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The Bridge of Sighs II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

1. The Northgate

The Northgate part II

"It may be supposed, without partiality, that the traveller will be much pleased by this walk; as in all seasons the cleanliness and order in which it is kept, render it a pleasing relaxation to the resident, and a source of agreeable investigation and amusement to the stranger".
A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, published in 1800

Wnorthgate street 1967elcome! We commence our exploration of Chester's ancient city walls by standing here, on top of the Northgate.

This is the highest point in the city and from here you can observe the course of its ancient defensive ramparts running gently downhill on each side, east to the Phoenix Tower, west towards St. Martin's Gate, the Watertower and the Clwydian hills of North Wales and, less obviously, south towards the city centre, the High Cross and beyond to the River Dee.

Right: Northgate Street 1967. Courtesy of Phil Wilson

This Chester Virtual Stroll is but the latest in a long line of guides to the splendours of our ancient city- many of which have been consulted and are named in the bibliography- but is the first to be published exclusively on the World Wide Web, instantly and freely available to you, wherever you may be (although your donations, sponsorship and advertising help keep us going and are always gratefully received!)

Bear in mind that our intention is not to provide a definitive history of the City of Chester, many of which already exist (by far the richest online source is at British History Online) - but rather to provide a pleasant and illuminating day out with a few anecdotes, pictures and personal comments thrown in at no extra cost. Nevertheless, if you do need specific information about Chester, Liverpool or their surrounding areas, don't hesitate to get in touch and we will do our best to help or pass your enquiries on to those who can. All of your letters will be answered- and may even be published on our lively reader's comments pages!

Our first photographs show the view along Northgate Street as seen from the top of the Northgate; above on a sunny day in 1967, 'the summer of love' half a century ago, and below, as it appeared at the end of the nineteenth century. Not a lot of difference- and should the visitor compare them with the same view as seen today, it is truly remarkable how little seems to have changed, only the buildings in the right hand foreground of the Victorian image having since been replaced, as we shall learn later.

Close to where the ladies in the lower picture are queuing up for a bargain is the entrance to Abbey Green and Rufus Court, a fascinating community of bars, restaurants, cafes and specialist shops.
You can read more about Rufus Court in our North Wall chapter and explore the fascinating businesses to be be found there both on and on their own website..

It is interesting to compare these photographs with this painting of the same location and from around the same time as the earlier by the famous watercolourist Louise Rayner (some of her other fine images of Chester are here).

Two thousand ago, on this very spot stood the Roman gateway, the Porta Decumana of the great regional capital and military fortress of Deva. The Via Decumanus was the name given to the main north-south street of a Roman town, and occasionally to other large streets parallel to it. It entered the fortress at the point were we now stand, but then ran slightly to the right (west) of the modern street line, at an angle that would end where you see the present tower of St. Peter's Church, at the Cross. In Roman times the open space we see today was filled with all manner of buildings but for many centuries it served as the home of Chester's markets and fairs, indeed being known, both then and now, as Market Square. However, since the opening of the great Town Hall on its west side in 1869, it has also been commonly referred to as Town Hall Square.

via decumana sign
During your wanderings around our city, you may be intrigued to note how the main streets are named, in tribute to our founders, in both English and Latin. Chester is the only city in Britain where this occurs.

The Dead Men's Room
he Norman / medieval gate which, after a thousand years or so, rose upon and incorporated the foundations of its Roman predecessor, was in the care of the sheriffs of the city, who received the tolls taken on goods entering here, in return for which they maintained the gate and the terrible prison housed within it, attended to the pillory and the stocks, executed felons and robbers sentenced by courts throughout the whole of Cheshire (Chester being the County Town), published the Earl's proclamations and called the citizens to assembly "by sound of the horn."

old northgateThis second Northgate, first mentioned in documents in 1096, comprised a "dark, narrow and inconvenient passage, under a pointed arch, over which was a mean and ruinous gaol." It was defended on the outside by a drawbridge. Almost five centuries later, in the city's accounts for 1569, we read, "For making the north-gate bridge new, grette joists and thick planks: £4 3s 2d".

The bridge we see in its place today was constructed in October 1772 as part of the construction of the Chester Canal. The following month, "Henry Bullock and Robert Mason, masons, were to compleate the bridge at the Northgate for the sum of eighty two pounds ten shillings".

People could be confined in the Northgate Goaol for all manner of offences, some quite trivial such as rowdyism, non payment of debts- and even the baking of poor quality bread (loaves had to marked with the 'baker's mark' so that they could, if necessary, be traced back to those responsible). The worst parts of the prison- the main entrance to which was on the west side of the gate were excavated from the bedrock up to 30 feet below the street. Descriptions written in the 17th century talk of them being "noisome, pestilential, stinking, and crowded with venomous creatures". One cell was known as 'the snake pit'- and another a "dark and stinking place called the Dead Men's Room" where prisoners who had been condemned to death were confined, "in order to make them more callous to their impending fate". It had no windows, and was accessible only by a trapdoor in the roof.

Another infamous cell was known as the Chamber of Little Ease, which was described by a contemporary visitor as "a hole hewed out in a rock; the breadth and cross from side to side was seventeen inches from the back to the great door; at the top seven inches, at the shoulders eight inches and at the breast nine inches and a half; with a device to lessen the height as they were minded to torture the person put in, by drawboards which shot over across the two sides, to a yard in height or thereabouts".

northgate in 1750Another account described it thus, "In the court of the said House of Correction in a hole in the side of a rock is a little prison place called the Little Ease in which stubborn youths are thrust, and a grate locked upon them, where they can neither stand, sit, kneel nor ly, but are bent in all their joyntes, & have no resting place for any part".

Right: Martin Moss has produced this evocative recreation of the old Northgate in its final, forbidding, form, as it would have appeared around the year 1750. The view is from outside the City Walls with Bishop Stratford's Bluecoat Charity School on the right. This was erected in 1717 and, unlike the dreadful Northgate Gaol, remains with us today.
The view also illustrates clearly what a great obstruction to traffic the old gate must have been, even in those days. It seems remarkable that its presence was tolerated into the early years of the nineteenth century.

A wonderful animated recreation of the old Northgate and its neighbourhood by Martin Moss may be viewed on his channel on YouTube.
You will also find there the talented Mr Moss's fly-bys of Beeston, Ewloe and Chester Castles among much else..

During the reign of Queen Mary, the clergyman and martyr George Marsh was held at the Northgate before being burned at the stake for heresy at nearby Boughton in April 1555. His brief stay there after his trial in the Lady Chapel of the Cathedral was recorded thus in chapter XVI of Foxe's Book of Martyrs (1563):

"After this the Bishop delivered him unto the Sheriffs of the city (then his late keeper bade him: Fare well, good George!- with weeping), which caused the officers to carry him to a prison at the Northgate where he was very straightly kept until the time he went to his death. During which time he had small comfort or relief of any worldly creature, for being in the dungeon none that willed him good could speak with him, or at least durst enterprise so to do for fear of accusation. And some of the citizens which loved him in God for the gospel's sake (whereof there were but a few), although they were never acquainted with him, would sometimes in the evening (at a hole upon the wall that went into the said prison) call to him and ask him how he did. He would answer them most cheerfully that he did well, and thanked God most highly that He would vouchsafe of His mercy to appoint him to be witness unto His truth and to suffer for the same. Once or twice he had money cast him in at the same hole, about ten pence at one time, and two shillings at another time, for which he gave God thanks and used the same to his necessity".

At the place of execution, he "was chained to the post, having a number of fagots under him, and a thing made like a firkin, with pitch and tar in it, over his head. The fire being unskilfully made, and the wind driving it in eddies, he suffered great extremity, which notwithstanding he bore with Christian fortitude. When he had been a long time tormented in the fire without moving, having his flesh so broiled and puffed up that they who stood before him could not see the chain wherewith he was fastened, and therefore supposed that he had been dead, suddenly he spread abroad his arms, saying, "Father of heaven have mercy upon me!" and so yielded his spirit into the hands of the Lord".

The place where poor Marsh and countless others died so horribly, at the top of Barrel Well Hill in Boughton, just a mile or so from Chester Cross, is today marked by a commemorative obelisk which bears the inscription, "George Marsh born Dean, Co. Lancaster. To the memory of George Marsh martyr who was burned to death near this spot for the truth sake April 24th 1555. Also John Plessington 19th July 1679. Canonised Saint 25th October 1970."

A further memorial to him is in the lovely Church of St. John the Baptist which we will have the pleasure of visiting later in our journey.

From the reign of Elizabeth I in the 1560s, the Spanish Armada in 1588 to the so-called 'Popish Plot' concocted by Titus Oates in 1678, persecution of the Catholics resulted in many being imprisoned both here in the Northgate and at Chester Castle. One such was the above-named John Plessington, who suffered the ghastly punishment of being hanged, drawn and quartered at Boughton in 1679 for the crime of being a Catholic priest.

In the 17th century, during Oliver Cromwell's English Commonweath, Chester's Quakers were actively persecuted by the Puritans and Prebyterians, and many of them were imprisoned at the Northgate. Of one unfortunate, Richard Sale, it is recorded: "that, being a portly man, he was too large vilWor the dungeon known as Little Ease, but was nevertheless squeezed into it and the door shut, which caused the blood to run from his nostrils".

The Northgate was a foul place out of which few escaped and many died- but in which one or two conformed and went to church. One Ralph Langton, however, was confined here after he rashly boasted that "he would never go to church for any man's pleasure in Chester".

The cells were continually wet and the only way air could enter was by the way of pipes which led from the street above. There is a story that when some men were suspected of sheep stealing and one of them was captured and placed in the Dead Man's Room, his accomplices stuffed rags into these pipes, suffocating the prisoner overnight before he had a chance to reveal their names.

old market squareIn 1494, it was recorded that, "Mistress Marion Houghton, wife of a servant of the Abbot of St. Werburgh, in Northgate Street did assault Elizabeth - and struck her on the head with her right fist, dragged her hair, and struck her face so that blood flowed freely. Sir John Savage, Mayor, ordered two Sheriffs to arrest both women and deliver them to Oliver Hepay, Keeper of the Northgate Gaol, there to remain until they could find sufficient security to keep the peace".

In 1663, a widow named Elizabeth Powell was convicted of witchcraft. Debatably more fortunate than others, such as the three women who a few years earlier had been hanged at the Castle for the same offence, she was confined in the Northgate Gaol and remained there until she died six years later.

Right: Northgate Street and the Market Square as recorded in pen-and-ink in Daniel King's 'Vale Royal of England', 1656, a decade after the end of the Civil War. The old Northgate is at the top, giving access to a street that appears to be very much wider at its northern end than it is today.

In the 18th century, debtors, too, were confined at the Northgate, where they could be held for a decade or more, but their treatment was, relatively speaking. not as severe as for other classes of criminal. They were allowed to stroll about on the North Wall and even wander a little way down Northgate Street and 'gentlemen' could, for a weekly rent of five shillings, live in the relative comfort of the 'Blue Room'. Felons, too, had the use of a day room but they had to wear irons and return to their windowless cells at night.

Intriguingly, this debtor's prison seems also to have made itself available to paying guests! In the May 1879 edition of the Cheshire Sheaf, we read about "an old Cheshire character" by the name of Captain Robert Thomas, who had served in the American War and who "armed with a tremendous shillelagh after a Baccanalian debauch, would sally through the Rows and streets of the city, and fortunate was the sconce which avoided the indiscriminate sway of his arm; occasionally he played in the Rows upon his flute, which at times served him as a cudgel, and his music therefore must have been frequently out of tune"... He died in 1824, aged 77, "near the Northgate, where for over twenty years he had been a voluntary tenant of the debtor's side of the Chester City Gaol".

When prison reformer John Howard visited the Northgate Gaol in 1787, he reported that both convicted prisoners and those awaiting trial had shackles around the necks, hands, waists and feet which would be attached to the floors during the day and their beds at night. They were allowed to beg for several hours a day- a necessity, because they were not given enough food to live on by the authorities, a situation Howard described as a "disgrace to such an opulent city." We will be meeting with the great John Howard again later in our stroll, when we visit Chester Castle.

In addition to those at the scaffold and stake at Boughton, outside the city walls, untold numbers of public executions were carried out over the centuries at the Northgate Gaol. As late as 1801 it was recorded that two burglars, Aaron Gee and Thomas Gibson were hung here by being pushed out of windows in the attics on the gaol's south (city) side, a drop of just forty inches: "by means of the Drag, a machine of clumsy construction, both men were propelled from the aperture of a window without respect for decency. Forty feet above the roadway, their bodies beat against the windows and walls in a frighful manner, so as to break the glass in them".

On September 10th 1802, one Thomas Griffiths was sentenced to death here for stealing "one Gelding, the property of Samuel Jackson". In 1786, James Buckley was convicted of burglary and received the same harsh penalty. These sentences certainly appear severe when compared with the "six months imprisonment, and fine of 6s 8d with a recognizance of £100 to keep the peace for three years" imposed on John Davies on October 24, 1805. Mr Davies was found guilty of "wilfully, maliciously and with malice of aforethought drowning John English in the waters of the Ellesmere Canal". It would seem that, in Chester, property was deemed of greater value than life.

Immediately next to the Northgate on the east side of the street once stood a timber-built tavern known as the Hen & Chickens which is said to "have reaped golden harvests when, in the days of the old Northgate Prison, unfortunate malefactors suffered, close to this spot, the last penalty of the law at the hands of the public hangman" (Hughes 1858). You can readily imagine the regulars, chairs out in the street and pots in hand, enjoying a grandstand view of their unfortunate fellow citizens being consigned to eternity..
The old inn was entirely rebuilt in the early 19th century and in 1809 was called The Wheatsheaf- it appears as this in a list of polling stations in that year- but soon after becoming The Grosvenor Arms. The wheatsheaf is the Arms of the Grosvenor family. The 'hen & chickens' is a Christian emblem of Divine Providence and the name may have been chosen by the ecclesiastical authorities at the Abbey- today's Cathedral- upon whose land the inn stood. It seems somewhat irreverent to have bestowed the name on an ordinary inn so it is possible the premises once served as accomodation for pilgrims who sought the hospitality of the monks.
The licence was withdrawn in 1912 and the inn was divided to house three shops; it was later reunited to become a branch of Sayer's the Bakers until this closed in 2008. A restaurant now occupies the premises.
Learn more about the many lost inns of Northgate Street here.

The dreadful Northgate Gaol was in regular use for over 700 years. By 1801 it was recognised as being desperately inadequate for its purpose and calls were made for its replacement. It was described by the Mayor, Daniel Smith, the Recorder, Hugh Leycester and other worthies as "insufficient, inconvenient and in want of repair. The place whereon the present gaol is situate is improper and inconvenient, the gaol ought to be removed to another part of the city". In 1807, this came about when a new City Gaol was erected across the city on a site near the walls overlooking the Roodee now occupied by the Queen's School. When the old one was demolished in the following year, abundant proof of its Roman origin was found; large stones, regularly laid without mortar, and not nearly so weathered as the upper courses, laid probably five or six hundred years later. Chester guide and author Thomas Hughes remarked of its passing "the gaol, with its attendant miseries, has gone, but the dungeons we have pictured abide there still, beneath the ground we are now standing on- though filled up, it is true, and for ever absolved from their ancient uses".
And such remains the case to this day. Spare a moment to think of those awful dungeons still lying beneath your feet when you visit the place for yourself.

medieval NorthgateHere is a beautiful watercolour of the final days of the medieval Northgate by Moses Griffith (1747-1819). The stone bridge seen crossing the canal cutting is still in use today but protective iron railings have since been added. Notice how the wall-top walkway went round three sides of the Northgate. On the far left, you can see the diagonal line where the large weathered blocks of the 2nd century Roman wall ends and the medieval work begins, much as we see it today.
This writer, for one, had thought that the Roman wall had formerly existed beyond this point, joining with the medieval gate, and that it had been cut back to its present extent when the gate was replaced in 1808. This painting shows this not to have been the case. It may have been an oversight by the artist, but he was 60 years old when the old gate was demolished, had a keen eye and presumably knew it well.

The other side of the canal, where a utilitarian electricity substation now stands, was occupied by the House of Correction, seen on the right of the picture- and more clearly, in the anonymous black and white drawing above- where 'petty' crimes were punished by confinement and hard labour. In 1693, it was ordered that three apprentices, Joseph Harrison, John Litherland and George Eaton, were to be "committed to the House of Correction, and be there severally whipped for their disorderly behaviour within the hearing of this court and continue there until further notice".

The punishment seems to have had a beneficial effect as all three are recorded as being admitted as Freemen of the City in later years. One Richard Geary Smith was sentenced to one month's stay in the House of Correction on March 13, 1799, for being a 'rogue and vagabond'. On January 19th of the same year, Samuel Starkie received a month's sentence for deserting his wife and child, therefore leaving them chargeable on the Parish. Starkie also had to pay 2/6d to his wife or the Parish before he could be discharged.
The House of Correction also served as a sort of workhouse; in 1685, Ann Mynshull left in her will "rents for the maintainance of poor freemen's children at work in a house called the House of Correction standinge neare unto the Northgate".

Beyond this at the top of the steps, a corner of the Bluecoat School is just visible. We will learn much more about this in our next chapter.

The old Northgate saw much action during the Civil War Siege of Chester in 1645-6. Most of the buildings standing beyond it outside the city walls, if not burned by the besiegers were deliberately demolished by the townspeople themselves so as not to afford shelter to Parliamentary snipers. The city's principal entrance, the Eastgate had been blocked with earth and rubble as a defensive measure, so the Royalist defenders used this gate when sallying forth to attack their foes surrounding the town.

first plan for northgateMore happily, a century later, a 1750 edition of the long-defunct news sheet, the Chester Courant, gave notice of a series of plays to be performed "for every night during the Fair-Week at the theatre near to the Northgate". We now have no clue where this theatre was located.

Also, in an August 1750 edition of the Courant, appeared the following announcement, "Notice of Benefit Performances. For the benefit of the prisoners in the Northgate and the Castle, on Thursday next will be presented "The Suspicious Husband" with a musical entertainment called "The Chaplet".

The terrible medieval Northgate was eventually replaced by the structure upon which we now stand, a miniature masterpiece of Neo-Classicism designed by Thomas Harrison (1744-1829), a prolific architect whose works we will frequently encounter throughout our stroll around Chester, and built in 1808-10, the last of Chester's ancient fortified gates to be so replaced. On the north side is the inscription- and a test for your Latin:


"The north gate built by the Romans being now about to disintegrate, Robert Earl Grosvenor has had it entirely restored at his own expense in the 51st year of the reign of George III."

And on the south appears the following:


'Gulielmo' (William) Newell served as Mayor of Chester in 1808-9.

northgate 1815Built of finely cut grey Runcorn sandstone, this new arch was commisioned by Robert, 2nd Earl Grosvenor, when he became Mayor of Chester in 1807-08. Grosvenor initially wanted a 'Gothic' design so Harrison produced drawings of a "pretty confection" (illustrated right) with a parapet of arches carrying a vaulted passage over the road. He also, however, pointed out that the new gate would stand on the site of a Roman predecessor and was located close to an impressive surviving stretch of Roman wall and so persuaded Earl Grosvenor of the merits of an alternative design which, with its Doric columns, paid homage to Chester's Roman origins.

Left: Harrison's new Northgate in 1815

Harrison duly presented his proposals to the City Council's Assembly Committee, but, when a vote was taken, only two were in support, the other ten preferring a copy of Joseph Turner's Watergate, built twenty years earlier, in 1789 (Turner had also, in 1782, designed the replacement Bridgegate). Mr Anderson, the contractor who was supplying the stone for the project, said that he could build Turner's design for £280 rather than the £350 which Harrison estimated his would cost. Money considerations aside, there were also hints in the Minutes and in the ensuing public controversy that that some people considered Harrison a "pushy outsider" and party politics also enterered into the row, some supporting the recently-elected tory MP and others the city's other MP- Earl Grosvenor's own brother- who was a Whig.

Within a fortnight, Anderson had commenced the foundations for the Turner design but strong opposition was already being expressed in the city to the idea of a copy of an 'old-fashioned' gate when a more modern alternative was available. Grosvenor's faction, who were willing and able to pay the higher price, were eventually successful and the new gateway was built to Harrison's design. It was modified somewhat during the construction process; Harrison had wanted fluted columns on each side of the arch, rather than the plain Doric columns we see today, on the grounds that they were "more authentically Greek" but had been persuaded to drop the idea by the Town Clerk, who feared that the delicate flutings would be damaged by the mob "at a time of disputed elections". The modifications resulted in a more severe appearance that gained something of the "quiet simplicity and quiet grandeur" of his Shire Hall portico at the Castle, erected a few years earlier.

elephant & castleThe Northgate hasn't changed much since it was built 200 years ago. The engraving above shows it in 1815, looking exactly as it does today. In stark contrast, the Market Square (or Town Hall Square, as it is generally known now) has altered a great deal. To illustrate the point, below is an interesting old etching by George Batenham showing the area as it appeared around 1817, a decade after the gate was rebuilt. Virtually all the buildings shown have now vanished.

The large Georgian house on the extreme left was the city residence of the Massey Family of Moston. Next door, the family of Sir Hugh Cholmondeley, who owned a very large amount of property in various parts of Cheshire, owned a grand town house which formed the centre section of the buildings between Princess Street and Hunter Street. This house was in the occupation of the Chamberlaine family in the early years of the 19th century and later in that century the premises were occupied by William Hewitt, a coach builder- you can see the premises with his name above the door on the right of this rare old photograph, which also shows the long-vanished Elephant & Castle Inn next door. (go here to learn much more about this and hundreds more of the lost pubs of Chester). About the year 1900 they were taken over by a similar firm and re-built. They were rebuilt once again on a grander scale in 1913 to a design by Philip Lockwood for the Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works and this remains with us today as the facade of Chester Library. This was, controversially, due to be demolished as part of the Northgate Redevelopment Scheme, the elegant terracotta facade would then have formed an entrance into the promised new public square and a new, brutalist gass-and-steel library was to have been erected where the ghastly Forum Council Offices and Market Hall now stand. All that seems to have changed, however, as money men and politicians play their game. At the time of this most recent re-editing, Summer 2011, the massive shopping development has failed to materialise- and its site has been landscaped to form St. Martin's Park- the cinema remains closed and we still have no theatre or Arts Centre. Our valued library, however, remains for the moment just where it was.

old shamblesThe site of the old mansion was replaced in the 19th cenury by a fine building in a similar style which is now occupied by the Shropshire Arms public house and a florist's shop. The fine half-timbered house to its right was to be demolished shortly after this print was made. Its last tenant was the artist James Hunter, who gave his name to the adjoining lane, Hunter's Passage- later widened and known since the 1890s as Hunter Street. In its place rose the imposing Northgate House, a private residence which was later used as offices and later still as lodgings for the judges at Chester Assizes. This in turn was demolished and the handsome Grade II listed Art Deco Odeon Cinema was built here in 1936. Before its construction commenced, an archaeological dig took place, conducted by the great Professor Robert Newstead. This unearthed some interesting Roman and medieval remains, some of which were put on show in the upper lounge and may still be seen there today.

Also soon after the print was made, the wooden stalls of the meat shambles on the far left of the picture were replaced by a stone and brick market building, shown in this fine illustration of the old Exchange.

It is recorded that, in 1581, the city magistrates bought the old Shire Hall at the Castle "for six Cheshire cheeses", and had it moved to the Market Square, where it was first served as a granary, and was then appropriated by the city's butchers, becoming adapted to form the flesh shambles.

The house on the far right is the once-grand Folliot House, built in 1778 by the merchant W H Folliot, who appears in Cowdroy's Directory in 1789. It later became for a time the home of the architect and designer of the Northgate, Thomas Harrison. Though now converted to offices (home to the Citizen's Advice Bureau and other social services), closely hemmed-in by commercial premises and robbed of its extensive gardens, it is the only building in the illustration that remains with us to this day, albeit in a brutally truncated form, as shown by the photographs below...
old folloit house
folliott house 1960s
modern folliot house

The picture on the left was taken during the Second World War when when the house served in the unglamorous but vital role of a storage depot for ARP (air raid precautions) equipment such as respirators and waterproof garments. Training exercises for the AFS (Auxilliary Fire Service) volunteer firemen were also carried out here. (The main fire station was a short distance up the street, out of shot to the right. See below..)

At an undetermined date since, the fine old Georgian mansion was unceremonially 'chopped in half'- the bricked-in shapes of former interior windows and doors can still be clearly seen on the blank wall nearest to the camera in the later views. Our middle photograph shows it like this in the late 1960s. Note the changed arrangement of the side windows between this and the modern view. The space between the house and the currently closed-down Odeon Cinema is now occupied by a mundane bookmaker's premises. However, the near future may bring exciting changes to old Folliot House and its surroundings as this artist's impression on the next page shows...

The ancient Pied Bull public house next door looks exactly the same except for the reduction in height of its tall chimney. We will learn more of it and other neighbouring inns in the third part of our wanderings around Northgate Street...

Thomas Harrison was a prolific architect here in Chester- in addition to the Northgate, he was responsible for the great Grosvenor Bridge, the rebuilding of the Castle and its (now-demolished) County Gaol, the Commercial Newsrooms at the further end of Northgate Street, the refacing of St. Peter's Church after the removal of the Pentice at the Cross and much else. Elsewhere, his most noted surviving buildings include the Skerton Bridge and the recently-closed County Gaol at the Castle in Lancaster, the Portico Library in Manchester and Europe's first lending library, the Lyceum and the rebuilt tower of the Parish Church of Our Lady & St. Nicolas in Liverpool.

The attractive timber building next to the former Blue Bell Inn was built in 1911 as a fire station, designed in the Vernacular Revival style by James Strong, a pupil of John Douglas, complete with oriel windows beneath picturesque overhanging gables- in Chester, even the fire station had to be a half-timbered building! It was designed to house three horse-drawn fire engines and later, motorised ones such as the example shown in our picture. However, unable to accomodate larger modern appliances, the station closed in 1970 and served for a while as retail premises, but has now been transformed into a smart French restaurant.

gateway houseWhen the firemen moved to their new station on nearby St. Anne Street, they left behind Jack, the resident ghost. Jack used to be seen sitting on the engines, an old fireman with whiskers, dressed in an old-fashioned uniform and a brass helmet...

An earlier fire station of sorts, known as 'The Engine House' existed further up the road in the late 18th century. The 1792 directory refers to it as "a neat building, with fluted columns and a rich cornice, of the Corinthian order. The fire engines are kept here at the expense of the Corporation, and the keys at the Exchange Coffee House, also by persons in different parts of the city."

Fourty-odd years later, Joseph Hemingway noted: "After King Street on the left, an open space, used as a potato market, is discovered. At the extremity of this area, a good brick building has been erected, and the upper part converted into a reservoir, which is constantly filled with water to supply the city with that necessary article, and to be in readiness in case of fire. The apartments beneath are occupied as depositories for the fire engines".

We remarked earlier, with reference to Centurion House, that Northgate Street had otherwise largely managed to escape the attention of the planners and developers that have brought (and continue to bring) so much mediocre architecture to our beautiful city centre. On the right we see two views of the section of the street between the two Abbey Gateways, taken in the 1960s and today. The terrace of 19th century houses, whose ground floors were later converted to shops, have been replaced by a brash development of shops and offices by the name of Gateway House.
The University Cathedral Free School also now operates out of this utilitarian building, following the surprise failure of its plan to take up much more prestigious premises in a fine mid-18th century house in nearby Abbey Square (which nontheless continues to feature prominently on the school's website logo..)

More Dodgy Developments
Northgate ArenaIn 2005, the local press reported that the days of the St. Anne Street fire station were apparently numbered as plans were afoot
for the building to be demolished- together, scandalously, with the award-winning Northgate Arena next door, a replacement for which was to be built at the Greyhound Retail Park on the edge of the city. On its site it was proposed to erect a Hilton Hotel, of all things, even more 'luxury' apartment blocks- plus an inevitable 'sweetener' in the form of Extra Care housing for the elderly.

Expecting the worst, Chester's people were pleasantly surprised when our councillors, being advised that the plans were worrying on many counts, wisely rejected the planning application. The plot reared its head once more, however, in November 2007 when aspiring developer, Steeltower Ltd, headed by one Patrick Davies, submitted an 'amended' version of their proposals.

An unconvinced, and unnamed, local developer was quoted in the Chester Chronicle as saying, "I am a bit confused. I don't understand where the land value would be created. How are you going to generate the millions to pay for all these goodies?" (What goodies would they be then, we wondered?)

Concerned local individuals, such as City Councillor Ruth Davidson and Geoff Alderton, took steps to ensure that the Northgate Arena was protected from predatory attacks such as this by being made a listed building. English Heritage, thought differently however, saying that the building "lacks the high level of architectural quality necessary", that its styling is "typical rather than exceptional" and that "its interior has been compromised by later alterations". We would disagree strongly- and also remind you that these are the people that, just across town, have for years fought tooth and nail to defend a rotting Victorian ex-convent that happens to stand on top of the largest Roman military amphitheatre in Great Britain...

The Northgate Arena stands on the site of the old Northgate railway station which closed in 1969. It was designed by the Building Design Partnership, a design we personally like very much. It is managed by the Chester and District Sports and Recreation Trust (CADSART), a non-profit making charitable trust. In January 2008, it beat over 450 other entrants to be named the best leisure centre in the UK by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE). Will this stunning achievement finally put paid to SteelTower's aspirations? Certainly, to the relief of all, nothing more has since been heard from them and a new 'Doubletree by Hilton' hotel has instead been recently opened at the historic Hoole Hall on the edge of Chester.

A second threat to the Northgate Arena occured soon after when a madcap plot to relocate West Cheshire College to its car park was announced (together, of course, with the flogging off of its original attractive site in Handbridge for housing). After massive objections and the wasting of lots more money and words, this idiocy, too, thankfully came to nothing.

Most recently, in September 2010, we're starting to learn of yet another plan to provide "state of the art" leisure facilities elsewhere in the city and get rid of the "ageing" Arena (an ironic description in a city of truly 'ageing' buildings- are they therefore for the chop too? Nothing would surprise us). These include such indispensables as a 'regional diving centre' and a 'centre for swimming development', whatever that may be. How have we managed without so far? Some of the proposed new developments have been publicised as being "in the green belt", as if that was somehow a good thing.

A sweetener to all this would be the setting aside of money for the redevelopment of the much-loved John Douglas City Baths in Union Street- unlike the Arena, a listed building. Note the term 'redevelopment' as opposed to 'restoration'- another one for those who care about this city to keep a watchful eye upon...

A great deal of local upset has recently been caused by the appearance of some truly awful new buildings in the immediate vicinity of the Arena, most notably a vast, ugly and inappropriately-situated Travelodge hotel. Can we assume that the Arena's site has been quetly earmarked for more of the same, God help us? Watch this space.

• A stunning panoramic movie of Northgate Street may be seen at Chester 360º

On to part II of our exploration of Northgate Street...

chester guided walks

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 1
(To help put the events listed here and on the following pages into context, we have also included the reigns of the Kings and Queens of England and a selection of major world events- these latter are shown in blue). Links to further reading are also provided.

  • BC 55 First, short-lived, Roman expedition to Britain by Julius Caesar.
  • BC 54 Caesar's second invasion of Britain. British forces led, this time, by Cassivellaunus. Despite early Roman advances, the British continued to effectively harass the invaders. A deal struck with the Trinovantes, tribal enemies of Cassivellaunus, and the subsequent desertion of other British tribes, finally guaranteed the Roman victory. Caesar's first two expeditions to Britain were only exploratory in nature, and were never intended to absorb Britain into the Roman sphere at that time.
  • 54 BC-43 AD - Roman influence increases in Britain as a direct result of trade and other interaction with the continent and despite the absence of a military presence.
  • 7BC Birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem
  • AD 5 Rome acknowledges Cunobelinus (Shakespeare's Cymbeline), King of the Catuvellauni, as king of Britain.
  • AD 43 The Romans, under Aulus Plautius, land at Richborough in Kent for a full-scale invasion of the island. In the same year, the Emperor Claudius visited the site of Chester when campaigning against the Welsh. London was founded and the British under Caractacus were defeated at the Medway.
  • AD 45 St. Paul sets out on his missionary travels
  • AD 48 The Roman General Ostorius Scapula made camp here as part of his expedition into the territory of the Deceangli (N E Wales). They appear to have surrendered with little resistance, unlike the Silures and the Ordovices who put up a long and bitter resistance to Roman rule. The Romans learned the use of soap from the Gauls around this time.
  • AD 58-60 Suetonius Paulinus attacks the Ordovices and decimates the Druids on the island of Anglesey.
  • AD 61 Boudica, queen of the Iceni, led her uprising against the Roman occupiers, but is defeated and killed by the Roman governor, Suetonius Paulinus.
  • AD 63 Joseph of Arimathea came to Glastonbury on the first Christian mission to Britain.
  • c. AD 70 The Legion II Adiutrix Pia Fidelis ('dutiful and faithful') were posted to Britain and within four years had commenced the construction of their fortress in timber and turf at what would become the future site of Chester. AD 79 is generally given as the 'official' date for this. Revolt of the Jews against Rome; Jerusalem captured and destroyed.
  • c.AD 75-77 The Roman conquest of Britain is complete, as Wales is finally subdued; Gnaeus Julius Agricola is imperial governor (to AD 84).
  • AD 79 Eruption of Mount Vesuvius on August 23-24. Pompeii destroyed. The Colloseum opens in Rome.
  • AD 86 Legion II are posted to the Danube and replaced in Chester by XX Legion Valeria Victrix ('strong and victorious') under Julius Agricola. They were to remain here until until c. AD 395. (The last Roman troops left Britain in 436)
  • c. AD 102 The fortress and amphitheatre rebuilt in high-quality masonry.
  • c AD 120-165 Much of the XXth Legion were posted north to build and garrison the Hadrianic and Antonine frontiers of the province; a skeleton garrison remain in Deva
  • c AD 160 A major rebuilding and expansion of the fortress commences upon the XXth Legion's return from the north.
  • AD 209 St. Alban, first British martyr, was killed for his faith.
  • AD 311 The Edict of Toleration proclaimed at Milan, in which Christianity is made legal throughout the empire. In 314, three British bishops, for the first time, attend a continental church gathering, the Council of Arles.
  • c AD 380 The Romans abandon Deva as Magnus Maximus takes all of the Legions out of Britain as part of a revolt against Rome. They never return.
  • c 475 In legend, Arthur fights his ninth battle at 'the City of the Legions'- likely Chester.
  • old northgate entrance476 End of the Western Roman Empire. First Shinto shrines appear in Japan.
  • c AD 500-600 Chester forms part of the Welsh kingdom of Powys.
  • 537 Arthur, King of the Britons, reputedly killed at the Battle of Camlan
  • c AD 600 Chester and the surrounding area absorbed into the English kingdom of Mercia.
  • c. 603 Augustine, the first Archbishop of Canterbury, meets with Celtic bishops "in the city of the Legions". The Annales Cambrie (Annals of Wales) mention a Synod of The City of the Legions in a year which might be 603 or 606 (they follow an eccentric chronology all of their own, and it's often difficult to place an event into the correct calendar year). This Synod is the one Bede mentions when describing how the British church rejected Saint Augustine's authority. In Bede- who refers to "The City of the Legion, which is called Carlegion by the Britons and Legacaistir by the English"- this then becomes the cause of the Battle of Chester (in the year 613 or 616), when the monks from Bangor-is-y-Coed (Bangor-on-Dee), who had prayed and chanted in support of the enemy, were slaughtered by the pagan Aethelfrith (reigned 592-616).
  • 620 Edwin, King of Northumbria, Deira and Bernicia (616-632AD) gathered a large fleet at Chester with which he attacked the isles of Anglesey and Man, capturing both of them.
  • 622 Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina. Year one in the Moslem calendar
  • 660 King Wulphere founds a church and convent dedicated to Saints Peter and Paul on the site of the present Cathedral

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