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The Northgate III

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

2. The North Wall

The Phoenix Tower

Hnorth wall in the snow 2013ere is the view, as seen on a snowy day in January 2013, as we leave the Northgate and proceed along the North Wall with the Shropshire Union Canal running far below us. This section is, in my view, the most spectacular and evocative of the entire

This is the the most elevated section of the walls and, even on hot days, there is usually a refreshing breeze blowing from the Welsh hills. The walkway at this point is very narrow- not a good place to meet a large group of visitors coming the other way!

From 1991-2000, your guide's photography studio and gallery, The Black & White Picture Place, was, for a few years, located in the newly-developed Rufus Court. Built by the Thompson Cox Partnership and designed by James Brotherhood, Rufus Court and is one of the finest examples of that rare thing in Chester city centre, a modern development that manages to blend perfectly with neighbouring old buildings, in this case, the fine examples surrounding Abbey Green. Accessed via a narrow stairway from the City Walls or via Northgate Street, you will find some excellent cafes and specialist shops here and a great live music & comedy venue, Alexander's Bar. Read more about Rufus Court and explore the fascinating businesses to be be found there both on ChesterTourist.com and on their own website...

The old houses on the wall next to the Northgate (seen on the right of our snowy photograph), now coverted into commercial premises with apartments above, were erected between 1735 and 1750. The romantic novelist Beatrice Tunstall, author of The Shiny Night (1931), The Long Day Closes (1934) and The Dark Lady (1939) had her home here.

old abbey greenThe nearest house to the gate bears the distinguished adress of 'Number One, City Walls'.

By the late 1960s, much of this area had, in common with much of the Cathedral's estate, become exceedingly run-down. Our photographs show views of Abbey Green from this time which will prove shocking to those who know and admire the place today.

In addition to proposing improvements to many other threatened parts of Chester, the important Insall Report of 1968 recommended that this area be radically redeveloped to provide new shops and maisonettes facing upon Northgate Street with larger town houses behind. However, the landowners, the Dean and Chapter, drew up their own plans for the site which included a proposal to erect a five-storey office block immediately next to the Northgate, which was intended to fund both the housing scheme and the restoration of adjacent listed buildings.

In preparation for the redevelopment, an extensive archaeological investigation was conducted which led to the discovery of substantial portions of the Roman rampart and associated structures and this in turn led to much of the area being scheduled as an Ancient Monument. Consequently, severe restrictions were wisely placed upon any new building.

abbey green as it wasThe Cathedral authorities, pleading lack of money, had long neglected their historic properties hereabouts until, in 1978, the appoinment of a new Dean brought a fresh spirit and, assisted by grants, a radical programme of long-overdue repairs was embarked upon. In addition, the new protected status of the area helped to persuade them to give up any idea of building over Abbey Green and of replacing the old shops in Northgate Street with their speculative office block, and they thankfully remain with us today, home to a variety of quality businesses.

The City Council around this time expressed an interest in putting the excavated Roman buildings on permanent public display and of taking over no.1 Abbey Green (the furthermost building in the top photograph) to serve as an interpretive centre. Sadly this failed to come about; the remains were carefully reburied and the fine house continued to decay until the early 1990s, when it was superbly restored and converted into a restaurant within the Rufus Court development.

As recently as the the Summer of 2011, as part of the fierce debate surrounding the controversial (and, thankfully, unsuccessful) Cathedral Improvement Proposals, concern of neglect by the Dean & Chapter of their historic properties in the area was once again being expressed in the correspondence pages of the local press- smashed windows and peeling paint on the listed Georgian houses in Abbey Green, damaged cobbled surfaces and empty properties in the beautiful Abbey Square- which we will visit later in our stroll- rubbish accumulating on the Deanery Field, the adjoining and once-charming Deanery Cottage empty and decaying, vehicle damage and nelect of the Abbey Gateway and the area around the Little Abbey Gateway...

You may be interested in seeing this remarkable aerial view- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon- showing how the area appeared in 1855.

Roman Wall
rufus court todayAs you look out from the parapet, you will often observe people standing on the bridge immediately outside the Northgate, peering through the railings at the spectacular masonry of the North Wall and the Shropshire Union Canal running far below. You should take the time to join them before we move on- especially in springtime, when the entire length of the wall base is covered with a mass of daffodils. A stroll along the newly-resurfaced canal towpath below is also highly recommended at some time during your visit- access is through an archway in the wall close to Morgan's Mount or via the wooden steps near the Kaleyard Gate- as the view upwards of the epic masonry of the North Wall, and the sandstone palateau upon which it was built- is unrivalled anywhere.

Two views of Rufus Court today: a civilized oasis in the heart of a historic city- no matter what the weather!

The masonry immediately below the parapet- best viewed from the aforementioned bridge or, as mentioned, from the towpath- deserves your close attention as it is the finest surviving stretch of actual Roman stonework in the entire circuit; laid in place, amazingly, almost two thousand years ago- c. 90 to 120 AD- and bearing witness to the skill of the Legionary engineers in utilising only the best available stone in the construction of their defences.

rufus court in the rainOur photograph below shows the view from the bridge outside the Northgate. On the left runs the Shropshire Union Canal and its towpath. Above it rises the escarpment of Triassic sandstone upon which the old fortress was built. The City Wall is built on top of this- you can clearly see the original Roman portion standing proud of the later, medieval masonry.

This marvellous vista had been considerably curtailed due to the unchecked proliferation of sycamore trees growing atop the ridge and along the base of the wall. These had attained a considerable height, thoroughly obscuring the view- and doubtlessly causing all manner of damage to the ancient masonry. Eventually, in 2010, a radical programme of improvements was initiated which cleared the growth and made good damage to the wall.

Much of the material for the construction of the fortress was labouriously transported from a large quarry on the far side of the River Dee, today a park known as Edgar's Field which supplied fine building stone throughout the Roman occupation and after. Additional supplies of building stone also came from sources nearer to hand, such as that excavated during the construction of the deep defensive ditch or fosse which we see before us carrying the canal and the area just across the canal. The large quarry here recently came to light again- after being filled in for centuries- when the bus station which occupied the site was demolished. We will learn more of this shortly...

In 1711, there was a mention of a "quarry near the Phoenix Tower" and the site of another small local quarry, known as the Abbey Quarry still exists just behind the buildings on the far side of Abbey Green and is today utilised for car parking.

Excavated at the base of the natural sandstone escarpment, the fosse, during the centuries of Roman occupation would have been carefully kept clear of any debris and vegetation by which a potential enemy might gain cover or even a handhold to assist in scaling the wall. Maintainance ceased with the withdrawal of the Legions, and subsequent natural erosion, as well as, in those less-than-scrupulous times, domestic waste of all kinds being disposed of by simply being thrown over the wall, over the course of centuries resulted in the fosse filling up and virtually disapearing. By the 13th century, the section below us was occupied by a low-lying, unsavoury sounding thoroughfare by the name of Boggelone (Bog Lane) which ran parallel with the wall immediately outside the Northgate.

north wall and canalAt the commencement of the Baron's War in 1264, between Henry III and his barons, led by Simon de Montfort, steps were taken to put the city into a state of defence, much to the distress of the monks of Chester Abbey- partly due to the fact that they sympathised (but not too openly) with De Montford, but also because they owned houses in Bog Lane, which were demolished when the old Roman defences were re-excavated. The restored defensive ditch also prevented access to the monk's vegetable gardens outside the East Wall, the Kaleyards, and later "It was ordered that a drawbridge should be put across the fosse at the Kaleyard Gate".

These precautions did not prevent the city being briefly captured soon after by the Earl of Derby, but the monks eventually got their revenge,as he was afterwards, "Imprisoned for a long time in the Tower of London, on account of his many excesses of authority, and especially on account of the injuries done by him to ecclesiastics".

After the restoration of peace, the old fosse presumably resumed its ancient role as town dump and, though it is shown on Braun's map of 1573, it evidently filled up again and by the start of the 17th century part of it was being used as a pinfold- a place to confine straying animals. Lavaux's map of 1745 shows no trace of it whatsoever. Today, we so take for granted the presence of the canal that, studying our enlarged details of Lavaux's map, the townscape appears distinctly odd minus its deep cutting running hard under our City Walls.

Actually, this was very nearly the situation that could have prevailed today, for, in the early 1770s, when the canal's route was being planned, the original intention was to take it along the far (north) side of Gorse Stacks, George Street and Canal Street- hence the latter's name! Excavation along this route seems to have actually commenced- the February 1879 edition of the Cheshire Sheaf contained this contribution from one Mr Charles Candlin of Mold, "It has struck me, as to the original line proposed for the Canal near the Northgate, that a hollow, lying about 100 yards behind the houses on the north side of George-street, and parallel with it, is a remain of the first cutting. To confirm this, on going down the entry at No. 17, you will see the rock cut three or four yards deep; and behind No. 28 a strong wall in the same line, and about the same height above the hollow, which is now partly filled with cottages at right angles with the street. No doubt when the tumble-down houses, recently bought by the Town Council, are removed from the corner of George-street and Victoria-road, some further trace may be found at the north end of the houses, though these latter were no doubt standing when the Canal itself was built".

However, just before the work was actually commenced, the canal company's directors, for some reason, vacillated in their judgment, and asked the contractor to adopt the southern limit of their deviating powers, and so carry the canal close under and parallel with the City Walls. The original line involved continuous and heavy excavation through the sandstone rock; and the contractor, feeling that the question of a few yards either way could make no very great difference to him, accepted the proposition of the directors. Judge the surprise of all concerned, when it was found that the new line actually took the course of the ancient Roman fosse, excavated some 1500 years before, and for long ages filled up and made solid ground! The result was that the contractor made a considerable fortune by his undertaking.

It is unclear whether the new course had been adopted when this entry appeared in the City accounts: "1772, May 18. To a gratuity by Mr. Mayor's order on his cutting the first sod of ye Canal £5 5s 0d". But, by a year later, it is clear that the changes had been made, for we read, "1773, May 10. Paid Mr. Golborne for his Trouble in Surveying, Levelling, and reporting ye Course of ye Canal and ye guarding of ye Walls and City Buildings £3 3s 0d". The Corporation would naturally be anxious to ascertain whether the projected new course would in any way jeopardise the City Walls and adjacent buildings. That Mr. Golborne's report was not unfavourable to the scheme may be inferred, as we hear of no opposition to it.

northgate bridge and bargeA month afterwards is the following entry: "1773. June 10. Paid Mr. Read for measuring part of ye Ho. of Correction Garden taken by ye Proprietors of ye Canal £0 7s 6d". It is but reasonable to suppose that if the altered course had been the one commenced by the Mayor in 1772, the payments to Messrs. Golborne and Read would have appeared at a much earlier date, as their work must have taken place before May of that year. The House of Correction stood on the plot of ground between George Street and the North Wall and survived into the age of photography, for we see on the left of this old picture. The garden belonging to it once extended up to the Wall itself, and would not have been interfered with had the Canal been constructed along the line first determined upon.

Civil War Defences
There was even less evidence of a ditch here later in the 17th century, during the Civil War Siege of Chester, when there was a danger of this stretch of wall being breached by cannon and mortar fire, allowing access to the Parliamentary attackers. Great piles of earth were raised against the insides of the wall to prevent this- although the defenders may only have had to reinforce the existing embankments surviving from the remains of the Roman turf ramparts which preceded the erection of permanent stone walls. These old earthworks, now planted with trees, remain clearly visible around the edge of the Deanery Field to this day.

You can gain access to this field, a very pleasant spot indeed, by going down the steps into Rufus Court and turning left along Abbey Green.

We are grateful to correspondant Richard Edkins for the following: "During the 1970s I served as voluntary assistant to the Museum photographer, Tom Ward, during the Abbey Green section of the North Wall excavations. If you examine the site report, you will find that the Civil War entrenchments were dug through the Roman turf and timber backing mound of the Wall. The mural buildings built into the mound included well-preserved Roman baking ovens and storehouses, partly destroyed by Civil War entrenchments and by the 1940s excavations of Professor Robert Newstead. The grim reality of warfare was shown by large numbers of flattened and spent musket balls embedded in the back of the Civil War trench. If my memory serves me correctly, the attack was at dawn on 7th July 1644, and was successfully beaten off".

In 1995, shards of pottery found here and assumed to be of Iron Age origin, were identified by the British Museum as actually being Neolithic (c. 3500-1700BC) making them the first examples of pottery of this period known from Cheshire, and a graphic illustration of the great antiquity of human occupation of this site.

More prehistoric artefacts came to light during at Chester's Roman amphitheatre in the Summer of 2000, when, during an excavation led by archaeologist Keith Matthews, a volunteer discovered a Neolithic flint blade dating from around 4000 BC, and later an arrow or spear point from around 4500 BC came to light- a period before widespread farming when hunters roamed the land in search of deer and wild boar.

Roman Memorials
roman tombstoneDuring repairs to the North Wall near to Morgan's Mount in 1883, the workmen were surprised to discover large quantities of sculpted and inscribed stones packed into the wall's interior. When, four years later, in 1887, further repairs were carried out in the vicinity of the Deanery Field, a great many similar finds were made. It was soon realised that these were of Roman origin and a systematic investigation was commenced. By the end of 1892, over two hundred complete or fragmentary pieces had been recovered. Most of these were tombstones which seem to have been taken from a nearby cemetery situated outside the fortress. Burials were not allowed within Roman forts and cemeteries were commonly located in prominent positions on either side of the approach roads.

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and a cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a wall soldier, I don't know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl's in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don't like his manners, I don't like his face.
Piso's a Christian, he worships a fish;
There'd be no kissing if he had his wish.
She gave me a ring but I diced it away;
I want my girl and I want my pay.
When I'm a veteran with only one eye
I shall do nothing but look at the sky.

W H Auden: Roman Wall Blues

Generations of soldiers had been buried there and the tombstones recorded the names, ranks and sometimes portraits of these deceased warriors and members of their families, and commonly included a carving of a wild boar, the symbol of the XXth Legion. They range in date from around 70 AD to the early third century and represent every type of citizen: soldiers and civilians, men and women, young and old- from France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Turkey.

Illustrated here is a typical memorial stone from the North Wall. It measures 50 inches high by 25 inches wide and contains a full-length portrait of the deceased, under which is inscribed: "To the memory of Caecilius Avitus of Emerita Augusta, Optio of the Twentieth Legion, who served for fifteen years and lived thirty four years. His heir had this erected."

The nature of the emergency that led to these memorial stones being hauled from their cemetery and built into the fabric of the wall remains entirely mysterious, and probably always will. Despite the undoubted respect the Romans had for their dead, it seems they were no sentimentalists- they had lived and died for the Empire and now their tombstones would contribute further to its defence.

Whatever the cause, for us at least it was a fortunate event, for these antique memorials that would normally have been long lost and forgotten have remained fresh and unweathered and many of them are now proudly displayed in their own gallery at the spendid Grosvenor Museum- one of the most important collections of Roman inscriptions and sculpture anywhere in Europe. We highly recommend you take the time to visit them, together with the superb mural by Chester-based artist Gregory Macmillan which vividly recreates in exquisite detail the fortress of Deva Victrix as it may have appeared when these stones were still standing in their lost cemetery.
One of the stones in the gallery, that of Callimorphus and his young son Serapion, was discovered in a former Roman cemetery on the other side of the city, close to what is now Britain's oldest racecourse, the curiously-named Roodee. Learn more here.

Maintaining the Walls (or otherwise?)
This photograph shows the North Wall as viewed from the far side of the canal. Clearly visible is the face of the Triassic sandstone outcrop upon which Chester sits- liberally decorated by a mass of spring daffodils and topped by the splendid Roman masonry and Thomas Harrison's Classical Northgate. Compare this with Moses Griffith's view in the previous chapter.

northate and wallAs previously observed, this view has altered somewhat in the twenty years since the photograph was taken due to the large number of saplings that have been allowed to thrive unchecked on top of the escarpment and along the base of the wall.

From 1307, Chester collected revenue for the maintainance of its walls and other defences by exacting a toll known as murage upon all goods entering the town that could not be carried by hand. For this purpose, tollhouses were erected outside the gates and the small building you can see on the right of the Northgate in this picture is the city's only surviving example, though much altered and long since converted to a private residence. If someone refused to pay the toll, the gatekeeper had the right to take the bridle off his horse. The last time this happened, the horse bolted and ran amok- an incident that, it is said, contributed to the eventual ending of the practice.

Murage was also charged on goods carried by ships entering the Port of Chester. At the end of the 18th century, a duty of two pence was charged on every 100 yards of Irish linen imported. In 1786, about five and a half million yards entered the port, excluding that destined for Liverpool, which also paid duty to Chester. These tolls were eventually abolished in 1835.

In October 2006, something of an almighty row broke out regarding the state of our precious walls as more and more people started to notice a decline in their condition, including loose stonework and hand rails and weeds- even small trees (see above)- growing from them. It is certainly the case that the nearby Morgan's Mount has, sadly, long been closed off from visitors for safety reasons. (the inexplicable and unforgivable closure of the Phoenix, Water and Bonewaldesthorne's Towers remains another matter, however).

view from north wallIt was alleged that vital maintainance work had not been carried out for some considerable time and the funds set aside for the purpose had instead been spent on other projects including planning for the restoration of Chester Railway Station and its surroundings. Much hand-wringing ensued- not to mention a great deal of accusation and name-calling between political parties- and a council working party reported that, much as they wished it otherwise, there simply wasn't enough money avilable to do the job properly and desperate appeals were made to central government to make up the shortfall.

Right: a rich mixture of architectural styles- 18th century cottages, 19th century school, chapel, pub (the excellent, but recently-closed, Ship Victory- the only pub in Britain to bear that distinguished name), 1960s apartment blocks and car parks- is visible as we reach the northeast corner of the City Walls.

For many centuries past, when keeping the walls in good order was seen as vital to the safety and well-being of the city, laws to ensure that all who did business here contributed to the cost of their upkeep were strictly enforced. Today, it remains equally vital- albeit for economic and cultural, rather than defensive reasons- that Chester's City Walls and Rows are maintained to the highest possible standards. 

Is it not reasonable then, and especially in the face of likely government indifference, that the ancient practice of murage should be revived and that the numerous big business interests currently developing hotels, nightclubs, housing and retail complexes in and around our city, confident as they doubtless are of extracting large profits, should not, perhaps as a condition of their planning permission, to be compelled to do their bit and give a little back?

Fear mongering became reality a few months later, however, when the stretch of City Wall adjoing the Grosvenor Precinct was actually closed to the public. It seemed that a section of adjoining 18th century brick wall started to signs of collapse. It once formed the rear wall of an 18th stable block which was unaccountably allowed to remain in place when this was demolished to make way for the precinct. The walkway remained closed to the public for several months until, with reassurances that all was well, reopening. But much more serious trouble was to follow a few months later, in April 2008. Work had recently started on removing the troublesome brick wall when a great stretch of the ancient City Wall itself collapsed onto the recently-erected scaffolding. The entire stretch has now been sealed off and it will now, sadly, remain closed for the forseeable future. It seems that the 'scaremongers' were right all along. Go here for the latest...

Extensive maintainance work was carried out on the outer face of the North Wall between the Northgate and the Phoenix Tower during the severe winter of 1981-82. This necessitated the erection of scaffolding from the canal towpath some fifty feet below and the masons working in this exposed position compared conditions to the "north face of the Eiger"...

'young spen' memorial plaqueIn November 2009, a structural problem was detected- a wall lying up against the City Wall in Rufus Court (see above) has become detached and a programme of repairs is to be embarked upon during December and January 2010. This will necessitate the temporary closure of this section of the wall walkway and also of the canal towpath below. As part of the work, we believe that the damaging trees on the face of the North Wall are to be removed. By the Spring of 2010 all of the above work was completed. The damaging saplings are gone and their stumps have been treated to, hopefully, prevent their return and the scene looks very much more like it appeared in the colour photograph higher up this page.

new!At the time of this most recent update, late Summer 2014, scaffolding continues to prop up the steps to the Northgate (closing Water Tower Street in the process) and the City Wall behind Rufus Court. Down at the River Dee, the Recorder's Steps are similarly propped up and the nearby wall adjoining the access to the Roman Garden has been closed to the public for 'safety reasons'. The Watergate, too, continues to be encased in scaffolding and plywood. We're told that funding for putting this right will not become available until at least 2017! Things appear to be getting worse rather than better..

Looking down from the North Wall for the first time, visitors are often unnerved by the terrifying drop to the canal below and the lack of protection offered by the low stone parapet. Unsurprisingly, a number of accidents have occured over the years at this spot when people have tragically fallen to their deaths. Floral tributes may be seen on the towpath below and the sharp eyed may spot this small brass plaque (right) attached to the face of the cutting.

The Coming of the Canal
In the middle of the 18th century, the canal builders- the 'navigators'- came to Chester and it was decided that the course of their new cut should run outside, and parallel with the line of the North Wall. It was originally intended to construct a tunnel here but when the contractors, expecting to have to cut through solid rock, were surprised to encounter the long-forgotten Roman defensive ditch, changed their plans and undertook the deep cutting we see today. The discovery doubtlessly led to a great saving, but the job still cost £80,000- around £5 million today- and was completed in 1779. We will hear more of the opening of Chester's canal shortly, when we reach the Kaleyard Gate.

Of recent years, the towpath alongside the canal was exceedingly poorly maintained and as a result was frequently waterlogged and muddy, giving rise to numerous complaints from its users. Despite all manner of prevarication from British Waterways, the money was found and a much-needed restoration was finally undertaken and all of Chester's extensive system of towpaths are now a delight to cycle and walk upon. The section that passes under the Phoenix Tower and the old sandstone arch outside the Northgate is quite spectacular and well worth deviating from your walk around the City Walls to investigate.

Chester is a popular centre for canal holidays and in the summer months, as you look down from the wall, you will see many craft passing by, on their way into rural Cheshire, to Ellesmere Port or via the spectacular Llangollen Canal into North Wales.

Once, however, these canals were the motorways of their day and Chester was an important junction and distribution centre in the system. From the last quarter of the Eighteenth Century to the end of the Second World War, generations of horse-drawn working craft would have passed this way, which not only carried all manner of heavy goods, but were also homes to the bargees and their often-large families. Where the canal turns the corner under the Phoenix Tower, you can still clearly see where their tow ropes have worn deep grooves into the sandstone (illustrated left). Nearby canal bridges exhibit the same phenomena, only on these, the grooves have been worn into solid cast iron!

We will learn more of the Chester Canal when we visit Tower Wharf, later in our stroll and also on these pages, especially devoted to the subject.

As we proceed further along the North Wall, on the right and behind Rufus Court, we see the pleasant garden area known as Abbey Green, behind which are some handsome 18th century houses, and in the background rises the tower of our fine Gothic Town Hall.

The bases of two vanished Roman interval towers lie under the grass at our feet. The bricked-up doorway on the wall to our right was built in 1768 by one Thomas Boswell as an entrance to Abbey Green and a long-vanished bowling green built on the Abbey orchard. You can see it just to the left of the lamp post in this misty winter's day view.

(These attractive, crown-topped former gaslamps that light this stretch of the North Wall are of an unusual design, in that they incorporate a hinged mechanism, enabling their upper sections to be swung down to walkway level, thus avoiding the danger of anyone changing the bulbs slipping from their ladder and plummeting into the chasm below).

A contributor to the sadly-defunct Cheshire Sheaf (of which more below) in February 1913 wrote the following, "people familiar with the walls of Chester between King Charles' Tower and the Northgate will, no doubt, have noticed a door, set in a frame of brickwork, and opening upon steps leading to the quiet cul-de-sac known as Abbey Green. The little group of houses bearing this adress, with their cobbled approaches, their frontages of mellowed brick and regular rows of windows, although possessing no great individuality, are of a certain interest by reason of their air of solid comfort and respectability, and on account of the rapid rate at which dwelling houses of this period are being deserted for those of a more recent type, which, if they offer a greater variety to the eye, cannot, in many instances, compare with the former as regards material and workmanship. The doorway was apparently made as a result of a petition to the Mayor and Corporation enrolled in the Assembly Book under the date 30 September 1768. In it Thomas Boswell stated that he had lately erected several houses on a piece of land between the Abbey Court and the Walls of the City, and was desirous of having a footway off the Walls to the said houses, but was prevented from having such way by a rail lately fixed to the Walls. He therefore prayed leave to cut off about a yard of the said rail so as to open a way as desired. An inspection was ordered and evidently the petitioner eventually received a favourable answer".

northgate arenaThe local press of July 1817 informed its readers that, "Miss Marianne Briscoe, reflecting with gratitude upon the kind interest, favour and partronage which she has already experience in her Ladies' Boarding School in Abbey Green, Chester, hopes that her assiduous care to promote those mental, personal and religious acquirements which are of such infinite importance in the formation of the female character, will ensure for her establishment the encouragement and approbation of the public".

The Cheshire Sheaf, incidentally, was a “notes and queries” column, in which contributors asked and answered questions about all aspects of local history, culture and folklore. It was published in the pages of the local press between the years 1878 and 1990. In 2006, the entire vast archive was lovingly collected together and published as a searchable 2-CD set by Cheshire and Chester Archives and Local Studies. A fabulous research tool- and a lively read for anyone interested in the history of our city and county- it may be purchased here. Much of it may also be read online for free here.

Immediately after passing by Abbey Green, visible across the larger Deanery Field rises the venerable Chester Cathedral, which we will shortly be visiting. Excavations on this field have shown that this section of the Roman fortress was largely occupied by barrack blocks- over sixty of which, each housing a 'century'- eighty men and a centurion, were packed within the walls. For centuries after this whole area was occupied by gardens and cultivated land, remarkably remaining unbuilt-upon to this day. As late as 1855, as is shown in this detail from John McGahey's remarkable aerial view of Chester, cattle grazed on the field. These agricultural areas within the walls were a common feature of medieval Chester, doubtlessly proving to be valuable assets during times of siege, places of safety for domestic animals brought in from surrounding farms. Today the verdant Deanery Field is the last survivor and to our visitors is perhaps a surprising sight in such a small, closely-packed city centre. And long may it remain so! We will learn more of it soon, when we reach The Kaleyard Gate.

Modern Times
The modern age is very much in evidence as we look across the canal from the North Wall. A Primitive Methodist Chapel, shops and pub formerly stood where the Delamere Street Bus Station until recently was located. (Some pictures of the area as it once was are here.) Its demolition commenced during the late summer of 2005 and the site will be partially utilised as an underground car park as part of the massive- and controversial- Northgate Redevelopment scheme and also for the erection of shops and apartments. By April 2008, work on excavating the ground was well advanced. Our photograph shows the fascinating sight of an ancient quarry, exposed to view for the first time in centuries.

Work proceeded as far as the erection of the car park's steelwork in the bed of the old quarry and then ground to a halt, a situation that remains at this most recent updating in September 2011. However, around this time, developers Watkin Jones announced a new proposal for the site, a £20 million vast and charmless utilitarian building housing a combination of council offices, 149 student apartments and a National Health Service 'super centre'.

Soon after the first 'artist's impressions' (below) hit the local press, the Chester Civic Trust expressed their criticism of the proposed structure, saying they were "disappointed" with the design and dubbing it "obtrusive and out of scale with the immediate surroundings, particularly Northgate Street and the City Walls". They added, "the sheer height of the proposed buildings.. will produce a gloomy canyon of an inner courtyard. The north-facing rooms in the student block will be dark and have a cramped, unpleasant outlook".

The Civic Trust observed that these proposals would be an immediate test of a 'manifesto for contemporary design' demanded by Chester's people under the new One City Plan. This states that "a number of recent developments [the vile new Travelodge and its neighbouring apartment block being just two examples], by general consent, have fallen short of the level of excellence of design to which the city aspires and deserves". In order to be considered a 'must-see' city, the One City Plan says that developments must be designed and implemented "to the highest possible contemporary standard". Hear hear to that we say.

proposed medical centreHowever, in late December 2011, we learned that councillors had overwhelmingly voted in favour of the massive new development, which the Civic Trust described as "mediocre" and "monstrous in scale". Their spokesman, John Henson said "the firm [Watkin Jones] that brought you the Travelodge and the social housing block on the Ring Road is now about to bring you an even bigger development looming over the whole of Northgate Street and the City Walls". He queried the council's competence to consider the application in an unbiased way, given that it would be one of the occupiers.
A test of a 'manifesto for contemporary design'? Failed.

Beyond the building work, on the site now occupied by Chester's main swimming baths and indoor sports venue, the Northgate Arena (illustrated above), from 1875 to 1969 formerly stood the old Northgate Railway Station. (for those wishing to learn more, an excellent website about it is here- part of Disused Stations).

Chester is not renowned for the quality of its 1960s / 70s architecture but to many, this writer included, the Arena is an exception. Its interior may possibly be in need of some sprucing up and the building would benefit from an extension to provide extra sports and leisure facilities, but there is, in theory, ample room to allow for that. Encased in parts in maturing greenery and surrounded by trees, the Northgate Arena is a handsome building that does much to relieve the somewhat grim environment of the Inner Ring Road and its pools and other facilities are extremely popular with local people. 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).

The large open space outside the wall at this point was for centuries common land and known by the curious name of the Gorse Stacks, owing to part of it at one time being utilised for the safe storage outside the walls of brushwood and suchlike fuel for baker's ovens. Formerly, firewood had been merely stacked up anywhere that was convenient, often in close proximity to the wooden houses and shops. Consequently, when fire broke out, the results were extensive and disastrous and records show that great areas of the town were destroyed by fire on numerous occasions over the centuries. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, new laws were introduced which forbade the storing of fuel within occupied areas and open land such as Gorse Stacks were instead utilised.

In early Anglo-Saxon times, the area had been called 'Henwald's Lowe', a combination of an Old English personal name and the Old English hlaw, meaning 'mound' or 'hill'. We have no idea who Henwald was, but must presume that he was a personage of importance whose burial followed the tradition of taking place on an area of elevated ground overlooking his former domains. Today, no trace remains of old Henwald's hill and the area has become a fairly unattractive place used for car parking and its future has for long been the subject of much local debate. Once the centre of a thriving commercial district centred upon the Cattle Market, which was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a traffic island on the Inner Ring Road, it is generally accepted to be in urgent need of improvement.

'millennium wall'Major reports in 1964 and 1968 recommended the area be redeveloped and the building of a hotel here was proposed, but not acted upon, at the end of the 1980s. Then, in 1995, it was proposed to enclose the entire area within a new Millennium Wall, within which would be created a landscaped 'cultural quarter' containing galleries, shops, restaurants and the like- plus a new public square and open air market. I t was estimated that the project would cost an astonishing £118 million, much of which was expected to come from the private sector and local authority, but over £60 million was applied for from the Millennium Commission- unsuccessfully, to nobody's great surprise. Without this crucial funding, the entire project foundered and no mention of it has since been heard- although, independently of this, many of us in Chester have expressed a strong desire that a much-needed, purpose-built concert hall, cinema, exhibition and arts complex be built somewhere in our city centre.

We may have entertained views for or against the ill-fated Millennium Wall, but in the Spring of 2004 we first heard news of a truly dotty plan hatched up by Chester City Council and Dutch insurers/property developers ING- who were also supposed to be undertaking the controversial Northgate Redevelopment- for the erection of a massive new glass and steel council headquarters building on Gorse Stacks. The proposed design, however, was, to say the least, unpopular, attracting a great deal of ridicule and has ever since been referred to- most appropriately, as our illustration shows- as "The Glass Slug".

proposed council offices.Prince Charles, the Earl of Chester, to the annoyance of those local politicians who thought erecting such as this in a historic city centre was a bright idea, made it known that he thought the design was horrible too.

Soon afterwards, local elections were held. The Conservatives had pledged that, should they be elected, they would cancel the building. They did take control of the formerly Lib Dem / Labour-dominated council, for the first time in many years- and they did cancel the Slug. Ironically, in the Summer of 2009, another row broke out regarding the Conservative's plan to move into a 'glass palace' of their own- the details of which may be found here...

There remains no trace of the Northgate Development plans seven years after they were proposed, and what the future holds for the sorely-neglected Gorse Stacks area of Chester we can only wait and see.

But now, reaching the northeast corner of the City Walls, we see rising before us the venerable Phoenix Tower...

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 3

  • chester guided walks1069 Chester was the last remaining great town in England to fall to the Conqueror's sword during the final stages of the Harrying of the North in 1069-70, fully three years after the Battle of Hastings. Numerous rumours had long been circulating about the difficult roads, the position of the city (surrounded as it was by marshes and great forests), of its numerous inhabitants- and of their obstinate courage: "Locorum asperitatum et hostium terribilem ferocitatem". Many of William's nobles, worn out by the struggles in the North and alarmed at these rumours, demanded their discharge. Some actually retired to Normandy, abandoning the lands with which they had already been rewarded; but the persuasive powers of Duke William prevailed- he promised them great rewards, and, as the conquest of Chester was the last of his projects, they would find rest after their victory. As it turned out, as the Norman army drew near, the city (whose citizens had doubtless heard equally terrifying rumours regarding the approaching foe) surrendered without opposition. William granted the Earldom of Chester first to Walter de Gherbaud- who, however soon returned to Normandy- and then to his nephew, Hugh D'Avranches- know as 'Lupus' (the wolf) and, in later life, 'Hugh the Fat'- "To hold to him and his heirs as freely by the sword as the King holds the Crown of England". The Earldom became very powerful and virtually independent of the Crown, the Earl having his own Parliament consisting of eight of his chosen Barons and their tenants, and they were in no way bound by any laws passed by the English Parliament with the exception of treason. The Castle was rebuilt and greatly enlarged and strengthened (becoming the 'caput' of the Earldom)- as were the City Walls.
  • 1071 Hugh D'Avaranches (Lupus) becomes first Earl of Chester (-1101) after the refusal of the position by Gherbod.
  • 1075 St John's Church rebuilt as a cathedral by Bishop Peter; work stopped on his death in 1085.
  • 1086 In the great Domesday survey made this year, it was recorded that there were 205 houses less in Chester than in King Edward's time, the city having been much devastated and looted by William's army.
  • 1087 William the Conqueror died and was succeeded by his third son, William Rufus (William II: 1056-1100)
  • 1093 The Benedictine Abbey of St. Werburgh (the present day Chester Cathedral) was founded by Hugh Lupus and his Countess Ermentruda, with the assistance of Anselm, the Abbot of Bec in Normandy, who brought with him some of the monks of that abbey. The secular Canons previously on residence in the Saxon building were turned out and their church virtually destroyed in order to make way for the great Norman abbey which replaced it. Many parts of the Norman building survive in the fabric of today's Cathedral, but of the Saxon Minster there remains no trace. Richard of Bec becomes first Abbot (-1116).
  • 1095 The See of Chester translated from St John's to Coventry.
  • 1100 William Rufus accidentally killed in the New Forest; Succeeded by Henry I (1068-1135)- the fourth, and youngest, son of William the Conqueror.
  • 1101 Earl Hugh Lupus died and was succeeded by his only legitimate son, Richard (-1120). He was buried in the churchyard of the Abbey, but was later reburied in the Chapter House.

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