Ed Abrams founded Chester Civil War Tours in May 2013.He has a huge passion for Chester and its history, here he tells us about his journey in life and his desire to bring our civil war history to prominence.
His family were originally Jewish immigrants from Poland who moved to England in 1890. “Eventually we ended up in Chester. My maternal grandfather fought in the second world war.. I was the only grandchild that was interested in the stories. I’ve always lived around Christleton and the head teacher of the primary school started talking about the battle of Rowton Moor. I became fascinated with the fact that right on our doorstep, 10,000 men fought each other, on the fields that I could see. That fascinated me . I realised that the story of the Civil War needed to be told.”
He says that he had a “very misspent youth. I got expelled from 2 schools. When I was at school in the 80s, you were just labelled as being thick. They didn’t understand dyslexia, but I knew that I wasn’t thick. I had to find my own path, and me being me I took on the establishment and failed !!
“I did some things that I am not overly enamoured with and I came out of education with nothing. But I managed to land myself a very good job and was doing very well for a number of years. But I was never very passionate about it. It was a job, I was good at it, but it didn’t tick all the boxes. I saw lots of middle aged men, just completely washed up and I swore blind that by the time I was 40 I would be out of the game completely.
“When I got to my mid 30s I jacked my job in, became a taxi driver and got level one qualifications.. I went to West Cheshire college to do a pre- access course. From there I managed to convince Glyndwr university that I was a worthwhile candidate to go on their history degree course. I did all this with the aim of becoming a school teacher. But for me, education was too restrictive. I have great respect for teachers and I think what they do is phenomenal… What pisses me off is the way that the teaching profession has been dumbed down. Lay people look at the teaching provision and see them as service providers, but actually they are real custodians of knowledge…”
Ed’s view had always been that the story of Chester during the Civil War was largely untold and after deciding not to going into teaching, the idea of Civil War Tours was born.
“I got frustrated.. and this isn’t a dig at anyone, its a measure of success of people like Roman Tours and the Deva experience.. when you think of Chester, you think of the Romans. And that’s brilliant. But the Civil war tour for me is a deeper and far more interesting story.” Civil War Tours deliver walking tours that cover the siege of Chester, a pub tour and a tour of Rowton Moor itself. In conjunction with The King’s Head pub, Ed organises 17th century banquets which run at various times.
Ed says that the group’s work with school is “going through the roof.. To get 30 primary school kids, all in costume marching on the fields of Rowton, where the battle took place, is like Christmas morning! I get such a thrill out of children “getting” local history. Its really cool how local and national history intermix. The fact that the King came here in 1642, and 1645 during the battle .. Chester was the most important sea port on the northern coast and people forget about this. Chester’s port was hugely important for the growth of the north west, but also England. In the 1640s Liverpool was a very small fishing village with a castle, Chester was an international trading centre!”
Ed told me about the Siege of Chester, which was one of the darkest hours for the residents of the city. “The main siege was 1645, after the loss of Rowton. The King left Chester, and this is a point that very few people realise: When he stepped off the Old Dee Bridge into Handbridge, that was the end of Absolute Monarchy. When the King returned to England it was to hand himself in. That happened here in Chester and it is amazing!
“The King said to Byron, who was the military Governor- “give me ten days to get away, and then you have my authority to surrender. But Byron lasted out for nearly six months. People think that the city was full of food, but the people were left to eat Leather, grass was growing in the streets… The largest cannon that was firing into Chester weighed about 3 and a half thousand pounds in weight. The cannon balls weighed 64 pounds, and they would come in and hit wooden houses. The whole right angle of Bridge street and Watergate street was decimated. They also fired propaganda into the city to convince the locals to get Byron to surrender. But Chester was never taken by force, they tried lots of times, they got in at the Roman Gardens, there was a breech by the water tower.. the Kaleyards was attacked over and over. When the walls did fall down by the Roman garden, even the woman and children came out and were defending Chester. It was everybody.. The statue of the town hall shows the “people together” and that’s really apt- that’s what happened during the sige, it was Chester United against the Parliamentarians. Once they starved us into submission we surrendered in February 1646.”
For the last 2 years Ed has organised the Rowton Moor gathering. “To be honest it was a back of a fag packet idea. Nobody had ever gone up to the Moor to commemorate what happened there… The torch lit procession adds a bit of theatre. Its a group of committed people who are keeping that story alive. This year we intend to stay overnight on the moor. Its an annual event but I want more people to come and listen to the story, I want to develop it as something permanent within the city calendar. I’d say that 90% of people in Chester sadly don’t know what went on. Its not their fault… for whatever reason they don’t know about the Great Siege of Chester. But with my doing my little bit, the book is open and hopefully people will find it and read about it via the social media that I’ve got going. I love social media and I did a post last week about Henrietta Maria, who was the Queen and the only Roman Catholic in England legally allowed to follow her faith. That got shared by a woman in Buenos Aires to her 27,000 followers in Argentina. It’s mind blowing that social media can do that!”
Ed took me for a quick walk along Northgate street towards the Cross and Watergate Street. Pausing by the painted figures on the building which is now Mr Simm’s sweet shop, Ed was unhappy about their decayed and unloved state.
“If you look at the figurines they are great, but its symptomatic of Chester. Yes they tell a story, but they are tattered and tired. They need to be looked after. They are dusty, the chap is missing his arm and a drum! If you go round to the front where it says “the king himself is served by the field” and “the profit of the earth is for all”, when Karl Marx wrote The Communist manifesto, he directly referenced the Diggers who were a radical group in 1640s England as the origins of Communism”.
“There’s so much history here. On every street ! You go into the shops and you’ll see undercrofts, sandstone built shelters that started off as storage for the traders. These are uo to 700 years old and you’ll walk through and not notice them because they’re covered by shop fittings. Place like Viyella are great. The girls there let us go round their place. People like Corks Out, Katie’s Tea rooms.. they’re as excited as I am to show off what they’ve got. But some of them.. its a travesty what they’ve done and its sad…
“I am aware of some of the building plans. One only has to look at a 45 degree angle to see some of the huge cock ups that have been done by the planners over the decades. The challenge is, we can’t stop development, we can’t stop moving forward.. but we have to be sympathetic with the architecture of the city. If we look at the former hotel which is now a university building… How that got passed planning is beyond me . To some people that is the first thing they see as they come into Chester. Its hideous. There was a picture on Chester memories on facebook of the 4 architects of Chester in the 60s. Looking at their architecture you would think they were all hippies on some sort of psychedelic trip! We have made a lot of mistakes.
“If you look at this building in Watergate st , above Costa.. building work in the city has to be in touch with whats around it. This is an embrassing example of how bad some of the buildings in the city are. Down Watergate st are some stunning examples of beautiful 17th century buildings and next door to them is this 1970s architectural f**k- up. I don’t know why they have done it.”
Despite this Ed remains positive after a quick trip into ladies clothing retailer EVA on Watergate st. “It’s a prime example of a modern day shop which has been really sensitive to its suroundings. They have left everything exposed.” EVA also boast’s Ed’s “favourite door” , go and have a look at it for yourself! He also praised the 800 year old undercroft that makes up Havana’s. “It was hand carved by men using hammer and chisel. Everywhere you go in Chester is mind blowing!
I asked Ed if Chester made enough of it’s history?
“I think.. there are some parts that we make too much of, and rightly so. Its easy to pigeon hole Chester as “The Roman city”. From a council point of view it means they don’t really have to think about things. When someone comes along and says “there’s more here” there’s a reluctance to truly embrace it. What I would say is, Mike Jones really pushed for the Sealed Knot event to come to Chester, and credit to all the Cllrs regardless of party for bringing that to Chester.” He also praises our current MP Chris Matheson saying he is “fully committed ” to the city.
“But there’s so much more we could do.” he says. “There’s no official acknowledgment from the city of Chester that Rowton Moor happened. There’s a small sign hidden away on a piece of grass at Rowton Hall hotel. There’s nothing else, there’s no story… The entire focus of the country was on Chester! There’s nothing within the city that tells the story of the Civil War.. no permanent residency. Hopefully that might change.. I am discussing it with the council about how it might be funded. We are talking about various things. .”
Another example of a wasted historic asset is Rocky Lane, the cut through between Parkgate road and Liverpool Road. Access has been blocked for some years following the collapse of a wall. “That whole area was a defensive mount that was built by the Royalists to protect Chester from the Blacon and Saltney marshes. The trench was built by Prince Rupert’s men, and for me its as important as the city walls. There has been issues but I think its repaired now. I have engaged the council about getting signs up. The last time I was asked to pay for it.. I would , but I shouldn’t have to. To be fair that was before a lady called Alison Knight came to her position. She is head of History and Heritage at the council, she is helpful and engaging and a big supporter.”
Ed continues .” There’s a group of us campaigning to put gates on the Eastgate.. It would create a real “stop and stare” moment in the city. We are creating a small regiment to guard those gates. We are surrounded by out of town shopping centres.. driving people away from the city. We can’t rely on shoppers anymore and unless we maximise our heritage, potentially our streets could be deserted. Its all about everyone working together, the council, the businesses, the Romans, people like me.. bringing those tourists back together.” One such example was last Summers Chester Unlocked which displayed previously unseen artefacts from the Grosvenor Museum’s archives in businesses and shops across the city.
“What Dean and BIG Heritage did with that was just mindblowing, I was so impressed. Also a massive credit needs to go to Liz Royles at the museum..I did my bit to promote it.”
Ed’s enthusiasm for the city is massive.”I think Chester is always on the up, because its ace! With people like me, you, Russell Kirk, David Mitchell(Town Crier) ..although his dress sense leaves a little to be desired, people like Dean Paton, Paul Harston (Roman Tours), Liz and the blue badge guides… Chester is on the up all the time….what we don’t do well, is we don’t sell it very well. There needs to be a committed task force of people that go out to the country and say “this is a hidden gem, you’re missing a trick here!”
However he takes a dim view of Marketing Cheshire: “The first year I started the tours I got invited to an awards ceremony at Tatton Park, that must have cost over 100k to put on. What a waste of money! They are about marketing Cheshire, but Chester is the jewel in the crown .. I don’t think they have done a very good job. I think one of the challenges was when the council outsourced the marketing of the city. I don’t think that should have happened. At the end of the day that company is about its bottom line. When the subsidies stop its about how much money they can make, not about how we can best promote Chester. My dealings with them have been poor…” he says diplomatically.
Civil war tours are currently operating a winter/spring schedule. The main tour runs at the weekend twice a day, the pub tour every night except Sunday. Rowton Moor tours happen on a Sunday. Ed says that “on the pub tours, every pub we go in , people have to buy a drink, its about helping those publicans. If we can all share a little bit, then everyone benefits. We all live in this amazing place, and if we work together we can build Chester. I passionately believe that Chester should be the number one tourist centre outside London… We’ve got everything here. We could make this place buzz.!”
“I have quite a simplistic view on things. People don’t like change whether its good or bad..People like the status quo. When you come along and change things for the benefit, people push back and theres a reluctance. But nobody owns what we’ve got. We’re just custodians for the time that we’re here. Every single person whether they’re 89 or 29 has the responsibility to pass that onto the next generation. If what I do, help keeps the story alive.. we owe it to them and I passionately believe in that….”
Many thanks Ed Abrams