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Introduction I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

An Introduction to Chester II

The Northgate

town crier and son"In whatever point of view these old ramparts are considered, they possess an imposing interest and confer incalculable benefits. To the invalid, the sedenatary student, or the man of business, occupied during the day in his shop or counting house; to the habitually indolent, who require excitement to necessary exercise, to all these, the promenade on Chester walls has most inviting attractions, where they may breath all the salubrous winds of heaven in a morning or an evening walk.
Here the enthusiastic antiquarian, who would climb mountains, ford rivers, explore the bowels of the earth, and, regardless of toil, and the claims of nature, exhaust his strength in the search for a piece of rusty cankered brass, or a scrap of Roman earthenware, can scarcely advance a dozen paces, but the pavement on which he treads, or some contiguous object, forces upon his observation the reliques of times of earliest date.
Nor can the philosophic moralist encompass our venerable walls without having his mind, comparing the splendid and gigantic works of antiquity with their present condition, strongly impressed with the mutations produced by the lapse of ages, and the perishing nature of all mundane greatness".

Joseph Hemingway: Panorama of the City of Chester 1836

In 1069, Chester was the last city in England to fall to William the Conqueror's army, a full three years after the Battle of Hastings. Rumours had long circulated among the Norman troops about the difficult roads, the position of the city- surrounded as it was by marshes and great forests- of its numerous inhabitants- and of their obstinate courage: "Locorum asperitatum et hostium terribilem ferocitatem".

Many of William's nobles, worn out by the bloody struggles to repress rebellions in Yorkshire and Northumberland during the Harrying of the North, and alarmed at these rumours, demanded their discharge. Some retreated to their estates in Normandy and abandoned the English lands with which they had already been rewarded. But the persuasive powers of Duke William prevailed. With the conquest of Chester, he told them, their labours would be at an end and rest and great rewards would follow.

As it turned out, as the Norman army drew near, the city- whose citizens had doubtless heard equally terrifying rumours regarding the approaching foe- surrendered. How much resistance they put up is unknown, but, seventeen years after the city's fall, the Domesday Book stated that before 1066 there had been 431 houses, "plus 56 more owned by the Bishop" in the city and that it paid fourty five pounds "and one hundred and twenty martin skins" but, "When Earl Hugh acquired it, its value was only thirty pounds, having been much devastated; there were 205 houses less than before 1066".

norman shipsDuke William granted the Earldom of Chester first to Walter de Gherbaud, who, however soon returned to Normandy, and then to his nephew, Hugh d'Avranches, know as Lupus (The Wolf) - "to hold to him and his heirs as freely by the sword as the King holds the Crown of England". Ordericus described him thus:

"He was not abudantly liberal, but he was profusely prodigal and carried not so much a family as an army around with him. He took no account either of receipts or disbursements; he daily wasted his Estate and delighted more in falconers and huntsmen than in the tillers of his land or Heaven's orators, the Ministers. He was much given to his belly, whereby in time he grew so fat that he could scarce crawle. He had many bastard sons and daughters, but they were nearly all swept away by sundry misfortunes".

Actually, there is no evidence that Earl Hugh was called by the unpleasant name of Lupus during his lifetime or indeed for long years after his death. It was given to him in later ages on account of his traditional gluttony and rapacity. The Welsh called him Hugh the fat or gross, 'Hu vras', and the Danes 'Hugh Dirgane' which has the same meaning. The earliest instance of the use of the nickname Lupus occurs in an inquisition as late as 1305- "Hugo le Lou
formerly Earl of Chester".

The Earldom became very powerful and virtually independent of the Crown, the Earl having his own Parliament consisting of eight of his chosen Barons and their tenants, and they were in no way bound by any laws passed by the English Parliament with the exception of treason.

The Saxon Castle was rebuilt and greatly enlarged and strengthened, becoming the caput of the Earldom- as were the city walls.

In 1093, in the last days of his life, Earl Hugh founded the Benedictine Abbey of St. Werburgh, "To make provision for his immortal soul and and to compensate to some degree for the sins which he had committed". In time, the Abbey became extremely rich and powerful, owning land and property throughout Cheshire and far beyond. The Earls of Chester gave the Abbots rights equal within their jurisdiction to their own, which were themselves equal to those of the Crown elsewhere in the country. The medieval trials by fire, water and combat were practiced in the Abbot's courts and malefactors were executed by the Abbot's officers. After the Dissolution in 1540, the Abbey became Chester Cathedral.

During the 13th century the city played a major role in Edward I's subjugation of the Welsh, who had, from the 8th century, when the Mercian King Offa had built his great dyke to keep out the dispossessed Welsh of Gwynedd, Powys and Gwent, long proved a very real threat. The wars of 1277 and 1282 resulted in the death of the powerful Welsh Prince Llewellyn and the final conquest of North Wales.
Many of the violent events of the revolt against the English led by Owen Glendower between 1400 and 1412 took place along the border on the banks of the River Dee near Chester and in North Wales.

Two and a half centuries later Chester's walls witnessed bloody conflict for a final time, Englishman against Englishman, during the Civil War, when Royalist Chester eventually fell to Parliamentary forces after a bitter and lengthy siege

During the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the formidable medieval entrances to the city, the Northgate, Eastgate, Watergate and Bridgegate, being considered obstructions to traffic in the increasingly busy town, were removed and replaced with the present elegant arches- but retained their ancient names.

wall viewA smaller entrance, the Shipgate, which formerly stood near the Bridgegate, was completely removed and now stands as a decorative folly in Grosvenor Park and its neighbour, the Horsegate, vanished without trace.

The ancient Peppergate, or Wolfgate, still stands in situ, but in the 1930s, together with the nearby Roman Amphitheatre, narrowly escaped destruction when the road was diverted to allow traffic to use a larger entrance built alongside, appropriately known as the Newgate, which now forms part of the traffic-choked inner ring road.

In 1966, as part of this new road scheme, the walls were pierced once again, this latest entrance being called St. Martin's Gate, situated approximately where the artist Thomas Allom (1804-72) was standing 150 years earlier when he produced this romantic study, which shows a view of the North Wall looking west towards the then-thriving Port of Chester, beyond which rise the hills of North Wales.

On the right you can see the 18th century Telford's Warehouse on Tower Wharf, today a lively pub / restaurant and Chester's foremost live music and arts venue.

In the foreground may be seen the Goblin Tower, today more commonly known as Pemberton's Parlour, and beyond that may be seen the curiously-named Bonewaldesthorne's Tower. In 1846 the North Wales Railway was cut through the walls between these two towers. Today, it forms part of the main line between London and the Irish Ferries at Holyhead.

chester guided walksAround the time of the 18th century alterations to the gates, the walls, crumbling and full of breaches after their long battering in the Siege of Chester during the Civil War a century earlier, were extensively repaired and converted to provide a promenade along their entire length, a remarkable undertaking at a time when the majority of other British towns were busily doing away with their ancient defences.

Since that time, many thousands of visitors have enjoyed the two-mile walk around Chester's ancient circuit of city walls. It remains a fascinating experience and should be considered an essential part of your visit to the UK. So read the accounts of generations of past visitors to Chester- and see below for details of our informative and entertaining guided walks around the sights of this most unique and memorable of English cities.

Chester Today

Modern Chester is by no means 'set in amber' but is a living, growing place facing the same problems and pressures as most of Britain's other historic cities. Many visitors, having admired the popular, nostalgic paintings of Louise Rayner and read old traveller's tales of "Quaint, sleepy, crumbling Chester", are surprised to encounter the rapidly-expanding industrial, commercial and residential areas surrounding the town and the too-often mediocre and inappropriate modern developments within the city itself.

Many are also surprised to discover that, in a place fond of referring to itself as 'Roman City', actual Roman antiquities are somewhat thin on the ground, having been largely bulldozed or buried to make way for shopping precincts, council offices, courthouses and hotels...

As a caring resident, this writer is inclined to agree with them and will be discussing some of these blots as we encounter them during the course of our wanderings.

In contrast to British cities such as Liverpool and Coventry, Chester largely escaped major damage during the Second World War, but the straightened economic conditions that followed nevertheless produced years of neglect and under-maintainance to the historic core of the city centre, resulting in levels of dereliction today's visitors would find difficult to believe. Alongside the rise of ring roads, car parks and precincts, it should be remembered that, during the 1970s and 80s, there also took place a programme of rescue and restoration on a heroic scale of literally hundreds of the buildings we prize today and some of these stories will also be told.

Transport, too, has long been the subject of heated local debate. Some say that, in the face of competition from nearby out-of-town 'shopping cities', business in Chester can only prosper by welcoming the car driver into the city centre (despite the resulting congestion and pollution that plagued it in the past), increasing the number of parking places and reducing their charges- while others say that visitors and shoppers respond far more positively to the relaxed and unhurried atmosphere experienced when they are no longer forced to share the streets with motor vehicles.

Most welcome to many citizens has been the slow-but-steady increase in the numbers of cycleways/footpaths in and around Chester, allowing them safe, easy, car-free access to both the city centre and its wonderful surrounding countryside. Among these are the recently-completed Riverside Path, the restored towpath of the Shropshire Union Canal and the magnificent route along the former Mickle Trafford-Deeside Railway- sadly currently threatened by a controversial council plan to construct a bus route along it.

Many mourn the dramatic decline in traditional businesses in Chester city centre of recent years. As a child, this writer vividly remembers the enthusiasm of female members of his family at the prospect of a shopping trip to Chester, where he would be forced to endure a seemingly-endless round of exotic shops from where could be obtained all manner of delights unknown in battered, post-war Liverpool. Studying photographs of the main shopping areas dating from even just a few decades ago reveals grocers, confectioners, butchers, ironmongers, tailors, photographers and the like (and a lot more pubs than now) occupy the majority of the shops along the ancient Rows.

travelodgeToday, the tables seem to have been been somewhat turned, as Liverpool city centre seems to be thriving while ludicrously-high levels of rent and rates in Chester have ensured that virtually all of the old family-run businesses have now gone, replaced by estate agents, mobile phone shops, national chain stores- and especially by a plague of coffee shops, of which an excessive number seem to have opened of recent times.

At the time of writing for example- Summer 2001- a smallish vacant shop near The Cross was available at a rent of seventy thousand pounds per year (no wonder you can't buy a bag of nails or a packet of tea in Chester city centre!) while, at the same time, two long-established art businesses and a wonderful toy museum were being forced to close down.

Similarly, there was a time when most people lived within and close to the City Walls while the more affluent removed themselves to the leafy suburbs. Today, most of those local folk who reside on the large post-war estates, well out of sight on the edge of the city, would find it impossible to be able to afford the so-called 'luxury' apartments and town houses currently springing up in numerous locations in the centre.

keep on smiling!Valued facilities continue to disappear from the city centre- hardly a week goes by without news of another traditional pub closing. The vast, and apparently inevitable, Northgate Redevelopment, recent announcements concerning the planned replacement of the award-winning Northgate Arena leisure centre with yet another hotel and the acquisition of our last city centre cinema- the Odeon- by a nightclub company are current sources of great local concern, and the continuing imposition within our historic city of ghastly 1960s-style structures such as the Travelodge illustrated on the right beggars belief...

Some may call it 'commercial reality', others philistinism and naked greed- the results are, sadly, the much the same. The city is awash with well-funded organisations purporting to represent, speak for, and publicise Chester to the world but precious few of them would appear even remotely competent to do so.

This ancient city of Chester is changing rapidly- many say too rapidly. What sort of a place it will become, and whether, having done so, it will have managed to retain some portion of its uniqueness, its attraction for residents and fascination for visitors from all over the globe- or become just another Anytown UK- are questions only time can answer. Chester Renaissance, the council sponsored- but nontheless unelected- body charged with dragging the old place kicking and screaming into the 21st century, declares its aim is to "make Chester a must-see city by the year 2015" and The One City Plan- the latest in a long line of such plans- has just (June 2102) been published as its blueprint. That it has been a 'must see city' to millions of visitors for many centuries is something seemingly lost upon these imported 'experts'. What sort of city they manage to turn it into we must wait and see; will the world continue to flock to admire their handiwork- a place of bright new hotels, apartments, 'business quarters' and shopping precincts? We wonder.

So we invite you to enjoy Old Chester while you can! Check out the route map, search our site in detail with Google or go straight to the start of our walk at the Northgate...

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