Chester Guided Walks

If you find our 'virtual stroll' stimulating, why not treat yourself to one of our real guided walks?
Join photographer, author and historian Steve Howe to wander Chester's world famous City Walls, the most complete in Britain, and discover the delights of the city they have guarded for 2000 years. See sights and hear stories you'll never find in any guidebook! Booking is simple- click on the picture to learn more..


Grosvenor Bridge

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

13. The Roodee



Roodee II


Having safely negotiated busy Grosvenor Road, we, until very recently, would have been immediately struck by the large, ugly and to my mind, extremely inappropriately-sited building at the junction with Nicolas Street- the busy Inner Ring Road- on our right. This was the County Police Headquarters, designed by the County architect, Edgar Taberner and built between 1964 and 1967, at the astonishing cost for the time of over half a million pounds.

The 'sculpted' ends of this otherwise drab block were designed by W. G. Mitchell and were made by pouring concrete onto polystyrene moulds. They actually won a National Civic Trust award in 1969, even though the local branch objected to the building's design. Mind you, three decades later in the pages of 2000 Years of Building, they were praising it again: "It makes an important and positive townscape contribution... a particulary successful link with the castle opposite."

Architectural commentator Nikolaus Pevsner wrote of the building: "Extremely objectionably sited, an eight-storey block immediately by the propylaea of the castle and turning towards it a windowless wall with an agressive all-over concrete relief".
The Royal Fine Art Commission criticised the design around the same time.
However, Donald Isall, in his influential report of 1968, cited the building as "an example of beneficial change within the city". He found it to be "well related to Grosvenor Street and the Castle."

Incorporated into the lower parts of the Police HQ were sandstone blocks from the castle-like Militia Buildings which formerly occupied the site. Built just after the Crimea War in 1854-6, they were used as married quarters for the families of troops serving at the Castle.

You can see them in the photograph below, which also shows Chester's forgotten 'Beefeaters'- dressed similarly to their surviving brethren at the Tower of London- the Javelin Men who once escorted the Judge's coach to the assizes at the Castle. A fascinating short British Pathé newsreel of them from 1926 may be seen here...

cop shop demolitionIn February 1998 it was reported that the police intended to move out of their "crumbling" 30 year-old building, as it was "too cramped". The city force had confirmed a move to the site of the recently-demolished Arts Centre in Blacon and were looking for a location for a city centre base while their County colleagues wished to relocate elsewhere in Cheshire. The date for this move was said to be sometime in 2003. What then would be the fate of their present building was, at the time, anybody's guess- a report that it was to demolished to make way for a hotel had been officially denied, which led most locals to believe that there was probably something in it. Whatever the case, few would be sorry to see it go- they only hoped that the building that eventually replaced it would be, for a change, something the city could be proud of.

Three years later, in February 2001, the building was formerly put up for sale and, it was reported, "A number of potential developers, including leading hotel chains, have made their interest known".
The city council's Design and Conservation Manager commented that "There are two alternatives, either keep the building and refurbish it, or replace it. There has been a lot of debate about the present building and there are mixed feelings about it, but it is of architectural importance, is a gateway site for the city and is in a conservation area. In addition, the space around the building is protected and contains very significant archaeology".

A year later, in February 2002, city council planners duly recommended that the building be demolished to make way for a "prestigious" new development. They have made it known thay they would favour a three or four-storey building that would create jobs, such as a hotel, leisure or conference centre. It had emerged that Cheshire Police would be relocating to their new purpose-built headquarters at Woodford Business Park in Winsford at the end of 2003 and the site would become available for redevelopment soon after.

Even those self-appointed guardians of our city's heritage, the Chester Civic Trust, who, just a few years ago, thought it would be a good idea to build a bunch of glass-and-steel office tower blocks at the Old Port, to "provide a 'gateway' to the city and be a commercially stimulating centrepiece for the revival of the area" decided not to campaign for the preservation of the building. They were, however, "cautious" about the prospect of outright demolition and were said to recognise the value of a building "so clearly of its time"- and suggested that a "sensitive refurbishment" may have been more appropriate.

cop shop replacement?In this, they were as successful as they were trying to save the Militia Buildings, the police HQ's predecessor. But then, their national organisation did give the thing an award, "for its outstanding architectural contribution to the local scene" back in 1969.

Above we present a final photograph of the half-demolished Police HQ in October 2006- and (right and below) some first views of the brave new building by Liberty Properties PLC now (Summer 2008) rapidly rising as its replacement. This enormous new structure, to be known as 'HQ', was to feature a hotel, conference centre, offices and apartments as well as bars and restaurants set around an internal circular public piazza.

Right and below: these early 'artist's impressions' were how the HQ Building was first presented to the public. The final design, below right, differs greatly.

But then, in the Summer of 2009, a row broke out when it was proposed by the leadership of the newly-formed Cheshire West and Chester Council ( a new creation formed after the demise of the old Chester City and Cheshire County Councils) that County Hall, home of the County Council since 1957, should be sold to the rapidly-expanding Chester University for £10 million and that the council should take up offices within the newly-built HQ Building instead. The details may be found here.

Novemember 2009: Our council have now acquired all of the office space within the HQ development. An article on the Hill Dickinson website explains all. (We were amused by the brief final sentence in this piece, "The council advised itself").

The Minor Religious Houses

In Roman times, all of the land we see ahead of us between here and the distant towers on the NW corner of the City Walls was part of the civil settlement, lying west of the Legionary fortress and adjacent to the quays situated along the banks of a much more substantial river than we see today. In its southern part have been discovered the remains of several substantial houses and north of these, a small tributary river once ran westwards to join the Dee but this had been drained and partially infilled during Roman times- although the land remained low-lying and boggy for centuries to come.

Little is known of the area in the centuries following the withdrawal of the Legions but it seems have been relatively little used. The River Dee, however, was undergoing major changes as falling sea levels and silting resulted in the once-busy harbour becoming landlocked and the large tract of land that now lies between the river and the city- the Roodee we know today- started to be formed.

new cop shop developmentThe other major change to the area was the creation of the City Wall upon which we now stand- which, to the surprise of many, did not actually exist on this side of the city until the early 12th century- to enclose this area within the defended circuit. This did not apparently result in any great immediate outburst of urbanisation, however, and most of the great area between the Castle and the North Wall long remained open land- known as The Crofts- and was utilised as smallholdings, gardens and orchards- land of relatively little value that could freely be granted for the founding of religious houses. Which, as we will learn, between the mid-12th to mid-13th centuries, is exactly what happened.

In Roman times, the ground on this side of the city west of the present day Inner Ring Road sloped sharply westwards down to the river bank and this slope was eventually cut into three terraces to produce level platforms for buildings and agriculture. The lowest of these terraces was fronted by the massive stone retaining wall which formed the Roman quayside, parts of which may still be seen on the Roodee today (see photograph below).

The City Wall was eventually built on top of this lower terrace, about five metres back from its edge. Immediately north of the site, however, the quay ran across the mouth of the small drained river valley, presumably in the form of a causeway, isolating the valley from the river. Behind the causeway there was only soft ground, unsuitable for erecting a large wall on, so consequently the wall deviates westward and was built close to the quay edge- probably on top of the causeway itself.

The erection of this great wall produced a barrier at the foot of the hillside against which deposits washed down from the slopes above could accumulate, a process that continued from the 12th century right through to fairly recent times. The result is that the entire sloping hillside has disappeared beneath around five metres of accumulated deposits and the ground level we walk on today is now more or less level with the top of the wall. Looking over the parapet at the drop below (see the old photograph below) and the City Wall's great supporting buttresses makes the situation dramatically clear and explains why the walls appear so different on this side of the city to those elsewhere in the circuit.

city wall above roodeeThe last traces of the boggy former tributary valley were filled in around 1827 by the construction of the great embankment to carry the approach road to the Grosvenor Bridge.

Left: Even 150 or so years ago, things hereabouts looked very different from today, as you see in these interesting photographs, showing the Roodee much as we know it, but, above, Nun's Road was an uneven grassy track snaking its way along the top of the wall. Below, earlier- and stranger- still, before villas started to appear, there is nothing but open land from the West Wall to the Castle.

Commencing in the 1150s most of the Crofts were to be occupied by the houses of religious communities. Nontheless, much of the land remained unbuilt-upon, serving in its ancient role as the fields and vegetable gardens of the monks and nuns. After the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s and 40s, their estates were gradually split up and developed- the final section, Lady Barrow's Hey, at the far end of the road, as late as 1963, when the site was occupied by the extension of the Chester Royal Infirmary (which we will visit soon)- which itself was demolished in 1998 to make way for new housing.

old view of the nun's fieldPassing the boarded-off site of the recently-demolished Police HQ, we find ourselves standing in Nun's Road, so called because it occupies part of the lands of the Benedictine Nunnery of St. Mary's which stood on the site which was later occupied by the Police HQ from Saxon times until the reign of Henry VIII- when, in 1537, along with the neighbouring houses of the Black, White and Greyfriars, it was dissolved and the nuns cast out to fend for themselves. (it was, however, recorded that the Prioress and eleven other nuns were given pensions which they were still receiving 21 years later, in 1556).

Their estate and buildings survived, and in 1542 were granted to Urian Brereton and became the Chester house of the Breretons of Handforth for the next hundred years. By the time of the Civil war in 1642-6, this was the home of Sir William Brereton- at least until he became leader of the Cheshire Parliamentary forces- early in 1643 the buildings were attacked and pillaged by Welsh soldiers who formed part of the Chester garrison loyal to the King.
Norman Tucker's stirring novel of 1949, Master of the Field (unfortunately no longer in print but well worth trying to find) dramatically recreates Sir William's home as it was at this time, as well as being a powerful evocation of the stirring event during the long and bloody
Siege of Chester, when, along with many other buildings within and without the walls, the Priory buildings were largely destroyed and their remains left to fall into decay.

The site was finally cleared and grassed over to form a fitting approach to the newly rebuilt Castle and today not a trace remains above ground.
An archway from the old priory was, however, re-erected to form a 'folly' at St. John's Priory, a private house that once stood in the churchyard at St. John's Church and was, for a time, the home of the mother of the 'English Opium Eater', Thomas De Quincey.

When that house was removed, the arch was transferred to Grosvenor Park, where it may still be seen today (together with an arch from St. Bridget's Church which stood for a thousand years in Lower Bridge Street before being demolished to make way for Grosvenor Street, and the ancient Shipgate, which we learned about earlier in our walk). Some of the old convent's stones were also incorporated into the rebuilt porch of the church of St. Mary-Within-the-Walls, next to the Castle. It was recorded that, when the site was cleared, many bones were uncovered, together with fragments of doors and windows and other masonry- some of Norman style others in the richer manner of the 15th century, painted and gilt-encrusted.

Left: Guarded by the Javelin Men, the coach carrying the Judge and High Sheriff to the Chester Assizes at the Castle pass before the impressive Militia Buildings which stood where the new HQ development is now. The inner courtyard of the Militia Buildings may be seen below. Another photograph of the Javelin Men may be seen on our Chester Castle pages and they and the Militia Buildings may be seen again in our Chris Langford gallery.

As previously mentioned, the construction of later buildings on the site have resulted in the probable complete destruction of the remains of the nun's church and its cloister. Much else, including the outer court and the 16th century mansion of the Breretons still survive beneath the formerly-landscaped area to the north west of the site. Will they be properly investigated this time- even, who knows, preserved in situ- before the new development takes place?
Today's developers allow, and may even help to fund excavations, but frequently commercial pressure to build on ancient sites, especially those incorporating basements or underground car parks, often allow archaeologists only a brief time to complete their work before the remains are obliterated. Dennis Petch's terse description of the destruction of a great Roman bath house on the site of the Grosvenor Shopping Precinct is a classic example. Future generations will doubtless think us very foolish.

The Nuns of St. Mary's originated as a poor order, and indeed for a long period had great difficulty making ends meet. Later, Royal patronage and liberal bequests ensured the nunnery became very rich, owning property in most of the streets of Chester as well as land in Cheshire, Lancashire and even as far as South Wales.

Though they are centuries dead and the stones of their church scattered and lost, a part of them remains with us today, for, around the year 1425 was composed within the walls of the nunnery the beautiful Carol (or Song) of the Nuns of Chester which forms part of the repertoire of choirs throughout the world and is widely available in numerous recordings. Go here
to learn more about them.

Passing along Nun's Road, we soon come to a narrow lane on the right bearing the evocative name of Blackfriars. This marks the approximate boundary between the precincts of the nuns of St. Mary's and the Dominican Friary, whose lands extended from here almost as far as Watergate Street.

The Dominicans, or Black Friars, were the first to establish themselves in Chester, founding their house here around 1236 (only fifty years after the first English Dominical foundation, at Oxford) and they dedicated their church to St. Nicolas. Documents show that a previous chapel, also dedicated to that saint, already existed on the land they acquired and they presumably used it before their own church was completed. By 1276, work had progressed so far that the monks built a pipeline from the natural springs (that had been in use since Roman times) at Boughton, 2 kilometers away, to supply their domestic quarters and kitchens with fresh water. The monastery was completed sufficiently for the Provincial Chapter of the Dominican order to be conducted here over three days in 1312.

Their church was rebuilt and expanded at least three times during the three centuries of occupation of the site and the last, and grandest, was still incomplete when the Friary was dissolved. During the decade before the Dissolution, the monks made many leases of land, perhaps in an attempt to make provision for themselves when the end came or possibly in an optimistic attempt to raise funds to complete their ambitious building programme in the unlikely event of their house being spared. One such was to Ralph Waryn in May 1537 and included "lands, gardens and orchards with two old chambers and a ruinous building, with the surrounding stone walls on the east and north of the house and church" and another, a mere two months before the surrender, to Richard Hope for "three houses lying together at the lower end of the church with the parish of Saint Martin".

All was to no avail however, and the Dominicans, together with the other two Chester friaries, surrendered their house to Henry VIII's commissioners on 15th August 1538. An inventory of the buildings and contents were made which, aside from the stained glass in the windows and the lead on the roofs, found "little of value"- the monks having presumably disposed of all vestments, plate and other valuables bore the inevitable befell them.

Right: the inner courtyard of the vanished Militia Buldings which once stood where the brand-new HQ development is now.

The estate was leased to Thomas Smythe and Richarde Sneyde who (or perhaps their successors) eventually 'asset stripped' it, demolishing the buildings and disposing of the finely-cut blocks of masonry and the fixtures and fittings for use elsewhere. Their demolition and levelling of the site was so thorough that subsequent archaeological excavation (which was much more thorough than at St. Mary's Convent) found very little masonry surviving above the foundations- and even much of that had been dug out.

Pits discovered on the site were used for lead smelting, probably from the recovery of lead from the monastery's roofs and windows. There were some survivals, however, at least for a while. One early 17th century record, referring to the church, stated, "it stood in St. Nicolas Street and belonged to the Black Friars, and the great gate is yet remaining in the wall on the west side about the middle of the street". This gate may be seen on John Speed's 1610 map of Chester.

crenelles in city wallSome fragments survived for much longer- in his 1856 work, The Stranger's Guide to Chester, Thomas Hughes, after a description of the Roodee, wrote, "we will now return to the Walls, noticing as we pass through the Water Gate, to the right, the remains of the wall of the Black Friars' Monastery".

In the course of time, the estate was split up and developed but many of these modern property boundaries are aligned on the long-vanished Friary church and its associated buildings.
We shall learn a little of the third of the monasteries, that of the Franciscans, that once existed on this side of the city- and also of a further religious community, the Carmelite White Friars- when we reach the Watergate.

Looking over the parapet here we see the great buttresses which support the wall all along this side together with the immense weight of earth and masonry behind. If you look at the triangular coping atop this stretch of wall, you will see a number of gaps- unnoticed by virtually all who pass by- but in fact truly remarkable survivors of a savage age: original relics of Chester's ancient battlements, representing the lower part of the crenelles or embrasures- the openings through which soldiers discharged their weapons before retiring behind the higher parts, the merlons, to reload. At that time of course, these battlements stood much higher relative to the walkway and would have afforded considerable protection.

The Roodee
From this point until we reach the Watergate, below us stretches the beautiful 65-acre Roodee, the "Sweet rood of Chester" (Gascoigne 1575)- whose curious name derives from the Saxon Rood- a cross or crucifix and the Norse suffix Eye- meaning an island, thus literally 'The Island of the Cross'.

In Saxon times, the waters of the Dee covered the whole of this area with the exception of a small island upon which stood a stone cross, the stump of which you may still see in the middle of the racecourse today. It seems, however, to have been moved during the last 150 years- Batenham's map of 1823 shows it situated further north on the Roodee, opposite the end of Greyfriars, and Hemingway, thirteen years later, records that it was placed "to mark the boundary of the land there belonging to the Nuns of Chester", which confirms its former location.

Tradition tells us that, around AD946, the cross was erected over a statue of the Virgin Mary, which floated to Chester up the river, having been ejected from Hawarden Church for falling on- and killing- the Lady Trawst, wife of Sytsylht (a nobleman and governor of Hawarden Castle) whilst she was at prayer asking for rain- there being at the time a severe drought. Her Lord was outraged, assembled a jury, recorded as:

Hincot of Hancot, Span of Mancot,
Leech and Leach, and Cumberbeach;
Peet and Pate, with Corbin of the Gate,
Milling and Hughet, with Gill and Pughet,

- and put the statue on trial for murder! She was convicted- also being found guilty of not answering her accusers- and condemned to be hanged. One juryman opposed that, saying that, as they wanted rain, it would be best to drown her. Another argued that, as she was 'Holy Rood', they had no right to kill her, but he suggested that they lay her on the sands on the river below Hawarden Castle, that God might do what he would with her. This they did, and the tide took her down river to Chester, where the inhabitants found her, "dead and drowned" upon which they buried her where she was found and raised over her a stone cross, which is said to have borne the following inscription:

The Jews their God did crucify,
The Hardener's theirs did drown,
Cause with their wants she'd not comply;
And lies under this cold ground
.

Even earlier, in Roman times, the river, which was then much wider and deeper, flowed right up to what is now the base of the medieval city wall. Remember that the Roman wall was set much further back than this, running along the line of the present inner ring road, between St. Martin's Gate and the Newgate- the present wall resulting from the Saxon expansion of the fortress in the 10th century.

roman harbour wallIf you walk down the steps to the racecourse and grub about behind a lot of brambles, debris and portable buildings, you will be rewarded with the sight of the massive stones of what was once the Roman harbour wall, (right) where once war gallies tied up and the trading ships of the empire discharged their cargoes of wine and spices. Although only a few courses of these stones show above ground, they extend for at least another 15 feet underground for much of the length of the wall between here and the Watergate, with traces of groin walls running off at right angles. (Investigation beyond this depth was curtailed because of flooding by the water which still endures below ground level).

The visitor passing by at pavement level is told a little of the vanished Roman harbour on one of a series of information panels which of recent times have sprouted at strategic locations around the walls- but it is nontheless a shame that this most evocative of relics of the founders of our city should currently be so poorly presented.

Roman Cemetery
It is strange that, so close to the bustle of the old harbour, a cemetery also existed here in those far-off Roman times and a number of burials have been discovered along the grassy embankment beneath the City Wall. A contributor to The Cheshire Sheaf, one F. H. W., told of a number of these in that journal in 1882- at the same time giving us a vivid impression of the exceedingly casual attitude with which ancient finds such as this were treated at the time- "The first interment we are acquainted with occurred near here in the ground under the south, end of the Dee Stands, I cannot furnish particulars, but have been told that a small, though perfect, Samian-ware vessel now in the collection of Mr. Frederick Potts was taken from this tomb.

In repairing the steps above-mentioned several years ago, the bones of a young person were found in the ground beneath: indeed the grave was described to me as being partly situated in an oblique position, and under the Walls; also that a Roman coin (second brass I think) had been deposited with the body. Mr. Shrubsole possesses the lower jawbone of the skeleton. At the same spot, only lower down the bank, a third grave was uncovered; but in this case the remains were surrounded by a coffin-like cist composed of small squared pieces of red sandstone.

The next to be noticed was found on the top of this bank in 1865, between the first and second buttresses, counting from the steps referred to. It lay at about a foot below the surface, and was composed of the ordinary red clay Roman roofing tiles (tegulae). A silver denarius of the Emperor Otho accompanied the skeleton, which was almost entire, and in its original position.

At no great distance from this, an interment was met with which may be considered as one of the most interesting yet discovered at Chester; from the circumstance that a head-stone was disinterred at the same time, which there is every reason to believe once marked the grave. This occurred in June 1874, when a cutting was made across the Roodeye, in order to form the intercepting sewer from Boughton, and running under the County Gaol. I shal here give one or two quotations from the description of Mr G W Shrubsole, who was present after its discovery:-
"The excavation commenced near the Castle, along the south face of the little-Roodee. On passing the angle of the Walls, clay and rock were found, and when the Grosvenor Bridge embankment was reached, tunnelling through rock was resorted to. Reaching the Roodee- proper, an open cutting was begun, and continued across to the Watergate. Soon after passing the Grosvenor Bridge embankment the workmen came upon a large flat stone, which proved to have an inscription of the Roman age."
This slab, formed of the ordinary red sandstone of the district, is inscribed in perfectly legible characters—

D. M.
F. L. CALLIMOR
PHI . VIX . AN . XXXXIi .
ET . SERAPIONI . VIX .
ANN . III . M. VI . T . HE . SA .
EVS . FRATRI . ET . FILIO .
F. C.

Which has been thus translated by Mr Hughes,— "To the divine shades of Flavius Lucius Callimorphus, who lived 42 years, and to Serapion, who lived 3 years and 6 months. Thesa caused this to be erected to her Brother and his Son."

roman gravestoneAs is frequently the case in monuments of this class, the upper portion is obtusely pointed, and has a species of tympanum or recessed compartment, with a carving in relief, representing Callimorphus on a couch in a recumbent posture, with his son Serapion resting on his lap. Near the side of this couch or bed is a small, gracefully formed stand; and, to the left of this, an unmistakeable amphora. Height of the slab, 4 feet 2 inches; width, 2 feet 3 inches; and average thickness about 6 inches.

Right: the gravestone of Callimorphus and Serapion, resting now in the wonderful Roman Stones Gallery in the Grosvenor Museum.

I again quote Mr. Shrubsole's remarks: "The Inscribed Stone was found between the second and third buttresses of the Walls, counting from the Grosvenor Road, and 40 feet west from the Walls, and within the ring of posts which spans the Roodee, but 6 feet from the outer line. It narrowly escaped being broken up to facilitate its removal from the trench. The grave had been dug nearly east and west; the head was towards the river, the feet to the Walls. The excavation cut through only a portion of the grave. The only bones I saw were two human skulls, one of them larger than the other, and some belonging to the upper part of the body. Other bones could be seen protruding on the east side of the cutting, and were not disturbed by me. I declined the gift of them, and in the filling in of the trench they were deposited close to their former resting place. The finding of a gold ring and a Roman coin among the filled-in rubbish composing the grave, is quite in accordance with what we should expect to find at a Roman burial. With regard to the ring, I ought to say that I never saw it. It was described to me as large, and massive in character. The man who found it left the city the next day. The Roman coin I examined- it was a second brass of Domitian in poor condition.

Passing again over the bank in May 1881, 1 noticed, washed bare by the rain, some osseous substance protruding from the soil within a foot or so to the south of the third buttress counting from the steps below Black Friars. Being well aware of the nature of the ground, I suspected that it might be a human skull; and on removal with the point of my stick it proved to be so. A subsequent examination revealed the rest of the skeleton, which lay with its head to the north and the feet to the south, about a foot from and parallel with the Walls.

On re-visiting the spot in the June of the same year another rounded object, from which the soil had been denuded, was presented to my view. This I at first mistook for the polished surface of a boulder, but soon recognised its real nature. The body had been laid in the same position as the last, and parallel with the Walls, only lower down, and a little further south. I searched carefully among the earth from within and around each skull, in the hope of finding a coin- Charon's toll- but did not succeed. And in neither case did I meet with any traces of a coffin, or with any of the objects usually found in such situations. The two skulls, the first of which came all to pieces, I have restored as far as possible and placed in the Museum of the Chester Archaeological Society [now the Grosvenor Museum]. The skull from the upper grave was broken in through the right side (which was exposed) before I saw it. The second is almost perfect; yet so great is the contempt with which the lower classes regard such matters, that had I not removed them they would, possibly shortly afterwards, have been utilised as footballs on the green sward below”.

Many more fascinating and well-preserved Roman gravestones are displayed alongside that of Callimorphus and Serapion in the Grosvenor Museum- a visit to which should be considered essential when you come to Chester. Most of these were, remarkably, discovered embedded within the North City Wall when repairs were being undertaken there in the nineteenth century. Learn more about them here.

While you are down here, walking upon the Roodee, look out for the square stone column surmounted by a railed enclosure, known as the Judge's Chair- a relic of 18th century racing days. This column is the surviving one of a pair, the other having stood directly opposite, on the far side of the course.

Around 1615, the Roodee was described as "a very delightful meadow place, used for a cow pasture in the summertime; and all the year for a wholesome and pleasant walk by the side of the Dee, and for recreations of shooting, bowling and such other exercises as are performed at certain times by men; and by running horses in presence and view of the mayor of the city and his brethren; with such other lords, knights, ladies and gentlemen as please at these times, to accompany them for that view".

roodee 1753In 1636, "The mayor caused the durt of many foule lanes in Chester to be carried to make a banke to enlarge the Roodey and let shipps in. It cost about £100".


Here we see a view of the Roodee- a small detail from this view of Chester- which appeared in the London Magazine in 1753. Sailing ships navigate the River Dee and beyond the Watertower at the angle of the city walls, open land stretches as far as the eye can see. Within the walls, too, are large areas of cultivated fields. (Just eight years after this view was published, the Infirmary would be built on part of these). On the right rises the tall spire of Holy Trinity Chuch in Watergate Street. As the Dee continued to silt up, the area of permanently dry land increased and was declared to be part of the parish of this church, but, doubtless to the irritation of the clergy, could not be tithed as it was deemed to be land reclaimed from the sea. On the Roodee itself, a horserace is in progress. Notice the apparent lack of any facilities other than the crude marker posts erected to help jockeys navigate the course- andthis despite the fact that organised horse races had, by this time, been held here for well over 200 years. 1753, when this picture appeared, was, interestingly, the year that a permanent racecourse was first established at Newmarket.

All of these interesting features may be better seen in a similar image of the Roodee, a detail from Nathaniel Buck's 1728 view of Chester.

The Roodee's rural nature survived into living memory. 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!"

The Roodee Workhouse
Roodee WorkhouseIn centuries gone by, each parish was responsible for the welfare of its poor and destitute. By the start of the 18th century, a system of Poor Houses was introduced, one for each parish. The records of St Mary’s Parish show that the appointed Master of its Poor House was expected to abide by many rules, just a few examples being:

“He cause the house to be swept from top to bottom every morn and washed once a week at the least.”

“A cloth be laid at every meal and the Poor sit at table in a decent manner and that grace be constantly said.”

“Neither children nor others go abroad on Sundays, but continue together in the House and read the Holy Scriptures or other good book.”

How far the reality corresponded with these ideals we shall never know. Much would depend of course on the type of person the Master was. Despite the regimented way of life, it is possible that the “inmates” were in fact better off than some of those parishioners struggling to make a living on the ‘outside’. They could at least expect three square meals a day and there is a record in St Oswald’s Parish of a woman being employed to teach the children of the Poor House to read.

With the cost of caring for the increasing numbers of poor becoming a great burden upon the individual parishes, a decision was made in 1757 to set up a general Workhouse or House of Industry for the whole of the city. Work began in 1758 on a “four-square rectangular brick building round a courtyard, at the north-west extremity of the Roodee,” and for over a century this building played a large part in the lives of many Cestrians. Not far from this was The Tower Field, of which in 1836 Hemingway wrote that it had "recently been rented by the guardians of the poor by the cultivation of which, by spade husbandry, able-bodied paupers were very properly and advantagiously employed". This Tower Field is known to us today as Water Tower Gardens, a pleasant little park, complete with tennis courts and a popular bowling green.

The Workhouse survived here by the Roodee until the late 1870s, when the Board of Guardians, formed in 1869, built a new workhouse in Hoole Lane (which later became the City Hospital before being demolished in the 1970s to make way for new housing. Only its chapel and graveyard survive today).

After the city’s paupers left, the Roodee Workhouse was put to use as a confectionery works by the Cheshire Preserving Company and it was apparently demolished between 1902 and 1906.

Go on to part II of our exploration of Chester's beautiful Roodee...

chester guided walksCuriosities from Chester's History no. 22

  • 1659 Sir George Booth, on hearing that the Parliamentarian General Lambert was appoaching the city, marched on him with 3,000 troops and engaged him in battle at Northwich, where Booth was defeated. Lambert then carried on to Chester. As a punishment, Parliament dissolved the Chester Corporation and ordered that the city should no longer be a separate county. However, the Parliamentarians did not hold power long enough to enforce the order.
  • 1660 Parliament invites Charles II (1630-1685) to return to England. The communion table from St.Mary's-on-the-Hill was found to be missing, so 6d was spent on a warrant to search for it and 4d spent on constables "in going about to search for the table". Samuel Pepys starts to write his diary.
    1661 Coronation of King Charles II. No Michaelmas Fair held in Chester this year because of the Plague. Daniel Defoe born (-1731) .
    1662 Charles II marries Catherine of Braganza and sells Dunkirk to France for £400,000.
    1663 Turnpike roads introduced into England. First golden guineas coined- and the Hearth Tax was introduced in order to support the household of Charles II.
    1664 The 'Bear and Billet Inn' in Lower Bridge Street was built- or rebuilt- this year. Standing in its own grounds, it was originally the town house of the Talbot family- the Earls of Shrewsbury- who were Sergeants of the nearby Bridgegate. They later leased it to an innkeeper, on condition that a suite of rooms was always kept available for the Earl and his family. It remains a fine pub to this day. (Go here to read about some more old Chester pubs) Charles II granted the city a new Charter.
    1669 The spire of St. Peter's, at the High Cross, was found to be in a dangerous condition, and taken down.
    1665 The Great Plague of London kills 68,596 people.
    1666 The Great fire of London: September 2nd-6th. Antonio Stradivari labels his first violin.
  • 1677 Mr Andrew Yarranton took a survey of the River Dee and published the results in a book called 'England's Improvement by Sea and Land'. He made a proposal to the Duke of York to reclaim a large area of land from the sea by making a new channel which would carry the water to the walls of Chester. However, no interest was aroused in his proposals, so he abandoned the scheme.

The Roodee, 450 Years of Racing in Chester by R M Bevan. Available from Cheshire Books Direct www.cc-publishing.co.uk

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