Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

Details from John McGahey's View of Chester from a Balloon 1855:

5. The Cathedral

When John McGahey floated in the basket of his balloon above Chester in 1855, he captured this unique view of the medieval cathedral as it appeared before being subject to a series of radical and- mostly- necessary restorations.

Author and traveller Daniel Defoe had written of it a century earlier, " 'tis built of a red, sandy, ill-looking stone, which takes much from the beauty of it, and which yielding to the weather, seems to crumble, and suffer by time, which much defaces the building".

Writing in 1854, just a year before this view was made, local author and guide Thomas Hughes observed "time has, of course, been at work here, as elsewhere, gnawing away at the old red sandstone; but there is still enough left to give us an idea of its ancient beauty... but now fast going to decay".

The great architect Sir George Gilbert Scott, who, in the nick of time, undertook extensive restoration work here in 1868-76, wrote of the main tower, which had been originally built about 1210, as a "picturesque and crumbling pile of soft sandstone, inhabited by jackdaws".

The churchyard is seen to be full to capacity with gravestones. These have since been 'tidied away' and replaced with lawns, flower beds and benches.

To the right of the cathedral may be seen the elegant houses surrounding Abbey Square, built "after the London fashion" between the years 1754 and 1761- although the western terrace (parallel with Northgate Street) was not completed until the 1820s- on the site of the Abbey's brewery and bakehouse.

The line of Northgate Street cuts across the top of the picture- the Via Decumanus of the Roman fortress of Deva- terminating, in the top right-hand corner, at the very centre of the city, St. Peter's Church at The Cross.

Just above the Cathedral may be seen the cupola atop the roof of the 17th century Exchange which formerly stood in the middle of the Market Square before burning down in 1862- a mere seven years after its appearance in this drawing. Illustrations of its southern end are fairly common, including this extremely early photograph by Henry Fox-Talbot, but this is believed to be the only record we have of its eastern, 'long' side. (Perhaps artists were dissuaded from portraying the sides because of the difficulty of 'standing back' to get a clear view?)
Its replacement was the very much larger Gothic style Town Hall, which was erected on the west side of the Market Square between 1864-9.

The city wall cuts across the bottom of the picture, below which is the open area of the Kaleyards, named after the former vegetable gardens of the monks of the Abbey. It had once formed part of a Roman parade ground and was later called The Jousting Croft.

Out of sight in the trees at the bottom is the smallest of the gates in Chester's City Walls, the Kaleyard Gate, built here by permission of King Edward I in 1275 to allow the monks easier access to their gardens- on condition that was built small enough to prevent armed men on horseback from riding through it and that it would be kept securely locked at night and in times of war. The tradition of locking the gate at nine o'clock each night continued right through until just a few years ago. The Kaleyards is today used as a car park although, at the time of this update, Summer 2011, there exists a ludicrous and much-criticised council plot to relocate Chester's Market Hall onto it....

Other enlarged sections from McGahey's wonderful illustration:

The Old Port
Grosvenor Bridge
St. John's Church
The Northgate
The Kaleyards

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