River Dee I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

Some Old Views of the River Dee



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We commence with this wonderfully evocative view of Chester as seen from across the River Dee as it would have appeared in the middle of the 18th century, contrasted with the same view today. It is the work of the artist Martin Moss.

The medieval Chester Castle is seen on the far left. To its right is the Shire Hall, the 'parliament' of the powerful Earls of Chester. The picture shows it in its final days as both of these were almost completely swept away around 1780 and the 'castle' we know today was built on the same site by the prolific Chester architect Thomas Harrison between the years 1785 and 1822. The so-called 'Agricola Tower'- the second high building from the left in the modern view- was, however, retained and remains standing today. Martin has also created this remarkable aerial view of the old and new castles.

On the high ground in the centre of the old image may be seen the ancient church of St. Mary-Within-the-Walls, of which more below.

The squalid houses, workshops and warehouses lining the riverbank in front of the City Wall lay along a long-vanished thoroughfare called Skinner's Lane, where all mannner of trades that were either water-dependent or deemed too unsavory or polluting to be tolerated within the town were practiced- tanning, rendering, chemical works and the like. All of this vanished when the line of the City Walls and river defences were altered when Harrison's prison (see below) was erected here in 1807.

The tall water storage tower we see in the distance was built onto the Bridgegate in 1692 by John Hadley and John Hopkins to replace an earlier one, known as Tyrer's Tower, which was destroyed during the Civil War Siege of Chester. It stood until the old Bridgegate was demolished in 1782.

In the far distance we can just see the tall Gothic West Tower of the venerable Church of St. John the Baptist, for a while Chester's first cathedral, a landmark for centuries until it fell down in 1881.

Unchanged in the two views is the venerable Old Dee Bridge, comprising seven unequal arches and built, much as we see it today, about the year 1387 on the site of a succession of earlier wooden bridges and a pre-Roman fording place. For hundreds of years, until the coming of Harrison's beautiful Grosvenor Bridge in 1832, it provided the only passage across the River Dee. The side furthest from our viewpoint was widened to allow a walkway to be added in the 1820s but the seaward side we see here has remained substantially the same throughout the long centuries.

Compare these images with this watercolour of the area by the prolific artist Louise Rayner...

fishermen on the DeeHere is an interesting photograph of fishermen on the Dee sometime during the late 19th century, before Thomas Harrison's County Gaol, in the background, was demolished. (Those cells which faced towards the river must have had spectacular views!) This had been built in 1807 to replace the squalid prison in the Northgate- you will see another picture of it when we come to the Infirmary section of our walk. The site has since 1957 been occupied by County Hall, which today unfortunately obstructs the view from the river of the fine medieval church of St. Mary-on-the-Hill. Our photograph shows it entirely unhemmed in by buildings. Built as the headquarters of the now-disbanded Cheshire County Council, the building now forms part of Chester University.

The church is also known as St. Mary-Within-the-Walls to distinguish it from the first church to be built on the other side of the river, St. Mary-Without-the-Walls in Handbridge, whose fine tall spire is clearly visible from all around. Built in 1887, occupying a site of a Roman cemetery, it was a gift to the city from the Duke of Westminster.

St. Mary-Within-the-Walls, however, has a far more reaching history. The original church on the spot, dating from around 1350, was known as St. Mary de Castro ('of the Castle'). and erected partly to serve the needs of the garrison and staff of the neighbouring Chester Castle. Some of the present church dates from a rebuilding in the 16th century and the porch contains stones brought from the nunnery of St. Mary's, which once stood overlooking the Roodee where the new HQ building now stands. The tower was once much lower than it is today- as a precaution against attack it was forbidden for any neighbouring building to overlook the walls of the castle. The ornately-carved upper 30 ft of the tower we see today were added by the castle's re-builder, Thomas Harrison in 1861-2. He also renewed much of the external sandstone masonry. Further restoration work, including the rebuilding of the north porch, was carried out in 1861-2 by John Pollard Seddon, at the expense of the Chester Freemasons.

The interior of the church is very fine and boasts a splendid English oak inner roof, brought from Basingwerk Abbey (whose picturesque ruins still survive near Holywell in North Wales) when that establishment was dissolved by the agents of King Henry VIII. Many of Chester's greatest citizens were buried here and some of their monuments are likely to surprise the visitor, being as they are painted in bright colours. One such notable 17th century tomb bears effigies of Thomas Gamul, attended by his wife and children and another commemorates the Randle Holmes family of heraldic painters.

The church became redundant in 1972, but was never deconsecrated, and today hosts an education centre operated by the local authority.

You can just glimpse the Agricola Tower of the Castle on the far left- one of the few medieval sections to survive Harrison's radical rebuilding in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The River Dee has for long been one of the most important salmon rivers in the country. The important reaches for salmon angling are the Dee and its tributaries upstream of Bangor on Dee; angling downstream of this point is important for trout and coarse fish, but in virtually the whole of the river system trout can be found.

There are two hatcheries on the river system, a trout hatchery operated commercially and a salmon and trout hatchery operated by the Water Authority. The latter is used to improve the salmon and trout stocks of the river, and the Authority uses a number of moorland streams cleared of trout and other predators, as "nurseries" for the small salmon bred at the hatchery.

In the estuary and the canalised reach of the river, a limited number of salmon netmen operate, and the estuary is also the source of flounder and shrimp. Small flounder may be observed to be a favourite of the growing number of cormorants that inhabit the river, especially in the vicinity of the Old Dee Bridge and weir.

barge on the river DeeThe salmon fishing community lived in Greenaway Street and the courts surrounding it in Handbridge, across the Dee from Chester. They all had their own jealously-guarded named spots to fish from, such as Marshead, Lane End, Under the Hills, Crane and Littlewood. Once there were fourteen such places within two miles of the Old Dee Bridge, today there are six remaining.

Joseph Hemingway, writing in 1835, said, "In that useful article, salmon, no market in the kingdom did, some few years ago, excel it; indeed, such was the profusion of that valuable fish, that masters were often restricted, by a clause in the indentiture, from giving it more than twice a week to their apprentices. Though the bounty of providence, in this particular, is yet unabated, such restriction is no longer necessary- some artificial cause, or other very kindly, rendering this fish, at the present day, a delicacy even to the masters themselves... The supply was so great, that after furnishing our own market for the city and neighbourhood, five or six carts were employed in conveying it for sale to distant places".

Right: A view of the area today known as The Groves, taken sometime prior to 1881, when the great medieval tower of St. John's Church, which you can see in the background, collapsed.
In the foreground is the weir constructed in the 11th century to direct the flow of the river toward the last two arches of the Old Dee Bridge where waterwheels powered a series of mills. In the 18th and 19th centuries, if a barge on the Shropshire Union Canal needed to unload at the mills, the lock gate into the Dee could only be opened on a flood tide. Navigating a craft designed for canal use was risky work; extra hands were needed with long poles to help keep the barge straight. The picture shows the result of getting it wrong. Having failed to tie up at the mill, the barge has been carried on under the bridge and stranded in top of the causeway as the tide recedes. It was recorded that "It took nearly all the carthorses in Chester" to pull her off.

When this photograph was taken, the river bank has not yet been formerly 'laid out', planted with trees and provided with the seating and bandstand we know and enjoy today.

ice on the DeeGo here to see a beautiful etching of the area by A.Godwin from around the same time.

Left: We move forward in time fifty years or so, to February 1929, and this view of The Groves and the frozen River Dee by photographer Mark Cook, whose studio was on the City Walls nearby. It shows the same part of the riverbank we can see in the photograph above. Many people have turned out to enjoy the novel new playground, a lot of whom have braved the ice, though the spectators in the foreground seem happy to remain safely on the bank!

This novelty of strolling where water usually flows was by no means a new one; in 1739, for example, "This year commenced the great frost which continued thirteen weeks. The ice on St. John's Dee was above three feet thick; and a large sheep was roasted whole upon it, opposite the Bowling-green. Carts and horses laden went frequently over the river."

In 1564 it was recorded that "this year there was a great frost, and the Dee was frozen over, so that people played at football thereon". This, as far as we can tell, is the earliest know reference to the 'beautiful game' in Cheshire.

Tragedies could occur however, as in 1599; "The 27th of January the River Dee was frozen over, and certain of the Citizens went to walk thereon, not remembring to keep holy the Sabbath- day, so that amongst divers that hardly escaped, three young men fell through the ice and were drowned". (all of these come from The Vale Royal of England). The River Dee later froze to this extent in 1895 and again in 1917.

nicoll's factoryYou can just see the Bandstand on the left of the photograph and the Queen's Park Suspension Bridge, rebuilt just six years earlier, crosses the river above the heads of the skaters. The original bridge had been erected here in 1851 to link the city to the newly-developed suburb of Queen's Park and was replaced by the present structure in April 1923.

Right: This was the factory of Messrs T. Nicholls, manufacturers of tobacco and snuff, which was established here in the 1780s, and which stood directly opposite the Groves and Bandstand shown in the previous picture. Following a fire, the buildings were entirely demolished in the 1960s and soon after the exceedingly ugly Salmon Leap Flats were built at the Old Dee Bridge end of the site and the rest was landscaped and a footpath to the Meadows constructed. At the far end, the Salmon Leap itself survives and the waterwheel which once powered Nicholl's snuff mill has been restored. A small generating station now stands where a smaller tobacco works and a tallow candle works used to be on Cherry Tree Island at the end of the weir.

Right: A delightfully evocative hand-coloured photograph of customers enjoying a sunny Sunday at the old White House Hotel which formerly stood above the river on Sandy Lane in Boughton, just outside Chester.

white house cafeThe cafe had originally been a pub. Reader Mike Lawton found this page and wrote to tell us that "my Great Grandparents Alfred and Sarah Jane Brentnall (ne Lloyd) ran the pub in the early 1900s and I had never seen a photo before. They had 7 daughters and one son (also Alfred) and apparently the girls regularly all trouped down to Hever Castle at the invitation of Lord and Lady Aster to dance at the balls. Why I have no idea. Alfred worked as a foreman for the leadworks and was found leaning on a bench outside the White House Pub. They thought he was asleep but he had died!" 

The variety of the gentlemen's clothing in the photograph is particularly interesting- the wearers appearing equally comfortable in swimming trunks or sturdy three-piece suit, collar and tie! Sadly, the cafe no longer exists and the site is now occupied by a mundane block of flats. However, Sandy Lane still remains an attractive area of the city and is very popular with Chester families, especially during the summer months. There is an outdoor swimming pool, playground, boatyard, sailing club and a public slipway. You can see a photograph of the old White House in our 'lost pubs of Chester' gallery.

traffic jam on the grovesDuring the summer, there is a ferry link with the vast recreational open space on the other side of the Dee known as The Meadows- which can also be easily reached from the city side of the river by crossing the suspension bridge and walking along the footpath which now occupies the site of the old tobacco factory in the previous picture- a pleasant stroll indeed.

A little further along the river from the site of the old White House- and once one of this writer's favourite summer pubs before it was converted into an expensive bar/restaurant- is the Red House, which boasts superb gardens dropping sharply down to a landing stage on the riverbank and has splendid views over the Meadows, River Dee and the towers and spires of the City of Chester. The nearby, still unspoiled, Mount Inn offers even more spectacular views over the 'Earl's Eye', river and city.

Left: A small and rather fuzzy view of The Groves from sometime in the 1950s, as viewed from the Queens Park Suspension Bridge. (You can see a fine photograph of the suspension bridge taken about ten years later here).
The photograph seems to have been taken on a bright day in early Springtime- the trees are still quite bare and everyone is well wrapped-up to enjoy the sunshine. The cars here are bumper to bumper the full length of the road, making life difficult for the many walkers. Who said traffic congestion was a new problem?

flooded meadowsToday, access to The Groves by car has been considerably restricted and priority rightly been given to pedestrians. If you're planning to visit, a limited amount of parking is available, but if at all possible, you should try to leave your car elsewhere and explore the area on foot. You'll enjoy it much more that way!

Right: The Earl's Eye flooded by the waters of the River Dee, as would have regularly occured from time immemorial until just a few years ago, when improved management of the river has made this view a strange one for today's Cestrian. Or so we thought- see below..

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.
Even earlier, in Roman times, the river, which was then much wider and deeper, flowed right up to what is now the base of Chester's medieval city wall and their galleys moored on what has for centuries been Britain's oldest racecourse, the Roodee.. Here are some photographs of the Meadows in more peaceful mood...

modern flood on the DeeThe above reference to improved management making the flooding of the Meadows a rare sight started to ring a little hollow in November 2000 when this dramatic aerial photograph was taken. Chester was by no means the most severely affected area however, as rivers throughout Britain overflowed their banks resulting in massive damage to homes and farmland.
The disaster was blamed upon a variety of factors such as global warming, modern farming methods, overdevelopment of flood plains- or, less realistically, that it was just "one of those things"...

At the time of writing, however, in early December 2000, a mere night or two of heavy rain has once again resulted in rapidly rising water levels and flood alerts are in place on dozens of rivers.

November 2012: Remarkably, twelve years have passed since the above was written and currently, the Dee has once again burst its banks and extensive flooding has closed roads and ruined homes throughout neighbouring North Wales...

Even worse came in February 2014, when extensive areas of the British Isles were inundated. Here is a new gallery of images of the Chester Meadows at this time...

frozen dee 1963
A couple of views of people walking on the frozen River Dee during the long hard winter of 1963

frozen dee 1963

the groves in summer
In stark contrast, here's a view of the Chester Groves on a Summer's day in the 1960s- a view that has hardly changed since.

walls and river dee postacrd
The River Dee and City Walls viewed from near the Old Dee Bridge in these lovely old postcards

river dee 1950s

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