1 May 2023

Chester - Learn about Europe's 5th Prettiest City (according to Readers of USA Today)

A decade or so ago, the readers of USA today voted the city of Chester in England as Europe’s fifth prettiest city.

While this may have come as a surprise to many (it beat Prague, Budapest and Venice for starters), for those acquainted with this historic city, founded by Roman invaders almost 2,000 years ago, it came as a long overdue recognition of one of the UK’s best kept secrets.

While Oxford, Cambridge, Bath and York hog the spotlight as England's premier historic towns, Chester is sometimes overlooked.  As someone born and brought up there I believe I can help explain why this city came so surprisingly high in the USA Today poll.

Chester is tucked away about twenty miles under Liverpool on the map of England and it is true that it is often overshadowed by its larger, more famous neighbor. It is difficult to compete with The Beatles, after all. However, Chester has charms that are all its own so I would like to invite you to a short tour of the city.

Image Credit Flickr User Tania Ho
Image Credit G Bayliss
Chester - The Rows
Chester is quite an amazing place – as I hope these photographs show. In these, you can see examples of Chester's Rows. This system of shops (called The Rows by one and all) was created in the middle ages and is almost unique in Europe although there is another, lesser example in Germany. See the walkway above the first floor (ground floor in the UK)? The system of rows is where the shops are literally tiered. You have a shop on ground level and then immediately above it there is a walkway (yes, The Rows). Set in from this is another set of shops, often different from the shop below it.

Chester 21-7-2005
If you venture further in to the main block of The Rows there is a Victorian waiting treat for you.

Eastgate and Eastgate Clock Chester
1 Bridge Street  Chester
All of this no doubt enhanced the retail experience of medieval shoppers and it is the same today. This particular part of The Rows is where numerous generations of young people have met in the early evening before they embark on their carousing through the city.

Chester town centre.
The Town Crier looks for a candidate for the stocks
I will start in what I, as a Cestrian (yes, that’s what you call someone from Chester!) see as the very center of the city – and that is the place that we call The Cross. This is where the original Roman Principia stood – the central offices of the occupation force which founded the city over two thousand years ago. Every day the Town Crier comes to The Cross and regales people with news both local and international. As a nod to the times the Crier often plugs local businesses too – which is probably what he would have done centuries ago as one of the sole sources of news for the people!

Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Dunnock_D
Image Credit Flickr User snapshooter45
Views of Upper Bridge Street – much of which was rebuilt in the middle of the eighteenth century. The town elders, in a prescient moment, decided to rebuild in the style of the previous houses, which were built in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Many people are taken in and think that the houses date from that era and although some do, this ‘mock’ Tudor veneer is less than two hundred years old in many places. It does, however, give Chester its architectural identity which most people, when asked, would describe as typical of the place.
Three Old Arches
Chester (455)
Towards the bottom of Upper Bridge Street there stands the oldest surviving part of the system of rows. This dates back from the thirteenth century – a time when Chester would have been a significantly unhealthier place to live, with delights such as Bubonic Plague being prevalent.

Chester - Bear & Billet & Three Façade Lower Bridge Street
Bear and Billet, Chester
A five minute walk down Lower Bridge Street brings us to one of the oldest Public Houses in Chester. This is the infamous Bear and Billet Inn where a multitude of young Cestrians have misspent their youth (this writer included!). This was built in 1664 – another time when pestilence was just about to be launched upon the unsuspecting port (as it was then). Notice how small the entrance is. This reflects the size of the people at the time – people were considered pretty tall if they grew to more than five foot eight inches!

Bridgegate from the bridge
Old  Dee Bridge, Handbridge, Chester, England
Image Credit Flickr User JeanM1
Just past The Bear and Billet (now it has to be said very respectable!) is the oldest bridge in the city – in fact it was the only one until just before Victoria came to the throne. Just outside of one of the city's gates, the Old Dee Bridge was built in the fourteenth century and was itself a replacement for a wooden bridge that was made in the tenth. As a testament to the engineering prowess of the day the bridge is still used for cars to cross – probably thousand per day. It was used as a gateway to Wales, which in Old English meant ‘Land of foreigners’. Not a very United Kingdom back in those days!

Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
You need to keep your eyes peeled in Chester.  The small details are what make the city so special - and history isn't always as po-faced as you might expect.

Chester (457)
Chester (452)
Chester (107)
Just behind this view we have The Walls. Chester was for hundred of years a vital strategic point, both for trade and for keeping the Welsh at bay! The city was entirely walled in Roman times and these walls were repaired throughout the ages, the last restoration being in the eighteenth century. At some points the walls tower over those on the ground, as can be seen here. In more peaceful times, town houses were built which afford glorious views of the river throughout the year.

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Chester (21)
Chester Sat 2-8-2008 (44)
Everywhere you go in Chester, you are not far away from The Walls.

Wherever you go in Chester you will find charming side streets.  To Cestrians they are just that - but to the visitor they are fascinating examples of the different styles of architecture used in the city over the centuries.

Chester Weir
Handbridge ....... English Civil War
The River – the Dee – is a focal point of social life in Chester and is only ten minute’s walk from the City center. Here you can rent out a row boat for a not so small hourly fee. If you are feeling a little less energetic then you can spend some time on one of the several small cruise ships that take tourists for a jaunt up the river (past meadows which have been untouched since the middle ages).

Chester Basin
When the frenetic pace of daily life in Chester gets to much for you, then you can seek the peacefulness of the Shropshire Union Canal which runs by the city walls just a stone's throw from the center of town.  OK, you got me there - frenetic is hardly the word.  Chester is so laid back that if it were a person it might be unconscious.  However, the canal affords a short respite from the town - even though you cannot escape history even there.

Image Credit Flickr User Clive A Brown
Image Credit Flickr User Clive A Brown
The Romans left quite a few reminders of their four hundred or so years in Chester (or Deva as they knew it). Just a five minute walk from the river there is the Roman garden which is a collection of remains from that period. One of the more interesting is the hypocaust system that the Romans used as a form of central heating. These pillars would be underneath the ground floor of the villa and wood and charcoal would be burned there to heat up the house! How civilized!

Roman amphitheater (Chester)
For my wee cousin James B Brown
For my wee cousin James B Brown
The Romans knew how to enjoy themselves and they left behind one of the few amphitheaters in the United Kingdom. It isn’t quite The Coliseum of Rome but people are nevertheless very proud of this two thousand year old remnant of past colonialism. The kids even get to do the occasional re-enactment!

Roman soldier tours - Chester
Roman Amphitheatre
Unfortunately only half of the amphitheater has ever been excavated because – you guessed it – the houses standing on the uncovered half are considered too historically valuable and so cannot be knocked down for the sake of the archaeologists. They do sometimes get to dig around the periphery. Perhaps one day technology will allow us to discover what lies beneath without destroying what stands atop!

Yet while we wait, there is always a chance to see re-enactments of the Roman occupation of the city.

Royal Welsh Homecoming
However, you also get to see contemporary soldiery on display, like these from the 1st Battalion the Royal Welsh returning home from Afghanistan after a six-month tour of duty.

Tightrope balancing Violinist in Eastgate Street Chester
Of course, like any other European city, Chester is full of (licensed) street performers and entertainers.

Chester Clock on Eastgate Street
Image Credit Flickr User Alex Livitt
Just a short walk from the amphitheater the Eastgate Clock, erected on the city walls to commemorate the diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria is one of the best known landmarks in Chester. It was for over a hundred years completely mechanical. Several years ago the old parts were removed and now the four faces of the clock are operated completely by computer.

Image Credit Wikimedia
Although you might wonder why the citizens of Chester might want to erect something so preposterously fabulous in the middle of their city, this1880 painting by Louise Rayner shows what the street looked like without its clock. You have to admit, it needed something...

Image Credit Flickr User Hypocentre
You also get a great view of the busy city streets from the clock.

Image Credit Flickr User Stephen
Image Credit Flickr User Dunnock_D
A stone’s throw away from the clock is the city Cathedral – small by the standards of the day but still one of the more magnificent landmarks of the city. The cathedral was founded as a church in the tenth century and dedicated to Saint Werburgh who was a Mercian princess several hundred years earlier. It was a monastery until Henry VIII dissolved them in 1540 and it has been a cathedral since then.

Image Credit Flickr User Jacqueline Poggi
The cathedral (like the city itself) is not preserved in amber, as it were. It is a fully functioning place of worship and celebration. Weddings are often held there and performances of the city's famous medieval Mystery Plays are played out in its grounds.

Image Credit Flickr User Hypocentre
Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Hypocentre
The interior is like a time capsule of different times in the city’s history and is one of the primary tourist destinations of Chester.

Image Credit Flickr User Friar's Balsam
Image Credit Flickr User Hypotension
The cloisters, used for mediation by the monks, overlook a beautiful garden with statuary to match.

Image Credit Flickr User Clive A Brown
Image Credit Flickr User Clive A Brown
Image Credit Flickr User Clive A Brown
Tucked away behind the cathedral are sets of seventeenth century town houses which many people overlook. The streets retain their original cobbles and many of the houses still bear the original insurance stamps that the owners and occupiers paid heavily for, to unsure that if there was a fire that it would be put out. If a house did not have the insurance stamp on the outside, the fire would be left to burn!

Chester (17)
King Charles Tower
Chester (493)
From the town houses, a hundred meters further up the city walls is one of the many towers that dot it. This is King Charles’ Tower. When the country was embroiled in civil war, Charles stood on the tower and watched his army defeated at the battle of Rowton Moore. Chester was staunchly pro-monarch and much of the city was leveled during the civil war. The tower was not, as many believe, built for Charles’ viewing pleasure (or not!). It was in fact the meeting place of the Guild of painters, glaziers, stationers and embroiders.

Chester (75)
This article is the tip of the historic iceberg that is the city of Chester! I have omitted many places which are well worth a look, as this is simply a snap shot of the city and I have included what are my own favorites.  Although the city is small enough to comfortably walk around, you can take in all these sights and more by using ye olde vintage bus.

Image Credit Flickr User Christopher Ng
Image Credit Flickr User Peter Broster
Left out in any detail here are, among others, the Town Hall (above) and its square, the Castle, the Race Course and the spooky ruins of Saint John’s church with the coffin built in to its semi-ruined interior wall. This article would go on for many more paragraphs to do the city true justice, including Grosvenor Bridge and the gorgeous villas along the river .

Image Credit Flickr User Snapshooter45
Image Credit Flickr User Snapshooter45
I hope you have enjoyed this snap shot of a city which memorably mixes the modern and the contemporary with the old and ancient.  Is it the fifth prettiest city in Europe? I couldn't really say.  Yet one thing I do know - it is well worth a visit! As you have seen it is a varied and unusual place. However, for most people what they remember most fondly about Chester is the clock!

Time For Bridge

First Image Credit Flickr User MG Spiller