Sitting on a natural meander on the River Dee, Chester was a natural place to settle and the Roman’s wasted little time exploiting it’s potential. The Roman Emperor Vespasian founded Chester in AD 79, as a fort with the name Deva after the goddess of the Dee. Central Chester’s four main roads, Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate and Bridgegate, follow routes laid out at this time.
A civilian settlement grew around the military base. The fortress was 20% larger than other fortresses in the Roman province of Britannia built around the same which has led to the suggestion that Chester was intended to become the provincial Roman capital.
After the Roman troops withdrew, the Romano-British established a number of petty kingdoms. In 616, Aethelfrith of Northumbria defeated a Welsh army at the brutal and decisive Battle of Chester, and probably established the Anglo-Saxon position in the area from then on.
The Saxons extended and strengthened the walls of Chester to protect the city against the Danes, who occupied it for a short time until King Alfred seized all the cattle and laid waste to the surrounding land to drive them out. It was Alfred’s daughter who built the new Saxon burh. A new Church dedicated to St Peter alone was founded in AD 907.
Today Chester is widely regarded as a small pleasing city of aesthetic charisma.
The city walls encircle the bounds of the medieval city and constitute the most complete example in Britain. A full circuit measures nearly 2 miles. The only break in the circuit is in the southwest section in front of County Hall. A footpath runs along the top of the walls, crossing roads by bridges
‘The Rows’ are perhaps the most striking image we associate with Chester and are unique in Britain They consist of buildings with shops on the lowest two storeys. The shops on the ground floor are often lower than the street and are entered by steps, which sometimes lead to a crypt-like vault. Much of the architecture of central Chester looks medieval and some of it is but by far the greatest part of it, including most of the black-and-white buildings, is Victorian, a result of what Pevsner termed the “black-and-white revival”. Perhaps we shouldn’t spoil the illusion though, as the impact is quite convincing and doesn’t detract from your experience.
The most prominent buildings in the city centre are the town hall and the cathedral. The town hall was opened in 1869. It is in Gothic Revival style and has a tower and a short spire. The cathedral was formerly the church of St Werburgh’s Abbey. Its architecture dates back to the Norman era, with additions made most centuries since
Roman remains can still be found in the city, particularly in the basements of some of the buildings and in the lower parts of the northern section of the city walls. The most important Roman feature is the amphitheatre just outside the city walls. Roman artefacts are on display in the Roman Gardens which run parallel to the city walls from Newgate to the River Dee
Of the medieval city, the most important surviving structure is Chester Castle, particularly the Agricola Tower. Much of the rest of the castle has been replaced by the neoclassical county court and its entrance
To the south of the city runs the River Dee, with its 11th century weir. The river is crossed by the Old Dee Bridge, dating from the 13th century, the Grosvenor Bridge of 1832, and Queen’s Park suspension bridge (for pedestrians).
To the south-west of the city, the River Dee curves towards the north. The area between the river and the city walls here is known as the Roodee, and contains Chester Racecourse which holds a series of horse races and other events. The first recorded race meet in England at Roodee Fields was on 9 February 1540. If you’re familiar with racing vernacular you’ll know the phrase ‘the gee gees’ used to refer to racehorses. The phrase originates to Chester when a former Mayor, Henry Gee banned the violent game of football after so many deaths and instead introduced horseracing as a more acceptable past-time
Chester racecourse itself is unique. It’s run on a tight oval/ circle with no extended straight. It’s widely regarded as the prettiest racecourse in England and is immaculately presented, attracting as it does very large crowds for a city of its size. Should you get the chance to attend a race meeting, particularly one in the evening, you really ought to make an effort to do so. It’s thoroughly enjoyable and one of those rare cases where losing a little bit of money doesn’t leaving you feel down
Perhaps the last visitor attraction to note is Chester zoo. Whereas zoos have perhaps become more controversial over recent decades Chester is a little bit of an exception as it was at the forefront of pioneering animal welfare, educational development, breeding programmes and environmental conservation long before pressures forced others into doing so. You might of course adopt the view that there is no such thing as a ‘good zoo’? that’s fair enough, but if you do find yourself prepared to bend the rigidity of your objections to them, then Chester would be one of the more deserving of your support