Tuesday, 29 March 2011


I have a list which I'm going through.

One by one I'm visiting the places that I've heard about or perhaps have seen on the TV and they have seemed interesting for some reason. Unfortunately, I have a tendency to think of some of these places as more than they are, and expect so much, and therefore am disappointed with the reality. I really need to realise that the world isn't a theme park!

I'd heard about medieval Chester with it's fascinating buildings and extensive history and when I got there I found  a city much the same as any other city in England that wasn't decimated in WW2. However once I'd got over my preconceived ideas and began to look properly, I was absolutely delighted with the place. One of the nicest cities I've been to.

I have a lot of photos of gorgeous black and white timbered buildings and was hoping to be able to tell you all about them, but the good burghers of Chester seem to want to keep any information they have to themselves. I scoured the place including museums and public records offices to try and get some historical information for you, but without much success. Being such a thriving city, known for its shopping, I think they're more interested in retailing (cracking M &S for example) than in tourists.

However, such as it is, here's Chester in a blog posting for you.

A Very Brief History of Chester.

It's old. 3 million years ago Chester was in the middle of an ice age Reindeer, arctic foxes and mammoth were the early visitors! Humans were around however following herds of animals around Europe.

As the ice retreated, in about 4,000BC the human population began to grow. Forests, vegetation, and animals thrived, and the land around Chester was cleared during the Neolithic period to grow crops and domesticate wild animals. And it continued to grow through the Bronze Age and Iron Age.

During the Iron Age (from about 700 BC to 43AD) humans became a bit more complicated and tribal, and remains of hillforts are scattered about. Trade began to flourish and it's possible that the people of Chester were exporting hunting dogs and slaves to the Roman Empire in return for pottery and jewellery. There is also evidence of Druidical sacrifice from before the Roman invasion.

Chester of course went  on to have a long and interesting history through the Romans, Saxons, Vikings (who raided in 980) Normans, Medieval, Tudor and Stuart, Georgian and Victorian.  I'm only going to take snippets from Roman and Victorian history.

Roman Chester

Emperor Claudius invaded Britain in AD43, and he persisted in trying to subdue the locals. He built a fortress at Chester and they occupied the town until the end of the 3rd century. This was not good news for the Druids who were generally slaughtered.

Although the first fortress around the town was built from turf and timber it began to be reconstructed out of stone, but became run down when the Romans decided to go off for a while and invade Scotland. This is never a good idea; the Scots are not in the front lines of the British Army for nothing you know. Fearsome lot.  Anyhoo, when they abandoned the Scottish holiday home idea, they settled in Chester and the impressive walls you see today were build at the end and 3rd century.

They also built an amphitheatre, which was probably used for military training as well as the occasional entertainment. Though I don't think public executions, gladiators fighting to the death and wholesale slaughter of people and animals is very entertaining myself.I guess you had to be there.

If you look at the photo on the right very carefully, just to the left of the centre you will see a small black lump in front of the beige strip of wall. This is a replica of a block with a chain onto which people and animals were chained for slaughter.

The seating capacity for this ampitheatre was 7,000.

The 2nd photo on the right shows a replica altar in the shrine of Nemesis. It is dedicated to the centurion Sextius Marcianus.

The walls of the arena were plastered and painted a reddish brown, and the base was covered in golden sand which was absorbent and could be cleaned easily. It's so necessary I find to remove bloodstains properly to avoid offence.

Victorian Chester

Victorian Chester had a population of 38,000 in 1901. It wasn't a leading player in the industrial revolution so no heavy industry, and the associated increase in numbers of workers and cheap housing. But the retail trade was important, and shops and hotels grew around the centre of the town near the new General Station.. Much rebuilding was done in both the Victorian Gothic style but also in the earlier 17th century style which is when most of the black and white buildings were built.

Chester's Rows.

So we've found that most, though not all, of these timbered buildings were from the Victorian era not earlier.

There is something quite remarkable and I believe unique about Chester. The Rows.

If you can imagine a growing town within the confines of Roman stone walls, space becomes limited. As Roman buildings collapsed debris built up so eventually there was land higher up than the original shop frontages. These levels make slopes in the side steets and lead down into the town.  After that in the 13th centuary, Chester enjoyed great prosperity and a resulting building boom. It was a military base and important port. Wealthy merchants built great halls of stone and timber above stone undercrofts or cellars. They used these spaces to store the goods they'd imported and that were for sale. Smaller shops and accommodation would have been above.

As the main streets filled with buildings, it would have made good sense for the owners of adjacent properties to make connecting galleries in front of their house so they didn't have to keep going up and down into the street. It's all a bit uncertain, but by the mid 14th century there was a continuous system of elevated Rows.

Below are photos of the rows as they are today. The first one looks out from one row across the street to another one.

This one (left) clearly is a little different to the others and you can just make out the dates painted above the arches; 1224 and 1274.

Tucked behind those verdandhas on the first floor is another complete row of shops. Large ones too!

If you can go to Chester and haven't, it's worth the effort. The shopping is very very good!

1 comment:

  1. You really are seeing and doing so many interesting things, visiting your blog is like a day trip!

    I envy you seeing all the beautiful furniture and textiles with your naked eye...it's so alluring.

    Thank you for going to the trouble of taking all these pics as well, I know how time consuming it can get.