Outside the magic triangle of London, Stratford and Oxford, no place in Britain has been more visited and patronised by Americans than Chester. Until quite recently they entered this country through Liverpool and close at hand was what they desired to see. Nathaniel Hawthorne, consul at Liverpool from 1853-57, was one of many famous American writers to visit Chester: ‘It is a quite indescribable old town; and I feel, at last, as if I had had a glimpse of Old England.
80 years later a noted English travel writer, H. V. Morton, was even more categorical about its ancientry: ‘Chester is as “medieval” as Clovelly is “quaint”. There is no getting away from it.’ And yet now, in our own day and age, Pevsner and Hubbard have declared, ‘Chester is not a medieval city, it is a Victorian one 95% is Victorian’ Nevertheless, when all this has been taken into consideration, the statement that Chester is a Victorian city is misleading, and anyone who cares to compare Chester to Manchester can see why. Manchester is almost as old as Chester in its origin and not without relics of its distant past. Yet they are no more than relics, and the layout and atmosphere of modern Manchester owes hardly anything to that past.
The finds from Roman Chester have been and continue to be so rich that they and the picture built up from them dominate the Museum.
There is a second Roman gallery in the Grosvenor Museum, full of finds made in or near the fortress. Most of these are inscribed stones and mean little to the layman until interpreted. When interpreted (there is a book on them), they reveal fascinating details about the lives of the soldiers: where they came from (all over the vast Empire), whom they prayed to, how long they lived (one to over 80), how some died (one was shipwrecked), how they dressed. In addition there are inscriptions that help to date the stages in the development of the fortress. The interpretations of some of these show the ingenuity as well as the great learning of modern archaeologists. One fragment containing just one whole letter and minute parts of four others has been expanded into an inscription of ten words, which helps to fix the building of the stone fortress within the years 102-18, the later part of the reign of Trajan.
Chester has been fortunate in having a corporation very proud of the city’s past and anxious to increase knowledge of it and, in the curators and staff of the Grosvenor Museum, the initiative and expertise to carry through the excavation work.
Chester was the last important town in England to submit to William the Conqueror, who was so anxious that this submission should not be delayed that he drove his half-mutinous army across the Pennines in the depth of winter to obtain it. The deliberate devastation that they spread over most of the county is plainly shown in Domesday Book, made many years later. In Chester they pulled down half the houses and erected a castle on a mound overlooking the Dee, outside the limit of the Saxon fortifications.
The city became both a bastion and a launching pad in the long struggle with the Welsh, who reacted with fury and, for a time. with considerable success to the Norman attempts to break into the mountainous regions which the Saxons had left severely alone. Chester’s walls were also rebuilt in stone and extended west and south to bring under their protection all the dry land within the great curve of the Dec. In those days the Roodee was a stretch of golden sand at low tide, but submerged when the waters were high. Even in the days when Welsh raids went as deep into the county as Nantwich, the defences of Chester were never seriously threatened.
Chester was for a time almost a second capital. The king, the queen, the great nobles, administrators and courtiers, were frequently in it. Armies and fleets were launched from it along the North Wales coast. In 1283, when Llywelyn had been killed and his brother Dafydd reduced to a hunted fugitive, Edward returned to Chester, heard mass in St Werburgh’s and gave the abbey a valuable doth. It was really a thanksgiving service for the successful conclusion of the war.
Nowdays Chester is a busy centre, crowded by shoppers from a wide surrounding area in almost any season’, by tourists in the summer, by those coming in for the Races, for the Regattas, for festivals and other cultural activities and in order to visit the highly successful post-Second World War Zoo at Upton Park.