Roman relic! Also in 1549 came the execution of Thomas Seymour (Jane Seymour's brother), a guardian of Edward VI whose crime was providing Edward with "pocket money" stolen from the Bristol mint while bad-mouthing his brother who held the official purse-strings. Maybe the decision to mark the coins thus and Seymour's fate are not unrelated.
The Newgate Again
On the 30th September, 1939 the "Munich Agreement" was signed by Hitler, Benito Mussolini, Daladier and Chamberlain, this forced Czechoslovakia to give territory to Germany, and Chamberlain returned to make his famous "Peace in Our Time" speech. The following commentary appeared in "The Times" on the 4th October 1938:
- The rebuilt Newgate at Chester was opened by the Mayor, Alderman George Barlow, yesterday. Presenting the Mayor with a pair of gold scissors with which to cut the tape, Alderman Matthew Jones suggested that they might rename it the Munich Gateway having regard to the circumstances of its inauguration. A prayer was offered by the Dean of Chester, and afterwards there was a luncheon at the Town Hall. The gate has been erected to meet traffic demands and displaces the oldest of the city's gates. The date of erection of the original gate is not known, but a gate stood on the present site in or before 1327 and was known as Wolf's Gate, and later as Pepper Gate.
There are many theories that Adolf lived in Liverpool for a while, but so far no-one has ever suggested that he visited Chester. However there is an interesting twist here: the Sendlinger Tor ("Sendling Gate") in Munich does bear a passing resemblance to the New Gate in Chester.
- Return to the Amphitheatre and now cross on the raised walkway to get to St Johns
The Other Side
To the left (south) of the raised path is a small seating area and a model of what the completed Amphitheatre looked like. There are also some coping stones from the Amphitheatre scattered about. One of these (removed for safe-keeping) bore the Roman graffiti "Seranos Place" indicating that it marked the favorite seat of one of the Romans who attended the Amphitheatre. On approaching the end of the raised path it is possible to look down onto the East Entrance of the Amphitheatre and get another view of its structure with possible steps to the south and a passage within the wall to the north. This may indicate that it was modified in post-Roman times into a crypt for early christian relics.
The end of the trail is St Johns which is still a working church (so there may be a service going on). There is a lot to see here and some useful signage is scattered around the interior. There are also some volunteer guides who may or may not be there. This is a very short guide to St Johns, which has a much richer history than presented in this brief tour guide.
Standing near the door may well be one of the "Chester Giants". In Medieval and Tudor times, Chester’s magnificent Midsummer Watch Parade was renowned throughout the country. First held during the mayoralty of Richard Goodman in 1498, it was organised by the City Guilds and took place in the years when the famous Chester Mystery Plays were not performed. The outstanding features of the show were the Giants – enormous structures made of buckram and pasteboard and carried by two or more men. Giants were a common feature of Tudor pageantry in England and Europe, but Chester was unique in that the city paraded a whole family of Giants. The Midsummer Watch Parade survived much longer than the now world-famous Mystery Plays, which were banned in 1575 and not revived until recent times. In 1599, Mayor Henry Hardware prohibited the Parade and ordered the Giants to be broken up. The first new giant was taken for a walk through the streets of Chester at midsummer 1989. The parade at midsummer that year was the first for over 300 years.
Tradition ascribes the foundation of St. John's to Æthelred, king of Mercia (674–704), in 689. In the vestibule of the church is a stained glass window showing the legend of how he selected the site guided by a white hart. Curiously, churches associates with white harts occur all along the River Dee. They are also generally associated with holy wells or springs. Examples include: Llandderfel and Llangar. Just downhill from St John's was Jacobs Well - now relocated to Grosvenor Park. The large wooden signs in the vestibule mention a "Wulfrice" who is usually taken to be Wilfrid (originally spelled Wilfrith; c. 633 – c. 709) an English bishop. He frequently got himself into political difficulties, often involving the disputes between the Celtic church (based on Monks) and the church of Rome (based on Bishops).
Inside the church proper one finds a completely different building to what appears outside. The lower parts are Norman and date from when Peter de Leia, bishop of Lichfield (consecrated in 1067) removed his episcopal see to Chester in 1075 and the church became a cathedral. The old St John's just would not do as the home of an important bishop, and so had to be rebuilt. The basic plan of the new church followed the standard Norman design, with a choir to the east, a central crossing with a tower above, transepts, a nave to the west and a pair of towers at the western end. However not all of this was to be completed. De Leia died and was buried in Chester in 1085. His successor Robert de Limesey translated his see from Chester to Coventry in 1102. The massive piers and semicircular arches of the nave belong to this period but the triforium and clerestory built upon them are of transitional character and belong to the end of the twelfth century and the 1200's. Exactly what was built when has been the subject of much debate.
To the left of the entrance are some stone cross heads. These are probably older than any part of the present church building. A memorial window to the memory of local archirect TM Lockwood (by Shrigley and Hunt, 1901) is in the north aisle of St Johns. Appropriately, the window depicts the architect Hiram Abiff and is full of masonic symbolism - such as the pillars labelled "Boaz" and "Jachim" and the tiled floor. Nearby, on the pillar, is a surviving medieval painting. The west window is by Edward Frampton (1845-1928) and was given by the 1st Duke of Westminster in 1890. The window depicts twelve scenes from the history of the church. The top right pane shows a boat on the River Dee. This is a reference to Edgar the Pacific, (c. Aug 7, 943 – July 8, 975) who was the great-grandson of Alfred the Great and was famously crowned both at Bath and at Chester (in 973) as the first king of all England. The religious rites used in his coronation (use of anointing etc.) have been in use ever since. King Edgar is said to have prayed in the minster ("monasterium") of St. John after being rowed along the River Dee. Edgar is traditionally said to have started his river journey at Edgar's Field where there is a Roman shrine to Minerva (which should not be missed). Perhaps it is not a co-incidence that Minerva is associated with both Bath and Chester. Edgar's is not the only English coronation associated with St Johns, the church organ was specially built for the coronation of Queen Victoria (1838) and later brought to Chester by canal.
Bye for now
So that's it. We hope you enjoyed the tour. It can be spooky in parts and it has been said that the barriers between different spheres of existence are "a bit thin" around St Johns. We are hoping to also produce these tours as a free 'phone app using GPS, but that is an experiment for the future. As for the past, the tea-stand at St Johns appears hardly to have put its prices up since the church was founded, and their "repair fund" can always do with even the smallest cash contribution.
- City Walls;
- St Johns;
- St John Street;
- Pepper Street;
- Souters Lane;
- Dark Ages;
- Roman Chester;
- Jacobs Well;
- River Dee;
- Suspension Bridge;
- Grosvenor Park;
- Vicars Lane;
- Civil War;