Needing a break from the arduous task of living a semi-retired existence in Scotland, I took a few days away to re-visit a city I haven’t seen since I was a teenager: Chester, England. An all-too-brief tea stop en route from London to the Lake District my first time there, Chester is still, decades later, one of the most beautiful cities I’ve seen – and I’ve traveled a lot, visiting most countries in continental Europe, Ireland, and all countries in the UK save Northern Ireland.
This city had been making guest appearances in my dreams for decades. To a 16-year old Anglophile, it was heaven: half-timbered buildings, cobblestones, a cathedral, castle and remarkably complete city walls… I’d never gotten it out of my head. Given the opportunity to take a side-trip for a few days, when I saw it was only a 3.5-hour train ride from Edinburgh I knew it was time.
The risk was it wouldn’t stand up to my idealized memories. In reality, Chester surpassed them all.
The luxury of planning a four-day stay gave me the chance to get out and roam: plenty of time to see everything touristy, with leftover luxury time to get well and thoroughly lost. That’s when you find quaint little corners that didn’t merit even a footnote in the guidebooks; even better, opportunities to irritate the locals by showing up where they aren’t expecting tourists. Bumbling my way into a private event at a church that sure as hell looked like fair game to me, I experienced a legitimate Withering Look from a legitimate Proper Englishman. I beamed, brushed past, and diverted to take exterior photos of the architecture.
Sod off, Nigel.
As a teenager, I recognized Chester’s distinctive Tudor architecture. I now realize how grotesquely nerdy that makes me sound. I’d pretty much figured out other kids weren’t sitting home Saturday nights flipping through well-worn picture books about Great Britain, mooning like star-crossed lovers, but I had zero interest in much else save history and literature. In retrospect, it does explain my almost exclusively sober memories of high school, but I’m unrepentant:
I’m sitting in Scotland right now, bitchez!
Preparing for this trip back to Chester the internet – annoying little prig – showed me everything I thought I knew about the city was wrong. The buildings I’d smugly assumed were of Tudor origin are, in reality, mostly Victorian – some facades stuck onto structures destroyed by fire in the Middle Ages. A few are original to the 15th and 16th centuries, but most were rebuilt hundreds of years after.
I never dreamed how much Roman history Chester holds. Busy coordinating a packed reviewing schedule, I only stumbled on that little detail as I was throwing my clothes in the suitcase. Scratching the surface a bit, I saw it was massive:
The largest found in Britain so far, Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre was re-discovered in 1929 during a construction project. It was excavated between 2000 and 2006.
A guide dressed as a Roman soldier was giving tours in the rain the day I visited. It was cold and miserable, alternating between mist and harder rain – a day much better suited to purusing Waterstones than gadding about.
The amphitheatre could easily seat 8,000 people, and around it, a sprawling complex of dungeons, stables and food stands were built to support the contests, while a shrine to Nemesis, goddess of retribution, was built at the north entrance to the arena. The unusually large and developed amphitheatre complex has led historians to speculate that Chester would have become capital of Roman Britain had the Romans successfully captured Ireland.
Relics in the Roman Garden were arranged there to create a lovely park space. It’s all original to Chester, just not original to the site.
Parish Church of St. John the Baptist
Huge fan of church and castle rubble that I am, I was thrilled when, walking through Grosvenor Park, I saw a sign for the St. John’s Ruins. It’s another site I hadn’t seen the first time around:
My DSLR camera died simultaneously with finding the ruin, a sign which didn’t portend well. I took a dozen or so photos with my phone, but then a miracle happened: my camera started working again.
St John the Baptist is an active parish, just not the ruined bits. Not all the church collapsed, at least not all at once. There were a series of collapses, and subsequent repairs, throughout its history:
In 1468 the central tower collapsed. In 1572 the northwest tower partially collapsed and in 1574 there was a greater collapse of this tower which destroyed the western bays of the nave. This was rebuilt on a “magnificent scale”. There were restorations to the church in 1859–66 and 1886–87 by RC Hussey. While the northwest tower was being repaired in 1881 it collapsed again, this time destroying the north porch. The porch was rebuilt in 1881–82 by John Douglas.
The guide inside St John the Baptist related the church’s history from its Viking burial markers to how to tell if a knight’s been on Crusade from details on his effigy, everything between and after. He rattled on in the very best sense, so interestingly and quickly I wished I had a memory to speak of so I could share it.
The ceiling of the church was funded by Elizabeth I. The price? The lead on the existing ceiling, as the English were hard at work on the Spanish Armada at the time, and needed every bit of scrap material they could lay hands on.
Between the ruins and the working parish church, I spent at least an hour and a half there.
I captured the castle at the golden hour of the day, the sun illuminating the side. Open only for tours two days a month, I wasn’t able to see inside. Disappointing, to say the least. Rumor has it inside lay all sorts of interesting historical artifacts, as well as paintings, etc.
Ah, well. Maybe next time.
Other charms aside, it’s Chester’s cathedral I found most bewitching. After circumnavigating it more than once while looking for the entrance, twice passing a confused Englishwoman doing the same, it was one astounding visual experience after another.
Chester’s cathedral is majestic.
The Cathedrall is Large and Lofty, ye quire well Carv’d, fine tapistry hangings at ye alter, a good organ: The Bishops pallace is on the Right hand of it and the Doctors houses, all built of Stone.
Celia Fiennes, Through England on a Side Saddle (1698)
I spent four days in Chester. One day was pouring rain, limiting how much I was able to get out and about. Turned out, three days were exactly enough. I left knowing I hadn’t seen everything, but content I’d seen enough.
From a guidebook I bought at Waterstones, I learned just enough about the history to know how much more I want to know. Serendipitously, there’s a plaque inside Chester Cathedral dedicated to an ancestor I found branching off my own family tree during my Mad Genealogy Period. He’s the father of a woman George Washington proposed to before Martha, the woman who rejected the man who’d be the first president of the United States.
A man with his own Wikipedia page.
I knew nothing of his association with Chester, but I recognized his name and where he’d lived in New York, and from that little curtain twitch funnelled back more than 240 years, I could just make out a young lady with burning cheeks standing in awkward conversation with the first president of my country:
“I’m sorry, George. Daddy says no.”
Of the hundreds of marble slabs dedicated to thousands of people in Chester Cathedral, I happened to plant myself directly in front of his. Go. Figure. Things like this happen to me all the time – not very distant relatives found honored in huge cathedrals, but too many little coincidences to recount.
I find these things because I read and research, I’m curious and I travel. Odds are, if you travel enough you’re bound to run into parts of yourself elsewhere. I went looking for my 16-year old self in Chester, and ran smack into my Dutch great-great-great-grand-something – the last person I expected to see in the last place I expected to see him. It happens sometimes, if you keep your eyes open.
Once again, Chester, so long. And thanks for all the fish.
At the End of ye town just by the Castle you Crosse over a very large and Long Bridge over the River Dee wch has the tyde Comes up much beyond the town; its 7 mile off yt it falls into ye sea, but its very broad below ye town, when at high tyde is like a very broad sea: there they have a little Dock and build shipps of 200 tunn, I saw some on the stocks.
Celia Fienes – Through England on a Side Saddle (1698)