Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

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

3. The River Dee & Grosvenor Bridge

This fascinating detail from John McGahey's aerial view of Chester in 1855 shows the River Dee and two of its crossings: at the bottom left is the Old Dee Bridge- built around about the year 1387, on the site of a succession of earlier wooden bridges and a pre-Roman fording place- and above it the Grosvenor Bridge which was completed and opened to traffic by the thirteen year-old Princess Victoria (five years before she became Queen) in November 1833, just eighteen years before this view was made.

The bridge was designed by Thomas Harrison, the prolific architect of many of Chester's finest buildings, and proved to be his final work- at the time of the commission he was 82 years old. In fact, he did not live to see its completion- he resigned aged 85 and died four years later, the great task not yet completed. The work was finished by his able pupil and assistant, William Cole.

Until 1864, it was the greatest single span- at 200 feet across and 60 feet high- of any stone arch anywhere in the world. The road leading to it, Grosvenor Street, was created at the same time, cutting diagonally through the city's ancient grid of streets and necessitating the destruction of hundreds of houses and the 1,000-year-old Church of St. Bridget. The church was rebuilt by Harrison at the end of the new street close to the Castle (you can see it on the right of the picture, just to the left of the smoking chimney) but was again demolished to make way for a traffic island on the new Inner Ring Road in 1964. Thomas Harrison had been laid to rest in a vault in his new church but, when it was destroyed, his body was removed and re-interred in Blacon Cemetery.

With the exception of one tower and some curtain walling, the medieval castle (the massive complex of buildings seen between the two bridges) had been completely rebuilt in the Greek Doric style by the same Thomas Harrison, the task only being completed in 1822, thirty years before McGahey made his splendid study.
Harrison constructed a new prison as part of his Castle redevelopment. This can be seen, surrounded by a stout wall running right down to the riverside. When the prison was done away with, the old city wall was realigned and set back from its ancient line to allow space for an elegant new road, Castle Drive. Prevously, a mean and narrow thoroughfare had existed here by the name of Skinner's Lane, in the vicinity of which many of the unattrative and polluting industries of the town had been carried out- tanners, renderers, chemical works and the like. These were all swept away when the area was redeveloped. In due course, the home of Cheshire County Council, County Hall, was built on the site of the old prison.

The extensive open area to the right of the Grosvenor Bridge is the Roodee. Horse races have been held here regularly since around 1533, making it Britain's (and therefore probably the world's) oldest racecourse. Notice how the city wall here is surrounded by open land on all sides. That below the line of the wall formerly belonged to the Convent of St. Mary's but soon after this image was made, the large castle-like Militia Buildings were erected here to house the families of the Castle's garrison. Today, the old Militia Buildings would doubtless be in demand for conversion into 'luxury' apartments but they were sadly demolished to make way for the exceedingly ugly and inappropriately-sited County Police Headquarters, which was built between 1964 and 1967. This in turn was demolished in 2007 and the building of a vast new complex of hotel, shops and apartments, to be called 'HQ" has recently commenced.

The open land to the left of the bridge and above the castle is the Little Roodee. Once contiguous with the Roodee proper, it was cut off when the massive embankment leading to the Grosvenor Bridge was built. Today it is utilised as a car park except for a few days each Spring, when Pat Collins' Fair sets up here.

At the bottom of the picture, the line of Lower Bridge Street may be traced from the medieval St. Michael's Church (today the home of Chester History and Heritage) in the bottom right-hand corner to the Bridgegate and mills on the Old Dee Bridge. Note the almost total lack of houses on the far bank of the river at this time.

On the left hand side of the road leading from the bridge across the river is the Overleigh Cemetery which was only laid out five years before this view was made. It was Chester's main place of burial for over a century and today it remains a remarkable place, containing the graves of many of the city's most notable citizens.

Other enlarged sections from McGahey's wonderful illustration:

The Old Port
The Kaleyards
The Northgate
St. John's Church
The Cathedral