Sunday, 16 July 2017


Although I’ve posted about various places I’ve visited, such as York and Venice, I’ve never got round to writing about the place where I live; the City of Chester*.
(Warning: there’s almost 2,000 years of history to write about, so this is a very picture-heavy post.)

Chester began as a Roman fort, founded in 79 AD. Its name, Castra Deva, meant ‘the fort on the Dee’. In time the original timber fort was replaced with something more substantial, and a settlement grew up around it. The Romans called the settlement Deva, but unlike Londinium the Roman name was lost over time.

There are Roman remains dotted all around the city. The Roman Gardens holds a large collection of them.

Column remains in the Roman Gardens

It’s hard to believe that 100 years ago no-one knew there was an amphitheatre in Chester; it was only discovered in 1929. Now around half of it is visible, although many of the remains are too fragile to be exposed to the elements, so have been covered over. It doesn’t look much from above, but it is thought that it could hold up to 7,000 spectators.

The amphitheatre, seen from the city walls

When I was a member of Ya Raqs we had several opportunities to dance in the amphitheatre. Performing to a huge crowd, in a space originally used so long ago, was a very special experience.

This Is Deva 2011, photograph by Sharon Baskerville

The city walls have been rebuilt many times over the years, but a few Roman sections still remain.

A section of the Roman wall,near the Northgate

At two miles long, the walls provide an almost complete circuit of the medieval city. There were four main gates, all of which were replaced with simple archways once the walls were no longer needed as defence. One of the medieval gates does remain however. The Kaleyard gate was cut to give the monks of what was then the abbey (now the cathedral) access to their vegetable garden (kaleyard), which was outside the walls. Permission to build the gate was only granted on condition that it was locked at 9pm every night. A notice on the gate warns that the gate is still locked at this time.

The Kaleyard Gate, from outside the walls

Chester cathedral

Today the walls provide a route for a traffic-free stroll.

The River Dee, the Old Bridge, and the walls

Looking along the walls to the Phoenix Tower

The Phoenix Tower and walls from below

Also on the walls, over the east gate, is the Eastgate Clock. Built to celebrate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, it is allegedly the second-most photographed clock in Britain after Big Ben.

The Eastgate Clock

Other cities in Britain have walls. Other places in Britain have a Roman amphitheatre. But nowhere else has the Rows. It’s not clear how they came about, but Chester’s unique double-decked shops have existed for 700 years. They are mostly around the Cross, the point where the four main streets join.

Chester Cross, and some of the Rows

At ground level there is one shop, usually with steps down to a floor lower than the street itself. Then there are steps up to a covered walkway (the Row itself), which gives access to another shop. As these shops cannot be seen from ground level, they often advertise their presence with hanging signs. The other side of the walkway has a flat area which was originally filled with market stalls.

Watergate Street Row, south side, showing the low ground floor shops

Watergate Street Row, north side, Booth's Mansion

The Row in front of Booth's Mansion

The city has many fine Tudor and Georgian buildings.

The Falcon, originally built around 1200

The Nine Houses almshouses, built around 1650

The Bear and Billet, built 1664

The Bluecoat charity school and almshouses, built 1717

Abbey Square

Not everything built in black and white is Tudor, however. There are a number of Victorian and Edwardian half-timbered 'revival' buildings as well.

Northgate Street, the date 1897 is just visible above the red sign

The Grosvenor Arcade, now part of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre, was built in the early twentieth century. Originally it had a frontage of cream tiles, but this provoked so much complaint that in the end the front was remodelled in a way considered more appropriate for Chester. Now only the interior and ground floor level of the front give an idea of what the original looked like.

The 'new' front of the Grosvenor Shopping Centre

The original tiled decoration

Glazed figurative corbels, and the world's least sympathetic wiring placement

Bringing things right up-to-date is Chester's newest building; Storyhouse. Opened a couple of months ago, this arts centre contains a theatre, library, cinema and café, in a building which incorporates the old Art Deco Odeon cinema.


Even this long post has felt like a whistle-stop tour; I have missed so much out. So I'll finish with a shameless plug for my for friend Clare Dudman's fascinating book Real Chester, which is crammed full of stories and personal observations about the city.

* - It may not feel like a city. In fact it may often feel like a large village (especially if, like me, you live close enough to the centre to walk everywhere), but Chester is very clear on the fact that it is a city. When an article about the soap Hollyoaks in the Daily Mail last year made reference to "the fictional town of Chester", the word "town" almost caused more outrage than the word "fictional".

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