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Old Photographs & Drawings of Chester

Some views of the Great and Little Abbey Gateways, Northgate Street

abbey gateway

The great Abbey Gateway that now links Abbey Square with Northgate Street and the Market Square dates from the fifty-first year of the reign of Edward III, 1377 (the last of his long reign), in which year he granted a licence for the monks to crenellate their abbey, in other words, to enclose it within high walls with fortified entrances. Some authorities say the gateway actually predates this event, being erected around 1300. The style of the gateway is Decorated, though late in that style. Walking beneath it will reveal its groined vault with ribs, in the centre of which still survives a sculptured statuette in bas-relief, probably a depiction of the patron saint of the abbey, St. Werburgh. Look out for the iron hinges where the great wood and iron-reinforced doors once hung. On the right hand side of the interior of the gateway, as viewed facing out to the Market Square, is an area of sandstone bearing deep grooves. This is where the armed monks guarding the portal would have sharpened their weapons..

The upper part of the structure, with its 16-pane window in a Gothic arch, was rebuilt in 1800.

The Abbot's fair was held in front of the Abbey Gate for 3 days from the Feast of the Translation of St, Werburgh, the 21st of June. At Whitsun the Mystery Plays were performed by the members of the city's 25 companies of guildsmen. The earliest recorded performance of the plays was in 1566 or 1567 but they are said to be much older than this.

The anonymous author of the early 19th century work, A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, wrote that the Abbey Gateway "is a noble entrance of two Gothic arches, included within a round one of great diameter... over the arch of the gate-way is the Register's Office, consisting of large convenient rooms, surrounded with neat oak cases where the wills are kept, and two smaller rooms for the Register and his clerks. On the front of the gate are two niches; in one of which the image of Hugh Lupus (the first Norman Earl of Chester) was used to placed during the fairs."

abbey gateway
Hewitt's shop on the left of the above two pictures is now occupied by the Chester branch of the Co-operative Bank

abbey gateway
Photograph by Edward Chambré Hardman

abbey gateway

abbey gateway
Etching by George Cuitt (1779-1854)

abbey gateway 1812
In 1812

mystery plays at abbey gateway
The Mystery Plays performed before the Abbey Gateway
abbey gateway

abbey gateway
abbey gateway drawing

abbey gateway frith
Right: watercolour by E Harrison Compton 1929
abbey gateway 1916

abbey gateway today

Above: the ancient Abbey Gateway photographed by the author in 2011. The entrance to the venerable structure was spoiled by well-meaning but unsightly plastic bollards, designed to protect the historic fabric. Despite this, the archway's stonework has been seriously damaged (and poorly repaired) by carelessly-driven goods vehicles entering Abbey Square. The Dean & Chapter's utilisation of this beautiful square as a mere commercial car park has resulted in damage, both visual and actual, to the cobbled roadway. This, combined with their long-term neglect of the surrounding houses is surely a cause for concern.

Below: Two years later, April 2013. The unsightly plastic has gone, as have the gate attendants who controlled access to the square- replaced by a code-operated 'rising bollard'.

The clumsy repairs to the archway- the piece on the right is held in place with a bit of wood!- awaits more competent hands to sort out however..

abbey gateway 2013

abbey gateway today 1

the abbey gateway in 2013
The Abbey Gateway in July 2013. Some old postcards of it may be seen here..

little abbey gateway 1920

shops at little abbey gateway
shop in abbey gateway

Just a little further down Northgate Street may be seen what remains of a secondary entrance into the precinct, the Little Abbey Gateway. Our first photograph of it dates from 1920 and shows a collection of cottages and business premises, including an undertaker's, in the small lane behind. We see them above, looking neglected and possibly just before they were demolished.

Beyond the gate, the large Georgian house- once the lodging for judges at Chester Assizes- has given way to the Art Deco Odeon Cinema, which was opened in 1936. At the time of writing, December 2012, it has remained closed for the last six and a half years but it is, theoretically, planned to eventually reopen it as Chester's new theatre.

Only the outer arch of the gateway remains and it is unknown if a fortified gatehouse also once existed here. What does survive, noticed by nobody, but as you will see should you step through the arch (seen in the photograph below, taken by the author in 2011), is a small section of that once-formidable 14th century defensive wall, now incorporated into the rear of the mid-18th century houses (now shops) in Northgate Street. What is also evident is the deeply neglected air of this historic corner. The shops and cottages have long gone and the space is now given over to parked cars, rubbish bins and shameful decay...

In the Summer of 2016, the Dean & Chapter completed the picture by adding a stout pair of metal gates and a set of 'tyre spikes' to this much abused relic of our past..

little abbey gateway today

Old postcards of the Abbey Gateway
Old Pics of Liverpool & Chester
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Original photographs and text strictly © Steve Howe / B&W Picture Place