Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

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

4. The River Dee & St. John's Church

This detail from John McGahey's wonderful aerial view of Chester in 1855 is the section of the original illustration closest to where his balloon was tethered above the eastern suburbs of the city- probably near the junction of Hoole Lane and Boughton (and five minutes from where these words are being written).

We can see the beautiful River Dee and two of its crossings: at the top 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 downstream is the original Queen's Park Suspension Bridge, which was built in 1852- just three years before this drawing was made- to join the city to the affluent new suburb of Queen's Park, then being developed across the river. This footbridge was rebuilt in 1923, and is with us still- indeed, it underwent a thorough restoration in 2002. You can see a photograph of the original bridge here.

The level of the Dee must have been very high when the artist was working on this section of the picture as he has shown little trace of the great 12th century weir- normally a dominant feature of the river- that stretches diagonally between the mills on the bridge and further down on the opposite bank. Just a small section, known as the Salmon Leap, can be glimpsed above the buildings on the left. This weir remains very much with us today but both sets of mills have long since vanished.

The open meadow at the bottom of the picture would later be transformed into Grosvenor Park and above it the great West Tower of the unique and beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist dominates this quarter of the city, as it had done for hundreds of years.
The Saxon church that stood here was founded by King Aethelred of Mercia in about the year 689, and the great Norman cathedral that replaced it was never completed and subsequently suffered from a series of disastrous collapses of towers- indeed the last of them, the West Tower shown in the illustration, was itself to fall in 1881, twenty six years after McGahey drew it. We can see that the church at this time was surrounded by hundreds of gravestones- all of which, sadly, have since been removed- and the picturesque ruins of the abandoned east end are almost hidden by a dense covering of trees and undergrowth.

At the bottom of the picture, on the edge of the meadow, may be seen the now-demolished Cholmondeley House, which was demolished when Grosvenor Park was laid out. Learn more about this and the stirring events that took place there in the St. John's Church chapters of our Chester Virtual Stroll..

Between St. John's and the city walls may be seen a wooded, elliptical area of land with a couple of large Georgian houses at each side. These are St. John's House to the right and Dee House to the left and between them, unbeknown to the citizens of that day and long after, lay the buried remains of a great Roman amphitheatre which was built here by the Legions soon after the establishment of the fortress of Deva itself, sometime in the late 70s AD. It was only rediscovered in 1929 and has almost continually since been the subject of controversial (to put it mildly) planning decisions, as you will discover in some detail here.

At the top of the picture, across the river from the city may be seen a small open green area. Today this serves as a public park and it has for centuries been known as Edgar's Field, being the legendary site of the 10th century Royal Palace of King Edgar 'The Peacemaker'. (Read the splendid old legend of how he was rowed on the River Dee to St. John's Church by six lesser kings here).
Earlier still, there was a large quarry here which was the source of much of the stone used in the construction of the Roman fortress. This was a superior material to that used by some later generations of builders, as we saw when we visited the Cathedral and the Northgate. Excavations have shown that work in the quarry ceased around the end of the fourth century AD.
On the eastern face of a remaining sandstone outcrop, seen in the middle of the field, may be seen a remarkable survivor- a carved Roman representation of the goddess Minerva, the patron of all rivers and springs in Brittania, and also protector of of soldiers and craftsmen. Situated as she is here, facing the bridge and the ancient route to the south, she was revered as the protector of travellers. Hemingway calls her the Diva Armigera Pallas. Also known as Pallas and Athena, she was one of the most popular deities and was worshipped at the five-day March festival of Quinquatrix.
Later generations, taking her for the Virgin Mary, also worshipped and protected her, and she remains with us to this day- albeit a severely weathered shadow of her original self- and claimed to be the only representation of a Classical goddess still in its original position anywhere in Western Europe.

As in the Grosvenor Bridge enlargement from McGahey's aerial view over the city, note the almost total lack of houses on the far bank of the river at this time.

Other enlarged sections from McGahey's wonderful illustration:

The Old Port
Grosvenor Bridge
The Kaleyards
The Northgate
The Cathedral

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