A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

Chester Racecourse

old drawing of racecourse

An exciting moment during Chester Races 150 years ago, spectators thronging the
Watergate and City Walls, just as they enthusiastically continue to do today

The home of Chester Races is the beautiful 65-acre site bearing the curious name of The Roodee- the "Sweet rood of Chester" (Gascoigne 1575)- which derives from the Saxon Rood- a cross and the Norse suffix Eye- meaning an island- literally 'The Island of the Cross'. In Saxon times, the waters of the Dee covered the whole of this area with the exception of a small island upon which stood a stone cross, the stump of which you may still see in the middle of the racecourse today.

chester guided walksIf you walk down the steps to the racecourse and look beneath the City Wall, you will be rewarded with the sight of the massive stones of the Roman harbour, where for centuries war gallies tied up and the trading ships of a great empire discharged their cargoes of wines and spices.

In 1874, a Roman tomb dating to about the year 90AD was found near the south end of the main grandstand (which was originally erected in 1817, but has been rebuilt several times)- containing two skeletons, one wearing a gold ring, beneath a tombstone which is now in the Grosvenor Museum. The inscription on the stone reads, "To the spirits of the departed, Flavius Callimorphus, aged fourty two and to Serapion, aged three years six months. Thesaeus set this up to his brother and his brother's son". As with many Roman burials, coins were placed in the mouths of the deceased, for their souls to pay Charon for crossing the river Styx.

During the middle ages, the shoemakers guild "Upon Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) at the crosse upon the Rood Dee, before the mayor of the cittie did offer unto the company of Drapers an homage, a ball of leather, called a footeball, of the value of 3s 4d, which was played for by the shoemakers and saddlers to bring it to the house of the Mayor or either of the Sherriffs. Much harm was done, some having their bodies bruised and crushed, some their armes, heads, legges broken, some otherwise maimed and in peril of their life".

Consequently, in 1533, football was banned and similarly, the ancient practice of the Saddlers to present "a ball of wood painted with flowers" to be fought for by the mob was discontinued- to be replaced- on St. George's Day 1539 "In the tyme of Henry Gee, Mayre of the King's citie of Chester, in the XXXI yere of King Henry Theght, a bell of sylver, to the value of IIIs IIIId, is ordayned to be the reward of that horse which shall runne before all others".

The practice continued, with prizes of gradually increasing value, making Chester Races without doubt the most ancient in the country still held at its original course. York can claim to be the oldest existing meeting; by 1530, it was well established, but was then held in the Forest of Galtres, just outside the city and only moved to its present site, Knavesmire, in 1731. Carlisle dates from 1599, though the original course has long disappeared. The first races at Newmarket occured in 1622, and Ascot is a mere infant, dating from 1711.

In 1836, the Chester author and guide Joseph Hemingway commented of Chester Races, "This meeting has long been the resort of personages of the first rank- others may excel it in number, but not in elegance or fashion."

Away! 'the Corner' is deserted;
Away to Chester's ancient walls!
A thousand screaming trains have started;
'Tis neck or nothing- Pleasure calls.
From every ingle of our islands,
From east and west, and north and south,
From Walmer to Glengarry's highlands,
From Galway to the Bull and Mouth,
Away they come! the peer and peasant,
Age and youth, the fright and beauty,
Rolling toward the city pleasant,
And every steed will do its duty.
(Anonymous 1848)
roodee 1843
Above: 'Millipede' on the Roodee, 1843 by William Tasker (1808-52) On the left can be seen the first grandstand, built in 1817

More recently, the editor of the Racing Post, Howard Wright, said of the Roodee: "Chester racecourse is one of the most progressive and best-run courses in the country and has done exceptionally well in pulling the crowds. The attraction of the course is its smallness- in Chester's case, small is definitely beautiful as this allows it to become a theatre where punters can see all of the action."

The founding father of Chester Races, Mayor Henry Gee, was a zealous reformer who is said to have put the corporation house in order "With a high hand and an unswerving purpose". He suppressed corrupt municipal practices and appointments (where is he now, we wonder?), banished "Idle beggars and vagabonds", regulated the markets and established the first attempt at a school board. He banned single women from keeping common ale-houses and "Stamped on immorality wherever he found it".

Henry Gee died in 1545, but his name is remembered in the running of the Henry Gee Stakes for three-year-old maidens at the July meeting, and possibly also in the old, but still commonly-used, English nickname for racehorses: Gee-Gees.

Around 1615, the Roodee was described as, "A very delightfule meadow place, used for a cow pasture in the summertime; and all the year for a wholesome and pleasant walk by the side of the Dee, and for recreations of shooting, bowling and such other exercises as are performed at certain times by men; and by running horses in presence and view of the mayor of the city and his brethren; with such other lords, knights, ladies and gentlemen as please at these times, to accompany them for that view".

Look out for the square stone column surmounted by a railed enclosure, known as 'The Judge's Chair' - a relic of 18th century racing days. This column is the surviving one of a pair, the other having stood directly opposite, on the far side of the course.

At the May races of 1892, 'gate money' was first taken- the Roodee for the first time being closed in and a charge made for admission.

Less conventional types of 'sporting' events were occasionally held on the Roodee, for example in 1441, when the rival gaolers from the Castle and the Northgate gathered here to settle their differences- whatever they may have been- with a mass fist fight...

An extract from 'Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls': The Roodee

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