One of Chester’s most distinguishing features is its Rows. These are galleried walkways that run the along the four streets that meet at the High Cross. These four streets, each of which leads to one of the principal City Gates of Chester, are:
It seems that almost every house in the Rows has its own story to tell.
The Rows on these streets are known as "Bridge Street Row" etc., and one curiosity of Chester is that the house numbers on the streets and the Row above may differ significantly. For example, 49 Bridge Street forms the ground floor of 57 Bridge Street Row. Indeed, the Row houses and the Street houses are often under different ownership. While the Rows themselves are a public right of way they are in private ownership and the owners are responsible for their upkeep. Also, local bye-laws do not permit smoking on the Rows. The rows have secondary names which derive from the traders who carried on their business there (Shoemakers’ Row, Ironmongers’ Row, etc). Today they mostly house a variety of small shops, bars and restaurants, although there are still some private houses on the Rows. In some places the Rows have been "enclosed", that is the Row has been blocked-off at both sides and the space has been incorporated into a building. Often, as in Lower Bridge Street, the internal layout of these buildings reflect the fact that the Row once passed through them - a particular example is the Old Kings Head another is the Falcon. Mostly, the rows are open on the street side, but there is one exception, the so-called "Dark Row" where there are shops between the Row and the street frontage.
The advantages of a pathway at first-floor level were too obvious to be overlooked, as the condition of the street below, badly paved, encumbered with horses and wagons, littered with refuse, and with a rough channel in the center as the only drain, made things decidedly unpleasant for the medieval pedestrian. On the first-floor level the merchant would have an opportunity of attracting customers, who would be able to make their purchases in comparative peace, while the natural advantages of the street-level frontages induced others to open their shops there.
It is often said that The Rows are "fake" and that much of them dates only from around 1900, but to say so it to be both superficial and inaccurate. Chester has been very well documented by artists over the years and these often very detailed depictions of The Rows, including those of Louise Rayner and the less well-known Batenham show just how much has survived from the early 19thC.
The sequence at Chester was often that:
- during medieval times, buildings in Chester were constructed with a stone "undercroft" and the row-walk above, a medieval half-timbered building was constructed above that;
- during the 18thC, the half-timbered medieval building was re-fronted in brick, cutting away the jettied storeys to give a flat facade, but leaving much of the original timber framing behind; often, but not always the row level was preserved;
- in the "Vernacular Revival" (after about 1860) the brick frontages were embellished with their "mock Tudor" appearance of the current day
So what we often perceive as "fake medieval" often has a "mock-Tudor" cosmetic mask over a real medieval building.
The best surviving undercrofts are:
- 12 Bridge Street (Cowper House);
- 28 Eastgate Street (Brown's Crypt),
- 11 Watergate Street (Watergate's Wine Bar);
- 21 Watergate Street (Leche House);
- 37 Watergate Street (St Ursula's);
Leche House (1603-1625)
Bishop Lloyd's House (1890/1615)
Stanley Palace (1928/16thC)
The Falcon (1982/c1180)
Bear and Billet (1664)
Is there anything similar elsewhere?
The Rows are almost unique. There is something similar in Steigstrasse in the Obertor at Meersburg in Germany but not on so large a scale, and the earliest surviving building of the "rows" type in Meersburg is believed to date from 1620, much later than The Rows in Chester. Parallels have also been drawn with the arcades in Istanbul, but these seem much too modern. Trajan's Market in Rome (probably built in 100-110 AD by Apollodorus of Damascus) has also been cited as a forerunner of the rows, but again there is unlikely to be any causal connection. Other early English towns have have stretches of covered pavement with the buildings above supported on pillars, but all these covered ways are at street level. William Smith (1588 - he of the Smith Map) writing in The particular description of England (see page 44 for Chester) says:
- The Buildings of the City are very ancient; and the Houses builded in such sort, that a man may go, dry, from one place of the City to another, and never come in the Street; but go as it were in Galleries, which they call, the Roes, which have shops on both sides and underneath, with divers fair staires to go up or down into the street. Which manner of building I have not heard of in any place of Christendome. Some will say, that the like is in Padua in Italy, but that is not so. For the houses in Padua, are builded as the Suburbs of this City be, that is, on the ground, upon Posts, that a man may go dry underneath them; like as they are at Billingsgate in London, but nothing like to the Roes..
What is the most efficient way to walk round them?
The Rows provide for a dense commercial environment, and convenient shelter from inclement weather. Because The Rows effectively double the number of shops, it may mean that you have to walk the length of a street three times (once in the street and once in each row) to see everything. Matters are further complicated by the presence of a few other retail areas within the City Walls off The Rows: for example Pepper Street, St Werbergh's Street and at least three shopping arcades (the Grosvenor Shopping Center, Handel Court/Rufus Square and The Forum - the last leading to the traditional indoor market). There are also some shopping streets outside of the walls: notably Frodsham Street, Brook Street (Ethnic restaurants and food stores, second-hand goods and clothes, comics, records and computers) and Foregate Street. If you are a "systematic shopper" and want a route round Chester to see all the shops and not retrace your steps, you are in for a difficult time. Often the more interesting shops are tucked away into some obscure corner.
They are much commented upon by visitors to Chester, who often fail to see the attraction of resting on the Rows and watching the world go by. Writing in 1840, General Sir Charles Napier (then stationed at Chester Castle as a precaution against Chartist riots) said of the Rows:
- All the rogues, and fools and drunkards in the country seem collected, and the Row balconies are filled all day with idlers and well-dressed girls, young and old, looking into the streets from daybreak till dark. Such idleness I never witnessed as at Chester. My life has been long, it has but twelve years to run, and yet I never, in any country, witnessed such stupid idleness as in Chester. Those who go to the course have some fun, but those who hang over the Row balconies all day like old clothes, see nothing, hear nothing, do nothing.
Rather more modern Rufus Court close to the Northgate, tries to emulate the atmosphere of the Rows.
Why The Rows
Much has been written over the years on the origin of The Rows.
"The greatest peculiarity of Chester—greater even than its Roman walls—lies in its sunken streets and the famous "Rows." These are unique in England, and indeed in Europe. Likenesses to them are seen in Berne, Utrecht and Thun, but nothing just the same, nothing so evidently systematic and prearranged, is to be found anywhere. The principal streets, especially the four great Roman ones that quartered the camp, are sunk and cut into the rock, while the Rows are on the natural level of the ground. The reason for this has been a standing problem to antiquaries. Some have supposed that the excavation of the streets dates from Roman times, and was only due to the necessity of making work for the soldiers during long periods of inaction. The effect is most singular. Hardly any description brings it satisfactorily before the eye of one who has not seen it. The best which I have met with, and a much better one than I should be able to give from my own experience, is that of a German traveller, J.G. Kohl: "Let the reader imagine the front wall of the first floor of each house to have been taken away, leaving that part of the house completely open toward the street, the upper part being supported by pillars or beams. Let him then imagine the side walls also to have been pierced through, to allow a continuous passage along the first floors of all the houses.... It must not be imagined that these Rows form a very regular or uniform gallery. On the contrary, it varies according to the size or circumstances of each house through which it passes. Sometimes, when passing through a small house, the ceiling is so low that one finds it necessary to doff the hat, while in others one passes through a space as lofty as a saloon. In one house the Row lies lower than in the preceding, and one has in consequence to go down a step or two; and perhaps a house or two farther one or two steps have to be mounted again. In one house a handsome, new-fashioned iron railing fronts the street; in another, only a mean wooden paling. In some stately houses the supporting columns are strong, and adorned with handsome antique ornaments; in others, the wooden piles appear time-worn, and one hurries past them, apprehensive that the whole concern must topple down before long. The ground floors over which the Rows pass are inhabited by a humble class of tradesmen, but it is at the back of the Rows themselves that the principal shops are to be found.... The Rows are in reality on a level with the surface of the ground, and the carriages rolling along below are passing through a kind of artificial ravine. The back wall of the ground floor is everywhere formed by the solid rock, and the courtyards of the houses, their kitchens and back buildings, lie generally ten or twelve feet higher than the street." - LIPPINCOTT'S MAGAZINE - Nov 1877, Lady Blanche Murphy.
As Louise Rayner wrote of the many theories on the origin of the Rows:
- To trace the original cause of these rows, with any degree of certainty, is no easy task, concerning which a variety of conjectures have been formed. Some have attributed their origin to the period when Chester was liable to the frequent assaults of the Welsh, which induced the inhabitants to build their houses in this form, so that when the enemy should at any time have forced an entrance, they might avoid the danger of the horsemen, and annoy their assailants as they passed through the streets.
- The city of Chester still surrounded by its ancient walls is divided into four principal streets called Eastgate street, Northgate street, Bridge street and Watergate street. The carriage road in these streets is on a level with the underground warehouses over these are open galleries called row for the accommodation of foot passengers which occupy the space between the front of the tradesmen's shops and the street, the upper rooms of the houses project over the rows so as to be even with the warehouses beneath. The general appearance of these rows is as if the first stories in front of all the houses had been laid open and made to communicate with each other pillars only being left for the support of the superstructure the foot passengers appear from the street as if they were walking along within the houses up one pair of stairs At the intersections of the streets there are flights of steps leading to the opposite rows. Some of the rows are so wide that the proprietors of the houses place stalls between the footway and the street which they let out advantageously to other tradesmen particularly during the fairs. Mr Pennant thinks that he discerns in these rows the form of the ancient vestibules attached to the houses of the Romans who once possessed this city many vestiges of their edifices have certainly been discovered at Chester as we have already noticed: but there seems to be little resemblance between the Chester rows and the vestibules of the Romans whose houses were constructed only of one story. Some have attributed the origin of the rows to the period when Chester was liable to frequent attacks from the Welsh which induced the inhabitants to build their houses in this form that when the enemy could at any time have forced an entrance they might avoid the danger of the horsemen and annoy their assailants as they passed through the streets.
Samuel Lewis, in 1848 has set out a similar theory:
- The streets of Chester, being cut out of the rock, are several feet below the general surface, a circumstance that has led to a singular construction of the houses. Level with the streets are low shops, or warehouses, over which is an open balustraded gallery, with steps at convenient distances into the streets; and along the galleries, or, as they are called by the inhabitants, "rows," are houses with shops: the upper stories are erected over the row, which, consequently, appears to be formed through the first floor of each house; and at the intersection of the streets are additional flights of steps. The rows in Bridge and Eastgate streets, running through the principal part of the city, are much frequented as promenades. Pennant considered these curious galleries to be remnants of the vestibules of Roman houses; but other writers are of opinion that they were originally constructed for defence, especially against the sudden inroads of the Welsh.
Hanshall (1823) copies the same:
- The origin of this irregular style architecture goes back no doubt to the times when the neighboring Welsh made inroads on the city when the Inhabitants defended themselves and beat their assailants from these galleries
George Borrow, author of the travel book "Wild Wales" stayed in Chester in 1854 (probably at the Pied Bull) and wrote the following (again somewhat anti-Welsh!) description of the Rows which favoured the "defensive" theory.
- All the best shops in Chester are to be found in the rows. These rows, to which you ascend by stairs up narrow passages, were originally built for the security of the wares of the principal merchants against the Welsh. Should the mountaineers break into the town, as they frequently did, they might rifle some of the common shops, where their booty would be slight, but those which contained the more costly articles would be beyond their reach; for at the first alarm the doors of the passages, up which the stairs led, would be closed, and all access to the upper streets cut off, from the open arches of which missiles of all kinds, kept ready for such occasions, could be discharged upon the intruders, who would be soon glad to beat a retreat.
Another discounted theory was that the Romans dug the streets out as ditches, so that they would have less of a hill to climb from the river. The current theory is that the Romans are partly responsible but not in that way. The ground behind Row properties is the same level as the first floor walkway and is thus generally 9ft (3.3m) higher than at the street frontage. This has come about because of the differential clearance of the ruins of Roman buildings which were removed along the frontages of the main streets because such areas were the most sought after as building plots in the medieval town where the majority of the inhabitants made their living through commerce. The creation of a small hill by the accumulation of the remains of earlier buildings and various rubbish is quite a common archaeological feature - it is known as a "Tell". It really does have nothing directly to do with the Welsh "invaders". When Chester's medieval merchants came to construct cellars or "undercrofts" beneath their town houses, they were forced to build on top of the bedrock, which is almost at street level. However, the debris slopes behind their houses, meant that while the front of these properties could be as much as 2m above street level, the rear corresponded with ground level.
The Welsh connection is in fact the reverse of what Lewis, Rayner and Borrow suggest. Edward I used Chester as his base for military campaigns against North Wales in 1277 and 1282, and hundreds of masons, carpenters and labourers employed to build the "Welsh" castles had their winter billet in Chester. The city was at the height of its prosperity and wealthy merchants could embark on a building boom with some of the country's most highly skilled craftsmen on hand. In the Chester Annals, the monks of St Werburgh's Abbey record that on the 15th May 1278 "almost the whole of Chester within the walls of the City was burned down". This could have provided a basis for a planned re-construction of the City involving the construction of The Rows. However, despite the documentary evidence for the fire there is no evidence from archaeology of the extensive burnt debris horizon that such a major fire should have left. However a fire in Flint (during the Welsh War of 1294-95, being deliberately set on fire by the constable of the castle when it was thought that the Welsh would take the town) led to remarkably small claims for damages as much survived in cellars. It is therefore possible that The Rows were constructed to provide secure and relatively fireproof storage below the the merchants houses which would have been mainly of timber construction above.
One per-requisite for the development of The Rows would appear to have been a more or less continuous occupation of the frontages onto the main streets. Examination of these frontages as shown on early Ordinance Survey maps shows that the widths are consistently multiples of eleven yards (just over 10m), which is half of the unit known as a "chain" (i.e. two rods, perches or poles) - the "chain" also survives as the distance between the stumps on a cricket pitch. That could mean that the surveyors of the early OS map worked to the nearest half-chain (these units were still in use until the 1960's), or it could mean that the plots were laid out in a regular fashion long before The Rows were constructed.
By about 1350 the Row system seems to have been largely in place. The frontages along the four main streets were lined with galleries, while "stallboards" on the street side of the walkway maximised the commercial potential of each building by allowing a street level stall to be set up. These stallboards can be seen in many places and form a sloping roof of the building below allowing for the headroom needed to enter. The plagues of the middle ages brought a temporary reduction in prosperity and this hiatus in new building is one reason why so much of the Rows have survived.
"Land" ownership on The Rows rapidly became complicated, as row level and street level ownership could be separated. A deed dated at Chester, "on the morrow of the Feast of St. Mary Magdalene, 15 Edward III", (A.D. 1342) reads:
- "This Indenture made between Felicia de Donecastr on the one part, and William the son of William de Donecastr on the other part. Witnesseth that whereas the said William holds a cellar in the City of Chester, in Northgatestrete, and the said Felicia holds the shop next above, and the said William the room (soler} above the said shop. It is agreed between the said parties and the said William gives to the said Felicia, towards the north of the said shop, 2 ells and half an ell, quarter and half a quarter and the fourth part of a quarter in length, and half an ell in breadth, in exchange for that part which the said Felicia claims in the said cellar towards the south of the said shop and in the room above."
From the late 15th century onwards, householders enlarged their properties by extending the chamber over the Row and supporting it on posts in the street. The gap between these posts and the street side of the Row walkway was then covered, extending the stallboards. The street level shop could then also be extended, often by adding a shop front reaching as far out into the street as the stallboard above it. This encroachment, continued through the 16th and 17th centuries. In places a small shop or chamber (often called a "cabin") was even errected on the stallboard, so that the "Dark Row" thus created became a dark and even dangerous place. Encroachment was controlled by the City Assembly, and owners had to pay a fine and annual rent, because they were taking land from the city.
By 1567 in the main streets the paved area formed a causeway down the middle of the highway with drainage channels on either side crossed periodically by iron gratings to provide access to the frontages, a system apparently extended thereafter to the lesser streets.
Following the Civil War, the late 16th and early 17th centuries witnessed a further building boom in the city. Row buildings were adapted. Medieval open halls were subdivided into chambers and large chimneys replaced the former open hearths. In some cases, lavishly decorated new chambers, like that in Bishop Lloyd's House, were created above the Row walkway. In other cases landed families began to demolish and rebuild their old town houses in the latest classical styles and sought to get rid of the Row, which was both unfashionable and lacked privacy. Thus, during the late 17th century and 18th centuries, many sections of the Rows system were lost through enclosure or rebuilding.
The earliest recorded enclosure of a Row was during the Civil War in 1643, when Sir Richard Grosvenor petitioned the Assembly to enclose the Row of his town house in Lower Bridge Street (now The Falcon). As a leading Royalist commander, garrisoned at Chester Castle, his request could not be denied and the Row walkway was enclosed to form a new room in the front of the house. The stone columns which once supported the upper floor and the original shop front at Row level, can still be seen in the Falcon bar. This precedent lead to the loss of almost all the Rows in Lower Bridge Street - once a section of Row has been lost, adjoining householders were able to claim that it was now useless as a public walkway. Elsewhere, the Assembly had more success at preserving the Rows. Sir George Booth rebuilt two medieval houses in Watergate Street in 1700, but was obliged to keep the Row walkway.
Hanshall in 1816, describes how the rows were beginning to change:
- To the front cf the street was a clumsy wooden railing and immense pillars of oak supporting transverse beams over which were built the chiefly of wood which hung over the street and in some places nearly met in centre. A little above the top of the row run heavy slated sheds called Pentices. These are removed and within the last twenty years the streets have assumed a new and more pleasing appearance. Many houses have been taken down which on being rebuilt were to the street which was made considerably higher decorated with a meat iron railing. These improvements are becoming pretty general in Bridge street and Eastgate street but the wooden antiquity of Northgate street and Watergate street remains unaltered, and is likely to continue so for some time. The views of the different streets as they at present stand are very ably delineated in Panoramic sketches by Mr Batenham of Chester, an artist who deserves a more extensive patronage than he receives, and whose works will one time or other become valuable to every lover of the relics of past days.
The "Chester" Look
In the second half of the 19th century, Chester was transformed by the "half-timber" or vernacular revival. Led by talented local architects including Thomas Mainwaring Penson, Thomas Meakin Lockwood and John Douglas, many ancient buildings were "restored" or completely rebuilt in the black and white "Tudor" style. In most cases, the Rows were respected and improved. An exception being Shoemakers' Row on Northgate Street where the elevated Row walkway was replaced by a street level arcade. While the rows were kept, few of the "black-and-white" buildings today visible on the Rows have actually mediaeval facades.
The half-timbered revival in Chester was pioneered by the architect Thomas Mainwaring Penson (1818- 64). His first building in the style was erected in 1852 in Eastgate Street and he was also responsible for the expansion of Browns' shop in 1857-8, a scheme which produced adjacent buildings of wildly differing styles, one proto-vernacular revival and the other 13th-century Gothic. Another clash of styles can be seen in Bridge Street: Number 49 is a Vernacular Revival building by W M Boden, dated 1891 on the gable tie-beam and in a similar style to his 2-7 Upper Bridge Street. Next-door numbers 51-53 have a "proto" Vernacular Revival frontage from 1858 by James Harrison, which encases a much altered 17thC timber frame building. This building tallies with the reference to James Harrison's buildings in Bridge Street quoted from The Builder v.16 p.269, April 17 1858:
- "A shop in Bridge Street Row is also to have timber work characteristic of Chester in the fourteenth century. Mr Harrison is architect of both buildings."
At a meeting of the 31st December 1849 the Chester and North Wales Architectual, Archaeological and Historic Society was formed (James Harrison was the first architectural correspondent of the Archaeological Society) and when the minutes of this first meeting were written up and circulated they were accompanied by an anonymous article entitled "Street Architecture of Chester". The author of this piece laments the replacement of timber-framed houses "with curiously carved fantastical gables" with "miserable brick and and incongruous piles of heavy Athenian architecture". The unknown writer goes on to say:
- "..that if Chester is to maintain its far famed celebrity as one of the 'wonder cities' of England, if the great European and Transatlantic continents are still to contribute their shoals of annual visitors to ill our hotels, and the not too plenteous coffers of our tradesmen, one course only is open to us. We must maintain our ancient landmarks, we must preserve inviolate our city's rare attractions, .. our quaint old Rows, unique and picturesque as they currently are, must not be idly sacrificed at Mammon's reckless shrine."
In the earliest phase the half-timbered style was not universal, and was breached most notably by George Williams's classical stone building for the Chester Bank at the corner of Eastgate Street and St Werburgh Street. Williams and Penson, as well as James Harrison (1814-66) and to some extent Edward Hodkinson, were nevertheless instrumental in initiating the revival style in Chester, but in their work the styling lacked depth, the timbering was insubstantial, and the detailing was devoid of historical accuracy.
The next generation of architects adopted a more scholarly and disciplined approach. The dominating figures were John Douglas (1830-1911) and Thomas Meakin Lockwood (1830-1900), but others, including H. W. Beswick, James Strong, W. M. Boden, and Thomas Edwards, were also active. The work of Lockwood, a local man much patronized by the Grosvenors, was perhaps best exemplified at the Cross. In 1888 he was responsible for one of the best known groups of vernacular revival buildings in Chester (as shown above), no. 1 Bridge Street, on the eastern corner of Eastgate Street and Bridge Street, and in 1892 he designed those on the opposite corner, between Bridge and Watergate Streets, a more eclectic composition with renaissance and baroque elements in stone and brick interwoven with half-timbering.
And of course there are some real "howlers" in the Rows. One of the best (or worst) examples being Number 55 Bridge Street where just about everything is tried to make the property look like something that might be thought original, and the overall effect is to fail miserably (a statue of King Charles on a Tudor building simply isn't believable - but then again neither is Queen Victoria).
Sources and Links
- The Rows on Wikipedia;
- The Rows on Cheshire Now;
- Further details of the Rows can be found at the Briish History Online pages.
- The definitive guide to the Rows is "The Rows of Chester" by Dr Andrew Brown. This is the result of a ten year "Chester Rows Research Project" and is available from the Grosvenor Museum bookshop.
- Virtual Stroll reproduces the texts of Louise Raynor and adds some more helpful stuff.