Chester is jam-packed with history. Wherever you go there is something to see: Roman remains, the medieval city walls, and the second most photographed clock in Britain. To make sense of the multi-layered history of Chester I joined in with a tour of the city organised by the Guild of Chester Tour Guides.
Layers Of History
Our guide was Pete Evans. He was entertaining and informative, and managed to pack an incredible amount of Chester’s 2,000 year history into an hour and a half. He also had a seemingly inexhaustible supply of stories about the people who lived in and visited the city over the centuries.
Pete started by explaining that the history of Chester is multi-layered, the different eras overlapping with one another. (For convenience I have divided this post into separate periods but you will see that the various strands are all interconnected…)
Founded in 74 CE, Chester has been described as “the most Roman town in Britain” (a title that has sometimes been disputed by Colchester!). It is certainly true that Deva, as it was then known, was the most important Roman military fortress in the north of Britain.
Although much of the River Dee has now silted up, Deva was at the head of an open estuary in Roman times. This facilitated the movement of troops and goods into the country. An additional benefit was its location on a sandstone ridge above the river, making the fortress easy to defend.
Where To See Roman Chester
The medieval city was built on top of the Roman fortress, but some buildings still have Roman remains in their basements. If you go into the Bridge Café on Bridge Street you can go into the basement and see some fragments of a Roman hypocaust, which would have been used for heating the baths. There are also some Roman columns beneath the Pret A Manger sandwich shop, but these can only be visited with an official guide (another advantage of taking a tour!).
Just outside the city walls are the remains of the amphitheatre, the largest in Britain. Nearby are the Roman Gardens, a sort of outdoor museum laid out like a Roman garden with artefacts brought in from elsewhere in the city. And the Grosvenor Museum has a collection of ancient gravestones, and lots of information about Roman Chester.
The city still follows the Roman street plan, with the four main streets each leading from a gate and converging at the central cross. But you can see how the plan was modified in the Middle Ages, with lots of narrow lanes and street names reminiscent of medieval trading activity, such as Bakers’ Row and Shoemakers’ Row.
Chester City Walls
The Chester city walls are the most complete circuit of Roman/medieval defences in the UK (it is true that the Londonderry walls are more complete, but they are also more recent, dating from the 17th century). The original structure was Roman but new walls were built in the 12th century. These substantially followed the line of the Roman fortifications but were extended to enclose a larger area. (In fact, most of the fabric of what you see today is later, the walls having been extensively repaired after the Civil War.)
The two mile circuit of the walls makes a pleasant walk around the perimeter of the old town. It takes you past many of the city’s landmarks, including the amphitheatre, Roman Gardens, Cathedral and Chester Castle. A small diversion takes you to the medieval church of St John the Baptist: this was the original cathedral of Chester, and there is a ruined chapel beside the church.
The Rows are unique to Chester, a series of half-timbered galleries leading to a second row of shops above those at street level. This unusual method of building arose in the Middle Ages because people couldn’t dig deep basements (there is very little soil here, and buildings sit on top of the bedrock), and they needed to extend upwards to create more room.
Today The Chester Rows are home to many boutique shops, bars and restaurants.
Chester Cathedral was originally a Benedictine monastery, only becoming a cathedral after the Reformation. It has been rebuilt at various times, and incorporates a variety of architectural styles.
Visitors can enjoy a tour of the cathedral and its decorative features, or climb to the top of the tower for the view. Not to be missed is the Refectory Café, which is located in what was once the monks’ dining room.
Georgian And Victorian Chester
Although Chester appears to be a medieval town with Roman foundations much of the current city was shaped by later generations. The path that you follow around the city walls is in fact Georgian, built as a promenade for fashionable citizens. The present day Cathedral is mostly a Victorian restoration, as are some parts of The Rows. Even more recently, St Michael’s Row – a smart arcade linking Bridge Street Row with the modern Grosvenor Precinct – was built in 1912.
Then there is the famous Eastgate Clock. The East Gate itself was one of the historic entrances to the city, but was rebuilt and enlarged in the Georgian period to allow carriages to pass through. The ornate wrought iron clock was added in 1899 to celebrate Queen Victoria’s diamond jubilee two years earlier. It is now one of the city’s foremost tourist attractions.
How To Take The Chester Tour
- The Chester Tour departs daily from the Visitor Information Centre on Northgate Street at 10.30 am
- Additional tours take place at 2 pm in the summer months, and on Thursday – Sunday in the winter
- Tickets can be bought direct from the guide
- Tours last for 90 minutes
- If you are staying overnight in Chester and looking for accommodation check out my review of the Hotel Indigo Chester.
Thanks to Pete Evans and The Guild of Chester Tour Guides for allowing me to join this tour.
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