Walk 129: Chester City Circular: “What have the Romans done for us?”

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 4.3 miles (6.91km)

Time to walk: We were on a tight schedule prior to a visit to Chester Zoo, so did this walk early on a Sunday morning in just over 1.5 hours. We’d suggest that you could do it as part of a whole day in the city

Difficulty: Pretty much all on hard surfaces. A few small inclines & several steps up & down the city’s walls

Parking: Plenty of reasonable ‘Pay & Display’ Car Parks in the city centre

Public toilets: Numerous cafes & bars

Map of the route:

It had been over 30 years since we last visited Chester so were keen to see how much we remembered of this lovely old city. This walled city sits on the River Dee, close to the border with Wales. It was founded as a Roman fort, named ‘Deva Victrix’ in the reign of the Emperor Vespasian in 79 AD. One of the main Roman army camps in Britain, Deva later became a major civilian settlement. In 689, King Aethelred of Mercia founded the Minster Church of West Mercia, which later became Chester’s first cathedral, & the Saxons extended & strengthened the walls 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 & the nearby Welsh border. Chester was granted city status in 1541

Today Chester remains one of the best preserved walled cities in Britain. It has a number of medieval buildings, but many of the black & white buildings within the city centre are Victorian restorations

Shall we go & explore then?

Let’s Walk!

1. Our walk starts right in the centre of the city, in Eastgate, outside the rather grand Grosvenor Hotel

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. ‘Grosvenor’ is the Duke’s family name, which explains why the name keeps cropping up on this walk i.e. the Grosvenor Bridge, Grosvenor Park & this hotel

2. Look down Eastgate to see one of Chester’s most iconic sights…the Eastgate Clock. Eastgate & its clock stand on the site of the original entrance to the Roman fortress…

The original gate was guarded by a timber tower which was replaced by a stone tower in the 2nd century, & this in turn was replaced probably in the 14th century. The present gateway dates from 1768 & is a three-arched, sandstone structure which carries the walkway forming part of the city walls, which we’ll explore shortly

3. Walk towards the Gate & look for a narrow alley with steps just before Milton jewellers

Climb up the steps to reach the wall. In the 1760s the old battlements were adapted to create an elegant walkway, & promenading around the Walls quickly became one of the most fashionable things to do in Chester. It was a way to see & be seen, make new friends, show off a new outfit, chat & flirt

4. Turn left & walk out onto the Gate below the clock…

The first scheme to enhance Eastgate came following the visit of the Prince of Wales in 1869. In 1872 the local architect, John Douglas was asked to prepare a number of designs by Hugh Grosvenor, who was at that time the 3rd Marquess of Westminster. The Marquess offered to pay half the cost of the project, but the Chester Improvement Committee would not allow any council funds for it, & the scheme came to nothing. The idea was revived to celebrate the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1896. At this time it was suggested that the city should support Queen Victoria’s Jubilee Institute of Nurses. Other ideas suggested at the time were a statue of Queen Victoria in the Town Hall square, or a clock in the Town Hall tower

A committee was set up &, despite early support for the Queen’s Institute & for general festivities, it was finally decided to erect a memorial tower & clock on Eastgate. The official opening of the clock was performed on 27 May 1899, which was Queen Victoria’s 80th birthday. After souvenir hunters stole the hands of the clock, the city council glazed the clock faces in 1988. It’s said to be the most photographed clock in England after the Queen Elizabeth Tower (Big Ben)

5. Continue under the clock & along the walls. This really reminded us of our walk round York…

6. To the left’s our first glimpse of Chester Cathedral, which we’ll see more of along this walk…

The cathedral was formerly the abbey church of a Benedictine monastery dedicated to St Werburgh. The cathedral is dedicated to Christ & the Blessed Virgin Mary & has been the seat of the Bishop of Chester since 1541. Typical of many English cathedrals, it’s been modified many times over the centuries, although the site itself may have been used for Christian worship since Roman times

As it was early Sunday morning when we visited, we were treated to a rousing noise – click on ‘Play’

7. Continue along the wall – this really is lovely walking…

Look down to the left to see the exquisite cobbled road that’s Abbey Street…

8. Look down to the left to see Chester Cathedral Falconry & Gardens

…whilst on the other side’s a view of Chester Canal which links Nantwich with the River Dee at Chester. It was intended to link Chester to Middlewich, with a branch to Nantwich, but the Trent & Mersey Canal were unco-operative about a junction at Middlewich, & so the route to Nantwich was opened in 1779

9. Ahead now looms the Phoenix Tower, also known as “King Charles’ Tower”, which probably originated in the 13th century. During the latter part of the 16th century the tower was leased to two city guilds, the Painters & Stationers, & the Barbers & Chandlers, who sublet it to other guilds

By 1612 the fabric of the tower was in a poor condition, & the lead had been lost from its roof. It was restored by the two guilds, & above the door they placed a plaque containing the date 1613 & a carving of a phoenix, the emblem of the Painters. In the Civil War during the Siege of Chester in 1645, the tower had a gun in each storey, & it was damaged in the conflict. A plaque on the tower states that King Charles I stood on the it on 24 September 1645 as he watched his soldiers being defeated at the Battle of Rowton Heath. The historian Simon Ward has expressed doubts about this & has suggested that the King may have stood instead on a tower of the Cathedral, which he considers is confirmed by evidence that a captain standing beside him was killed by a stray shot

The guilds resumed possession of the tower in 1658, & repaired it. They ceased possession by about 1773, after which the city carried out repairs, but by 1838, the tower was described as being in a dilapidated condition. By this time, the city was promoting it as a tourist attraction & in the late 1850s, the lower chamber was being used by a print-seller, & later in the century it was made into a private museum

10. The wall now turns left & continues towards Northgate…

A property on the left was having work done & it looked like the scaffolders had an company emblem

11. The path goes straight over the top of Northgate which stands on the site of the original northern Roman entrance to Chester. During the medieval period, it was unimportant & was used only for local access. At that time it consisted of a simple rectangular tower with a narrow gateway & later was the site of the local gaol. The present Northgate was built in 1810

Look down to the right from the top of the gate to see the large building which is the Bluecoat School. Before the school was built, it was the site of a medieval hospital. In 1700 a charity school was built, which was the first school outside London to be established by the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge

The school closed in 1949, & the buildings were occupied by the Chester College of Higher Education (now part of the University of Chester)

12. Continue along the wall & over St Martin’s Gate, which crosses the busy inner ring road…

This is the newest gate into the city & was opened by Barbara Castle MP in 1966. It’s named after a church that was demolished to make way for the ring road. After crossing the bridge, immediately walk down the steps on the left & look for a gap under the bridge which leads down to the canal…

13. The walk is now going to change & leave the city wall behind until we join it again towards the end. At the canal turn left & walk down past the locks…

…& then under the railway bridge carrying the track that links the town with North Wales

14. The canal now opens up into a wider basin & the route follows the slope on the left of the picture below that leads up to Tower Road. If you have time, have a quick look round Water Tower Gardens on the left.

At the top of the slope cross the road & go through the gap in the wall which leads down to the canal once more…

15. Follow the narrow path round the left side of the water, but be careful as the path could be slippery during wet weather

There’s a very interesting looking property at the end of the path, or is it a marooned boat…

Isn’t it superb! The area it’s in used to be the Old Port of Chester, sandwiched between the rail viaduct & the tidal stretches of the Dee. Until the early 20th century, this area was a working port. The building was directly inspired by the medieval trading vessels with their high ‘stern castles’

16. Walk past it & cross the lifting bridge…

…continuing up the other side of the basin to reach the road. New lock gates were being installed when we were there

17. So that’s wall walking & canal walking ticked off, & now it’s time for some river walking. Cross the road & walk between the buildings over the false lifting bridge…

…& turn left along the River Dee Promenade Trail

The 68 mile long, River Dee flows through parts of both Wales & England, forming part of the border between the two countries. The river rises in Snowdonia & flows east via Chester, & discharges to the sea in an estuary between Wales & the Wirral Peninsula

18. Walk past the small building with the clock on top. This is part of Chester Racecourse, which the path will go through shortly. If there’s a race meeting on, the gate across the path will be locked at this point & you’ll have to walk round the complex to continue the walk. Today this wasn’t the case so we could carry on…

Walk under the railway bridge which replaced an earlier one that was built by Robert Stephenson that collapsed in 1848

19. On the other side of the bridge, the path changes once more as it now follows the perimeter of Chester Racecourse…

The site was once a harbour during Roman times, but was closed as the river silted up thus making navigation impossible. Towards the centre of the in-field is a raised mound which is decorated by a small cross known as a “rood”. It’s from this that the race course derives the name “Roodee” which is a corruption of “Rood Eye”, meaning “The Island of the Cross”

According to legend, the cross marks the burial site of a statue of the Virgin Mary sentenced to hang after causing the death of Lady Trawst, the wife of the Governor of Hawarden. The legend states that she had gone to church to pray for rain, but when her prayers were answered by a tremendous thunderstorm the statue was loosened & fell, killing her. As a holy object, hanging or burning the statue would be sacrilege so the statue was left by the banks of the river & the tide carried it down to Chester. The statue was found guilty by a jury of 12 men. If the legend is true, then this is the first recorded case of a jury being used in a court

Spectators can watch races for free from the walls which offer a clear view of the whole circuit. The first recorded race was held on 9 February 1539, making it the oldest racecourse in the world!

Winners were awarded the “Chester Bells”, a set of decorative bells for decorating the horse’s bridle, & from 1744 the “Grosvenor Gold Cup”, a small tumbler made from solid gold (later silver). In 1745, the meeting became a four-day one, & in 1766 a May Festival was introduced, & in 1824, the Tradesmen’s Cup Race (the predecessor to the Chester Cup) was also introduced

20. Remember the ‘Grosvenor’ connection? The high road bridge ahead is the Grosvenor Bridge…

Just before the bridge, turn left up the narrow path & keep walking around the racecourse. Watch your head as the trees are low & we lost our glasses a couple of times

21. At the end you’re looking straight down the finishing straight…

Turn immediately right up the steps to the road. If the gates are locked, continue around the track & then exit up the next set of steps. Over the road’s the remains of Chester Castle. It’s a lot bigger than the part that can be seen from the road & is free to visit

Chester Castle was founded by William the Conqueror in 1070 & became the administrative centre of the earldom of Chester. The first earth & timber ‘motte & bailey’ castle probably only occupied the area of the inner bailey. In the 12th century it was rebuilt in stone & the outer bailey added

In 1237 the last Earl died & the castle, with the earldom, was taken over by the king. In 1265, during the Barons’ War, it was held for ten weeks by supporters of Simon de Montfort against the men of Prince Edward, son of Henry III. During the reigns of Henry III & Edward I the castle served as the military headquarters for the conquest of Wales

During the Civil War (1642–6) it was the headquarters of the Royalist governor, John, Lord Byron. Subsequently a permanent garrison was stationed there, & between 1788 & 1813. The buildings still serve as the county hall, courts & regimental museum, but the military finally withdrew in 1999

22. Remember the Grosvenor Bridge? Turn right & now it’s time to cross it…

Take in the view of the Dee – it really is a pretty valley around the city

23. After crossing the river, look for a small gate near a lamp post with a path heading down a steep bank – be careful as this could be slippery if wet

At the bottom, turn right, pass under the bridge & start to follow the river. We’re going to follow the Dee all the way back into the city

24. Pass through the metal barrier & walk along the lane past the cottages, with the river still on the left

At the end of the road go through the two columns into Edgar’s Field. The park was given in trust to the people by the 1st Duke of Westminster in 1892. It was originally the site of a Roman quarry & was named after the Saxon King, Edgar I, great-grandson of Alfred the Great, who was rowed up the river Dee in 973 to St John’s Church to become the first King of England

25. Take the right fork up the slope & look for a large slab of rock on the right. Just round the side’s a Roman shrine to the goddess Minerva, which is the only monument of its kind in Western Europe that remains in its original location

Pass through the posts to exit the park & cross the road…

26. Continue along the riverside path keeping the Dee on your left. The day we did this walk, the Chester Triathlon was taking place & it was quite busy

As we always say, look back to see the Old Dee Bridge which is the oldest bridge in the city. A wooden bridge on this site was first built in the Roman era, & the present bridge is largely the result of a major rebuilding in 1387. The weir provided water for hydro-electric power until 1939

27. Continue along the riverside path to the steps just before the suspension bridge…

Walk up the steps & turn left onto the bridge. The suspension bridge is the only footbridge to cross the river apart from the footbridge attached to the railway bridge. It was originally built in 1852 at the instigation of Enoch Gerrard, Esq, the “projector & proprietor” of Queen’s Park, the developing suburb across the river. Chester Corporation took on the responsibility for this bridge in the early 1920s & decided to demolish it almost at once. Presumably this was because there was some serious structural problem & Chester was already noted for one bridge collapse disaster when the Dee Railway Bridge gave way under a passing train in 1847. The demolition of the suspension bridge took place in August 1922

It was replaced by a new bridge designed by Charles Greenwood, City Engineer & Surveyor. The opening ceremony, conducted by the Mayor of Chester, Councillor S.R. Wall, took place on 18 April 1923. It was superbly restored in 1998 & again in 2012. With all the runners coming across, it was bouncing quite well!!

28. After coming off the bridge, turn left & walk along the opposite side of the Dee. This area’s called ‘The Groves’ which contains a bandstand, cafes, pubs & restaurants & is a “happening” area in the city

It’s also the place to go if you fancy a cruise on the river

29. Walk along to the Old Dee Bridge & then turn right through the arch of Bridgegate which forms part of the city walls & was probably built by 1120. It guarded the southern entrance to the city which was the main route from North Wales

After passing through the arch, turn immediately right beside the cafe & walk up onto the wall once more

30. We’ll now use the wall to return to where we began it so head left with the river on the right…

Keep looking down to the right to see a great view of the Roman Gardens

The gardens were constructed in the 1949 by Graham Webster, then curator of the Grosvenor Museum & Charles Greenwood to display the remains from the Roman legionary fortress of Deva, that had been found throughout the city. Most of the Roman building fragments now on display in the gardens were unearthed at the end of the nineteenth century during excavations in the city

31. Ahead now on the wall’s another gate…Newgate

Newgate crosses over Pepper Street & was built in 1938 to relieve traffic congestion in the city. It involved making a new breach in the city walls. On each side of the bridge is a tower & the structure is decorated with carved shields & Tudor roses…

32. After passing through the second tower look across to the right once more to see the remains of the Roman amphitheatre similar to those found in Europe. Today, only the northern half of the structure is exposed; the southern half is covered by buildings

The amphitheatre is the largest so far uncovered in Britain, & dates from the 1st century. Excavations have revealed that it was used for cock fighting, bull baiting & combat sports, including wrestling, boxing & gladiatorial combat

In use through much of the Roman occupation of Britain, the amphitheatre fell into disuse around the year 350. It was only rediscovered in 1929, when one of the pit walls was discovered during construction work

33. Just around the next corner is the clock & the steps which we first climbed in Eastgate. Descend these once again…

…& walk up Eastgate past the Grosvenor Hotel where this walk began

34. What many people remember Chester for is the double level shops on the buildings…

Further at the junction of Eastgate Street, Watergate Street & Bridge Street’s Chester High Cross, the original of which dates from the 14th century. This cross was replaced by a new one in 1476. It consisted of an octagonal pillar surmounted by a carved head & a crucifix on its top. It was damaged & broken up by the Parliamentarians during the Civil War in 1646. The head was saved & kept in the grounds of Sir John Cotgreave at Nesterleigh

The head & other possible fragments were rediscovered in the 19th century. They were used in a restoration of the cross which was erected near the Newgate in 1949. In 1975 the cross was moved to its present site, near to its original position.

Today it’s a popular meeting point &, during the summer months, Chester’s Town Crier makes a midday proclamation from its steps

35. Now walk up Northgate Street…

…where, on the left’s the old Corn Hall

36. The magnificent building on the left’s Chester Town Hall. In 1698 an exchange was built to accommodate the city’s administrators, however it burnt down in 1862. A competition was held to build a new town hall and this was officially opened on 15 October 1869 by the Prince of Wales, the future Edward VII, who was accompanied by W.E. Gladstone, the Prime Minister. On 27 March 1897 the council chamber on the second floor was gutted by fire, but was restored the following year. In 1979 a clock was installed in the tower with three faces; there is no face on the west side of the tower

Most of the work of the council’s departments are carried out in an adjacent building. The Town Hall stands as a symbolic expression of the civil government of the city. Many of the rooms in the Town Hall are available for hire, & the hall is licensed for weddings

37. Opposite is the main entrance to the Cathedral…

Just past it lookout for the statue of the city’s bronze elephant, Janya, which means meaning ‘life’ after Chester Zoo ran a survey to name the female calf. The elephant was a gift to the city from Chester Zoo

38. Next door’s Abbey Gateway which was built as a gatehouse around 1300 & its upper storey was rebuilt around 1800. It was formerly the main access to the precinct of St Werburgh’s Abbey

Walk through it into the elegant Abbey Square…

…which is a lovely place to end our walk around this small, but beautiful city. It’s certainly a place that we won’t wait another 30 years to revisit & is a great place to spend a weekend so, if you haven’t already…

Go Walk!