Wednesday, February 17, 2010

Chester

Chester CathedralNot far from Liverpool, and in the heart of Cheshire, we come to the small but famous river Dee and the old and very interesting city of Chester. It is built in the form of a quadrant, its four walls enclosing a plot about a half mile square. The walls, which form a promenade two miles around, over which every visitor should tramp; the quaint gates and towers; the "Rows," or arcades along the streets, which enable the sidewalks to pass under the upper stories of the houses by cutting away the first-floor front rooms; and the many ancient buildings,—are all attractive. The Chester Cathedral is a venerable building of red sandstone, which comes down to us from the twelfth century, though it has recently been restored. It is constructed in the Perpendicular style of architecture, with a square and turret-surmounted central tower. This is the Cathedral of St. Werburgh, and besides other merits of the attractive interior, the southern transept is most striking from its exceeding length. The choir is richly ornamented with carvings and fine woodwork, the Bishop's Throne having originally been a pedestal for the shrine of St. Werburgh. The cathedral contains several ancient tombs of much interest, and the elaborate Chapter Room, with its Early English windows and pillars, is much admired. In this gorgeous structure the word of God is preached from a Bible whose magnificently-bound cover is inlaid with precious stones and its markers adorned with pearls. The book is the Duke of Westminster's gift, that nobleman being the landlord of much of Chester. In the nave of the cathedral are two English battle-flags that were at Bunker Hill. Chester Castle, now used as a barrack for troops, has only one part of the ancient edifice left, called Julius Cæsar's Tower, near which the Dee is spanned by a fine single-arch bridge.

The quaintest part of this curious old city of Chester is no doubt the "Rows," above referred to. These arcades, which certainly form a capital shelter from the hot sun or rain, were, according to one authority, originally built as a refuge for the people in case of sudden attack by the Welsh; but according to others they originated with the Romans, and were used as the vestibules of the houses; and this seems to be the more popular theory with the townsfolk. Under the "Rows" are shops of all sizes, and some of the buildings are grotesquely attractive, especially the curious one bearing the motto of safety from the plague, "God's providence is mine inheritance," standing on Watergate street, and known as "God's Providence House;" and "Bishop Lloyd's Palace," which is ornamented with quaint wood-carvings. The "Old Lamb Row," where Randall Holme, the Chester antiquary, lived, stood by itself, obeying no rule of regularity, and was regarded as a nuisance two hundred years ago, though later it was highly prized. The city corporation in 1670 ordered that "the nuisance erected by Randall Holme in his new building in Bridge street be taken down, as it annoys his neighbors, and hinders their prospect from their houses." But this law seems to have been enforced no more than many others are on either side of the ocean, for the "nuisance" stood till 1821, when the greater part of it, the timbers having rotted, fell of its own accord. The "Dark Row" is the only one of these strange arcades that is closed from the light, for it forms a kind of tunnel through which the footwalk goes. Not far from this is the famous old "Stanley House," where one unfortunate Earl of Derby spent the last day before his execution in 1657 at Bolton. The carvings on the front of this house are very fine, and there is told in reference to the mournful event that marks its history the following story: Lieutenant Smith came from the governor of Chester to notify the condemned earl to be ready for the journey to Bolton. The earl asked, "When would you have me go?" "To-morrow, about six in the morning," said Smith. "Well," replied the earl, "commend me to the governor, and tell him I shall be ready by that time." Then said Smith, "Doth your lordship know any friend or servant that would do the thing your lordship knows of? It would do well if you had a friend." The earl replied, "What do you mean? to cut off my head?" Smith said, "Yes, my lord, if you could have a friend." The earl answered, "Nay, sir, if those men that would have my head will not find one to cut it off, let it stand where it is."

It is easy in this strange old city to carry back the imagination for centuries, for it preserves its connection with the past better perhaps than any other English town. The city holds the keys of the outlet of the Dee, which winds around it on two sides, and is practically one of the gates into Wales. Naturally, the Romans established a fortress here more than a thousand years ago, and made it the head-quarters of their twentieth legion, who impressed upon the town the formation of a Roman camp, which it bears to this day. The very name of Chester is derived from the Latin word for a camp. Many Roman fragments still remain, the most notable being the Hyptocaust. This was found in Watergate street about a century ago, together with a tessellated pavement. There have also been exhumed Roman altars, tombs, mosaics, pottery and other similar relics. The city is built upon a sandstone rock, and this furnishes much of the building material, so that most of the edifices have their exteriors disintegrated by the elements, particularly the churches—a peculiarity that may have probably partly justified Dean Swift's epigram, written when his bile was stirred because a rainstorm had prevented some of the Chester clergy from dining with him:

"Churches and clergy of this city
Are very much akin:
They're weather-beaten all without,
And empty all within."


The modernized suburbs of Chester, filled with busy factories, are extending beyond the walls over a larger surface than the ancient town itself. At the angles of the old walls stand the famous towers—the Phœnix Tower, Bonwaldesthorne's Tower, Morgan's Mount, the Goblin Tower, and the Water Tower, while the gates in the walls are almost equally famous—the Eastgate, Northgate, Watergate, Bridgegate, Newgate, and Peppergate. The ancient Abbey of St. Mary had its site near the castle, and not far away are the picturesque ruins of St. John's Chapel, outside the walls. According to a local legend, its neighborhood had the honor of sheltering an illustrious fugitive. Harold, the Saxon king, we are told, did not fall at Hastings, but, escaping, spent the remainder of his life as a hermit, dwelling in a cell near this chapel and on a cliff alongside the Dee. The four streets leading from the gates at the middle of each side of the town come together in the centre at a place formerly known as the "Pentise," where was located the bull-ring at which was anciently carried on the refining sport of "bull-baiting" while the mayor and corporation, clad in their gowns of office, looked on approvingly. Prior to this sport beginning, we are told that solemn proclamation was made for "the safety of the king and the mayor of Chester"—that "if any man stands within twenty yards of the bull-ring, let him take what comes." Here stood also the stocks and pillory. Amid so much that is ancient and quaint, the new Town Hall, a beautiful structure recently erected, is naturally most attractive, its dedication to civic uses having been made by the present Prince of Wales, who bears among many titles that of Earl of Chester. But this is about the only modern attraction this interesting city possesses. At an angle of the walls are the "Dee Mills," as old as the Norman Conquest, and famous in song as the place where the "jolly miller once lived on the Dee." Full of attractions within and without, it is difficult to tear one's self away from this quaint city, and therefore we will agree, at least in one sense, with Dr. Johnson's blunt remark to a lady friend: "I have come to Chester, madam, I cannot tell how, and far less can I tell how to get away from it."

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