|Chester, once the Roman fortress of Deva, lies in North West England on the banks of the River Dee and the border with North Wales. It is one of the original member towns and cities of the Circle having joined in 1990. The City values its membership of the Organisation, which is growing in size and importance each year, and was delighted to have been asked by the Circle to host the 1997 Symposium.
The City has many other special attractions such as the beautiful Eastgate Clock which recently celebrated it’s 100th birthday. It is said to be the second most photographed clock in the U.K. after “Big Ben”. There is also the UK’s largest Amphitheatre discovered so far, where legionaries once trained for war and 7000 people watched extravagant festivals and entertainments.Its attractions include Chester Cathedral, which celebrated 900 years of history in 1992; the Water Tower, built in the Middle Ages to guard entry to the Port of Chester, when sailing ships from all corners of the globe brought exotic cargoes to what was then North West England’s largest port; and the Roodee, once the site of a massive Roman harbour, now a splendid racecourse, the oldest in the country, where the horses, intriguingly, run anti-clockwise.No wonder Boswell, the biographer of Dr Samuel Johnson, was inspired to declare, in 1779, that Chester pleases my Fancy more than any town I saw.
Attractions of Chester
The Rows are unique in Britain. They consist of buildings with shops or dwellings on the lowest two storeys. The shops or dwellings on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street. Much of the architecture of central Chester looks medieval and some of it is. But by far the greatest part of it, including most of the black-and-white buildings, is Victorian, a result of what Pevsner termed the “black-and-white revival”.
The most prominent buildings in the city centre are the town hall and the cathedral. The town hall was opened in 1869. It is in Gothic Revival style and has a tower and a short spire. The cathedral was formerly the church of St Werburgh’s Abbey. Its architecture dates back to the Norman era, with additions made most centuries since. A series of major restorations took place in the 19th century and in 1975 a separate bell tower was opened. The elaborately carved canopies of the choirstalls are considered to be one of the finest in the country. Also in the cathedral is the shrine of St Werburgh. To the north of the cathedral are the former monastic buildings. The oldest church in the city is St John’s, which is outside the city walls and was at one time the cathedral church. The church was shortened after the dissolution of the monasteries and ruins of the former east end remain outside the church. Much of the interior is in Norman style and this is considered to be the best example of 11th–12th century church architecture in Cheshire. At the intersection of the former Roman roads is Chester Cross, to the north of which is the small church of St Peter’s which is in use as an ecumenical centre. Other churches are now redundant and have other uses; St Michael’s in Bridge Street is a heritage centre, St Mary-on-the-Hill is an educational centre, and Holy Trinity now acts as the Guildhall. Other notable buildings include the preserved shot tower, the highest structure in Chester.
Roman remains can still be found in the city, particularly in the basements of some of the buildings and in the lower parts of the northern section of the city walls. The most important Roman feature is the amphitheatre just outside the walls which is undergoing archaeological investigation. Roman artifacts are on display in the Roman Gardens which run parallel to the city walls from Newgate to the River Dee, where there’s also a reconstructed hypocaust system. An original hypocaust system can be seen in the basement of the Spudulike restaurant on Bridge Street, which is open to the public.
Of the medieval city the most important surviving structure is Chester Castle, particularly the Agricola Tower. Much of the rest of the castle has been replaced by the neoclassical county court and its entrance, the Propyleum. To the south of the city runs the River Dee, with its 11th century weir. The river is crossed by the Old Dee Bridge, dating from the 13th century, the Grosvenor Bridge of 1832, and Queen’s Park suspension bridge (for pedestrians). To the southwest of the city the River Dee curves towards the north. The area between the river and the city walls here is known as the Roodee, and contains Chester Racecourse which holds a series of horse races and other events. The Shropshire Union Canal runs to the north of the city and a branch leads from it to the River Dee.
The major museum in Chester is the Grosvenor Museum which includes a collection of Roman tombstones and an art gallery. Associated with the museum is 20 Castle Street in which rooms are furnished in different historical styles. The Dewa Roman Experience has hands-on exhibits and a reconstructed Roman street. And one of the blocks in the forecourt of the castle houses the Cheshire Military Museum.
The major public park in Chester is Grosvenor Park. On the south side of the River Dee, in Handbridge, is Edgar’s Field, another public park, which contains Minerva’s Shrine, a Roman shrine to the goddess Minerva. A war memorial to those who died in the world wars is in the town hall and it contains the names of all Chester servicemen who died in the First World War.
Chester Visitor Centre, opposite the Roman Amphitheatre, issues a leaflet giving details of tourist attractions. Those not covered above include cruises on the River Dee and on the Shropshire Union Canal, and guided tours on an open-air bus. The river cruises start from a riverside area known as the Groves, which contains seating and a bandstand. A series of festivals is organised in the city, including mystery plays, a summer music festival and a literature festival. Chester City Council has produced a series of leaflets for self-guided walks. Tourist Information Centres are at the town hall and at Chester Visitor Centre.
History of Chester
The Romans founded Chester as Deva Victrix in the 70s AD in the land of the Celtic Cornovii, according to ancient cartographer Ptolemy, as a fortress
during the Roman expansion northward. It was named Deva either after the goddess of the Dee, or directly from the British name for the river. The ‘victrix’ part of the name was taken from the title of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix which was based at Deva. A civilian settlement grew around the military
base, probably originating from trade with the fortress. The fortress was 20% larger than other fortresses in Britannia built around the same time at York (Eboracum) and Caerleon (Isca Augusta); this has led to the suggestion that the fortress, rather than London (Londinium), was intended to become the capital of the Roman province of Britannia Superior.
The civilian amphitheatre, which was built in the 1st century,
could seat between 8,000 and 10,000 people. It is the largest known military amphitheatre in Britain, and is also a Scheduled Monument. The Minerva Shrine in the Roman quarry is the only rock cut Roman shrine still in situ in Britain. The fortress was garrisoned by the legion until at least the late 4th century. Although the army had abandoned the fortress by 410 when the Romans retreated from Britannia, the civilian settlement continued (probably with some Roman veterans staying behind with their wives and children) and its occupants probably continued to use the fortress and its defences as protection from raiders from the Irish Sea.
Deverdoeu was still one of two Welsh language names for Chester in the late 12th century; its other and more enduring Welsh name was ‘Caerlleon’, literally “the fortress-city of the legions”, a name identical with that of the Roman fortress at the other end of the Welsh Marches at Caerleon in Monmouthshire, namely Isca Augusta. The colloquial modern Welsh name is the shortened form, Caer. The early Old English speaking Anglo Saxon settlers used a name which had the same meaning, Legacæstir, which was current until the 11th century, when, in a further parallel with Welsh usage, the first element fell out of use and the simplex name Chester emerged. From the 14th century to the 18th the city’s prominent position in North West England meant that it was commonly also known as Westchester. This name was used by Celia Fiennes when she visited the city in 1698.
Chester played a significant part in the Industrial Revolution which began in the North West of England in the latter part of the 18th century. The city village of Newtown, located north east of the city and bounded by the Shropshire Union Canal was at the very heart of this industry. The large Chester Cattle Market and the two Chester railway stations, Chester General and Chester Northgate Station, meant that Newtown with its cattle market and canal, and Hoole with its railways were responsible for providing the vast majority of workers and in turn, the vast amount of Chester’s wealth production throughout the Industrial Revolution
Between 14 May, 2007 and 6 July, 2007, excavations were carried out in Grosvenor Park. The main aim was to find Cholmondeley’s lost mansion, which was demolished in 1867.
A number of finds have come to light including:
- Plaster work from the mansion ceiling.
- Civil War musket balls
- Clay tobacco pipes (17th-18th century)
- Clay tobacco pipe waster clay from manufacture
- A base of a small Roman statue of Venus
- A Roman votive offering in the form of a lead axe head.
A considerable amount of land in Chester is owned by the Duke of Westminster who owns an estate, Eaton Hall, near the village of Eccleston. He also has London properties in Mayfair.
Grosvenor is the Duke’s family name, which explains such features in the City such as the Grosvenor Bridge, the Grosvenor Hotel, and Grosvenor Park. Much of Chester’s architecture dates from the Victorian era, many of the buildings being modelled on the Jacobean half-timbered style and designed by John Douglas, who was employed by the Duke as his principal architect. He had a trademark of twisted chimney stacks, many of which can be seen on the buildings in the city centre.
Douglas designed amongst other buildings the Grosvenor Hotel and the City Baths. In 1911, Douglas’ protégé and city architect James Strong designed the then active fire station on the west side of Northgate Street. Another feature of all buildings belonging to the estate of Westminster is the ‘Grey Diamonds’ – a weaving pattern of grey bricks in the red brickwork laid out in a diamond formation.
Towards the end of WWII, a lack of affordable housing meant many problems for Chester. Large areas of farmland on the outskirts of the city were developed as residential areas in the 1950s and early 1960s producing, for instance, the suburb of Blacon. In 1964, a bypass was built through and around the town centre to combat traffic congestion.
These new developments caused local concern as the physicality and therefore the feel of the city was being dramatically altered. In 1968, a report by Donald Insall in collaboration with authorities and government recommended that historic buildings be preserved in Chester. Consequently, the buildings were used in new and different ways instead of being flattened.
In 1969 the City Conservation Area was designated. Over the next 20 years the emphasis was placed on saving historic buildings, such as The Falcon Inn, Dutch Houses and Kings Buildings.
On 13 January 2002, Chester was granted Fairtrade City status. This status was renewed by the Fairtrade Foundation on 20 August 2003.
Chester City Council, Town Hall, CH1 2HS.
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