Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

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

6. The Northgate area

This detail from John McGahey's highly detailed aerial view of Chester shows the northern part of the city as it appeared in the year 1855.

The line of Northgate Street- the Via Decumanus of the Roman fortress of Deva- cuts across the centre of the picture and crosses the Shropshire Union Canal at the Northgate, the highest point in the city. Two millennia ago, on or very near this spot stood a Roman gateway, the Porta Decumana, which gave way to a medieval structure, first mentioned in documents in 1096, which comprised a "dark, narrow and inconvenient passage, under a pointed arch, over which was a mean and ruinous gaol".

This in its turn was demolished in 1808 and replaced by the structure upon which we see in the picture- and which is still with us today- a classical arch designed by the prolific architect Thomas Harrison, built in 1808-10, half a century before this view was made, and the last of Chester's ancient fortified gates to be so replaced.

chester guided walksThis section of the Chester Canal (later becoming part of the Shropshire Union Canal) was opened in 1774 and made advantageous use of the line of the long-forgotten Roman defensive ditch, or fosse, during its construction.

The small arched bridge, known as the Bridge of Sighs, which can be seen just above the Northgate, was built at this time in order to prevent attempts to rescue condemned prisoners in the Northgate Gaol when they crossed the canal cutting to the chapel of Little St. John to receive the last rites of the church before their execution. The gaol is long gone and the site of the chapel is now occupied by the handsome Bluecoat School of 1717. Turning left past this into Canal Street brought one (and still does) steeply downhill, across a deep railway cutting to the canal basins and warehouses at Tower Wharf.

The road running down the right hand side of the picture is George Street. Its houses, chapel and industrial premises have now gone, initially to be replaced by the Delamere Street Bus Station and now by a new development of shops and apartments currently rising on the site. As part of this, a great quarry was revealed for the first time in centuries when an underground car park was constructed. The buildings in the lower right-hand corner have also disappeared, to be replaced with a utilitarian car parking area, but the wooded area on the canal bank opposite appears much the same today.

Back inside the city wall, at the bottom of the picture we see the the Deanery Field of which Thomas Hughs wrote in 1876, twenty years after this view was made, "a sight pleasant to the eye is that verdant mead, in olden time known as the Green of the Walls". It fortunately remains with us today, the last extensive piece of open land within the City Walls- although animals no longer graze there, as was still the case in 1855. Between the field and Northgate Street may be seen the fine Georgian mansions clustered around Abbey Green.

In the shadows on the wall's corner at the bottom of the image is the Phoenix Tower, a much-restored medieval structure standing on the site of the original Roman North East Tower. On it is a plaque bearing the evocative inscription,


Here we see it and the canal in a 19th century photograph of a watercolour by the noted artist Louise Rayner.

The narrow road leaving Northgate Street parallel with the city wall is King Street, anciently known as Barn Lane because it once linked the Benedictine Abbey (now the Cathedral) precincts with their great tithe barn which stood somewhere in the vicinity of the modern Inner Ring Road. Note how the road curves round to the left at the top of the picture. This ancient layout was radically altered during the construction of the Ring Road during the 1960s, this top section then being considerably widened and made to continue straight ahead, passing throught the city walls via a new entrace, St. Martin's Gate.
An alternative plan was also proposed, which would have seen the new main road passing along the route of (and consequently obliterating) King Street before leaving the walls via an enlarged Northgate, but this fortunately failed to come about and King Street today, despite the busy thoroughfares at each end, remains a narrow, cobbled residential way containing many fine houses of the 16th-19th centuries.

At the top left of the picture may be seen a shrub-surrounded piece of open land. This was a bowling green on Hunter Street and actually still survives today, albeit in a very sorry and dilapidated state. The area between the green and the new Town Hall (erected on the west side of Market Square ten years after this drawing was made) would become covered in notorious slums which were cleared away in the 1960s to make way for a bus station, office blocks and other utilitarian commercial developments. These, along with the old bowling green, are in turn now about to be replaced by a new public square, surrounded by shops, apartments, restaurants and a new library and theatre as part of the massive Northgate Development Scheme. There is likely to be some very interesting archaeology lying beneath this, a rare piece of city centre land that has not been dug into for many centuries. Read more about the proposed changes here.

Other enlarged sections from John McGahey's wonderful illustration:

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

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