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St. John's Church

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

9. The 'Roman Garden'

The River Dee

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queens park bridgeHaving returned from our detour via the Amphitheatre and St. John's Church and rejoined the Newgate, we take leave of the Roman course of the wall, not meeting it again until St. Martin's Gate on our homeward stretch, and now enter the Saxon extension commenced about 907 AD by Aethelfleda, countess of Mercia.

The occupying Danes had been driven out of Chester by her father, Alfred the Great and renovating the old fortress was part of Aethelfleda's continuing strategy to resist their increasing incursions. It was establishment as the centre of a line of burghs, stretching from Manchester to Rhuddlan, to protect the northern frontier of Mercia.

It is said that she suffered excessive discomfort at the birth of her first child and therefore avoided the embraces of her husband Ethelred for the next fourty years, saying that "It was not fit for a King's daughter to be given to a pleasure that brought so much pain along with it."

It seems her abstinence left her plenty of energy for other pursuits, among which was the restoration and extension of Chester's defences after the harsh treatment they had received during the preceding centuries- most recently by the Danes:

"They marched without a halt by day and night, until they arrived at a deserted Roman site in Wirral, called Chester. The English were unable to overtake them before they got inside that fort, but they besieged it some days" (Anglo Saxon Chronicle: AD894 )

It is surely a testament to the quality of the XXth Legion's defences that, 500 years after their departure, these occupying Norsemen could still find shelter from an English army behind them.

However, parts of the walls had fallen into a state of decay, and, after her expulsion of the invaders, Ethelfleda set about their rebuilding and radical enlargement. Much of this southern section is said to be her work- although considerable rebuilding and extension was also later undertaken by the Normans- the entire city wall, for example, between the Grosvenor Bridge and the Water Tower was constructed by them.

roman gardenThe new town developed into an important port known as Legeceastre- a Saxon corruption of the latin Legio, a Legion and Castra, a fortress, which in time became shortened to Chester.

Looking down on the outside of the wall you can see the so-called Roman Garden- seen here before its restoration, with the Newgate in the background- in which is displayed a motley collection of ancient Roman stonework, including assorted columns and a reconstructed hypocaust, or underfloor heating system- which have been unearthed at various locations around the town and reassembled here. Chester's ancient High Cross was for many years displayed here also until pedestrianisation returned it to its ancient original location in the city centre.

First mentioned in city records in 1377, during the Civil War, the Cross had served as a rallying point for the Royalist citzens, but after their eventual surrender to Parliamentiary forces at the end of the siege in 1646, it was feared they would destroy it, an ordinance of 1643 having called for the "utter demolishing of all monuments of superstition and idolatry". After their surrender, the citzens had received reassurances that "no church within the city, evidences or writings belonging to the same shall be defaced" and assumed this also applied to the Cross. They were wrong, and it was demolished. The ornate top section, with its carved figures of saints, apostles and the Virgin Mary, vanished without trace. The base of the Cross ended up, around 1817, at Plas Newydd in Llangollen, North Wales, where it remains to this day. The remainder was hidden under the steps of nearby St. Peter's Church, and stayed there forgotten until being rediscovered in 1820, during the course of repairs. A churchwarden placed the pieces in his garden in Handbridge, until they were acquired by the 1st Duke of Westminister some sixty years later, who had them placed in the newly-opened Grosvenor Museum.

The city council re-erected the Cross here in the Roman Garden in 1949- it can just be seen at the far left of this contemporary photograph. With the coming of pedestrianisation, it was restored to its ancient original site at the intersection of the city's main streets in 1975, after an absence of some 329 years.

The Roman Garden was established in 1949 by Graham Webster, then curator of the Grosvenor Museum, and Charles Greenwood, the City Engineer, as Chester's contribution to the 1951 Festival of Britain. Today it is a quiet oasis in a busy part of the city, but it was not always so peaceful here. Standing in the garden and looking at the stretch of city wall visible on the left of the photograph above, through the shrubs you will see a section "so wide that six horses might have marched up in rank" that clearly differs from the masonry around it. This is a repaired breach made by Parliamentary bombardment from the churchyard and tower of St. John's Church in September, 1645 during the Siege of Chester. The commander of the Royalist defending forces, John, first Baron Byron (an ancestor of the poet Lord Byron) had ordered the pulling down of the tower to avoid just such a situation- an order which was never carried out. His stirring account of the bloody events that took place here includes the following: "Thrice that night the enemy was upon the top of the wall, but at last quite beaten off. Seven of them were killed...who afterwards fell into the street, and were the next day buried by us. There were some of them taken alive, but much hurt, and so drunk that the scent of them was most offensive".

If you were to view the approaching south east corner of the city wall from outside, you would be able to see clear evidence of the cannon and mortar (grenado) damage inflicted by Parliamentary guns firing from the chuch and from across the river. The wall's great strength, however, ensured its survival- give or take the odd tower- unlike the hundreds of lesser structures both within and without the walls which were destroyed during the conflict. Randle Holme III's despairing description of the devastated city after the long siege makes for exceedingly grim reading.

Truly, for all its present wealth of venerable buildings, had the siege never occured, Chester would be able to boast of far more ancient houses, churches and great halls than it now does. But we are fortunate that so much still remains with us, despite the ravages of ancient armies and modern developers...

The walls viewed from this area are quite magnificent and clearly show the different styles of masonry employed over their many centuries of rebuilding and repairs. The ancient lower courses on this corner of city wall are now so weathered it is difficult to distinguish them from the sandstone bedrock upon which they stand.

Bowls and Cockfights
roman garden before restorationFor years, the area between the Roman Garden and the Chester Groves public house (formerly known as Old Orleans) by the riverside was, as may be seen here, a curiously neglected wasteland containing some enigmatic old carved column bases- and a lot of brambles.

Chester historian Frank Simpson, writing in 1910, described the area as a "beautifully laid-out bowling green", and also that "on the north side of the green and just beyond a small orchard, stands the site of the old cockpit".

In Batenham's Stranger's Companion in Chester of 1823, we read of this spot: "Looking across the orchard beneath, we see the venerable tower of St. John's Church, nodding over its mouldering base". (It fell down less than sixty years later and that 'mouldering base' is all that remains) "At the end of the orchard, under the wall, is a mean thatched circular building, used as part of a pipe-manufactory, but occupied during the race-week for the cruel practice of cock-fighting", the charge for admission, he tells us, being five shillings a day.

"William, sixth Earl of Derby, in 1619 made a faire cock-pit under St. John's in a garden by the riverside to which resorted gents of all parts and great cocking was used a long while". Long after its disappearance the site continued to be known as 'Cock-fight Hill'.

This cruel 'sport' was engaged in at numerous locations around the town including several inns and the specially-built cockpit long existed in the Roman Garden. The wooden structure was replaced in 1825 by a brick building with a slate roof, paid for by the 'sportsmen' themselves. It became the custom during race weeks at the Roodee for 'gentlemen' to spend their mornings at the cock fights while their ladies visited the shops. So popular did the activity become that, should the cock fighting overrun, as occured in 1834, the start of the horse racing had to wait until it had finished! Finally officially banned in 1849, the sport went underground and doubtless continues up to the present day. In 1956, police raided a cock fight at Cotton Edmunds Farm at Waverton, a village near Chester, close to the site of today's popular Crocky Trail and made 36 arrests, including 13 local farmers.

As recently as 1972, the Chester Riverside Study told us that "the bowling green at Queen's Park Bridge... is very attractive and well-used, and should remain". Unfortunately, soon afterwards, the land was sold and the new pub was built on part of the site- where some unsightly metal boathouses formerly stood- and the rest was allowed to revert to wilderness.

roman garden today In May 1997, however, the local press reported the welcome news that Chester City Council were to create a new park on Cock-Fight Hill! The owners of the pub on the Groves, Scottish and Newcastle Breweries, had generously donated the land, on the provision that it should be used for public recreation. The fence separating it from the Roman Garden was to be removed, a new path linking the city centre to the Groves created and the old gateway through the walls into Park Street- at the time effectively lost behind the brambles- to be re-opened. It was proposed that the area be named Cockpit Park and it was to feature a circle of stone columns topped with bronze cockerels (!) to mark the site of the ancient cockpit. As it turned out, neither of these proposals were acted upon.

In January 1999, a brief archaeological investigation of the site took place, followed in May- two years after the plans were announced- by an official 'turf cutting' ceremony. Funding for the project came partly from a £100,000 bequest by the late Sally, Duchess of Westminster- aunt of the present Duke- Capital Bank contributed £80,000 and the remaining £20,000 from the city's Capital Challenge Fund. The late Duchess had travelled the world in search of rare and unusual plants and was very involved with the development of the gardens at Chester Zoo.

City Council Landscape Officer Tom Walker said of the project, "The new park is to contain features that explain the fascinating history of the area. It's not just a building project, but a voyage of discovery... a tremendously exciting project which will generate a great deal of interest for local people and visitors".

The new park- illustrated above- is now complete. We're sure you'll ageee that it all looks most impressive, down to the marble benches and newly-planted cypress trees and other plants originating in the Roman world. But visitors should be aware that this so-called Roman Garden, attractive as it is, remains little more than a pretty sham, whereas, unforgivably, while work on it was going on, the genuine article- the unexcavated half of Chester's great Roman amphitheatre right next door- was overrun with excavating machines, preparing the ground for a new office and court complex with associated car park to be erected on top of it! Your guide, together with all these correspondents, wondered at the rationale of a local authority that could allow- even defend- such an act of desecration...

Visitors to the Roman Garden will notice the rich variety of mosaics to be seen there. Despite appearances, these are all quite recent additions. The oldest, the large circular work at the garden's entrance, was commissioned by the Chester Civic Trust to commemorate the society's Golden Jubilee in 2010. The others are the work of mosaic artist Gary Drostle (who was also responsible for the mural at the nearby amphitheatre) and were put in place here as recently as the end of 2011. One contains a 'four seasons' design that was based on a mosaic from Chebba in Tunisia, now preserved in the Bardo Museum in Tunis. The hypocaust mosaic is fitted within the existing York stone paving to give the impression that it has been partially excavated in situ. It is a reproduction of the Ostia style mosaic work discovered in the great bath house complex that was discovered when the ground was being prepared for the construction of the Grosvenor Precinct and tragically destroyed soon afterwards.

Bidding farewell to the Roman Garden and returning to the city wall, on the corner of Park Street, we can see an ugly modern multi-storey car park surmounted by a large stone lion which once stood on the top of the Lion Brewery, the former occupant of the site. A little further on is a striking medieval-style timber house by W. H. Kelly, built as recently as 1881, which bears the legend, "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life", said to be the inscription on an ancient coin found on the site. Less romantically, the building currently houses a dental surgery.

Next, we come to a fine row of 17th century former almshouses known as the Nine Houses- though actually only six remain today. Aspiring residents of these cottages had to be over 65 years old and abstain from tobacco and alcohol- unlike the more fortunate occupants of the almshouses behind the Bluecoat near the Northgate, whose daily fare included "A loaf of bread, a dish of pottage, half a gallon of competent ale and a piece of fish or flesh, as the day shall require".

the 'nine houses'Each house has a gable spanning the timber-framed upper storey, which extends out from the sandstone ground floor- an unusual arrangement in Chester, where the ground floors of the old buildings beyond the rows more often have timber framing on sandstone plinths.

The Nine Houses had been allowed to fall into disrepair over the years, and narrowly avoided being destroyed in the 1960s. Remarkably, in a period not noted for its sympathetic treatment of ancient buildings- the fine Victorian Market Hall had been demolished amid fierce, and continuing, controversy the year before. A grant was obtained and a complete restoration was undertaken in 1968.

Local historian, Bernard Wall- who sadly died in April 2002- took exception to the view that these were ever almshouses, however, stating that they had always been defined as 'dwellings' ie family houses. He said he personally knew a lady who had raised her family there.

In the 1960s, a row of actual almshouses on Pepper Street on the site of today's Conservative Club close to the present Police HQ were demolished to make way for the Inner Ring Road and their occupants were transferred to the Nine Houses after they had been renovated.

Immediately after the Nine Houses, we see the splendid Albion Inn, run for many years by landlord Mike Mercer and a fine example of that rare and eccentric thing, a true English pub- real fires, real ale, a piano, no jukebox or bigscreen TV- and an opportune spot for us to rest and partake of refreshments. Be aware however, that a sign outside the Albion declares "when we're open we're open, when we're closed we're closed"- the Albion is now probably unique in closing its doors in the afternoon, as all British pubs were once compelled to do- and that it is "family hostile"- one of a dwindling number of British pubs that does not welcome children. For the rest of us, however, the beer, food and atmosphere are superb..

Just opposite the Albion is a ramp which will allow you easy access to and from the City Wall. You will also notice the previousy long sealed-up door through the wall here leading to Cockpit Hill, as discussed above.

The well-maintained terraced houses found here in Albion Street and Duke Street were erected between 1865 and 1869 on the former bowling green and pleasure gardens of the old Talbot Hotel (formerly Park House) of 1715, which formerly stood in Lower Bridge Street. Around the same time, the 17th century Harvie's Almshouses which formerly stood in Duke Street were demolished.

The handsome turreted building you can see at the end of Albion Street is the Volunteer Drill Hall, built in the Gothic style in 1869 as the HQ of the 2nd volunteer battalion of the Cheshire Regiment. It was, a few years ago, converted for residential use and now stands, curiously, surrounded by those Victorian terraced houses.

Looking again to the Walls, as we turn the south-east corner we encounter a widening of the walkway into what was once a prominent watchtower which went by the name of Barnaby's Tower. It was probably first built in the 13th century and stands on an outcrop of sandstone, which is clearly visible from the base of the wall. It was seriously damaged by Parliamentary cannon and grenado fire during the terrible English Civil War Seige of Chester (1644-6), some of the damage caused by the missiles still being clearly visible today. Although most of the tower above the walkway was destroyed at this time, the remainder was retained as a feature of the promenade which was created along the Walls in 1702-8. Made of coursed red sandstone rubble, the bastion forms a 3-sided projection from the wall. The parapet was 'improved' at the expense of Councillor Charles Brown (who also laid out the beautiful riverside walk known as The Groves which we see below us) in 1879-80 when the mock-medieval crenellations were created.

Our exploration of the Walls of Chester now take us down to the delights of the River Dee..

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 15

  • chester guided walks1576 The Privy Council ordered the Mayor to discharge a man confined in the Northgate Gaol, for asserting that Queen Elizabeth had two bastards by Robert Dudley, Earl of Leicester. Complaints from the citizens regarding the massive heaps of dung deposited by cattle, horses, pigs, hens, dogs and other creatures which roamed the streets, prompting the city council to order its removal by the beast's owners, on pain of a fine of 3s 3d.
  • 1577 For failing to provide the citizens with a sufficient quantity of meat and "forming a confederacy against the sale of meat by County butchers" the entire Company of Butchers was committed to the Northgate, but were released four days later on account of the intolerable heat in the small cramped gaol, and also "because their wives were very upset". Before being released, they gave a promise that they would in future serve the City faithfully. Nevertheless, butchers from outside the city were first allowed to trade in Chester this year. 390 beer trading houses in Cheshire.
  • 1578 400 soldiers rioted among themselves while stopped overnight at Chester en route for Ireland. In order to stop the revolt, the Mayor imprisoned both Captains in the Northgate Gaol and the city was put under martial law until order was restored.
  • 1579 Watergate Street, from the High Cross to Trinity Street, paved for the first time.
  • 1580 Arms granted to the city bearing the motto Antiqui Colant Antiquum Dierum ('Let the ancients honour the Ancient of Days') Saturday 25th Feb: a total ecplipse of the sun occured: "the like was never seen in the memory of man".
  • 1581 Queen Elizabeth gave St. John's Church to its parishioners and they began to restore it, including cutting off the ruined east end and all the chapels above the Choir with a new wall. The City Magistrates bought the old Shire Hall in the Castle for six Cheshire cheeses, and moved it to the Market Square where it was first served as a granary, and was then appropriated by the city's butchers, and became the 'flesh shambles'. Sedan chairs in general use in England.
  • 1582 The Gregorian calendar adopted in the Papal States, Spain, Portugal, France, the Netherlands and Scandinavia. Not used in England until 1752
  • 1583 The Sheriff ordered that the crosses which stood at the Bars, the Northgate and the Spital were to be pulled down. Shortly after this order was carried out, this Sheriff died, and the Papists attributed this action as being the cause of his death. First known life insurance in England, on the life of one William Gibbons
  • 1584 The 'Horse Pool' in the Abbey Courtyard was filled in. Money was "payed to Hugh the Skinner for for carriage of the filth before the Gate to fill the hole in ye court". Dreadful hailstorm: much damage done to the Dee Mills by floods; many cattle killed by lightning.
  • 1585 Sixteen pirates stole a ship from Wirral, and killed a man; the wind, forcing the vessel back, they were apprehended and committed to the Northgate. Eastgate Street was re-paved. The Old Dee Bridge collapsed and two horses and some cattle pulling loads of coal were drowned.
  • 1586 A 'hue and cry' throughout the land that Chester, London and Bristol had been set on fire by the Papists, and that "a navye of 700 Spanish shippes" had landed "at the New Quay in Wirral". The rumour proved groundless. The Roodee was leased to a wealthy citizen, on condition that games and plays would still be allowed on it as before. Bridge Street was re-paved. (A fine new cobbled surface was laid in Bridge Street in Spring 1999)
  • 1587 A man named Harvey from Knutsford was hung, drawn and quartered* for the crime of 'clipping money', and his quarters set on the four Gates. The Mayor ordered that "a public faste to be kepte 2 days, Wensday and Fridaye, from eight in the morninge till eleven, and at one of the clock till five at nyghte- in regards we had very unseasonable weather and other troubles in the realme. This was proclaimed by command of said Mr Maior, which no doubte did great goode". Mary, Queen of Scots executed at Fotheringhay Castle.
  • 1588 The defeat of the Spanish Armada. Public holiday declared. The Mayor and Corporation of Chester attended the Cathedral in full ceremonial robes and received Holy Communion.
  • 1589 A woman burnt at Boughton for poisoning her husband. John Taylor, Keeper of the Castle Gaol, was hung for killing Mr. Hockenhall, a prisoner. The City Walls were again reported to be in a "crumbling and ruinous condition". £100 was collected by public subscription for their repair
  • 1590 The privateer, Harry Bonoventure, manned with 60 crew and 12 guns sets out from Chester "To be used in warlike manner agaynst the Kinge of Spayne"

* This most horrible and barbaric of punishments prevailed for hundreds of years in England for the most serious of crimes- most notably High Treason. It involved the unfortunate criminal being dragged around the town, and from there to the place of execution (in Chester's case Boughton, a mile or so outside the Eastgate)- on a wooden sledge or pallet, being there hung for a short period, but cut down while still conscious, then having his private parts cut off and burned before his eyes, followed by his belly being slit open and his bowels similarly burned. Trouble was taken to ensure the victim remained conscious and observant throughout the process, which was witnessed by large crowds. Finally, he was beheaded and his torso roughly chopped into four pieces which, together with his head, would be publicly displayed- after being sprinkled with certain spices to prevent the birds pecking at it- in prominent positions around the town, such as upon the city gates- or even in different cities throughout the country...

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