Postcard Sunday: England

Sunday, September 27 2015 2:00 pm, GMT+1h Laura |
Chester

Chester is a walled city in Cheshire, England. Lying on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales, it is the largest and most populous settlement of the unitary authority area of Cheshire West and Chester, Chester was granted city status in 1541.

Chester was founded as a “castrum” or Roman fort with the name Deva Victrix, during the reign of the Emperor Vespasian in AD 79. One of the three main army camps in the Roman province of Britannia, Deva later became a major civilian settlement. In 689, King Æthelred of Mercia founded the Minster Church of West Mercia, which later became Chester’s first cathedral, and the Saxons extended and strengthened the walls, much of which remain, to protect the city against the Danes. Chester was one of the last cities in England to fall to the Normans. William the Conqueror ordered the construction of a castle, to dominate the town and the nearby Welsh border.

Chester is one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain. It has a number of medieval buildings, but some of the black-and-white buildings within the city center are Victorian restorations. Apart from a 100-meter (330 ft) section, the listed Grade I walls are almost complete. The Industrial Revolution brought railways, canals, and new roads to the city, which saw substantial expansion and development – Chester Town Hall and the Grosvenor Museum are examples of Victorian architecture from this period.

The Romans founded Chester as Deva Victrix in AD 70s in the land of the Celtic Cornovii, according to ancient cartographer Ptolemy, as a fortress during the Roman expansion north. It was named Deva either after the goddess of the Dee, or directly from the British name for the river. The ‘victrix’ part of the name was taken from the title of the Legio XX Valeria Victrix who were based at Deva. A civilian settlement grew around the settlement, probably starting as a group of traders and their families who were profiting from trade with the fortress. The fortress was 20% larger than other fortresses in Britannia built around the same time at York (Eboracum) and Caerleon (Isca Augusta); this has led to the suggestion that the fortress may have been intended to become the capital of the province rather than London (Londinium). The civilian amphitheater which was built in 1st century could sit between 8,000 and 10,000 people, is the largest known military amphitheater in Britain, and is also a Scheduled Monument. The Minerva Shrine in the Roman quarry is the only rock cut Roman shrine still in situ in Britain. The fortress was garrisoned by the legion until at least the late 4th century. Although the army would have been abandoned the fortress by 410 when the Romans retreated from Britannia the civilians settlement continued and its occupants probably continued to use the fortress and its defenses as protection from raiders in the Irish Sea.

The Roman withdrawal from Britain was effectively complete by 410 and the Britons established a number of successor states. The area of Chester is thought to have formed part of the kingdom of Powys, whose early kings claimed descent from the exile Vortigern. Chester is generally identified with the Cair Legion (“Fort Legion”) listed as one of the 28 cities of Britain in the History of the Britons traditionally attributed to Nennius. In Welsh legend, King Arthur is said to have fought his ninth battle against the Saxon invasion at the “city of the legions” and later St Augustine came to the city to try and subjugate the Welsh bishops to his mission. In 616, Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeated a Welsh army at the Battle of Chester and probably established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on.

The Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, in 973, King Edgar came to Chester following his coronation at Bath. He held his court in a place located in what is now called “Edgar’s Field”, near the old Dee bridge in Handbridge. Taking a barge up the River Dee from his court to the Minster of St John the Baptist, Edgar supposedly took the helm of the vessel while it was rowed by six or eight tributary “kings” (Latin: reguli, lit. “little kings”). The Chronicles of Melrose and of Florence of Worcester describe that “eight petty kings, namely, Kynath, king of the Scots, Malcolm, king of the Cumbrians, Maccus, king of several isles and five others, named Dufnall, Siferth, Huwall, Jacob and Juchill, met him there as he had appointed and swore that they would be faithful to him, and assist him by land and by sea”. After the kings swore fealty and allegiance they rowed him back to the palace. As he entered he is reported to have said that with so many kings’ allegiance his successors could boast themselves to be kings of the English.

After the Roman troops withdrew, the Romano-British established a number of petty kingdoms. Chester is thought to have become part of Powys. Deverdoeu was a Welsh name for Chester as late as the 12th century (cf Dyfrdwy, Welsh for the river Dee). Another, attested in the 9th century History of the Britons traditionally attributed to Nennius, is Cair Legion (“Fort” or “City of the Legion”); this later developed into Caerlleon and then the modern Welsh Caer. (The town’s importance is noted by its taking the simpler form in each case, while Isca Augusta in Monmouthshire, another important legionary base, was known first as Caerleon on the Usk, and now as Caerleon.) King Arthur is said to have fought his ninth battle at the “city of the legions” (Caerlleon) and later St Augustine came to the city to try to unite the church, and held his synod with the Welsh Bishops.

In 616, Æthelfrith of Northumbria defeated a Welsh army at the brutal and decisive Battle of Chester, and probably established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on. The Northumbrian Anglo-Saxons used an Old English equivalent of the British name, Legacæstir, which was current until the 11th century, when, in a further parallel with Welsh usage, the first element fell out of use and the simple name Chester emerged. In 689, King Æthelred of Mercia founded the Minster Church of West Mercia on what is considered to be an early Christian site: it is known as the Minster of St John the Baptist, Chester (now St John’s Church) which later became the first cathedral. Much later, the body of Æthelred’s niece, St Werburgh, was removed from Hanbury in Staffordshire in the 9th century and, to save it from desecration by Danish marauders, was reburied in the Church of SS Peter & Paul – later to become the Abbey Church (the present cathedral). Her name is still remembered in St Werburgh’s Street which passes alongside the cathedral, and near the city walls.

The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Danes, who occupied it for a short time until Alfred seized all the cattle and laid waste the surrounding land to drive them out. It was Alfred’s daughter Æthelflæd, Lady of the Mercians, that built the new Saxon burh. A new Church dedicated to St Peter alone was founded in AD 907 by the Lady Æthelfleda at what was to become the Cross. In 973, the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle records that, two years after his coronation at Bath, King Edgar of England, came to Chester where he held his court in a palace in a place now known as Edgar’s Field near the old Dee bridge in Handbridge. Taking the helm of a barge, he was rowed the short distance up the River Dee from Edgar’s Field to the great Minster Church of St John the Baptist by six (the monk Henry Bradshaw records he was rowed by eight kings) tributary kings called reguli.

In 1071 he made Hugh d’Avranches the first Earl of Chester. From the 14th century to the 18th century the city’s prominent position in North West England meant that it was commonly also known as Westchester. This name was used by Celia Fiennes when she visited the city in 1698, and is also used in Moll Flanders.

Chester played a significant part in the Industrial Revolution which began in the North West of England in the latter part of the 18th century. The city village of Newtown, located north east of the city and bounded by the Shropshire Union Canal was at the very heart of this industry. The large Chester Cattle Market and the two Chester railway stations, Chester General and Chester Northgate Station, meant that Newtown with its cattle market and canal, and Hoole with its railways were responsible for providing the vast majority of workers and in turn, the vast amount of Chester’s wealth production throughout the Industrial Revolution.

A considerable amount of land in Chester is owned by the Duke of Westminster who owns an estate, Eaton Hall, near the village of Eccleston. He also has London properties in Mayfair.

Grosvenor is the Duke’s family name, which explains such features in the City such as the Grosvenor Bridge, the Grosvenor Hotel, and Grosvenor Park. Much of Chester’s architecture dates from the Victorian era, many of the buildings being modelled on the Jacobean half-timbered style and designed by John Douglas, who was employed by the Duke as his principal architect. He had a trademark of twisted chimney stacks, many of which can be seen on the buildings in the city center.

Douglas designed amongst other buildings the Grosvenor Hotel and the City Baths. In 1911, Douglas’ protege and city architect James Strong designed the then active fire station on the west side of Northgate Street. Another feature of all buildings belonging to the estate of Westminster is the ‘Grey Diamonds’ – a weaving pattern of grey bricks in the red brickwork laid out in a diamond formation.

Towards the end of World War II, a lack of affordable housing meant many problems for Chester. Large areas of farmland on the outskirts of the city were developed as residential areas in the 1950s and early 1960s, producing, for instance, the suburb of Blacon. In 1964, a bypass was built through and around the city center to combat traffic congestion.

These new developments caused local concern as the physicality[clarification needed] and therefore the feel of the city was being dramatically altered. In 1968, a report by Donald Insall in collaboration with authorities and government recommended that historic buildings be preserved in Chester. Consequently, the buildings were used in new and different ways instead of being flattened.

In 1969 the City Conservation Area was designated. Over the next 20 years the emphasis was placed on saving historic buildings, such as The Falcon Inn, Dutch Houses and Kings Buildings.

On 13 January 2002, Chester was granted Fairtrade City status. This status was renewed by the Fairtrade Foundation on 20 August 2003.

The more unusual landmarks in the city are the city walls, the Rows and the black-and-white architecture. The walls encircle the bounds of the medieval city and constitute the most complete city walls in Britain, the full circuit measuring nearly 2 miles (3 km). The only break in the circuit is in the southwest section in front of County Hall.[39] A footpath runs along the top of the walls, crossing roads by bridges over Eastgate, Northgate, St Martin’s Gate, Watergate, Bridgegate, Newgate, and the Wolf Gate, and passing a series of structures, namely Phoenix Tower (or King Charles’ Tower), Morgan’s Mount, the Goblin Tower (or Pemberton’s Parlour), and Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower with a spur leading to the Water Tower, and Thimbleby’s Tower. On Eastgate is Eastgate Clock which is said to be the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben.

The Rows are unique in Britain. They consist of buildings with shops or dwellings on the lowest two storeys. The shops or dwellings on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Those on the first floor are entered behind a continuous walkway, often with a sloping shelf between the walkway and the railings overlooking the street. Much of the architecture of central Chester looks medieval and some of it is but by far the greatest part of it, including most of the black-and-white buildings, is Victorian, a result of what Pevsner termed the “black-and-white revival”.

The most prominent buildings in the city centre are the town hall and the cathedral. The town hall was opened in 1869. It is in Gothic Revival style and has a tower and a short spire. The cathedral was formerly the church of St Werburgh’s Abbey. Its architecture dates back to the Norman era, with additions made most centuries since. A series of major restorations took place in the 19th century and in 1975 a separate bell tower was opened. The elaborately carved canopies of the choir stalls are considered to be one of the finest in the country. Also in the cathedral is the shrine of St Werburgh. To the north of the cathedral are the former monastic buildings. The oldest church in the city is St John’s, which is outside the city walls and was at one time the cathedral church. The church was shortened after the dissolution of the monasteries and ruins of the former east end remain outside the church. Much of the interior is in Norman style and this is considered to be the best example of 11th–12th-century church architecture in Cheshire. At the intersection of the former Roman roads is Chester Cross, to the north of which is the small church of St Peter’s which is in use as an ecumenical center. Other churches are now redundant and have other uses; St Michael’s in Bridge Street is a heritage center, St Mary-on-the-Hill is an educational center, and Holy Trinity now acts as the Guildhall. Other notable buildings include the preserved shot tower, the highest structure in Chester, and *St Thomas of Canterbury Church.

Roman remains can still be found in the city, particularly in the basements of some of the buildings and in the lower parts of the northern section of the city walls. The most important Roman feature is the amphitheater just outside the walls which is undergoing archaeological investigation.Roman artifacts are on display in the Roman Gardens which run parallel to the city walls from Newgate to the River Dee, where there’s also a reconstructed hypocaust system. An original hypocaust system discovered in the 1720s can be seen in the basement of the Spudulike restaurant at 39 Bridge Street, which is open to the public.

Of the medieval city the most important surviving structure is Chester Castle, particularly the Agricola Tower. Much of the rest of the castle has been replaced by the neoclassical county court and its entrance, the Propyleum. To the south of the city runs the River Dee, with its 11th century weir. The river is crossed by the Old Dee Bridge, dating from the 13th century, the Grosvenor Bridge of 1832, and Queen’s Park suspension bridge (for pedestrians). To the southwest of the city the River Dee curves towards the north. The area between the river and the city walls here is known as the Roodee, and contains Chester Racecourse which holds a series of horse races and other events. The first recorded race meet in England at Roodee Fields was on 9 February 1540. The Shropshire Union Canal runs to the north of the city and a branch leads from it to the River Dee.

The major museum in Chester is the Grosvenor Museum which includes a collection of Roman tombstones and an art gallery. Associated with the museum is 20 Castle Street in which rooms are furnished in different historical styles. The Dewa Roman Experience has hands-on exhibits and a reconstructed Roman street. One of the blocks in the forecourt of the Castle houses the Cheshire Military Museum.

The major public park in Chester is Grosvenor Park. On the south side of the River Dee, in Handbridge, is Edgar’s Field, another public park, which contains Minerva’s Shrine, a Roman shrine to the goddess Minerva. A war memorial to those who died in the world wars is in the town hall and it contains the names of all Chester servicemen who died in the First World War.

Chester Visitor Center, opposite the Roman Amphitheater, issues a leaflet giving details of tourist attractions. Those not covered above include cruises on the River Dee and on the Shropshire Union Canal, and guided tours on an open-air bus. The river cruises start from a riverside area known as the Groves, which contains seating and a bandstand. A series of festivals is organised in the city, including mystery plays, a summer music festival and a literature festival. Chester City Council has produced a series of leaflets for self-guided walks. Tourist Information Centers are at the town hall and at Chester Visitor Center.

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Bought by me when I visited my American pen-pal in Lancaster.