Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

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

1. The Old Port Area

This detail from John McGahey's highly detailed chromolithographic print of Chester as she appeared in the year 1855 shows numerous sailing ships negotiating the River Dee. Due to centuries of silting, the formerly-considerable river trade had been largely destroyed until this section was canalised over a century earlier, in 1730. New wharves and warehouses were constructed on what was once the old river bed and these may be seen in the centre of the picture. The area is known today as The Old Port.

With the continuing silting of the Dee and the meteoric rise of the Port of Liverpool, the shipping gradually faded away (although steam coasters continued to visit Crane Wharf until the 1930s) and the area continued to decline, to the degree that if you walk around today, it is difficult to imagine the bustle during the two hundred years or so of the so-called Old Port's existence. At the time of writing, the entire area is being transformed yet again, with the development of new apartments, houses and businesses.

Below the port buildings, a train, having passed through a tunnel in the city walls, is about to pass over a long viaduct on its way through North Wales to Holyhead in Anglesey, to meet the boats for Ireland. This line was constructed in 1846, only nine years before this view was made, and continues in service to this day as the main line from London.
Less than a year after it opened, 24th May 1847, a terrible disaster occured here when on a train was crossing the final span of the bridge crossing the river (seen on the extreme left of the picture) when one of the girders failed suddenly, sending most of the train crashing into the water below. Five people died and many were injured. The accident created a national furore, and chief engineer, Robert Stephenson came close to being accused of manslaughter for the design.

Below the bridge, the large circular open area is The Roodee, the oldest racecourse in Britain (and therefore, probably, in the world). Race meetings have been regularly held here on the "soup-plate racecourse" since 1540. You can actually see a race in progress, the horses rounding the bend next to the railway viaduct, watched by a large crowd.

The ancient line of the city wall cuts up the centre of the picture, at the corner of which you can see the wonderfully-named Bonewaldesthorne's Tower and, below it, the the Watertower, built, standing far out into the receding river, in 1322 to defend the medieval port. The river, however, continued to shrink and the picture clearly shows how far its bank now is from the base of the old tower. Braun's 16th century map shows how once the river had flowed right up against the Watergate and City Walls.

To its left, the large piece of open land was anciently known as Lady Barrow's Hey, 'hey' being a Saxon name for a field enclosed with hedges. Earlier still, this area had been used by the Romans as a cemetery and many graves were uncovered when the Chester Royal Infirmary- seen to the left of the field- was being built in 1761. All traces of the open land disappeared as the hospital expanded over the next 200 years. It finally closed in 1993 after 230 years of medical care on the site, all services were transferred to the Countess of Chester Hospital on Liverpool Road and the site was sold for new housing.

Between the Watertower and the wharves, the large triangular area of agricultural land was formerly known as the Tower Field and in 1836 Hemingway wrote that it had "recently been rented by the guardians of the poor by the cultivation of which, by spade husbandry, able-bodied paupers were very properly and advantagiously employed". Today, the attractive Water Tower Gardens, a pleasant little park, complete with tennis courts and a popular bowling green, occupies the site.

Above this, the peninsula of rural land across the River Dee is today occupied by Chester Golf Club, which was founded here in 1901. You can just see a couple of buildings there, Brewer's House Farm. A major Parliamentary gun emplacement was sited here during the terrible Civil War Siege of Chester in 1645, which caused great destruction to this side of the city.

To the right of the Watertower, the complex system of basins around Tower Wharf mark the junction of the Shropshire Union Canal with the River Dee and the fine 18th century building known today as Telford's Warehouse, Chester's finest live music venue, can clearly be seen. The two basins on the far right of the picture are still with us today, popular mooring places for holiday barges, but the larger one to their left has long since been filled in. The entire Tower Wharf area is currently being extensively redeveloped.

The extensive rural area across the river is known as The Sealands- "the land reclaimed from the sea"- actually from the old silted bed of the river which was valued as rich agricultural land. Extensive farmland remains today but much has been developed for industrial purposes and the Greyhound Retail Park is also located there- as is Chester City FC's stadium. In the distance are the beautiful Clwyd Hills of North Wales.

Other enlarged sections from John McGahey's wonderful illustration:

St. John's Church
Grosvenor Bridge
The Kaleyards
The Northgate
The Cathedral

Site Front Door | Chester Stroll Introduction | Old Maps index | View from a Balloon | Site Index