Few cities in north-west England can boast as much history as Chester (pop. 77,000, with suburbs 328,000). Roman in origin, as its name implies ('Chester' is a corruption of the Latin castrum, meaning fortified town), modern Chester offers a feast of historical buildings, from Roman city walls to grand Victorian edifices. But what Chester is famous for are its enthralling black-and-white half-timbered mansions.
The Romans conquered Britain in 43 CE, but it wasn't until the 79 CE that they established a fortress on the River Dee, in the land of the Celtic Cornovii tribe. The castrum grew into a town and became known as Castra Devana, or Deva Victrix, after the name of the 20th Legion (Legio XX Valeria Victrix). The Roman fortress was a fifth bigger than the other in Britain at the time, such as Eboracum (modern York). The amphitheatre, which could seat between 8,000 and 10,000 people, was the largest of its kind in Britannia.
During the Middle Ages Chester grew to become the most active port for the north-west region. The silting up of the estuary of the Dee in the 17th century forced the relocation of the port to Liverpool.
Chester boasts some of the best preserved Roman architecture in northern Europe. Its red sandstone Roman walls are not just the oldest but also the most complete city walls in Britain, of any historical period. They measure nearly 3 km (2 miles). The original Roman walls was further extended during the Norman period. They were badly damaged by siege engines and cannons used by the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War (1642–1651) and underwent considerable repairs in the 18th century.
Numerous bridged gates let the traffic inside the old city, namely: Eastgate, Northgate, St Martin's Gate, Watergate, Bridgegate, Newgate, and the Wolf Gate. The Eastgate Clock (dating from 1899) is said to be the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben.
The ruined Roman amphitheatre can be seen in the southeastern corner of the city centre, on the edge of Grosvernor Park. Built in the 1st century, it is largest amphitheatre so far uncovered in Britain. With a diagonal of nearly 100 m, the arena was big enough to accommodate over 8000 spectators. It fell into dereliction circa 350 CE and was only rediscovered during construction work in 1929.
Follow Lower Bridge St. and cross the river to reach the district of Handbridge. There along the main road, in Edgar's Field, you will find the much battered Minerva's Shrine. It dates from the 2nd century and is the only monument of its kind in Western Europe that remains in its original location.
You can learn more about Chester's Roman past at the Dewa Roman Experience, which has hands-on exhibits as well as a reconstructed Roman street.
Chester's emblematic black-and-white timber-framed houses are typical of the late Middle Ages and the Renaissance (the Tudor era). However, few buildings from this period remain. Many were rebuilt in the 16th or 17th centuries. Besides, a sizeable portion of what can be viewed today dates from the Victorian period, as part of the late 19th- and early 20th-century "Black-and-white Revival". One of the most famous of these is No. 1 Bridge Street, built in 1888.
The most unique feature of Chester's architecture are the Rows, covered walkways running along the first-floor level of shops. The first record of the Rows appears in 1293, and the phenomenon seems to have reached its full extent by about 1350. There are 95 such buildings in Chester. Some of the finest medieval examples include Cowper House, at No. 12 Bridge Street, and The Falcon, at the junction of Lower Bridge Street and Grosvenor Road. Many other noteworthy Rows are to be founded in Watergate Street, such as the houses at Nos. 11, 23 and 37, as well as Bishop Lloyd's House at No. 41. The 13th-century house known as the Three Old Arches, at 48 Bridge Street, is considered to be the earliest shop front still surviving in England.
A few later houses revived the tradition, such as the Georgian-style Booth Mansion of 1700 in Watergate Street or the Neo-gothic-style Crypt Chambers of 1858 in Eastgate Street.
It was announced in July 2010 that the Chester Rows are being considered for UNESCO World Heritage status.
The oldest building in town (besides the city walls) is Chester Castle, at the southwestern extremity of the ramparts. It was originally constructed in 1070, only four years after the Norman invasion of England and five years earlier than Windsor Castle. Neoclassical buildings destined as a county court were added to the remains of the time-worn Norman fortress between 1788 and 1813.
Though not huge, the most prominent edifice in the city centre is Chester Cathedral. It was erected between the 13th and 16th centuries and blends Romanesque and Gothic styles.
The majestic town hall was completed in 1869 in the Gothic Revival style, using the same local pink-reddish sandstone as the castle and the cathedral. Its spire towers at 49 m above the street, 10 m higher than the cathedral's tower.
Chester's biggest and most interesting museum is Grosvenor Museum. Its display are mostly deal with local history and archeology, but also includes sections on geology and natural history. It is housed in a Neo-Renaissance style edifice completed in 1886. The other major museum is the Cheshire Military Museum.
How to get there
Chester sits almost on the Welsh border, some 40 km (25 mi.) south of Liverpool.
Trains from London Euston take just over 2 hours (from £29), while those from Liverpool take a good 40 minutes (£4.35). The train is nevertheless faster and cheaper than the coach. The journey on National Express from Liverpool takes a full hour (from £7.50)while those from London take from 5 to 6 hours (from £14 on the night bus).