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The Infirmary

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

16. The Watertower

Tower Wharf

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two towersHere before us on the north west corner of Chester's city walls, we see the venerable sandstone angle tower known by the curious name of Bonewaldesthorne's Tower, after, it is said, an officer in the army of Aethelflaed, daughter of Alfred the Great, who expelled an army of occupying Danes from the fortress in the early 10th century.

She went on to rebuilt and extended its walls and establish Chester at the centre of a line of burghs, stretching from Rhuddlan in North Wales to Manchester, to protect the northern frontier of Mercia.

A Saxon watchtower would almost certainly have stood at this strategically important location, but very little of the defences of that period remain above ground today, and the structure we see before us is of medieval origin.

Here is an interesting view from the middle of the 19th century by Evans and Gresty showing an early locomotive passing under the walls immediately next to Bonewaldesthorne's Tower. The embankment upon which it runs is as yet unfenced, and cattle and sheep are placidly grazing in the meadow beyond. The river is busy with sail-powered shipping, and beyond is nothing but fields and woods.

Here is an interesting aerial view of the towers and their surroundings- a detail from John McGahey's famous View of Chester from a Balloon- as they appeared in 1855.

The Railway

The first passenger railway service in the world- that between Liverpool and Manchester- opened in September 1830, but the railway first came the few miles to Chester when the building of the original line from Warrington to Birmingham in 1837 led to an extension of the line to Chester in 1840. A line planned to run from Chester to Birkenhead never actually reached the Mersey, as there was a clause in the Act of Incorporation which stipulated that branch lines must be built to link with all the ferries, if to any at all, and this proved to be financially impossible, there being so many operating at the time.

In 1846, a line opened between Chester and Ruabon in North Wales, and was soon extended to Holyhead on the Isle of Anglesey (the Welsh call it Ynys Môn), to meet the boats for Ireland. This continues in service to this day, and is in fact the line we see running below us.

Around thirty years later, in 1875, the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincoln Company constructed a new line running from Manchester via Altringham, Northwich and Delamere to the new Northgate Station in Chester. In 1890, the line was extended to Shotton, with new stations at Blacon and Saughall, and included a stretch which allowed trains from Manchester to bypass Northgate station. This in turn connected with others, allowing access to Hawarden and Wrexham, or to Bidston and from there to the popular resort of New Brighton, or to Birkenhead and on to Liverpool.

Much of this vast labour work was undertaken by the consummate railway engineer Thomas Brassey (1805-1870) who was born at Buerton near Chester. He built many railway stations, including the grand one here in Chester, as well as laying thousands of miles of line not only throughout Britain, but also in France, Italy, Canada, the Crimea, Argentina, Australia, and India. This great man is remembered in his home city merely by a plaque on the station wall and Brassey Street, a little sidestreet near the waterworks in Boughton. A brief biography of Mr Brassey may be found at Wikisource.

The upper floor of Bonewaldesthorne's Tower houses a remarkable camera obscura- an ingenious pre-photographic optical device that transmits crystal-clear, full colour images of the surrounding landscape via a movable lens mounted on the roof onto a table top in a darkened room below. It was installed here in the 1830s when the tower was taken over as a museum by the Chester Mechanic's institute, and still functions- it was recently restored- a rare surviving example of this once-popular scientific curiousity. It must be said, however, that, owing to the proliferation of mature trees in the vicinity, the view is certainly not what it once.

A splendid demonstration of a camera obscura in action features in that great postwar British allegorical film: A Matter of Life and Death starring David Niven, Marius Goring and Kim Hunter.

Passing right through Bonewaldesthorne's Tower, one descends some worn stone steps and enters upon a spur wall, 100 feet long and 11 feet wide, that connects the city walls proper with the Watertower or New Tower, as it was once also known. At 11 feet wide, this is approximately twice as thick as the city wall, and the lowest part is 24 feet above the present ground. The battlements, much reduced in height today, were added in the 1640s when, during the Civil War Siege of Chester, this section of wall was continuously pounded by guns and grenados (mortars) situated on high ground across the river, and especially from a place called Brewer's Hall Farm, which you can see on this old map.

There is a substantial arch through the wall at ground level, and over this there is a small room from which a portcullis may have been raised and lowered.

queen anne statueAt the top of the steps is a sculpted stone niche within which formerly stood a statue of Queen Anne by John Tilston- transferred here from the old Exchange in Northgate Street after this was destroyed by fire in 1862. The statue itself mysteriously disappeared sometime during the 1960s. Here we see it still in situ in an old photograph.

River Defences
The contract for the Watertower's construction has remarkably survived and tells us that, in the 16th year of the reign of Edward II, 1322, the aptly-named mason, John de Helpeston was paid £100 (somewhere around £250,000 today) to build a fortified tower standing in the River Dee west of the existing fortifications, together with a connecting spur wall.

You will recall from when we visited the Watergate that the river formerly flowed close by the city walls and that an important commercial and military port thrived beneath them. Until the start of the 14th century, the existing structure of the ancient walls and towers proved adequate to the port's defence, but, as the silting of the Dee estuary started to badly affect the depth of water available to shipping, it was deemed necessary to extend the defences further out into the river, and as a result, this New Tower was commissioned. The contract between him and the city makes it clear that Bonewaldesthorne's Tower ('Turrus de Benewaldestham'), through which the Water Tower is reached, was already in existence.

John the mason did his work well. The Watertower stands proudly today much as it did when it really was the 'New Tower', seven centuries ago. It is about 75 feet high and its walls are 12 feet thick. The lower chamber is a vaulted octagon with moulded ribs rising from the angles of the walls, with an arrow-slit opening from each recess. The upper room has only four windows, and that to the right of the entrance is presumably a replacement of the original. The position of the fireplace can still be seen in the west wall. This upper chamber- also octagonal- is reached via a spiral staircase. To the right of the entrance there was a small latrine. A winding stair to the left leads to the upper room and roof.

The roof parapet still retains much of its crenellations, and overlooking the tower entrance and spur wall there is a raised platform which was originally gained by a continuation of the stair.

Try, as you stand in this peaceful spot, to imagine the scene as early illustrations show it: of armed men looking down to where the Watertower stood solidly in mid-river with wooden sailing ships moored to its base and a bustle of soldiers, mariners and merchants going about their business all around...

Majestic and gay were the vessels adorning
Thy banks, lovely Dee! as I wandered along;
Where I loved to inhale the pure breath of the morning,
And listen with glee to the mariner's song.

How proudly I gaz'd on thy port that was crowded
With barks that were freighted from India's shore;
Nor thought of the time when thy hopes would be clouded,
And commerce and industry bless thee no more!

Opposite Bonewaldesthorne's Tower there is a gateway giving access to some steps that take you down to the attractive Water Tower Gardens, a pleasant little park, complete with tennis courts and a popular bowling green. This area was formerly known as the Tower Field and in 1836 Hemingway wrote that it had "recently been rented by the guardians of the poor by the cultivation of which, by spade husbandry, able-bodied paupers were very properly and advantagiously employed".

hemingway's watertowerDuring the Spring and Summer of 2002, the Water Tower Gardens underwent a major facelift- based upon the suggestions of local people and costing around £200,000. Included was the construction of a remarkable two-dimensional maze (one without high surrounding hedges) which consists of coloured paths- the Jubilee colours of red, white and blue- that may be followed, hopefully, to reach the centre. The curves of the maze are said to symbolise the waters of the River Dee, which in medieval times flowed where these gardens now stand. Its designer, Adrian Fisher, explained that "visitors start by choosing one of the three coloured brick strips. Once they start, they they must keep going forwards and not take sharp turns. As they reach each junction square, they are given choices, with two or three directions to choose".

Mr Fisher has created more than 200 mazes in 17 countries and has set four Guinness world records. In addition, a fine new community pavilion was opened in the Water Tower Gardens in June 2004.

Looking beyond the park, a very great deal of redevelopment is currently going on, part of the regeneration of the so-called Old Port area of the city- which actually dates from the 1730s when the silted-up river was canalised, new quays and shipyards were established to replace their land-locked medieval predecessors and New Crane Street was built to link the new wharves to the city.

In the midst stands the handsome Victorian Electric Lighting Company Building, Chester's first electric generating station, which was built by an enlightened city council in 1896. It was, despite great public opposition, recently due to be demolished to make way for three speculative office blocks, a plan which was abandoned only due to a lack of prospective tenants. A new housing scheme was then announced for the site, but the future of the building remained uncertain for months until the developers, in the face of continuing and determined opposition, agreed to incorporate its facade into their plans. Read more about it here.

Left: the artist of this 19th century watercolour of the Watertower employed a remarkable degree of artistic licence as he happily moved the Cathedral halfway across the city so as to allow it to appear in his painting!

Descending the steps and entering the Watertower Gardens, one may inspect the weathered base of the old tower and its spur wall in detail. On one side you will see a weathered plaque, erected in 1730 recording repairs carried out in that year, during the mayorality of John Pemberton- whom we shall meet again in due course. Notice also the two arches under the wall, beneath which small craft were once able to sail- remember that all this area was once under water, and that many feet of these structures now lie buried beneath the former mud of the river bed.

It was recorded that iron rings to which ships moored were once visible on the lower section of the Watertower, for example by Fuller, who in concluding his Worthies of 1662, vainly wished, "that the distance between Dee and the new tower may be made up, all obstructions being removed, which cause or occasion the same; that the rings on the New Tower (now only for sight) may be restored to the service for which they were first intended, to fasten vessels thereunto; that vessels on that river, (lately degenerated from ships into barks) may grow up again to their former state and stature".

quite at home!The international trade of Chester's port was no doubt a contributing factor in the frequent outbreaks of Bubonic Plague in the city. During a severe attack following the end of the Civil War, cabins were erected under the Watertower and in a nearby, now-vanished, quarry and saltmarshes to accomodate the afflicted, in an attempt to prevent the disease from spreading.

Part of the great charm of the Watertower today derives from the apparent lack of 'improvement' it has undergone- throughout the town, ancient structures have been rebuilt- not always necessarily- or unsympathetically 'restored', removing almost all trace of their venerable origins. Not so here- when one surveys the view at this corner of the walls, despite the building work in the background and the trains running beneath, it is easy to evoke the colourful and violent events that have taken place here throughout the centuries.

Recently the Watertower- which houses a most interesting little museum dedicated to the medieval port- underwent a programme of renovation, but for the present sadly remains closed to visitors, due, apparently to 'funding shortages'. I am sorry to report that the same excuse is given for the closure of the Phoenix Tower on the north east corner of the walls.

As we turn the corner and pass over the railway, the flight of steps on our left leads us down to Tower Road. Remarkably, the landscaped area immediately below was once occupied by public swimming baths and wash-houses, established here in 1849 and surviving until 1892. In 1882 they were supplemented by a floating baths on the River Dee- best remembered for the occasion when it broke its moorings, drifted downstream and got stuck on the weir! No trace of either establishment survives today, but modern swimmers are well catered for at the City Baths on Union Street or the much larger Northgate Arena.

Now go on to explore another fascinating part of Chester- Tower Wharf ...

chester guided walksCuriosities from Chester's History no. 25

  • For over 500 years the city executioners had made their work a public spectacle on Gallows Hill, Boughton (where St. Paul's Church now stands) and the City Assembly had paid their expenses with little comment. In later years it had become the custom, as an act of mercy for those condemned to be burned at the stake, for the executioner to throttle the victims into insensibility from behind, to spare them the agony of the fire. The Quaker, Mary Heald was the last ever to die at Boughton in this manner.
  • 1766 The medieval Eastgate, with its two octagonal towers and battlements, was demolished. In doing so, workmen discovered portions of the Roman Gate- the Porta Principalis Sinistra. Four of the original arches were discovered "two in a line and fifteen feet distant from each other" and between them a half-ton carving of Mars, which Pennant recorded as "removed to the garden of Mr. Lawton"- but since, unfortunately, lost.
  • 1769 The new Eastgate was completed and the racecourse on the Roodee enlarged, and two stone Judge's Chairs added- one of which may still be seen there.
  • 1770 One stagecoach a week travelling from Chester to London. The 'Bars' in Boughton- an outer defensive wall with a small postern gate, built to defend the eastern entrance into the city- was removed.
  • 1771 An Act was passed to allow the building the Chester to Nantwich Canal, and to celebrate this, the city was illuminated. 95 vessels came to Chester via the new river cut.
  • 1772 A "horrid explosion" of 800lbs of gunpowder in Puppet Show Entry, off Watergate Street, on the 5th November, by which 30 people attending a performance by the Sons of Mirth and Humour in the room above lost their lives and "about 70 were dreadfully burned".
    (Another, far better known, 'Gunpowder Plot'- that of Guy Fawkes and accomplaces - had also taken place on November 5th, but 167 years earlier, in 1605). The population of Chester at this time given by Pennant as being 14,713
  • 1773 Chester's first public library opens in St. John Street. The 'Boston Tea Party'
  • 1775 The Chester Chronicle- still published today- was established by Poole and Barker. 1775-83 The American Revolution
  • 1779 Chester-Nantwich canal built.
  • 1781/2 The medieval Bridgegate demolished and replaced by present arch, designed by Joseph Turner.
  • 1785 Chester's first hotel, the Royal Hotel built on the site where the present Grosvenor Hotel now stands.
  • 1788 The medieval Watergate was demolished and replaced by the present arch, designed by Joseph Turner.
  • 1788-1818 The rebuilding of Chester Castle by Thomas Harrison.
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