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A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

Chester's Visitors through the Ages 8- The 20th & 21st Centuries

1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8

Twill r rose print envelopehe writer and traveller John Lawson Stoddard was born in Brookline, Massachusetts in 1850. After some years teaching, in 1874 he began traveling around the world and turned his experiences into a series of popular lectures delivered throughout North America. These lectures were periodically published in book form as John L. Stoddard's Lectures. The books were immensely popular in their day and many copies still survive. In 1901 he got his first impressions of 'Old England' during a visit to Chester…

"It was on a beautiful afternoon in May, soon after my first landing in Liverpool, that I caught sight of the old town of Chester on the river Dee. In the immediate foreground was a massive bridge built, by King Edward I, two hundred years before Columbus gazed upon the shores of the New World. As I look back upon it now, through a long vista lined with the more ancient monuments of Italy, Asia Minor, India, and Egypt, I wonder at the impression which this structure made upon me. But it was my first sight, then, of any genuine relic of past centuries; and the mere thought that these old arches had supported Queen Elizabeth, Charles I, Cromwell, and scores of other royal or distinguished characters gave me my first experience in realizing history, which is, perhaps, the greatest charm of foreign travel. But these impressions sank into comparative insignificance as, on our way to the hotel, we passed an ancient tower, carefully restored. Beside this monument, even the bridge of Edward I seemed modern; since this once formed a part of the old walls of Chester, and its foundations are a relic of imperial Rome. Chester was, in fact, for four hundred years, a Roman stronghold of such value that, as its name denotes, it was called simply Cas-trum, or "The Camp," - much as old Rome herself was proudly named, as if that single title were sufficient, Urbs, "The City." We cannot, therefore, be surprised to learn that in its soil coins, inscriptions, altars, and mosaic pavements have been found, all dating from the time when a word uttered on the Palatine was obeyed in Britain, and Rome was still the mistress of the world.

I know of nothing precisely like the walls of Chester. The Kremlin battlements in Moscow may suggest them; but the old Russian towers have summits almost inaccessible, while these thick walls of Chester enclose the town in one continuous ring, and form a well-paved promenade, nearly two miles in circuit and in some places forty feet in height. How stirring are the memories which they suggest! Here, for centuries, while the young Christian Church with tears and prayers was burying its martyrs in the catacombs, the soldiers of the Caesars kept their watch and ward above the town below, till the eventful day when Rome's imperial legions were called back to Italy, to ward off the alarming blows struck by barbarians at the Empire's heart. Upon the surface of one of these turrets, also, I read the inscription: "Upon this tower, Sept. 27, 1645, stood King Charles I, and saw his army defeated on Rowton Moor." For Chester ("loyal Chester", it was then called) was the first English city to declare for Charles, and the last to yield to Cromwell; and it was with the bitter consciousness that the last gem was being taken from his coronet of faithful towns, that the unhappy monarch (himself so soon to suffer death) saw from this tower his gallant cavaliers borne down by the fierce squadrons of the Puritans.

I never saw more curious architecture, even in the oldest towns of Germany, than that of some of Chester's streets. A score of times I said, regretfully, "Why did not Dickens give to these odd passageways some of his inimitable descriptions?" He, of all writers, would have fairly reveled here. Thus, some of the houses have to lean against their neighbors for support, as if too weak to stand alone, or out of breath from their long race with Time. Their very foundations seem to have shrunk away, like the limbs of a paralytic, and look as if they might collapse at any moment and let the superstructure fall.

Still more extraordinary than these, however, are Chester's covered sidewalks. Their sombre hue and well-worn steps attest their great antiquity, and it is interesting to learn that they are supposed to follow exactly the lines of the original Roman thoroughfares. They are called "Rows", but certainly not because of any perfume here of Jacqueminots. By any name they would smell no more sweetly; for musty odors haunt these low-browed corridors, and damp, unsavory smells creep out from the old planks and flagstones never gilded by the sun. Yet in these shadowy arcades are many handsome shops, above which frequently dwell the tradesmen's families. One of the houses surmounting these sidewalks has a more juvenile appearance than its neighbors, since it was reconstructed thirty years ago. Upon the sill, however, just above the corridor, I read the ancient inscription: "God's Providence is my inheritance." Is it possible that these words betray the owner's disappointment on coming into possession of this residence? Apparently he had more faith in Providence than in the value of the premises. I fancy that his sentiments must have been, "God only knows what I am going to realize from this property." A friend of mine, who had invested heavily in Western farm mortgages here turned his face to the wall and wiped away a tear. It is claimed, however, that this inscription denotes the owner's gratitude to Providence for having spared his dwelling during the ravages of the plague in Chester two hundred years ago".

pointerThe distinguished novelist Henry James (1843-1916), was born in America but spent much of his life in Europe. This passage from his "most perfect" novel The Ambassadors (1903) is expressive of his affection for Chester and all things English- he became a naturalised Englishman just before his death.

(Oscar Wilde, however, remarked of his literary style, "Mr Henry James writes fiction as if it were a painful duty")...

"The tortuous wall-girdle, long since snapped, of the little swollen city, half held in place by careful civic hands, wanders in narrow file between parapets smoothed by peaceful generations, pausing here and there for a dismantled gate or a bridged gap, with rises and drops, steps up and steps down, queer twists, queer contacts, peeps into homely streets and under the brows of gables, views of cathedral tower and waterside fields, of huddled English town and ordered English country..."

"It is still an antique town, and medieval England sits bravely under her gables" So he wrote years before creating 'Ambassador' Strether strolling on Chester's wall, admiring the Cathedral and "the first swallows of spring".

James himself was was also inspired by the Cathedral, writing of "the vast oaken architecture of the choir stalls, climbing vainly against the dizzier reach of the columns".

In 1903, T. A. Coward published his book Picturesque Cheshire; a glowing account of the county in the closing days of the nineteenth century. Here are a couple of extracts dealing with the city of Chester:

"A mile from Hoole I enter Chester- Chester, the ancient city, capital of Cheshire and practically of North Wales; Chester, beloved by Americans; Chester, the centre of all historical interest in the County Palatine.

The men of Chester are proud of their ancient home; they love its quaint street rows, and lath and plaster buildings, its cathedral, its ruined church, its Roman baths and houses. Chester to-day, save that the streets are wider and lined with tram lines and that electric light illuminates dark corners, looks much as it did in mediaeval days. No one dare nowadays erect a plain brick building or an ugly factory within the city; the modern buildings are all half-timbered, black and white; it is not always easy at first sight to distinguish between a new shop or house and the freshly painted timbers and clean new whitewash of some timehonoured mansion.

The Rows, the raised sidewalks with shops within and shops below, for which Chester is famous, are rebuilt and repatched whenever time threatens their stability; the city walls that gird the centre of the town are kept in perfect order...

Of Chester, Lucian, the monk, wrote about the twelfth century: "And whilst it casteth an eye forward into the East; it looketh towards not only the See of Rome, and the Empire thereof, but the whole world also, so that it standeth forth as a kenning place to view of eyes, that there may be known valiant exploits, and the long train and consequence of things." "which city having gates from four cardinal winds, on the east-side hath a prospect towards India, on the west toward Ireland, north-eastward the greater Norway, and southward that straight and narrow Angle, which divine severity, by reason of civil and home discords, hath left unto the Britons."

Sleepy Chester! Looking out towards the whole world as a kenning place! Yes, perhaps; but say rather, Sleeping Chester! Chester, the city of the dead, Chester the Ancient. Older than busy, bustling Manchester; older by far than that huge city of Birmingham; a seaport whose fleets traded with the world when the great Port of Liverpool was but a handful of hovels beside the Mersey pool. A most ancient, hoary-headed city compared with your huge Metropolis, oh ye quizzical Americans! though to do you justice, you know how to appreciate its history and relics of the past.

One word more. When that ponderous lexicographer, Dr Johnson, closed his description of Chester in 1774, he remarked: "Chester has many curiosities." Indeed it has!

old chester postcard A curious news item, which appeared in the New York Times, September 13th 1913, described how a wealthy American collector, Mr Henry C Frick, had acquired, in addition to a rare 17th century organ, "some remarkable specimens of carved woodwork from a room of a house in Chester. The woodwork, which is now crossing the Atlantic, came from one of the houses in The Rows. The room it adorned was designed by Sir Christopher Wren at the request of the municipality for the city's mayor. The purchaser, Karl J Freund, a New York Dealer, who is now in Paris, feared to announce the purchase of the doors, panelling and wainscotting while the woodwork was still in England, fearing that legal means might be devised to prevent their exportation to the United States. The carvings are extraordinary. Their grace and richness are said to surpass even those of the great show-rooms at Hampton Court."

Remarkable stuff. This is the first we've heard of the great Wren having designed anything in Chester. Who knows, perhaps it was merely a 'clever bit of patter', all the better to impress a 'gullible Yank' and boost the price? Should any of our American friends know of what became of the panelling, we'd love to hear about it!

Best remembered for his 'In Search of' books, the prolific travel writer H. V. Morton published his In Search of England in June 1924. From it, here is his evocative record of a visit to Chester:

"Well and truly was Chester called by the Britons Caer Lleon, the 'City of the Legions'. Chester is still the 'City of the Legions', only they now come from Louisville, and Oshkosh, New York, and Washington.

For years I have heard people decribe the wonder of a walk round the walls of Chester. Naturally the first thing I did when I arrived here was to find the wall, which is not difficult. Chester, as you must know, is the only city in England which retains its medieval wall complete: a high red sandstone walk with towers at various strategic points along its course; on one side a handrail to prevent you from falling into back gardens, on the other a waist-high barrier from which in old times the Cestrians were in the habit of defying their enemies with boiling oil-and anything else that came handy. 'Blessed is he that expecteth little ' is a wise maxim that has been drummed into me since I first sat up and wanted the moon; but I have never absorbed it. I realized this on the walls of Chester.

Any man might with justice, I think, expect that as he walked a medieval town wall something at least heroic would meet his eye, but the walls of Chester gave me only a much better idea of other people's washing, the gas-works, and the canal. You see Chester within the wall remains medieval, but Chester outside the wall is industrial. It has not been possible, with factory sites at one hundred and thirty pounds an acre, for Chester to retain a wide, open space outside the wall, and, consequently, the wall of Chester stands with its arms round beautiful old Chester, while ugly new Chester peeps over the parapet from the other side.

I had been walking for about ten minutes, admiring the small, reddy-brown cathedral through the trees, when I came to a turret approached by a flight of ancient steps, and on the wall was this dramatic inscription:


Inside the tower a man was presiding over a little museum. He told me, just as though he was present at the time, that when the Royalist army was riding to reinforce the garrison at Chester, the Roundheads set upon them and routed them with poor King Charles standing on this tower watching every move of the game. There are various battlefield relics in the museum, also several Roman antiquities which take the mind back to the days when that magnificent Legion, the 20th, known as the 'Valeria Victrix', was the crack regiment of Deva.

I had been walking for miles, wondering if the wall of Chester ever completes its circle, when I came to that which any exhausted visitor must regard as a poor joke. Here, near Bridge Gate, is a long flight of steps arranged in sets of three and known as the 'Wishing Steps'.

'Why?' I asked a man who was standing on them, looking as though none of his wishes had ever come true.

'Well,' he said, in the curiously blunt way they have here, 'you have to run up and down and up again without taking breath, and then they say you'll get your wish.'

painting of watergate row northI noticed a band of breathless Americans standing on the other side, utterly vanquished. I decided to try no conclusions with the Wall of Chester and passed on in a superior way, mentally deciding to have a wish- for I can never resist these challenges of Fate- some morning when I could come fresh and vigorous to the steps. That, however, I learn is not playing the game; you must walk the wall first and then 'run up and down and up again', a feat which I shall leave to the natives- and to the Legions!

There is one feature of Chester which, to my mind, is worth ten walls. There is nothing like it in any English town- the Chester 'Rows'.

Watergate Row North by Louise Raynor (1832-1924). You can see many more of her Chester paintings here.

Chester is a town of balconies. The first impression I received of it was a town whose inhabitants spend a great portion of their lives leaning over old oak galleries, smoking and chatting and watching life go by below them in the streets.*

'The Rows' are simply long, covered arcades formed by running a highway through the first stories of a street of old buildings. You mount from the roadway to 'the Rows' on frequent flights of stone steps and find yourself in the strangest shopping streets in England. Here are the best shops hidden away in the darkness of these ancient arcades, and it is possible to shop dry-shod in the worst weather. There is a peculiar charm about 'the Rows'. They are not typically medieval, because there is no record of any other street of this kind in the Middle Ages, yet they impart a singular impression of medievalism: through the oak beams which support the galleries you see black-and-white half-timbered houses on the opposite side of the street, with another ' Row' cut through their first floors, on whose balconies people are leaning and talking and regarding the flow of life.

The main streets of Chester give you the impression that a huge galleon has come to anchor there with easy, leisurely passengers leaning on the deck rails.

This peculiar feature of Chester has worried the antiquaries more than anything. Theories to explain how and why these peculiar streets grew up are numerous and none of them definite.
'Who knows why they are built?' said a local antiquary. 'One theory is that the ruins of the Roman buildings inspired the architects of later times. Another theory is that the arcades were formed during the Middle Ages to provide street defence against Welsh raiders; a third theory explains them on the ground that traders erected their buildings on the ruins of the Roman Castrum, the most valuable ground, naturally, in the town, and, as other traders were attracted to the same profitable site, a further row of buildings rose up on the ruins behind the first, from which, of course, it is but a step to a covered arcade running the length of the street. But no one can say with certainty how they evolved. 'The Rows' are one of the architectural mysteries of England.

Chester is as 'medieval' as Clovelly is 'quaint '. There is no getting away from it. At night a walk through 'the Rows' is eerie. These long tunnels are almost pitch dark. When the shops are closed they are deserted, for the Cestrians then take to the normal roadway, and you can walk on and on along this ancient highway, through colonnades upheld by vast oak beams, half-expecing to hear the scuffle of hired assassins and the gasp of a man with a dagger in his neck. I have yet to meet a more dramatic street.

bike shop advert 1955Chester is so accustomed to ancient things that no one considered it strange to drink coffee in a twelfth-century crypt. There is a beautiful vaulted crypt which has been converted into a restaurant! (still thriving today, in Eastgate Street. Ed) I went there and sat utterly crushed by my surroundings. I looked round for the monks, but saw only young men and women, taking, so it seemed, sacrilegious sips of tea and eating cream cakes.

One of the happiest memories of my search will be the recollection of the many, times I have hung out of hotel and inn windows before going to bed listening to the night sounds of towns and cities and villages. I must write a story about them some day. At night, when the tramcars have stopped running and the crowds have gone home, and the last American has drunk the last 'highball' in the smokeroom, ancient cities like Chester come most vividly to life. So you must leave me in Chester, under a big round moon, leaning out in the soft coolness of the night, watching the Valeria Victrix stack spears in the main street, and stand back waiting for orders to found one of the oldest cities in England.
And it was on the 'Holy Dee', the broad, slow river that winds itself round Chester, that King Edgar in 973 gave away his character to posterity by being rowed in his barge by tributary princes, And it was in Chester... I could go on through history picking out little pictures of Chester; but it is so late, and the moon is riding high above this silent city, where old houses dream across old streets with their roots among the little red tiles of Rome.

* Over a century before these words were written- in October 1811, to be exact- the Chester Courant portrayed a rather different impression of the younger citzens who spent their leisure hours on the Rows:

"The gangs of blackguards which, during the Winter season, infest the Rows of this city, have commenced their nocturnal outrages. The south Row of Eastgate Street is the general rendevous, where they parade or sit in groups, interrupting the passage, or insulting everyone that passes, particularly females, who are perpetually annoyed by their rude insults".

Some extracts from the Chester chapter of the 1935 (6th) edition of Dora Benson's British Holidays in North Wales:

The unique characteristics which baffle the descriptive writer, and even the artist, are the most powerful reasons for inducing the visitor to spend a few days in Chester. It is a city where evidences of its antiquity meet the eye on every side. The fine circuit of its Roman Walls, its beautiful cathedral and monastic buildings, its main streets with their half-timbered medieval houses and unique Rows, the old bridge across the lovely river Dee- all these combine to endear it to the student of English architecture and the lover of the picturesque.

In addition to these signs of a long history, are the remains of the Roman fortress of Deva. There is no street, hardly a stone, in this wonderful old city that does not stir the imagination and give memory a thrill.

The most recent discovery of importance is a Roman Legionary amphitheatre, which, although not yet excavated, is believed by experts to be the largest in the British Isles and among the largest in the world.

For all its old-world charm, Chester is modern with modern attractions, and first and foremost among them are the shops. Even apart from their medieval setting, these merit the admiration of visitors; but only those who have experience of the Rows can appreciate how convenient for shopping is that wonderful survival of the Middle Ages which Chester, alone of all the cities in the world, possesses. There are plenty of good hotels; cafes and restaurants are to be found in all the principal streets; there are central garage facilities for an unlimited number of cars, while the corporation has provided no less than four public parking grounds in central positions. Easy access to all parts of the city and suburbs is afforded by up-to-date motor omnibuses.

As a motoring centre, Chester is worthy of attention even by those who have not a private car. It is, moreover, the Gateway to North Wales. The splendidly organized transport services of the district provide an easy means of reaching places of interest, and special tours to the most famous beauty-spots are run very frequently throughout the season.

The walls, which completely encircle the city, are built upon foundations which, in many parts, are undoubtedly Roman; and although the superstructure, in course of time, has been to a large extent renewed, it is nevertheless of great age. The four main gates stand, roughly, at the four points of the compass, and there is also a smaller gate called the Newgate or Peppergate (16th-century) on the south-east. An additional and large Newgate is now under construction to provide for modern traffic requirements.

german cig advertA continuous promenade of nearly two miles, with delightful views of mountain and river and green meadow, runs along the top of the walls for the complete circuit, and affords a unique experience.

The medieval appearance of the Chester streets is due to the large number of fine half-timbered houses, and to the Rows. These Rows are a remarkable feature of the City's architecture and are unique. Their special characteristic is the double row of shops, one at street level and the other at first floor level, while the covered footway of the Rows proper provides a continuous thoroughfare for pedestrians on the upper level. The footway of the Rows is in addition to the ordinary footway at street level and is connected thereto by frequent flights of steps.

Right: "Discover, Enjoy, Chester": a German cigarette advertisment

The Rows do not look directly down to the street, but have a series of stalls or balconies between the footway and that of the street, which provides a convenient space for the shopkeeper to display his wares. The origin of the Rows is lost in obscurity, but there can be no question about their suitability as a fashionable promenade. Ladies especially will appreciate, when shopping, the shelter they afford in all weathers.

Probably no other city enjoys such a beautiful river frontage. The most beautiful part of all extends from the Old Dee Bridge eastwards as far as Grosvenor Park, and is known as The Groves. Facing south, it enjoys the maximum of sunshine, and on many a winter's day its temperature is almost sultry. In summer the multitude of boats on the river add to the gaiety of the scene. Boating on the Dee is one of the happiest experiences which Chester has to offer.

The visitor seeking a little relaxation will find a good entertainment at the Royalty Theatre (City Road- Stage plays and Varieties); the Gaumont Palace Super Cinema, Brook Street; the Music Hall Cinema, Northgate Street; the Majestic Cinema, Brook Street; and the Park Cinema, Saltney. New super cinemas under construction: Odeon, Market Square; A.B.C., Foregate Street and also News Cinema, Foregate Street.

Of all of the above 'places of relaxation' of seventy years ago, only the Odeon in Market Square survived- until it was disgracefully closed down in 2007 (and remains so in 2014)...

In 1939, in his Life of Dickens, Graham Laud wrote:

"Chester is a glorious ancient city with a rare elegance in its beautifully preserved old buildings. A sense that all England's history is encapsulated here in its broad, cobbled, enchanting streets and from its 2000 year old walls to the awesome cathedral.

Yet it is surprisingly young and lively. A living city with a zing in the air, yet mature and relaxed, a city that knows itself to be happy in its skin.

This is the city I grew up in and loved".

chester guided walks Published in 1958, T. H. White's great novel The Once and Future King is a wonderfully witty and moving re-telling of the Arthurian legend. It contains some evocative descriptions of life in medieval towns, including this passage where the King and his party arrive at Carlion- (the Saxon name for Chester was Caerlion and our Welsh-speaking neighbours to this day refer to the city as Caer)- for a wedding:

"The metropolitan glories of Carlion were enough to take their breaths away. Here, round the King's castle, there were streets- not just one street- and castles of dependent barons, and monasteries and chapels, churches, cathedrals, markets, merchant's houses. There were hundreds of people in the streets, all dressed in blue or red or green or any bright colour, with shopping baskets over their arms, or driving hissing geese before them, or hurrying hither and thither in the livery of some great lord.

There were bells ringing, clocks smiting in belfries, standards floating- until the whole air above them seemed to be alive. There were dogs and donkeys and palfries and farm wagons- whose wheels creaked like the Day of Judgement- and booths which sold gilt gingerbread, and shops where the finest bits of of armour in the very latest fashions were displayed. There were silk merchants and jewellers. The shops had painted trade signs hung over them, like the inn signs which we have today. There were servitors carousing outside wine shops, and old ladies haggling over eggs, and itinerant cads carrying cages of hawks for sale, and portly aldermen with gold chains, and brown ploughmen with hardly any clothes on except a few bits of leather, and leashes of greyhounds, and strange eastern men selling parrots, and pretty ladies mincing along in high dunce's caps with veils floating from the top of them, and perhaps a page in front of the lady, carrying a prayer book, if she was going to church.

Carlion was a walled town, so that this excitement was surrounded by a battlement which seemed to go on for ever and ever. The wall had towers every two hundred yards, and four great gates as well. When you were approaching the town from across the plain, you could see the castle keeps and church spires springing out of the wall in a clump- like flowers growing in a pot".

* Robert Stoker, in his book The Legacy of Arthur's Chester (1963), pointed out that there were actually two cities bearing the name Caerleon, and, after the departure of the Legions, it was here, Caerleon-upon-Dee that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain, Capital of Wales, GHQ of the centuries-long campaigns against the Saxons and the city of the coronation, in the early seventh century, of a not-so-legendary King Arthur- not Caerleon-on-Usk (Roman Isca) in South Wales.

The confusion seemingly lay with Arthur's medieval chronicler, Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose patron, Robert of Gloucester, was Lord of the Monmouth Marches, where Caerleon-on-Usk is situated. It seems that Geoffrey, doubtess partly in order to please his Lord, attributed all references dealing with 'Caerleon-ar-Dour' (Chester) to 'Caerleon' without qualifying which one the old chronicles were referring to. Consequently, Stoker claims, historians have ever since been crediting, for example, Isca with having an archbishop since AD180 because a local boy in Monmouth had said so nine hundred years later...

Whatever the case, think of the still-magnificent old fortress when you go here to read Geoffrey's description of the coronation of King Arthur).

"I was taken by your city walls, but found Chester a city where it was easier to buy a crystal or a packet of pot-pourri than a pint of milk..."
Graham Norton
: BBC Radio 4's 'Just a Minute', recorded at the Gateway Theatre, Chester, February 7th 2000

rolling stones in ChesterpointIt's difficult to imagine now, but there was a time when major pop groups regularly performed in Chester. The Rolling Stones, for example, played at the Royalty Theatre in April 1964 and at the ABC Cinema along with Inez & Charlie Foxx in September of the same year. In October 1965, they played the ABC again, accompanied by the Moody Blues and the Spencer Davis Group.

Mick Jagger recalled the surreal end to the September 1964 gig. The band had to escape along the rooftops after the show because the venue was surrounded by screaming teenage fans. “I remember we had a lady pianist with us also, who was one of the opening acts, I forgot her name and she was a concert pianist and it was quite funny.”
Keith Richards recalled the same Chester gig: “One time in Chester, we have the Chief Constable of Cheshire with us in full regalia with the ribbons and the medals and the swagger stick. Show’s finished earlier than he expects. The whole theatre is surrounded. Mayhem. Maniac teenage girls, bless their hearts.
"Right," he says. "The only way out, up the stairs, over the rooftops, I know the way!". Suddenly you’re in his hands. So we get up on the Chester rooftops, and it’s raining. The first thing that happens is the Chief Constable almost slides off the roof. A couple of his bobbies managed to hold him up. We’re standing in the middle of this rooftop saying: "I’m not too familiar with this area, where do we go?"
“He pulls himself together, and in a shambolic sort of way, they manage to get us down through a skylight and out of a laundry chute, or something. That was what happened every day, and you took it as normal. Everything was a Goon Show.”
Keith repeated the story in his autobiography: " I remember once in Chester, after a show that had ended in a riot, following the Chief Constable of Chester Police over the rooftops of Chester city as in some weird Walt Disney film, with the rest of the band behind me and him in full uniform, with a constable at his side. And then he loses his fucking way, and we are perched on the top of Chester city while his great " Escape From Colditz plan diintegrates..."

John Lennon was a frequent visitor to Chester. His sister, Julia Baird, recalled, "During childhood, John and I used to spend a lot of time in Chester. We also used to come to Chester on the train from Liverpool as we always knew that Chester was the best place for clothes shopping. We used to go for lunch at Brown's and walk down by the river. Chester has always been in the family. We are the classic family that moved from Wales to Chester to Liverpool. John was very fond of Chester. We always thought Chester was the place to be, not Liverpool." John and Julia's grandmother, Annie Jane Millward, was born at the Bear and Billet Inn in Lower Bridge Street in 1873 and lived there until she was in her 20s. According to Julia, who was a longtime former Chester resident, "Our great-grandfather (John Denbry Millward) and great-grandmother (Mary Elizabeth Millward nee Morris) lived there. Our great-grandfather was the clerk to the Earl of Shrewsbury, because of that he had the freedom to the city of Chester".

Annie married George Ernest Stanley, had seven children (the first two died in infancy) - one of whom was John's mother Julia. She died in 1941.

John later returned to Chester- as a Beatle- and the band played here several times at the Riverpark Ballroom on Union Street and the Royalty Theatre in City Road. Neither of these venues exist today- bank offices stand on the site of the Riverpark and a cheap hotel on that of the poor old Royalty.

forum entranceIn March 2001, national UK newspaper The Independent published a free supplement entitled "Best of Chester: the Top 50 Places to go in Chester", penned by 'local girl' Lucy Gilmore.

Ms Gilmore succeeded in producing a minor stink within the city's tourism and publicity departments as a result of her reference to the covered market as, "Originally atmospheric, the entrance is now through a tacky shopping centre".

This 'tacky shopping centre' actually being the ironically-entitled Forum (illustrated left- swathes of unique Roman and later remains were bulldozed during its construction)- and this despite its being only recently tarted-up courtesy of the Scottish Widows insurance company.

The Forum's high point (and undoubted source of greatest public ridicule) was surely achieved when, despite a public outcry, a branch of McDonald's was opened there (on the far right hand side of our photograph)- immediately next to the splendid Victorian Town Hall and facing the west front of the great medieval Cathedral...

Subsequent to the article's publication, correspondents to the local press seemed to be in agreement with Ms Gilmore; "Yes, the Forum is very tacky!", "I can't think of a better description of it", etc.

(To see if you agree with them, take a look at our feature, When bad things happen to good cities: the changing face of the Chester Market Hall )

The above aside, The Best of Chester contained further howlers- albeit no more than many other 'visitor's guides' to our fair city. The above referred to Market Hall was said to feature "strapping stallholders singing Jerusalem as you sample ripe Stilton Vintage". We're told that he Emperor Hadrian wanted fortress Deva (the city of Chester as such not existing for hundreds more years) "to reflect the glory of Rome" and that the ancient Boot Inn in Eastgate Row "has a skittle alley at the entrance"... We wish it still did- it's been gone for years. But it's a nice pub- with possibly the best value pint in town- nontheless...

The exhibitions said to be held in the Summer in the Water Tower and Phoenix Tower have not been seen for several years, the city council having closed these most attractive and interesting places in order to save a few pounds- and the excellent Toy Museum in Lower Bridge Street was praised, despite its having being forced into closure due to falling visitor numbers and rising city centre rent and rates.

It was ironic indeed to see the city's main commercial competitor and arch-rival, the newly-developed Cheshire Oaks Designer Outlet Village ("free parking!") being listed as number 5 of the "50 best places to go in Chester"!

(We later heard a rumour that Cheshire Oaks themselves were not too pleased about being so described!)

Our favourite, however, was back in the Best of Chester's introduction, where we learned that "Cestrians, as the inhabitants of Chester are known, have been welcoming visitors for more than 2,000 years- the Roman invasion, the Norman invasion, the Civil War..."

To apply the term 'welcoming' to those citizens who were slaughtered, enslaved, starved or made homeless during centuries of military conflict and bloody siege was, we thought, even for journalism of this standard, stretching it a bit...

One Mick Brown of the Daily Telegraph rolled into Chester and penned a deeply flawed and rather depressing article about the state of the city's trade (and comparing it unfavourably with Totnes in Devon), which was published on Saturday 13th June 2009: Financial Crisis: High Noon on the High Street.

As may be seen here, a photograph of Eastgate Street that headed this dodgy piece of pseudo-journalism was remarkable in that there is not a single soul to be seen- somebody must have had to get up very early in the morning to get that, obviously in a malicious attempt to give the false impression that Chester has become some sort of commercial ghost town.

We don't know much about the Telegraph's usual way of doing things but this struck us as pretty shabby, gutter press stuff.

Many generations of students have come to Chester to study- and much else! Here are two hilarious- and previously unpublished- true stories by Simon Catterall: Youthful memories of Chester (1974) and Naked Around the Walls! (1984)

pointerWritten by journalist Tom Dyckhoff, this article, which appeared in The Guardian, Saturday 6th December 2008, contains some interesting impressions of the city as seen with a distincly middle-class slant- and also some telling comments from locals- Let's move to Chester.

pointerThis satirical little poem, penned by distinguished Chester author and historian Gordon Emery, appeared in the local press in October 2009:

We voted in the Tories to help mend the wall
But soon a large section began to fall.
With sycamore trees and empty towers
At least we had some ragwort flowers.

The glass slug gone, we wept for joy
Till the Tories bought a new glass toy
Just 20 million - we won’t pay rent
Are the lovely glass walls all that is bent?

Cinema’s gone, theatre too
Nothing for the many, a lot for the few
Chester History & Heritage soon to be shut
Just to pay for council glut.

The council offices meant for the slug
Are now going into a giant glass plug
But please don’t worry, please don’t mope
We’re going to be a City of Culture
- some hope!

pointerAnd this very pertinent little piece, responding to the recent erection of some very regrettable buildings- and ludicrous grand plans for more of the same- in our fair city, was recently posted on the (sadly now defunct) Chester@Large City Forum:

"It appears that many within the planning department of Chester City Council are maybe under the delusion that they are building a new town and, consequently, have attempted to fulfil the following criteria in keeping with new town development,

travelodge1) City Council planners must pass an IQ test in order to ensure that they achieve a score no greater than 70.

2) Building must be sporadic with no plan whatsoever.

3) Buildings have to look as ugly as possible. Attractive, historic, and characterful buildings will be demolished to make way for buildings which are in keeping with the vision set forth by Chester City planners.

4) If there exists a free space in the city, build on it.

5) Ignore all and any Roman and historic remains because that's in the past and doesn't count. Historical remains will be counted as "free space".

6) CC planners not accompanied by a guide dog will not be permitted to work within Chester.

An old Welsh proverb, said of getting something done early, was "before the dogs of Chester begin to bark".

Still in Wales, we conclude our collection of quotes from Chester's visitors through the ages with this old nursery song, popular for generations with Welsh children. It was recorded by Owen M Edwards in his Hwiangerddi (Nursery Rhymes) in 1911:

Gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i Gaer,
I briodi merch y Maer;
Gyrru, gyrru, gyrru i adre,
Wedi priodi ers diwrnodie.

"Ride and ride and ride to Chester,
There to wed the Mayor's daughter;
Ride, ride home and ride heigh-ho,
Having wedded days ago".

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