Chester Guided Walks

If you find this 'virtual stroll' stimulating, why not treat yourself to one of our real guided walks?
Join photographer, author and historian Steve Howe to wander Chester's world famous City Walls, the most complete in Britain, and discover the delights of the city they have guarded for 2000 years. See sights and hear stories you'll never find in any guidebook. Liverpool too! Booking is simple- email us or click the picture to learn more..

The Bridge of Sighs I

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Bridge of Sighs part II

The Northgate


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Ithe north wallf you had undertaken this walk round Chester's ancient City Walls at almost any time during much of the last millennium, a familiar sight would have been the armed men patrolling there: The Watch, said to have been established soon after the Norman conquest by the first Earl of Chester, Hugh d'Avranches (known as Lupus- 'the wolf'), following a serious incursion one Christmas Eve by a combined band of Welshmen and Saxons. The town was taken by surprise, and the attack resulted in considerable loss of life by both sides before the raiders eventually withdrew, leaving much of Chester in flames. The incident was dramatically recreated by the Rev. Robert Rogers, writing in the 16th century:

"No man's memory cannot remember the original, yet the collections of writers doe shew the beginning to be in the days of William the Conqueror, who driving the oulde Brittons, or as is verilie thoughte the Walshemen who did here inhabitt, mixed with the oulde Saxons, seeing the Normans to have gotten the possession by force of conquest, at a season in the Christmas when all men give themselves to securitie, the Walshemen, neere neighbours, grudgeing at their securitie and possession of their landes, came in the night and made a sudden invasion, and spoiled and burned some of this cittie"

Earl Hugh, determined not to be caught out again, granted land to those who would provide armies of retainers for "watching the four gates" and also pay a gabel (or gable) tax every Christmas. They were also obliged "to be in attendance at the execution of felons".

An ancient type of tenure under which property in Chester was held was known as the Execution Rent. It applied to a number of houses and inns and in addition to other services, entailed active assistance on the part of the holder on those occasions when county and city criminals and other offenders were to suffer capital punishment. As part of their privileges and duties, the Execution Rent tenants were bound to keep watch for the city on Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and St. Stephen's Day (26th December), they were bound to mount guard over and conduct felons and robbers- whether condemned in the County Court before the Justiciar of Chester, or in the City Court or Crownmote before the Mayor- as far as the gallows. For the services these tenants were exempt from attendance on all inquisitions, juries and assizes, except when held before the Earl of Chester.

bridge of sighs from canalThe Watch on the walls was kept up for centuries, but its role began to change as the danger of vandalism and unrest by roistering citizens within the walls was apparently considered greater than attack by disgruntled Welshmen from without. As the Rev. Rogers put it: "The use that now is made thereof is... to watch 3 nightes together with the most strong and well appointed armore... but now we use the same to keepe the cittie from danger of fire, theeves, dronkness and unmeete meetings and drinkinges in the nightes, which might be the cause of peturbations of peace and sin against God, which to these times are most incidente".

Right: The Bridge of Sighs and Northgate Bridge viewed from the spectacular deep cutting in which runs the Shropshire Union Canal. The City Wall is on the right and the Bluecoat School on the left. If you walked this way, you would find that very little has changed since this engraving was made in the 19th century.

The Setting of the Watch became a great annual ceremony which signalled the start of the City of Chester's official Christmas celebrations. The tenants were summoned before the Mayor and Corporation, Recorders and Justices "In their scarlett gownes, attended with lights and torches and accompanied with diverse of the gentry and others" in the Common Hall to render homage for their lands, and the men-at-arms were inspected before parading through the streets with banners flying to the four gates. The keys were delivered by the Mayor "to such of the watchmen as he was pleased to intrust". These ceremonials were traditionally followed by much eating, drinking and merrymaking.

A thousand years before the Normans came to Chester, the cold and lonely duty of patrolling the walls fell to the soldiers of the 2nd and then the 20th Roman Legions, men posted here from every corner of the Empire. Imagine how they must have felt, at two o'clock of a winter morning with the mist swirling in from the river, contemplating another day of endless rain and miserable cold. All they could do was to pull their cloaks more tightly around them and curse the day they left sunnier climes for these inhospitable shores. The poet W. H. Auden expressed it well in his poem Roman Wall Blues:

Over the heather the wet wind blows,
I've lice in my tunic and cold in my nose.
The rain comes pattering out of the sky,
I'm a wall soldier, I don't know why.
The mist creeps over the hard grey stone,
My girl’s in Tungria; I sleep alone.
Aulus goes hanging around her place,
I don’t like his manners, I don’t like his face.”

The North Wall at this point is pierced by a small postern or gateway. This was constructed as recently as 1883 after a considerable stretch of the inner face of this section collapsed and had to be rebuilt. During the course of this work, all manner of pieces of architecural decoration from demolished Roman buildings and inscribed tombstones and funerary monuments were discovered, mysteriously built into the core of the wall. When, four years later, in 1887, further repairs were carried out to the north wall in the vicinity of the Deanery Field, a great many similar finds were made. They range in date from around 70AD to the early third century and represent every type of citizen: soldiers and civilians, men and women, young and old, from all parts of the empire including modern France, Spain, Italy, Slovenia and Turkey.

The finest of the tombstones may be seen today in their own wonderful gallery at the Grosvenor Museum- one of the most important collections of Roman inscriptions and sculpture in north-west Europe.

This gateway through the walls leads to a recently-landscaped area that was formerly occupied by an ugly building that had been used for purposes as diverse as rifle range, scout hut and shirt factory before being burnt out and sitting derelict for many years.

The land was eventually acquired by the City Council and funding obtained to improve the situation, with the results we can now see before us: a compact semi-circular arena with steps running down to the canal locks below, where the surviving lower courses of the wall of the old building have been skilfully incorporated into the design.

drawing of city wallIf you enter and look at the inside of the City Wall, you will see some complex and extremely impressive sections of the original Roman stones, dating from c.100AD, seen here in a photograph by the author and a fine pencil drawing by Jay Hurst. The gradual rising of the ground level over the centuries means that these courses would originally have been far higher and much of the Roman masonry remains buried below ground while later generations successively built on top of, or adjacent to, the older courses, thus raising the wall to the present level.

The creation of a, more or less, level promenade along the wall's top during the eighteenth century also resulted in alterations in height, as some sections were reduced while others were raised- and occasionally completely rebuilt.

A cobbled ramp leads from here down to the canal towpath and the Northgate Locks. The Chester Canal, which only went as far as Nantwich, was started in 1772 and this first section was opened three years later. It was a commercial flop and was in danger of closing when it was taken over by the larger Ellsmere Canal Company as part of an ambitious plan to unite the River Severn at Shrewsbury with the Rivers Dee and Mersey. The course across the Wirral to a junction with the Chester Canal at Tower Wharf opened in 1796- the junction itself opening a year later. There were originally five locks here, but these were reduced to three when the Wirral branch of the canal was added.

If you were to look down from the top of the cobbled slope where we now stand, you would, until recently, have noticed some wooden boards set into the towpath. These concealed a flight of stone steps which was provided to facilitate the rescuing of horses in the event of their falling into the canal. The boards have been replaced with a metal cover as part of a recent, very welcome towpath restoration, but the emergency steps survive beneath.

Regaining the wall via the steps near Morgan's Mount, on our left- beyond the long strip of garden below- we see the deep cutting into which the canal has disappeared: the re-excavated original fosse of the Roman fortress.

Looking down Canning Street on the right, between the 1882 Eddington's Buildings and the much later, but still pleasing terrace of modern homes, King Charles' Court, we see the interesting variety of architectual styles and periods evident in the backs of the old houses in King Street. Laid out in Norman times, King Street was originally known as Barn Lane and linked Northgate Street with the Abbey of St. Werburgh's tithe barn, once situated in the Crofts in the northwestern corner of the city. This must have been a large building- the Abbey was richly endowed with many farms and thousands of acres of land. The recent archaeological dig at the Infirmary sought to find some trace of it, but with no success, and its site is now surmised to lie somewhere under the present Inner Ring Road.

The author of an anonymous work, A Walk Round the Walls and City of Chester, published around 1800, has this to say regarding the view hereabouts, "on the descent from the Northgate, which we hear is soon to be replaced by a modern structure, a fine variegated landscape lays before us, enriched by water, wood and mountains- the River Dee navigation- a well cultivated plain of great extent- the castle and village of Hawarden with the woods abounding on the neighbouring hills, terminated by the mountains of Flintshire and Denbighshire. On the level, several thousand acres of fine land have been already enclosed and good farm houses now stand where the tide flowed a few years ago.
A person, long resident in Chester, can with difficulty recall to his recollection the appearance of the place, which the new canal warehouses, hotel &c. now occupy, and and the bustle of trade causes him to form a pleasing contrast between its former and present appearance".

What we who love old Chester would give to see what that long-dead author wrote of as "its present appearance"!

The Northgate Brewery
view of old breweryApproaching the Northgate, we find ourselves peering through the windows of a large modern office block, Centurion House, built in 1977 as the local branch of HM Customs and Excise, and, in the view of many, most inappropriate, both in scale and style, for this attractive corner of the city. It stands on the site of the former Northgate Brewery- shown above- which closed down in 1969. It formerly housed Cheshire's County Court until a few years ago with the opening of a new County Court building in an equally-inappropriate location: the unexcavated half of Chester's Roman amphitheatre. Centurion House is now used for commercial purposes.

Northgate Street was blessed with a great number of inns- guide and author Thomas Hughes wrote of them as "being as common as blackberries"- and one of these was the old Golden Falcon Inn, which long stood where the office block is now. It was first recorded in 1704 and for many years considered the principal inn of the city. It was here, in 1741, that the great composer George Friderick Handel stayed for several days. Prevented by bad weather from sailing for Ireland from the small port of Parkgate on the Wirral, he was forced to assemble a makeshift orchestra and chorus from the Cathedral and elsewhere to rehearse what would be, when he eventually arrived in Dublin, the first performance of his best-loved work, Messiah.

Thirty years earlier, in 1711, the Duke of Ormonde, then Lord-Lieutenant of Ireland, stopped at the Falcon until the wind allowed him to proceed on his journey from Parkgate to Ireland. On the morning when the Duke and his entourage were about to set out, one of the waiters at the inn ran after one of the duke's servants to demand payment for some articles he had omitted to discharge. The servant refused to pay, and the waiter, holding the horse's bridle, insisted on being paid before he would quit his hold. Upon this, the servant drew a pistol from his holsters, and shot the waiter dead on the spot. On the man being imprisoned, the Lord-Lieutenant directed that if his servant was convicted, an express should immediately be sent to him so that he might apply to the King for his man's pardon. The prisoner was tried and found guilty, and the Mayor being informed of the directions of the Lord-Lieutenant, replied, "I will take care to save his Majesty and the Lord-lieutenant any further trouble in this matter" and gave orders that the man should be executed the day following his conviction.

brewersThe Duke of Cumberland stayed at the Golden Falcon in 1749, when he came to Chester to pursue his intrigue with Lady Henrietta, wife of the first Earl Grosvenor.

Right: a mixture of wooden and metal barrels being filled from the great vat in which the beer was brewed in the Northgate Brewery's cellars sometime during the 1960s.

Here is just one more curious story. In a small house adjoining the Golden Falcon lived one Samuel Jarvis. A ribbon weaver by trade, he had always been poor until one day it was observed that his circumstances had suddenly changed for the better. He entered into the silk trade and purchased an extensive estate near Mollington where he built himself a grand house. He served as Mayor of Chester in 1742-3 and had been selected to serve as High Sheriff of the County of Cheshire but died, an affluent and well-respected citizen, before he could take up the post.

But where did Jarvis's wealth come from? It was said that a clerk in a banking house in London stole a very large amount of money and made his escape to Chester, possibly en route to Ireland or elsewhere. He was followed and traced to the inn. Realising the game was up, immediately before his arrest he threw the bags of money out of his window and they landed among the undergrowth in Jarvis's garden. The clerk was nontheless arrested and returned to the capital where he was tried. No trace of the loot having been found, however, he was acquitted- but was later convicted of another serious crime and executed. The fortunate Mr Jarvis seems to have discovered the money bags in his garden soon afterwards and his new life commenced from that time...

An even older inn, the White Bull, mentioned in 1642, was incorporated into the Golden Falcon in 1752. The inn was long in the hands of the Kenna family- and had been commonly referred to as Kenna's from at least 1711. The last of the family, Miss Catherine, died in 1770 but the inn had passed out of their hands by then- in 1763 it was acquired and partially rebuilt by George Smith, who also owned what was Chester's grandest coaching inn, The White Lion, which once stood where the entrance to the Forum is now.

But the great days of the Falcon had passed away with the last of the Kenna family and, in spite of the improvements carried out by George Smith, custom diminished and the career of the inn as such came to an end and the premises were put to other uses. By 1772, this former Row had become a vinegar manufactory until George Eaton bought and eventually demolished all the properties on the site to build his brewery. His son, Peter Eaton expanded the business, altered the stables to take more fermenting vessels and sunk a 33 metre well. In 1849, he was given notice by the council to control the smoke coming from his furnaces. He served as Mayor of Chester in 1856-7.

old breweryNo reference to the Golden Falcon occurs in the 1782 directory and the building was then in the occupation of "John Tomlinson, surgeon". Thirteen years later, the premises are listed as in the occupancy of "Messrs, Tomlinson, Brewers, Northgate Street" and the doctor, presumably one of the owners, had moved to Bridge Street.

A new brewery was built on the site in the 1850s. Eaton's Brewery eventually took over the Kelsterton and St. Winnifred's (Holywell) breweries and the company was bought out in 1864 by Henry Ford, Frederic Gunton and William Kelly, who formed the Northgate Brewing Company in 1889. They had 'bottling stores, wine and spirit vaults' at 7 Foregate Street and malt kilns on the east side of Lower Bridge Street and owned pubs throughout Cheshire and North Wales. The brewery was again taken over, in 1949, by Warrington-based Greenhall Whitley, who closed it down twenty years later and the buildings were demolished in 1971.

This photograph, taken just before the demolition, shows the main building to have been rather handsome and it seems a pity that it was not, as was the case with the splendid Steam Mill on Canal Side, converted to other uses..

An advertisment in the now-defunct Cheshire Observer of May 1882 announced "Northgate Brewery: March brewings of pale and mild ales and porter from one shilling per gallon". If only...A mixture of wooden and metal barrels being filled from the great vat in which the beer was brewed in the Northgate Brewery's cellars sometime during the 1960s.

Northgate beer was widely exported as well as being produced for local consumption. Reader Steve Jacobs kindly sent us this photograph of a Northgate Brewery bottle which he recently bought "in the mountains of Asheville, North Carolina, USA". And, in June 2010, we were pleased to hear from Jenine Kramer in far-away Redmond, Oregon USA. She told us, "I came across your website after searching for information on a bottle I purchased in an antique store here in Oregon. I was looking for a thank you gift for my friend, Brian Cheeseman of Tantallon, Nova Scotia, Canada who collects antique beer bottles & cans. The bottle is dark green and has raised writing - "NORTHGATE BREWERY CHESTER". I was thrilled to read all about the brewery and very happy to see a picture of my exact bottle!"

Readers may be gratified by the knowledge that collectors of old beer bottles, such as Janine's friend, are distinguished by the name labeorphilists.

Archaeological investigation of the cleared brewery site conducted in the early 1970s revealed evidence of Roman rampart buildings, an intervallum road that ran inside the wall and the foundations of barrack blocks. Also uncovered were many cellars and foundations dating from the14th to the 19th centuries.

Around 1973- a few years after its demolition- the well room from the old brewery was re-erected in the beautiful Ness Gardens on the Wirral. It is an interesting structure, roughly circular, which stands approximately 2-2.5 metres tall.

northgate ale badgeThe Northgate Brewery may have closed half a century ago but Northgate Ale is back, thanks to local brewer John Murray! "Although I am slightly too young to have sampled Northgate, I know of it well and many more senior friends and neighbours speak very fondly of it. I discovered that many of the brewery records had been lodged with Cheshire Archives and Local Studies.  One item of particular interest was the 1902 brewery day book, detailing the malt, hops, water treatment, temperatures and gravities. I spent a couple of days there, transcribing these records and converting them into metric units. I decided to have a go.  One problem that I needed to overcome was how to replicate the malts which were no longer available such as Burton Strong and Smyrna.  After some searching, I found detailed analysis of both of these and attempted to replicate them using a blend of modern grains.
During a chance conversation with one of the Falcon regulars, I learned that he had worked at the brewery from 1958 to 1969. He gave me some useful information and also offered to help with the testing. I also discussed the idea with well known local historian Len Morgan, a big fan of the original brew, who gave me some other useful information. All in all I managed to recruit over 40 volunteers, all who drank the original brews, and gave them each a 500ml bottle and a questionnaire.  The feedback was that I had got it nearly right, so some minor adjustments were made to the blend and another test carried out.  Feedback from that was that it was probably as close as we could get, based on people’s recollections.
For interest, at that time, in an average week, the brewery did 4 brews of 40 x 36 gallon barrels.  Beside the Draught Northgate Ale, other beers in the log are Mild, Harvest Ale, the bottled version of Northgate Ale (slightly stronger than the draught), and Old Chester Strong. It was really your site that inspired the original search for information. The next step may be to try it in a few pubs and see how it goes down."

brewery logoA new gallery of photographs of the Northgate Brewery is here.

Should you wander round to the main entrance of Centurion House, via Fireman's Square, you will see set into the pavement the attractive mosaic design- shown here- that was formerly set in the old brewery office doorway in Northgate Street. Fireman's Square, incidentally, is so-called because of its proximity to the ornate former fire station in Northgate Street and the row of cottages still standing in the 'square' were erected in the 1920s to provide homes for the firemen and their families. The fire station was built in 1911, designed in the Vernacular Revival style by James Strong, a pupil of the prolific local architect John Douglas, complete with oriel windows beneath picturesque overhanging gables. In Chester, even the fire station had to be a half-timbered building! It was designed to house three horse-drawn fire engines and later, motorised ones such as the one shown in our picture. However, unable to accomodate larger modern appliances, the station closed in 1970 and served for a while as various retail premises, but has now been tastefully transformed into a smart French restaurant.

Looking over the other side, the long, low building nestling beneath the shelter of the wall on one side and suspended above the sheer drop to the canal on the other, is today a private residence but once served as a school- reader Charles Jones wrote to tell us that it was run by a Miss Smith and that his mother Dorothy, born 1919, had studied there. Before that, it served as a tollhouse from where monies were collected from those entering the town to conduct business and attend the fairs and markets. These tolls, known as murage, were for centuries used specifically for the upkeep of the City Walls, executed by a skilled team of masons known as the murengers.

chester guided walksnd so, we wearily arrive back at our starting point, the Northgate! We may have walked just two miles, but have seen sights and heard stories from over two millennia of Chester's (and, in many ways, Britain's) extraordinary history. I hope you found the experience stimulating and have enjoyed our brief time together. Be sure to tell your friends when you return home- and consider joining me for one of my real walking tours when you- and you will!- return to our ancient and beautiful City of Chester.

Regular readers will be aware that I am constantly adding to the site- as time, money and inspiration allow- and am always very happy to receive your contributions (for which full credit will always be given), comments, suggestions and constructive criticism. Please bear in mind that my 'Virtual Stroll' is very much a personal 'labour of love', designed to show you a little about how this remarkable city appears to me- warts and all- in these opening years of the Twenty First Century. It entertains no pretensions to being a definitive history of the City of Chester, excellent examples of which already exist for the benefit of those who wish to find out more. Particularly recommended are British History Online's A History of the County of Chester and the excellent Chester Wiki.

I have always provided the site freely, as a gift to you, dear readers. I am, however, finding it increasingly difficult to both feed the kids, pay the bills and find the time to keep the Virtual Stroll and its associated galleries anywhere near as up to date as I'd like (there are hundreds of new pictures and stories waiting to go online even now!) So, if you are in a position to offer even a small donation, provide sponsorship or would like to advertise your business on this, we think the finest of Chester's websites, go here for details...

Next time for real?
If you found this Virtual Stroll stimulating and are planning to visit Chester (or even if you live here already) you may be interested in my year-round real guided walks. I can give your party a quick introductory tour of the city centre or conduct lengthy and detailed study walks, depending upon your requirements- and any sized party can be acommodated. (I offer this service to those visiting the great city of Liverpool too. I've lived in Chester for over thirty years and raised my family here but I was born and raised in Liverpool). Click on the cover of my brochure (right) to find out more or contact me to discuss your needs.

Curiosities from Chester's History no. 28

    • 1826 Chester Waterworks established, and the intake removed to Barrel Well Hill in Boughton, where by means of a powerful steam engine and double-force pumps, water was supplied to the city. The Old Dee Bridge was widened and a footpath incorporated, at a cost of £1500. Farmers paid 2/6d per load for manure recovered from the city streets. 'Brown's of Chester' in Eastgate Street was refaced with columns in the Doric style. April 26th. Execution of Abraham Stone for a robbery near Cow Lane Bridge under circumstances of great violence. The apparatus for the execution was moved from the east to the west end of the City Gaol, where, Hemingway reported, "These melancholy spectacles have ever since been exhibited". October: The first stone of the new bridge laid by the late Marquis of Westminister, attended by the Bishop, clergy, the Corporation and a vast number of citizens. World's first railway tunnel built in preparation for the Liverpool and Manchester railway.
    • 1828 July 24th and 25th. Excessive fall of rain and hail, which did immense injury to the city and neighbourhood. About fifteen yards of the city wall, between Abbey Street and the Phoenix Tower fell down "with a terrible crash, the earth having been completely excavated and washed away by the descending torrents". Vast quantities of hay and other agricultural produce were swept down the Dee, many cattle were drowned on the sands and the roads out of the city were completely inundated. Brown's of Chester trading.
    • 1829 Sept 26th. Executions: Joseph Woodhouse, for the rape of his own daughter, and Joseph Henshall, for firing at a keeper while poaching. Cheshire County lunatic asylum opened
    • 1830 George IV died, William IV (1765-1837) succeeded. St. Paul's Church, Boughton was built and the Infirmary was enlarged.
    • 1831 An average of 26 coaches daily left Chester for distant parts of the Kingdom. The ancient Shipgate was taken down and re-erected in the garden of Mr H. Finchett Maddocks in Abbey Street. It was later moved again to Grosvenor Park, where it may still be seen today. Hemingway's acclaimed 'History of the City of Chester' was published. Population of Chester: 21,363. Population of Britain: 13.9 million; Population of US: 12.8 million
    • 1832 Jan 7th. Paganini played at the Theatre Royal. Oct 14th: The Duchess of Kent and her daughter, the 13 year old Princess Victoria (the future queen) visit the city and Eaton Hall. The Princess opened the new Grosvenor Bridge. A small earthquake was felt in the neighbourhood. The 'Cholera Morbus' prevalent; the pandemic began in India around 1826, spread from Russia into Europe and reached Chester- and as far north as Scotland- by this year.
    1833 Abolition of slavery throughout British Empire
    1834 A remarkable fish, the Squalus Vulgaris or 'Angel Fish', was caught off Connah's Quay. Disastrous fire destroys much of the Houses of Parliament. The Spanish Inquisition, which began during the 13th century, finally suppressed.
    • 1835
    New City Council established. The earliest negative photograph taken by William Henry Fox Talbot. Halley's Comet reappears.
    • 1836 The 'Great Trek': Boer farmers emigrate away from British rule in South Africa; found Natal, Transvaal and Orange Free State.

    On to Curiosities from Chester's History no. 29

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Peace be within thy walls
And prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companion's sakes,
I will now say, 'peace be within thee'.

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