Chester: a Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

Old Photographs & Drawings of Chester

The Building of Chester's Inner Ring Road (on to parts 2 and 3)

These photographs illustrate some of the chaotic scenes that ensued in Chester during the construction of the new Inner Ring Road, which was completed in January 1972.

By the early 1960s, eight trunk roads converged at the Cross in the heart of the city, resulting in extreme congestion and the noise, smell, vibration and hazardous confrontations between vehicles and pedestrians that went with it.

Planners had for years argued about solutions to the growing problem- the Greenwood Proposals of 1944 being one of the earliest (see below). The solution eventually arrived at was the construction of a new 'dual carriageway' road running around the heart of the city. Many different routes for the new road were considered but the one eventually chosen is discussed here.

Although doubtlessly responsible for a reduction in traffic in central Chester- and few modern commuters could conceive of negotiating today's busy city without it- the price paid was high; our photographs show how enormous areas of the townscape were destroyed to make space for the new road.

The picture above shows the St. Oswald's Way section during the course of construction, together with the high-rise flats- brand new when the picture was taken- which replaced older housing in the Newtown area. Delamere Street, seen on the right, formerly joined up with Victoria Road and St. Anne Street (just out of shot on the left) until St. Oswald's Way was driven between them.

Right: a detail from the 1944 Greenwood Plan for a new Chester relief road, showing how the road would curve round to meet Northgate Street, obliterating King Street in the process, and exit the City Walls via a new, enlarged Northgate. Instead, the Inner Ring Road continued straight on and passed through the walls via the new St. Martin's Gate to the St. Martin's Way flyover.

The cleared area in the centre distance has long been known by the curious name of Gorse Stacks, owing to part of it at one time being utilised for the safe storage outside the city walls of brushwood and suchlike fuel for baker's ovens- a safety measure introduced nationally after the terrible destruction brought about by the Great Fire of London.
Once the centre of a thriving commercial district centred upon the Cattle Market, which was demolished in the 1960s to make way for a traffic island on the new Ring Road, it has long been generally accepted to be in urgent need of improvement- thirty years on it, remarkably, remains a scruffy area devoted to the parking of cars.

Major reports in 1964 and 1968 recommended the area be redeveloped and the building of a hotel here was proposed, but not acted upon, at the end of the 1980s. Then, in 1995, it was proposed to enclose the entire area within a new 'Millennium Wall', within which would be created a landscaped 'cultural quarter' containing galleries, shops, restaurants and the like- plus a new public square and open air market. Some of the 'science fiction-style' artist's impressions of the time (left) gave rise to considerable local criticism- and no little hilarity.
Moreover, it was estimated that the project would cost an astonishing £118 million, much of which was expected to come from the private sector and local authorities, but over £60 million was applied for from the Millennium Commission- unsuccessfully, as it turned out.
Without this crucial funding, the entire ill-planned project foundered and no mention of it has since been heard- although, independently of this, an excellent organisation by the name of Chester in Concert has tirelessly campaigned for the erection of a purpose-built concert hall, exhibition and arts centre on Gorse Stacks.
Interestingly, town planner Greenwood had proposed the building of a dignified Civic Centre and concert hall behind the Town Hall back in the 1940s- another of his fine ideas never acted upon.

Moving on a few yards, here is the continuation of St. Oswald's Way just past the junction with Hoole Way. The road rises to meet the bridge that carries it over the Shropshire Union Canal.

The main road to the suburb of Hoole- where these words are being written- the road to Warrington and also the General Railway Station, was formerly Brook Street, just out of shot on the left. This too, was curtailed by the Ring Road and for a long time, was linked to the city merely by an unpleasant pedestrian underpass, thankully removed a few years back and replaced by a pelical crossing. Nontheless, Brook Street, once the well-to-do main approach to the city from the railway station, is much reduced in status and sadly shares little in the affluence of the nearby city centre.

The large building on the right started life as a grand cinema, the Gaumont Palace, but today hosts a lively bingo club. The tall chimney in the background belongs to what was then the Griffiths Brother's mill, "Provender Millers and Merchants", which was later restored and converted into what is today the excellent Mill Hotel.
(You can see some more photographs of it around this time as viewed from the Shropshire Union Canal here).

Illustrated below is what is now known as Brookdale Place, but was then the end of Brook Street, photographed from Cow Lane Bridge, which crosses the canal to connect with Frodsham Street and the city centre- the exact route of the old Roman road to Warrington. On the right is Union Terrace, which runs alongside the canal in the direction of the Chester Leadworks.

On the left was once the site of the Cattle Market. For centuries, livestock were driven in from the surrounding countryside to be sold here, but when this photograph was taken, the entire area had been recently flattened to make way for the widening of the road leading from a rebuilt Cow Lane Bridge, for car parking and for a traffic island at the junction of St. Oswald's Way and Hoole Way.

Reader Valerie Sheckler, now resident in Florida USA, wrote to us: "I spent many hours playing at the Cattle Market on George Street, hoping that a sheep or pig would escape as the farmers loaded and unloaded them. It was hilarious to watch grown men chasing a squealing pig down the road with kids in tow!"

Writing in the local press in 1999, Mrs J Moore recalled, "I've been reminiscing about the days of my youth when cows and sheep grazed on the middle of the big Roodee when the grass was higher than me. It was cows in summer and sheep in winter. I can't remember when they started to cut the grass by machine- some time after the war, I think.
I recall cows coming up and down Lower Bridge Street on their way to the Cattle Market at Gorse Stacks. Tuesdays and Thursdays were days when, if you had any sense, you kept away from the Cow Lane Bridge and Brook Street area unless you were at ease with cows, bulls, sheep, pigs etc. The cows were the worst (unless the occasional bull escaped) They went into shops, and so did the public trying to dodge them- hopefully not the same shops! My sister worked in Brook Street and remembered many a heart-stopping occasion. At least, she said, in Brook Street you could avoid them, but if you met the herds on Cow Lane Bridge, there was nowhere to hide!"


You can see the route of the new road marked out with white stakes.

At this time however, Brook Street started at this point and met Hoole Road at the bridge crossing the railway near the General Station. Today, Brook Street is much shorter, commencing at the 'black-and-white' pub in the distance and all the buildings to its right have vanished to make way for the Ring Road.

Here is a fine 19th century photograph of the historic Yacht Inn, which for centuries stood on the corner of Watergate Street and Nicolas Street. This was where the Dean of Dublin Cathedral- and, more famously, the author of Gulliver's Travels- Jonathan Swift, after having been 'stood up' for a dinner date with local churchmen, reputedly scrawled with his diamond ring on one of the inn's windows,

"Rotten without and mould'ring within, this place and its clergy are all near akin."

The venerable Yacht, together with every other building on the left hand side of the photograph, was destroyed when Nicolas Street was doubled in width and their cellars now lie buried beneath the modern Ring Road. This side of the modern street now boasts a motley collection of mediocre modern structures including a multi-storey car park, tyre depot and office buildings.

(More of the immortal Swift's less-than-complementary rhymes about Chester and its people may be enjoyed here...)

Commercial considerations were paramount and the car was king. Heritage- all that made Chester unique- took very much second place when there was money to be made. This was drastically illustrated when a vast and miraculously well preserved Roman bath house complex, "with walls up to two hundred feet long, standing to twelve feet in height" was destroyed to make way for an underground car park beneath the ghastly Grosvenor Laing Shopping Precinct which was being developed at around the same time as the Ring Road.

All of these geographical details may make more sense when you view this aerial photograph of the area, dating from around the same time or this interesting 1950s map of Chester showing how the city looked just before the new road was built.

ringroad viewFinally, illustrated here is the same area today, looking across Cow Lane Bridge towards St. Anne Street from the top of the Tesco supermarket car park. The red brick building on the corner of Union Terrace- seen in the photograph above- still stands and is now a ceramic tile retailer.

The Inner Ring Road curves around the site of the former Cattle Market- now a car park- and past the fire station on the corner of St. Anne Street and the bulk of the Northgate Arena, which houses Chester's swimming baths and sports facilities. Before the coming of the Inner Ring Road, the Northgate Railway Station stood on this site.

Here is a photograph by Chris Langford of the building of the Ring Road near Cuppin Street and here is an aerial photograph of the construction of the St. Martin's Way flyover.

A Ring Road Gallery part 1

nicolas street and st. martin's church

This fascinating old photograph shows Nicolas Street in the 1950s, before the coming of the Inner Ring Road. This area was anciently known as St. Martin's Ash. Two millennia ago, the southern wall of the Roman fortress of Deva ran along the right hand side of the road and Nicolas Street has its origins in the patrolling track that ran outside the wall.
On the far left a row of old almshouses stand where the Chester Conservative Club is now. The Castle Inn may be seen just beyond them. All of the splendid buildings on the right were demolished to allow for the doubling of the roadway when the Ring Road was created in the early 1960s. One of the casualties was the medieval Church of St. Martin which can be seen on the right. This is one of the very few photographs we've ever seen of the place.

nicolas street 1964

The same location in 1964- the Castle Inn's sign remains and will give you your bearings. Cuppin Street is on the right. The church and all of the fine houses have gone, as have the almshouses on the left, and the road is closed to allow new construction and road widening to take place.

Below we see the identical spot, photographed during a rare lull in the traffic on a cold, dull day in January 2013. This is progress.

nicolas street today

nicolas street 1952

We're now on the same road as above, but this final stretch was known as Castle Esplanade. It is a decade earlier than the above photographs, 1952, and the scene is both handsome and quiet, a far cry indeed from the scene today.
On the left are the castle-like Militia Buildings which were built just after the Crimea War in 1854-6 and were used as married quarters for the families of troops serving at Chester Castle. They were demolished in 1964 to may way for the Police Headquarters- which, in turn, was knocked down in 2006 and replaced by an office and apartment development by the name of 'HQ'.
The obelisk on the right is a memorial to the bible commentator Matthew Henry (1662-1714). It remains in situ today, albeit sitting in the middle of a busy roundabout on the Inner Ring Road.

nicolas street

Ten years or so after the photograph above was taken, we are looking at the same spot from the other direction. The changes are profound. The brand-new Ring Road is in place, heading down to the Castle, and palings close off the raw wounds of demolished streets and houses. The Castle may be seen in the distance and the Castle Inn's sign continues to hang on the right..

old niicolas street

The corner of Nicolas Street and Watergate Street as they were before the Ring Road. The ancient Yacht Inn may be seen on the corner, just before the church. Below we see the same scene, photographed by the author in 2010. The fine old mansions have given way to a tyre depot and other mundane structures and a torrent of traffic pours by. Only the Guildhall and 'Pill Box Terrace', Joseph Turner's fine row of 18th century houses from where the photographs were taken, remain today.

nicolas street now

hoole road/black diamond street

Across the city, here is the junction of Hoole Road and Black Diamond Street in 1969, just before the construction of the Hoole Way section of the Inner Ringroad. The George public house may be seen on the left. The new road passes immediately in front of this now-disused pub and all of the buildings on the right were demolished to make way for it.

On to part 2 of our gallery of photographs of Chester's Inner Ring Road

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