The Watertower

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

17. St. Martin's Gate

The Bridge of Sighs

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new housesUntil recently, as we walked east along the North Wall, we came once again to the chaotic scenes of a townscape in transition. All trace the unattractive modern additions to the Chester Royal Infirmary (see our photograph below) had vanished, medical services, with the exception of the City Walls GP practise, had moved to the newer Countess of Chester Hospital on Liverpool Road and work upon the new houses was underway. By the Autumn of 2002, the radical redevelopment of this large and historic site was largely complete.

(Here, by the way, is a fascinating and extensive illustrated history of hospitals in and around Chester).

The Infirmary had been enlarged in 1914- the Albert Wood Wing being opened in March of that year by King George V and Queen Mary, the hospital being permitted to assume the title of Royal Infirmary as a result of their visit. Albert Wood himself was a citizen of Conwy in North Wales- and a grateful ex-patient, who funded the work with a gift of £12,500.

old infirmary extensionThe hospital was extended once again to house new out-patient and accident departments, this new section being opened on 11th June 1963 by Princess Marina, the Duchess of Kent.

Both of these extensions have now vanished as if they had never been. During the preparatory work for the construction of the earliest of them, the eminent archaeologist, Professor Robert Newstead undertook an investigation of the site, when evidence of Roman burials came to light.

It is exceedingly difficult to imagine this place as recently as the middle of the last century when Thomas Hughes wrote of it, "We see on our left hand, through the refreshing grove of trees, a large and verdant mead, still retaining its ancient name of the Barrow Field or Lady Barrow's Hey. This is the place where the soldiers of old Rome went through their daily military exercises, and where, 1500 years later, great numbers of the citizens who died of the plague were hurredly interred".

medieval road at infirmaryThis 'Barrow Field' was the last survivor of the extensive open lands lying within the city walls that once lay between here and the new HQ development, and collectively known as 'The Crofts'. You can see the large area it once occupied on this detail of the 1898 Chester OS map.

In March 1997, it was announced that planning permission had been granted to Bryant Homes for a development of 100 homes ranging from one bedroom flats to three-storey, four bedroom town houses to be built on the site, and that three of the roads within the new development were to be given names connected with Chester's twin town, Sens in northern Burgundy: The Yonne, Brennus Place and Sens Close. ('Yonne' is the name of the Department in which Sens is situated and also the river on which it stands, whereas 'Brennus' was an ancient Gallic warrior and hero who led the struggle against the Romans in the Sens area). The development was designed by architects Jane Derbyshire and David Kendall.

Before building work started, a team of archaeologists undertook a 16-week investigation of the site. Amidst the noise and clouds of dust from nearby demolition work, they and their discoveries could be seen through observation ports in the surrounding fencing, which had been decorated with a series of fine murals by six local primary schools on the theme of 'Routeways to Chester through Time'.

Much Roman and Saxon pottery was found, as well as the foundations of some prevously-unknown agricultural buildings and features connected with a Roman cemetery. A large amount of green and yellow-glazed medieval roof tiles were also discovered, as well as later material dating from the 17th -19th centuries. Our photograph below shows a wonderful, previously unrecorded, cobbled roadway complete with central drain, appearing out of the mud for the first time in many centuries, which has been dated to around the middle of the 14th century. Notice how the section furthest from the camera has been resurfaced to a higher quality, using smaller stones.

chester guided walksA great tithe barn belonging to St. Werburgh's Abbey once stood somewhere in this vicinity- King Street opposite used to be known as Barn Lane- and it was hoped traces of it may be discovered. Unfortunately, this proved not to be the case and the barn's site is now surmised to lie somewhere under the modern Inner Ring Road.

When a former nurse's home next to this road was demolished towards the end of the dig, a 16th century pipe kiln was discovered, one of the first to be found in the city, and now established as the oldest known in the UK- complete with large quantities of broken pottery and clay pipes.

Tentative evidence of prehistoric occupation of the site was also found- in an ancient place like Chester, where almost every square inch has been repeatedly built and rebuilt upon, century after century, evidence of pre-Roman occupation is extremely rare and finds of such ancient remains are almost unknown.

The developers gained a lot of positive publicity when they declared they were altering their plans to allow the road and other remains to be reburied and built on top of, thus preserving them for future generations. But, soon afterwards, they instead destroyed much of it by the laying of concrete foundations. This writer witnessed the excavator at its destructive work while conducting a party of Australian visitors round the walls- who were astonished that such needless vandalism should have occured.

But at least the original 1761 Infirmary itself- a grade II listed building- has been fully restored to form an integral part of the new housing development, and its interior sub-divided into 18 'executive apartments'. We saw the building floodlit at night in October 2001, just after the scaffolding had come down, and must say it looked magnificent.

Planning permission had been granted to this large housing development partly upon the condition that a children's play area was constructed for the benefit of the younger new residents. As it has turned out, the sort of community this has become may be ascertained by the number of complaints which soon began to be received by the developers, to the effect that said playground "was not required or wanted". Residents also complained about paying ground rent for the planned play area and expressed the fear that it would "attract youths" (God forbid) to the area. They didn't even agree with a plan to install benches within the grounds!

As a result of all the moaning, developers Bryant Homes notified the city council that they had been persuaded not to proceed with the playground- only to be informed that they would then be in breach of their planning permission and a limited extension of the time allowed for the completion of the work was granted. Bryant then offered to pay £15,000 towards the restoration of the nearby Water Tower Gardens if they could be released from their obligation to construct the playground and this was duly agreed by the city council planning board in October 2001.

In December 1998, during (archaeologically unsupervised) excavations to lay pipes along the course of City Walls Road, workers discovered a pila- a stone pillar which once formed part of a Roman hypocaust, or central heating system. It does not form part of an in situ building so was presumably transported here for re-use from the ruins of a bath house or substantial private dwelling. One such existed until the 18th century in nearby Watergate Street and- even closer to the Infirmary site- evidence was discovered for the possible existence of a Centurion's residence just across the present Inner Ring Road under the currently-derelict bowling green in Hunter Street. As we have learned elsewhere, this entire area is currently awaiting some form of redevelopment- details of which finally emerged in July 2001- which hopefully will include a thorough archaeological investigation to confirm this.

pembertons parlourTo our left, as we continue to move parallel to the Shropshire Union Canal and its interesting lock system, the changing landscape around Tower Wharf may be seen. This is another part of Chester due for major changes in the near future, when British Waterways pushes through its controversial development plans for new houses, apartments, restaurants and offices.
The area immediately below the wall here is pleasantly wooded and provided with picnic tables, from where you may observe the canal boats coming and going through the locks. The towpath between here and Hoole has recently undergone a much-needed restoration and is much more pleasant to cycle and walk upon than it formerly was.

'Pemberton's Parlour'
We presently come to a curious semi-circular structure on our left. This is the much-altered medieval Goblin Tower- also once called 'Dille's Tower'- but more commonly known today as Pemberton's Parlour. The old Chester guide and author Thomas Hughes tells us why, "John Pemberton, ropemaker, a member of an old Chester family, about the year 1700 established a rope-walk within the Walls, between King-street and the Water Tower. It is said to have been his custom to sit under this old alcove, watching his men and boys at work in the pretty grove below. Hence arose its name, Pemberton's Parlour".

Above we see the Goblin Tower in a watercolour of the 1820s and below in an old photograph dating from the early years of the twentieth century, each showing it flanked by Hughes' "refreshing grove of trees", standing where now only cars flourish. The modern photograph by the author (above) of some of the new houses near the site also shows the old tower in the background.

pembertons parlourThe tower once straddled the wall as a completely circular structure with a walkway running through the middle, and stood twice its present height. Badly damaged during the 17th century Civil War Siege of Chester, it deteriorated until the early part of the 18th century, when, as part of an extensive programme of repairs to the war-damaged walls, the crumbling top and inner portions were demolished and the local builder and sculptor John Tilston rebuilt what was left into its present form- that of a decorative arbour, complete with sculpted panels depicting the Royal and City coats of arms and bearing the following inscription:


-followed by the names of the Mayors 1701-8, and the name of the Recorder and murengers- the officials responsible for the administration of the Murage, a tax imposed upon goods entering the city for the maintainance of the City Walls. The 'divers large breaches' referred to were the result of the long battering by Parlimentary guns and grenados (mortars) during the bloody siege of sixty years earlier.

Sculptor John Tilston also, incidentally, also created the fine statue of Queen Anne which long adorned the south front of the old Exchange in Town Hall Square. When this burned down in 1862, the statue was moved to Bonewaldesthorne's Tower, remaining there until the 1960s, when it was, for reasons unknown, transferred to a council depot in Canal Street and from there mysteriously disappeared, never to be seen again...

An account of a walk around the Walls, penned around the year 1706, and quoted by Hemingway, says this of the old tower, "from hence, we go still westwards, passing... a small tower formerly called Goblin's, or Dill's, since PEMBERTON'S PARLOUR, which, being ruinous, was of late half of it taken down; the other half, being a semi-circle, still remains, and, arched-over and benched round with stone, makes a very station from whence you have a fine prospect of the Crofts and the west parts of the city".

In 1894, owing to the constant vibration from the nearby trains- there were more of them then- the Goblin Tower had to be rebuilt yet again, but the original plaques, although somewhat weathered by this time, were replaced over the entrance, where you may, with some difficulty, still read their interesting inscriptions today.

Well recorded may be the name and activities on this spot of 18th century ropemaker and mayor John Pemberton, but the city records show that, in 1733, one Jonathan Whittell applied for and was granted, for a yearly payment of 12d, permission to use the lane "between Barn Lane (King Street) and the New Tower "to spin and make small cords and ropes". This ropewalk long survived and is shown on Hemingways map of 1829, almost a century later. Water Tower Street stands on its site today.

Whittell subsequently applied to erect various buildings in the vicinity to store tools, tar ropes etc, situated on a piece of land belonging to the city and "near to that part of the City walls known as the "Queen's Seat"- an evocative name that has sadly long vanished from use.

The Inner Ring Road
st. martin's gatePassing on, the increasing noise and smell of traffic warns us that we are once again approaching the Inner Ringroad and here we see before us the most recent breach in Chester's ancient circuit of walls- St. Martin's Gate- so called because of an association of the area with the ancient parish of that name- ironically, the ancient church that gave the parish its name was demolished to make way for the road and few now remember where it stood for the best part of a millennium.

As the city grew, and with the advent of the motor car, plans for a new road to take traffic around the outside of the city rather than though its ancient narrow streets had been discussed since at least the 1940s. One route proposed at that time (as part of the remarkable Greenwood Development Plan of 1944) sent the new road up narrow and historic King Street- obliterating most of it in the process- and out through an enlarged Northgate.

However, in the 1960s, the present, equally regrettable route was decided upon, and this new gateway through the walls was designed by the City Engineers, A H F Jiggens and Grenfell Baines of the Building Design Partnership, and opened in 1966 by the Minister of Transport, Barbara Castle. It is said to have been praised for "its elegance and combination of simplicity and lightness". You must make your own minds up about this from our photograph. Its appearance is, however, considerably marred by the ugly plastic traffic barriers situated directly below.

The Ringroad between here and the Castle occupies the site of four old streets: Castle Esplanade, Nicolas Street, Linenhall Street and- nearest to us- St. Martin's Fields, which did a right-angled turn just short of the city wall and joined up with the end of King Street. Here you can see a terrace of fine Georgian houses, the King's Buildings of 1776, which stood propped-up and derelict for years before eventually being carefully restored.

Our photograph shows the scene in 1965, during the final days of the old road- the King's Buildings are seen on the left, the Infirmary nurse's home on the right. The demolition of the entire left-hand side of the street is well advanced and you can actually see the course of the new Ringroad marked out in the mud in the foreground, heading straight for the new breach in the City Wall. (This interesting photograph was taken somewhat earlier from a viewpoint slightly to the right and shows the buildings in St. Martin's Fields still standing).

course of ring roadCompare this photograph with the one below, which shows the same view thirty years on, and the present mundane collection of modern structures along St. Martin's Way. The large and ugly office block on the left has stood empty for a number of years. This, and all the land between it and the Town Hall- currently occupied by the main bus station, boarded-up Masonic Hall and City Mission and an ancient bowling green (not to mention the Roman and medieval remains beneath)- were due to be replaced by a huge new retail and housing development. After many of these buildings had been vacated and boarded up- and a great deal of public unease about the scale and nature of the project was expressed- the developers, Scottish Widows, chose to pull out, declaring the project to be "no longer viable". The immediate future of this large area of Chester city centre thus remains, for the moment, uncertain, although, of recent months, a company by the name of London & Amsterdam Developments is reported to be in discussions with Chester's planning officials about the site. Go here for further details...

• Years later, in July 2010, the Masonic Hall, City Mission and other historic buildings are long demolished but little else has occured, save for the entire area, closely resembling a wartime bomb site, being hidden behind hoardings, ironically bearing the logo of Chester Renaissance, and awaiting an economic climate sympathetic to continued progress. The last we heard, our masters were talking about the possibility of cobbling together a make-do 'retail led' development- eupemistic council talk meaning no new library, no performing arts centre, no cinema- the very badly-needed community-orientated features they used to convince the locals that their massively expensive development of shops nobody needs and luxury apartments nobody wants would somehow be a good thing and an asset to our historic city centre. Meanwhile, the land lies fallow, returning rapidly to wilderness, awaiting a time when common sense returns. Could be a long wait.

In the middle distance, past the aforementioned vacant office block, is seen the International (formerly The Moat House) Hotel built above a multi-storey car park, behind which is located the now closed-down Gateway Theatre amidst an unattractive jumble of 1960s and 70s brutalist architecture- and this writer's very least favourite part of the city. The crass attempt to integrate the over-large hotel building within the Chester cityscape by the liberal use of bits of 'stuck-on' mock half timbering is particularly unpleasant, and puts one in mind of architect Norman Foster's remark about "putting lipstick on a gorilla". Its interior may be comfortable enough in an anonymous sort of way, but the area opposite the hotel's main entrance has remained, unaccountably, an unfinished concrete wasteland since the place was built over thirty years ago- hardly the vision of 'ancient romantic Chester' that many of our city's first-time visitors have been led to expect...

modern nicolas streetAbove the hotel may be seen rising the tall 19th century steeple of what was originally a Saxon foundation, Holy Trinity Church in Watergate Street (visible in both pictures). This stands upon the site of the West Gate of the Roman fortress, the Porta Principalis Dextra. The line of the original, much narrower streets ran along the right-hand side of the present road- as we view the photograph- and dozens of buildings were demolished to make room for the left-hand lane and the associated office blocks, tyre depots, car parks and suchlike mediocre modern structures.
You can clearly see the original layout of the area in this detail from the 1898 Chester OS map.

The view as you stand on the top of St. Martin's Gate is certainly interesting- the full extent of the North Wall from Bonewaldesthorne's Tower to our starting point at the Northgate being visible. On occasions from here you may see barges on the canal, bicycles on the towpath, trains on the railway and, inevitably, cars on the road below- all at the same time.

If you're not too bothered by the proximity of fast-moving traffic, walk a little way along the Ringroad's footpath to see a grand panorama of the Victorian rooftops in and around Garden Lane and a fine view of the remaining green spaces between here and the Clwyd Hills in the distance.

Earlier in our walk, when we were at the Newgate, you will remember how we temporarily parted company with the Roman walls, and I told you how, in the early 10th century, the long-abandoned defences had been restored and extended by new Saxon masters to enclose a much greater area of land.

At this point, we are now rejoining the line of the original fortifications- if you look carefully at the point where the steps meet the pavement on the eastern (city) side of St. Martin's Gate, you will see a square outline of cobbles laid out in the pavement. This marks the site of the North-West Corner Tower of the Roman fortress- the original wall having run south from here on the line of the ring road below, to the now-vanished West Gate. When the new road was constructed, a brief and (as the official record phrases it) "severely under-resourced opportunity was presented to to observe the remains of an unprecedented length of the Roman defences, while the possibilities of future investigations were severely reduced". The work was undertaken by Dennis Petch, the-then Curator of the Grosvenor Museum. He was forced to spend much of his career undertaking urgent and hurried rescue excavations on the large areas of the city's irreplaceable heritage then being deliberately- and often needlessly- destroyed. Read his terse comments about the destruction of a great Roman bath house on the site of the Grosvenor Shopping Precinct here.

Until the coming of the Ringroad and the construction of St. Martin's Gate in 1965, this north-west corner tower, which was built around AD103, survived to a height of eleven courses above plinth level- just a couple of courses less than the height of the present City Walls. Everything above ground level was, unforgivably, demolished and the site, like so many of Chester's Roman relics, remains poorly presented- in this case hardly presented at all- the ancient foundations being completely hidden from view beneath the pavement.

Just beyond this is a decent development of student flats, newly-erected in a style sympathetic to the neighbouring 18th century King's Buildings- although a few trees planted around the area would help to soften the new buildings and help to alleviate the noise and stench of the nearby busy road. Prior to this, the site was occupied by an old house known as 'Pemberton Cottage' which stood sadly derelict for many years.

Just beyond, behind King's Buildings is King's Court, a pleasant and secluded development of small modern houses which provide an interesting contrast with the fine 17th and 18th century buildings in King Street.

Right: This entire run-down area between the Inner Ring Road and the distant Town Hall is due to change beyound all recognition in the near future: here's the details...

The unsightly and long-neglected piece of land just behind the King's Buildings and separated from the Ring Road by a high wall (on the left of the above photograph) is apparently soon to have four three-storey houses built upon it, despite the plan being refused by the city council planning board on the grounds that "the outlook from King's Buildings would be destroyed- it would create a tenement effect". A government inspector disagreed, however, saying that in this part of Chester, "a more intensive degree of development is appropriate" and now, in June 2004 the new buildings are half complete and appear to be pleasingly in keeping with their Georgian neighbours. A problem developed, however, as the new building were apparently erected directly over a water main, and, ten years later, Spring 2014, the development remains scruffily unfinished and unoccupied...

And now, gratefully leaving the Ring Road behind us, we embark upon our final short stroll back to our starting point, but first pausing to consider the Bridge of Sighs..

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 26

  • 1801 The Act of Union between Great Britain and Ireland comes into force. The Union Jack becomes the official flag. Burglars Thompson, Morgan and Clare became the last criminals publicly executed at Boughton. When approaching the gallows, Clare, a "comely young man of twenty years" sprang from the cart and made a dash for freedom, the surprised crowd making way for him. Rolling down a steep incline, he plunged into the River Dee and was drowned, weighed down by the weight of his chains. A search was made and his body was recovered and eventually hung up with the other two malefactors, who had been kept waiting in the cart in the interval. In the same year, Aaron Gee and Thomas Gibson were hung by being pushed out of windows in the attics on the south side of the Northgate Gaol. Dropping just forty inches, their bodies "beat against the windows beneath so as to break the glass in them".
  • 1803 The Bull Bait at the High Cross was prohibited by Act of Parliament, but moved to Boughton Heath- just outside the city's jurisdiction. The Pentice at the High Cross- Chester's first Town Hall- was taken down in order to widen Northgate Street.
  • 1804 Napoleon is proclaimed Emperor and crowned before the Pope in Paris
  • 1805 Nov 9th The city illuminated in consequence of Nelson's victory at Trafalgar on Oct 21st. Parry and Truss's coach manufactory burnt down. The Pillary was used for the last time, and together with the Stocks and Whipping Post, were removed.
  • 1806 July 28th. Dreadful storm in Chester- the mast of a ship at Crane wharf shivered to pieces by lightning. Aug 24th. Joseph Crofts, the City Beadle, while conducting a runaway apprentice to the house of correction at the Northgate, was pushed down the steps there, and fractured his skull, so that he died on the Wednesday. Sept 24th. Loss of the King George packet off Hoylake, in this port, with 170 passengers on board; only 4 sailors and the steward saved.
  • 1807 The slave trade abolished in England; the following year, the US prohibited importation of slaves from Africa.
  • 1808 The last of the medieval City Gates, the Northgate was demolished, when remains of the Roman Porta Decumana was discovered. The gaol was moved to City Walls Road, the present site of the Queen's School. The architect of the new Northgate, Thomas Harrison, was also responsible for the Commercial Newsroom (no 1 Northgate Street) which opened this year.
  • 1809 May 6th. Execution of William Proudlove and George Glover at the 'New Drop'- a gallows situated outside the House of Correction in Northgate Street, designed to temporarily replace the former site at the recently-demolished Northgate Gaol- for wounding an officer of excise. When the drop fell, the ropes broke and they fell to the ground in a state of half-strangulation. Soon after, they were taken to the drop again, and other ropes being procured, they were hung up effectually. Abraham Lincoln born
  • 1810 The Northgate was rebuilt, paid for by Robert, Earl Grosvenor. The last ship- an Irish linen carrier- to call at the Port of Chester did so this year. The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in St. John Street built. In this census year there were 17,472 people living in 3,296 houses. The Chester United Gas Company opens in Cuppin Street; gas laid to houses in 1817 and to street lights in 1819.
  • 1811 King George III becomes insane; the Prince of Wales becomes Prince Regent. Luddites destroy industrial machinery in Northern England. Charles Dickens and Robert Browning born. Parry and Truss's coach works burnt down for the second time.
  • 1812 Great number of Luddites brought to the Castle.
  • 1816 Anne Moore, the celebrated 'fasting woman', confined in the Castle, for a robbery at Stockport; during her confinement she miraculously recovered her appetite. Aug 14th. Edith Murray and John Lomas tried and convicted of murdering the husband of the former. Aug 21st. Execution of Lomas. The execution of Murray was postponed, she pleading pregnancy.
  • 1813 In this year there were 670 births, 320 marriages and 407 deaths. April 23rd. Edith Murray, being delivered of her child, was executed for the murder of her husband. She met death with "great hardihood." June 26th. Execution of three men for a rape on Mary Porter at Weston Point, Runcorn.
  • 1814 Sept. George Post, who had been convicted by false witness of highway robbery, and was to have been executed, received a free pardon.
  • 1815 Napoleon leaves Elba; defeated by Wellington and Blücher at Waterloo; abdicates for second time and is banished to St. Helena. Eruption of Sumbawa volcano in Indonesia causes over 50,000 deaths
  • 1817 The Chester United Gaslight Company was formed and gas lighting was introduced into the streets. First grandstand built on the Roodee.

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