Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

Louise Rayner's Paintings of Chester

Lower Bridge Street

This splendid evocation of Lower Bridge Street as it was is my favourite of Louise Rayner's Chester watercolours. I love the composition and the way the scene is lit and am intrigued by the little drama playing out in the middle of the street market and wonder what the man on the soapbox is speaking about...

Louise painted this location at least twice; here is a detail from a version in a much 'looser' style. However, it is interesting to compare her treatment of the Bridgegate- which was designed by Joseph Turner and erected in 1782- and the buildings near it in the two paintings. The treatment of the gate in the top picture is completely inaccurate; it seems to have a flat top and to be built of a smooth material. The 'looser' image shows it as it is, with a gently curving top surmounted by an ornamental balustrade and the whole finished in rusticated stonework. The buildings next to the gate, notably the Bear & Billet Inn (see a painting of it by Louise here)- seem to be more accurately rendered in this version too.

Poignant in the extreme is the comparison between Lower Bridge Street as it was in the last quarter of the 19th century and how part of it is now, as starkly illustrated below. Much is made of other past acts of architectural philistinism in Chester but, in my view, this must count as one of the most extreme. It really is hard to credit isn't it? This appalling blot on the face of a beautiful old thoroughfare- an ugly and insensitively-situated car showroom and office block stands on the site of the ancient group of buildings on the left hand side of Louise's painting, which went by the name of 'Old Coach Row'. It had steps between the changes in level as it descended steeply southwards towards the Bridgegate and River Dee. The dilapidated condition of the old houses eventually gave rise to the nickname, 'Rotten Row'. Some of the buildings had the characteristics of a true Chester Row, with a covered gallery above cellars entered from the street, whilst others boasted merely an arcade over a raised pavement. Most of the true Rows had gone by 1880 and, by the mid-twentieth century, the frontages had become utilitarian with occasional street-level arcading.

The site immediately to the right of St. Olave's Church was long occupied by a large stone-built structure, resembling a small castle, with a tall tower. This was the home of Richard the Engineer (Richard L'Engenour), the master mason of Chester Castle and, around 1277, the builder of Flint Castle. He was leaseholder of the lucrative Dee Mills just down the road, and was elected Mayor of Chester in 1305. Five years later, the Abbot of St. Werburgh's Abbey (now the Cathedral) commissioned him to build a new Choir.

lower bridge street 1880

In 1321, the old building was sold to one Robert Pares (or Praers) and henceforth became known as Pareas Hall- also recorded as Paris's Hall.

When the ancient house was demolished is unknown. A building that arose on its site was utilised for some years as a brewery and maltings during the mid and late 19th century. In 1896, for example, the building is recorded as  "Chester Northgate Brewery Co, malt kilns". The drawing above, dating from 1880, shows the brewery with St. Olave's on the left (behind a block of long-vanished stables) and Old Coach Row on the right.

In the early 1960s, all of the old buldings between St. Olave's Church and Duke Street were demolished and replaced by the artless concrete showroom seen below, built for the Grosvenor Motor Company and opened in 1962. At the time of writing, December 2010, it stands empty, boarded up and for sale. Perhaps it's time to knock the awful thing down and replace it with something more in keeping with the area?

Compare the above with the wonderful rendering below, created by Martin Moss, which shows Lower Bridge Street as it would have looked in the 19th century.

rotten row 19th century

maltings brew house
An old photograph of part of Rotten Row, obviously by now fallen upon hard times.
The photograph is captioned 'The Maltings Brew House'.

grosvenor motors 60s
Another view of the Grosvenor Motors building soon after it opened in 1962

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