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A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

Chester's Visitors through the Ages: 4

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Ichester castlen 1696, a mint was set up in Chester. This was part of an effort to completely renew the nation's currency, and the man put in charge in London was one Isaac Newton (later knighted for these efforts, but not for his science).

To take charge of the Chester mint he appointed the great scientist and astronomer Edmond Halley (he of comet fame), who spent two years at the mint in Chester Castle (the site is marked on the signs put up by English Heritage- just behind the Half Moon tower).

Halley was a remarkable man. It was he who persuaded Newton to write his most famous work, the Principia and the Royal Society to publish it. In fact, Halley paid for the publication himself. He arrived in Chester fresh from salvage work in a diving bell he invented, and left in 1698 to captain a Navy ship (the only civilian ever to do so) in two voyages around the Atlantic, mapping magnetic variations, and then in the English channel mapping tides (his tidal chart was the first of its kind by over 100 years), later succeeding John Flamsteed to become the second Astronomer Royal.

chester guided walksWhile in Chester he wrote several letters to the Royal Society, printed in Philosophical Transactions describing, among other things, the Roman altar found in Eastgate Street. He added,

"The Stone of this place, which is soft, reddish, grit, and very friable, with shining particles intermixt, is very apt to decay with the weather, so that all Old Buildings are very much defaced thereby, and the Walls which are Built thereof, are so frequently out of repair that they have Officers on purpose, whom they call Murengers, who do gradually refit them, where they are most worn out; in some places the Stone is in a manner moulded away like Sammel Bricks in a Wall, leaving the Mortar standing. In these Stones, and the Quarries from whence they came, I have diligently sought for Shells or other Animal Substances, such as are often found in other places, but hitherto have found no such things: But the Stone is generally intersperst with Pebbles and small Flints, which, as the Stone decays, do discover themselves within it, as if they had been lodged in the Sand, whereof the Stone consists before its Induration"

He also describes a hailstorm which affected North Wales, West Kirkby on the "Wirall", and parts of the North of England, observations of an eclipse of the Moon, experiments showing the effect of altitude on air pressure conducted on Mount Snowdon: "I have not time nor Paper to describe this horrid spot of Hills, the like of which I never yet saw", and the sight of a rare triple rainbow from the walls in 1697: An account of the Appearance of an extraordinary Iris seen at Chester, in August last, by E. Halley:

"On the Sixth Day of August last, in the Evening, between Six and Seven of the Clock, I went to take the Air upon the Walls of Chester, when I was surprized by a sudden Shower, which forced me to take Shelter in a Nich that afforded me a Seat in the Wall, near the North East Corner thereof. As I sat there, I observed an Iris, exceedingly vivid, as to its Colours, at first on the South Side only, but in a little Time with an entire arch..."

A double rainbow is quite common, but the third rainbow is actually around the sun and is very difficult to see. Halley's third rainbow was of a different type- the water in the Dee estuary was calm enough to act as a mirror, producing an image of the sun below the horizon. The third rainbow was the primary rainbow from the image of the sun, as Halley concluded. He later went on to investigate the mathematical details of rainbows.

The 'Nich' wherein Halley sat to observe this phenomena was formerly situated next to the Phoenix Tower but was removed during one of the periodic restorations of the city walls. However, you may see a picture of it here.

After two years at the mint at Chester, Halley was given the command of a warship, the Paramore Pink, by William III. This was not as strange as it sounds, for Halley had been working on determining the longitude using variation of the compass and this was the main purpose of the voyage, although he was also required by William III to "attempt the discovery of what land lies to the south of the western ocean"...

Halley had examined reports of a comet approaching Earth in 1531, 1607 and 1682. He concluded that these three comets were actually the same comet returning over and over again, and predicted the comet would come again in 1758 but he did not live to see it as he died in 1742. You can read more of his remarkable life at here.

Today, incidentally, Britain's currency- and also the coinage and banknotes of many other countries- is produced at only one location, the Royal Mint at Pontyclun in South Wales.

George Skene (1695-1756), Laird of Skene, rode from Edinburgh to London in 1729 accompanied by his brother, a friend, and a servant. Later in life he became Rector of the University of Aberdeen (1737-45)...

"12th Day, Septr.19th 1729. ...We came to Chester betwixt 6 & 7, which is a Bishop's seat, it is 8 miles, and lighted at Mr. Smith's the White Lyon opposite to the Cathedral a good house the maid tall like Rich: Gordon's sister, we had a female traveller a widow who keeps the providence at Leverpool. She supt with us was gone in the morning, nothing happened.

13th Day, Septr. 20th, 1729. Rot. Walker having forgot my book of the Road with my Grand-Unkle Will's picture done by himself in litho, we stay'd this day at Chester, this being the chief port & Leverpool only an under branch, tho' more trade, the Collector of Leverpool will be worth 300 Libs. Sterl. a year, no vessel of any burthen can come up now tho' of old they did to the brige, and there is a tower call'd the water tower from thence, now the channel is so fill'd up, that they come in 8 miles down & the goods brought in carts & smallel vessels. There was a Dutch man offer'd to clean it & make it navigable for ships of any burthen only to give him the land he shou'd winn off the River, this was rejected most foolishly because said they the Dutch wou'd build on that betwixt us & the sea, what then they must be English subjects, they have been at a vast work to straighten the channel thinking thereby to make it deeper & have off a large meadow where they keep a horse race, tho Spring tide which come up here above brige and keep'd off by a bank rais'd which makes a pretty walk & the whole banks of the River lin'd by five or six rows of oaken stakes driven in. Just above tho bridge is a dam which squints up to the other side a great way and the water coming over it makes a fall like that of London Bridge at low water, this dam makes nine corn mills go on this side and the paper mills on the other, each wheel makes two corn mills to go, but not both at once, when the hopper is empty they have a weak thin iron spring in the bottom with a pack threed fastened to tho end which goes thro' and is fastened to little boll which is hung near a stick with a pin in it, which stick & pin turns with the stone, when the corn is in, it presses the spring so as make the pack threed pull the boll to a side, when it is empty the spring comes to its place and lets the boll fall even which then is struck by the pin of the stick that turns round with the stone, and so rings, untill they put in there corn, which weight pushes down the spring and the boll out of the way of the stick, a very fine device to cause tell when the hopper's empty.

This being mercate day at Chester the wheat sold at 4 1/2 shills, sterl. per measure or bushell which all summer had been nine and ten shillings. Here they are all Torys.

We heard prayers morning and afternoon in the Cathedral, the Organ very clear and and an old one not in order, a piece of fino arras representing Elymas the Sorcerer being struck blind for the Altar piece being a copy of that Cartoon of Raphael's at Hampton Court. No other Town sends Parl: Members in Cheshire so that county & all is but 4. The Church is high & wide, several appartments of vaults like little Churches off it, where we saw the bones of W. ye Conquerer's half-brother Iying in a stone coffine shap'd like the body & the mouth equal to the ground, they ring the bells in the area of the Church with long ropes from the top as in Carlisle, there is a wire comes from the top to the back of the organ loft facing the area of the Church which shows the hours on a common house cloak dial plate, besides the steeple of the Cathedral which is square, there is one on St. Peters a smal pretty stone spire & high, another like that one half fallen, there is a fine walk of pavement stone round the walls, and at every place where ruins have been repaired the names of the then Mayer Alderman. Glew made here with open trottles full of stoutsd nets for drying it.

Here the Bishop has an old palace joining to the Church where he stays while here, with walk before the Court which they call the Abey yard and on the side of it the old ruin'd habitations of the Church: men . . . In all the principal streets of this town are piazas so that people can walk dry, and above Gallerys from the one end to the other with shops as in the high Exchange at Edn. [Edinburgh] which are truly noble thro' the whole heart of the Town. The Company in the Coffee: house easy and free.

14th Day, Septr. ye 21st, 1729. Pay'd our Bill at Chester £1: 14: 8s. mounted betwixt twelve and one, came out at the east gate kept the gallows on our right thence by Hanley Church at Chester there is a fine exchange a new building, stands upon pillars and well pav'd opposite to the Cathedral and above the Exchange built upon the pillars is a fine spacious hall where they elect their Mayor and Parliament Members."

general view of Chester: c.1710-34Right: a detail from the earliest known oil painting of Chester, painted by Pieter Tillemans in the first half of the eighteenth century- contemporary with Skene's and Quartermaine's accounts

George Quartermaine, a servant of St. John's College, Oxford, accompanied the President of the college to Edinburgh and back in 1737, keeping brief- largely unpunctuated- notes throughout the journey. They visited Chester in August, on their way north:

"West Chester is a large old City the Buildings being very antient House being nothing but wood and morter and the one pair of Stairs Chamber forward all along the Streets are left open were people past from on Street to another they are Called Rows it is after the Manner as one pair of Stairs at the Royal Exchange at the first entrance in at these Rows the doors are very small, so they tell you at Chester these Houses and Conveniencies were built while Giants lived in the Neighbourhood and when Presued by 'em, the little people made there escape by Sheltering in these Rows.

The Walls of this city are very beautifull and kept in good repair there being Several Donations for the same 3 or 4 persons may walk a breast all around the City and in some places more it is Spacious. The Cathedral is an old and a large Building but with very Bad Stone which moulters away every Winter and is very Shakey from the Severity of the weather, there is nothing remarkable in the Church but the Bones of Some pope.

There are 4 Gates to the City very Grand which they lock up in troublesome times, a Fine Bridge over the river Dee into Wales, (Flintshire) the castle is very near this river Dee it hath a Grand Entrance, and near this place is the Course for Horse Races Something like Port Meadow (in Oxford) but not so large"

pointCheshire has for centuries been reknowned for the excellence of its cheese. The Countess Constance of Cheshire (reign of Henry 2nd, 1190), despite being the wife of Ranulf de Blundeville, 6th Earl of Chester and the King's daughter-in-law, kept a herd of cows, and made good cheeses, three of which she presented to the Archbishop of Canterbury.
Giraldus Cambrensis, in the 12th century, bears honourable testimony to the excellence of the Cheshire cheese of his day.
William Smith, one of the authors of the Vale Royal, writing at the close of the16th century, thus boasts of the great staple of his county, "They [the Cheshire farmers] make great store of cheese. In praise whereof I need not to say much, seeing that it is well known that no other country in the Realm may compare therewith, nor yet beyond the Seas; no, not Holland in goodness, although in quantity it far exceeds."

It used to be the custom at the Chester Cheese Fair for the leading dairy farmers to have a sort of public show of their cheese in the Linen Hall, early in the morning of the Fair-day, when there was quite a competition among the London and other dealers for the best produce offered. The prices realized on such occasions were often excessive, the Londoners generally beating the provincial buyers out of the field for the choicer samples. Thus it came about that we had often to buy our Cheshire cheese in London, like the Newcastle-upon-Tyne folks are said to have had sometimes to do with their coals.

This song, with its music, was published in 1746, during the Spanish war, in the reign of King George II...

“A Cheshire man sailed into Spain
To trade for merchandise;
When he arrived from the main,
A Spaniard him espies,
Who said, " You English rogue, look here
What fruits and spices fine
Our land produces twice a year!
Thou hast not such in thine!"
The Cheshire man ran to his hold
And fetched a Cheshire cheese,
And said, "Look here, you dog, behold,
We have such fruits as these!
Your fruits are ripe but twice a year,
As you yourself do say,
But such as I present you here
Our land brings twice a day."
The Spaniard in a passion flew
And his rapier took in hand;
The Cheshire man kicked up his heels,
Saying, "Thou'rt at my command!"
So never let a Spaniard boast
While Cheshire men abound;
Lest they should teach him, to his cost,
To dance a Cheshire Round!”

pointWhat is the connection between the Cheshire Cat (she of the grin) and Cheshire cheese? Go here to find out... or on to Thomas Pennant's 18th century traveller's tales of Chester...

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