In The Whore’s Tale, the main character Sarah spends some time in Chester, so I thought readers might like to know a little more about this beautiful city. There has been human settlement at Chester for at least 2000 years, and the multitude of wonderful buildings and excavated ruins are not only fascinating to visit, but also provide a visual aspect to the lively history of this place.
Chester was first settled by the Romans in 74-77A.D. when the 2nd Adiutrix legion built a fort at Castra Deva, as it was then known, and was home for about 5000 soldiers for over 200 years. Because of this they have left a number of fascinating artefacts including the largest military amphitheatre in Britain and a hypocaust, which can now be viewed (although many of these ruins were not known about in Sarah’s time).
A great way to view Chester now is to take a walk around the walls which still encircle the town, and along the top of which a walkway has been built, constructed in the early 18th century to provide a promenade for ladies and gentlemen of the time. By this time the country was considered to be reasonably settled, although less than a hundred years previously the city walls, started by the Romans, enlarged by Saxon settlers and completed by the Normans, were capable of withstanding heavy bombardment by cannons in 1644-6, during the Civil War, when the town declared itself Royalist, finally submitting only when the citizens were starving following a siege.
As mentioned in Sarah’s Tale, it’s said that King Charles I stood on one of the walls towers, and watched his army fight and ultimately be defeated below on Rowton Moor. Formerly known as the Phoenix Tower, as it was used by the guild of Painters, Glaziers, Embroiderers and Stationers as a meeting place in the early 17th century, it’s now called King Charles’ Tower, and houses a small museum about the Civil War.
The walls and parts of Chester were damaged during the siege, as was the cathedral, which was in a poor condition by the time Sarah viewed it from the walls. The cathedral was originally a 10th century Saxon minster, but in 1092 the first Norman earl decided to rebuild it and transform it into a Benedictine abbey. In 1250 the monks started to slowly build the church in a similar Gothic style, but had only just finished when Henry VIII dissolved the monasteries. The king did later return the church to Chester, which then became a cathedral, but no repairs were done to it. The building Sarah looked on in the 1730s would have looked quite different to the current cathedral. Although in bad condition then, restoration did not take place until the mid-19th century, under the guidance of Sir George Gilbert Scott. The layout of the original monastery, and many features of the original abbey have been retained though, and it is a beautiful cathedral.
When I walked around Chester in 2018 I carried with me an 18th century map of Chester, and was easily able to navigate around the city, as the main roads and many of the smaller ones are still as they were then! The house that Sarah stays in is loosely based on one at Ship Street, although I moved it, so the view Sarah sees from the window of her room is what she would have seen from Lower Bridge Street. (There are still houses at this location too)
One of the most unique features about Chester is the Rows. In my book Arthur Young’s shop has been placed in the Rows on East Gate Street, and I have described them a little here. It’s not known exactly when the covered walkways, some of which still survive, originated, but it’s believed to be around the 13th century. In this period, most buildings had an undercroft, built below ground which was used as a cellar a warehouse and a hall. Then the private chambers were built above it. However, in Chester the bedrock is so close to the surface that it was not possible to dig deep enough, with the result that the undercrofts were partly above ground, with private chambers above.
Later, in the 16th century, the private chambers above were enlarged, so that they overhung the lower floor, held up by posts. The ceilings then formed a covered walkway in front of the shops below, the doorways of which were usually accessed by a few stairs (due to the undercroft being partly above ground). Later many of these unique buildings were either demolished, damaged in the Civil War or the walkways were enclosed and changed into private homes. As there was no law to say that the walkways had to be left open for public access, this almost led to the complete obliteration of the Rows. Most of the Rows on Lower Bridge Street and parts of Eastgate Street were destroyed, but in other parts of the town trade was booming, so the shopkeepers did not want to turn their businesses into private homes. Luckily a good few survive, including a well-preserved 13th century one on Bridge Street.
Chester was at one time a large centre for nautical trade, as the River Dee was much more substantial than it is today. Large ships could unload their cargoes beneath the city walls near Watergate, from where they would be dragged up the steep road to the markets. However the gradual silting of the river eventually wiped out the trade, which Liverpool took over. In the 1730s the Dee was canalised in an attempt to open up trade again.
Daniel Defoe, in his book A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain published in volumes between 1724 and1726 states Chester is ‘a city well worth describing’ and was particularly impressed by the walls, the river and bridge over it, and the castle, which ‘has a garrison always in it’. He mentions that the cheese made in the county (Cheshire cheese) was particularly fine and was sent all over the country, and even to Scotland and Ireland, and this was because of the extraordinary fertility of the soil and therefore of the grass which the cows ate.
Certainly I would highly recommend anyone who finds themselves in the north of England to take a little time to explore this beautiful and unique historic city. It truly is a gem!