Exploring England #19
Many towns and cities in England have remnants of ancient walls and gates, originally built by the Romans and fortified centuries later by the Normans. Chester’s city walls are the most complete in Great Britain and give a wonderful perspective on the city, both inside and beyond. With medieval towers and bridges, a Norman castle, Roman amphitheatre and an ancient harbour lost long ago, a walk on the walls is a walk through history.
The three kilometre walk surrounds the city centre and is elevated almost all the way round. We climb the steep medieval steps at Northgate, the highest point along the wall, and immediately the views are spectacular.
Inside the wall is Northgate Street, home of The Pied Bull, oldest licensed house in Chester; beer has been served on this site since 1155. The Shropshire Union Canal, with pretty canal boats moored by the path, echoes the curves of the outside of the wall.
The first tower we come to is the Phoenix Tower. Medieval in origin and restored by two city guilds in the 17th century, the tower is named for the carved phoenix above the door, symbol of the Painters’ Guild. In 1645, King Charles 1 watched the defeat of his army in the battle of Rowton Moor from the roof of this tower.
Chester Cathedral, built in Gothic style, stands close to the eastern wall. For more than 1,000 years, worshippers have gathered on this site, and we leave the wall for a couple of hours to enjoy the splendid stained glass, medieval carvings and Victorian mosaics inside.
Climbing back up to the wall, we walk on to Eastgate and the Eastgate clock, which commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. The gate and its beautifully ornamental clock mark the entrance to Chester’s pedestrian shopping mall, where Tudor style buildings line the streets.
From the top of the wall at Newgate we have a bird’s eye view of the Chester Amphitheatre. Dating from 275 AD, the stone amphitheatre is the largest of its type in Great Britain. It was in use until around 350 AD and would have been the site of military exercises, gladiatorial combat and other Roman entertainments. We’re surprised to spot some Roman soldiers in the amphitheatre today! Luckily, instead of going into battle, they’re telling stories of their exploits.
Next to the amphitheatre, there are more traces of Roman occupation in the Roman Garden. The garden was developed in the 1950s but the pieces on display are not in situ. They were collected on 19th century building sites around Chester and placed together in this formal setting.
When we turn the south east corner, the River Dee comes into view. The water here seems calm and still until it rushes over the weir built by the Normans around 1092 and onward under the Old Dee Bridge. This beautiful stone bridge, complete with seven arches, was built in 1387 and was the most important connection between northern England and Wales.
There are private homes along this part of the wall and we wonder what it would be like to live here. The address of this home leaves no doubt about its unique location.
After passing the bridge, our walk on the wall continues alongside the river, where leafy trees provide welcome shade.
The scenery changes again on the western side as Chester Castle dominates the skyline. Originally a timber structure built by William the Conqueror in 1070, the castle was rebuilt in stone during the 12th century.
Further along the western wall is the vast green expanse of the Roodee, Chester’s famous race course. It’s difficult to believe that, where horses now compete, Roman ships once docked – two thousand years ago this was a busy Roman port on the estuary of the River Dee. As the river changed course and the estuary silted up during medieval times the port disappeared, although traces of the Roman quay are still visible in parts of the wall. Horse racing began on the marshy land in 1539 and by the 18th century the races held in May were at the top of Chester’s social calendar. Today, the Chester Cup is one of England’s most important horse races.
On the north west corner of the wall stand two more towers. The angular Bonewaldesthorne’s Tower and the Watertower, recognised by its semicircular walls, were both strategically placed to protect the river port from attackers.
The last tower we come to on the walls is Pemberton’s Parlour, a Georgian alcove created in the ruins of the earlier medieval Goblin Tower. It was named after John Pemberton, a Mayor of Chester in the 18th century, who often sat here while supervising his team of rope makers toiling on the ropewalk below. After walking right around the city, we follow Mr Pemberton’s example and rest for a while in the shade.
Returning to Northgate, our circuit of the city walls is complete. The Pied Bull is open and it’s time for some of that beer!
Join Restless Jo for more Monday Walks.