Thursday, walk the walls instead

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“Is the monkey still in?” asks a Lego fan, as I carry out one of my new regular visits to the shiny new Lego display.

I reflect on the kindness that allowed this small dream to flourish whilst adjusting tiny versions of Crustum and the Market Cafe, right next to the Cabinets in the real world. In the old days I could spend hours in the old Market display and barely see a person pass by, here the footfall is massive with everywhere appearing busy- the new opticians has quite a crowd inside, and there is plenty of activity with new stalls being fitted out. With no big news stories- not even a row this year (so far) and a weekend blog interview cancelled due to illness, with the aim of keeping the virtual ink flowing on the blog I decide on a walls walk.

Clutching a Bartholomew City Guide to Chester, a recent charity shop find, signed by the author Brian Harris (in 1979) I set out like a pound shop Michael Portillo to observe and comment on the view from the walls, and note any changes since the book was written.

I begin the walk by heading down the new steps leading from the Market down to St Martin’s Way, noting the lonely bench that faces the traffic. I join the walls at St Martin’s Gate opened by Barbara Castle in 1966. A plaque on the wall here marks the visit of the the Transport Minister and the building of the inner ring road. We actually knocked down a section of wall here. I’ve never seen any photos of how this area looked before the road was built or how the wall used to look. “The idea of driving a dual carriageway through the medieval city wall now seems preposterous” write the Civic Trust in their excellent Preservation and Progress book from 2012. Mad world, but at least we don’t need traffic wardens on Eastgate street anymore ( like in all the old pics we have seen.)

The walk comes to an abrupt beginning with an entire section of the walls closed off, all the way from the gate to Pemberton’s Parlour to the water tower, forcing a diversion back to ground level and then turning back on myself. The steps that lead down to Telfords and the link to Sealand Road are also blocked off, although you could take another huge diversion down into Water Tower Gardens to reach the area, if you were desperate to go to B&M or Tim Hortons. All part and parcel of living in an historic city, although the problem appears to be the modern bridge section crossing the railway. So, for time being there is no circuit of the walls. No one on social media seems to have noticed and theres been no notices from the council.

I stand outside the rarely open Water Tower, where ships once docked and now people play bowls and tennis. On the roof the rarely seen Camera Obscura can seen- that was a real novelty visiting that as a child , but it might not impress as many people in the age of google street view in the palm of your hand. Referring to the Guide, page 95 tells me that the Tower was once “filled with dioramas and models illustrating the history of the city” but “at present the tower is closed for restoration work”… A family stop to take a photo of a train passing by- sadly its not even a steam train or one of the new Merseyrail fleet, just a standard Transport for Wales effort- I don’t know the model unfortunately. Portillo might have known.

In 1979 the area to the left of the wall, as I head towards the Watergate, was occupied by the Royal Infirmary, built 1761. Closed in the 90s, the remaining buildings are now houses. Looking up Bedward row reveals the many layers of city history all peacefully co -existing, the 2022 Car park and the 1869 Car Park. I am reminded me of something Cllr Mike Jones said to me once , that “every generation has left its mark” on the city.

Further on is the Queen’s School: my guidebook tells me that the school was built on the site of the city jail (replacement for the Northgate jail) 1807- 1872. At the West Entrance, public executions took place notes Brian ominously. Before crossing over the Watergate another point of interest is a side entrance to one of the Georgian houses : “it was designed to accommodate a sedan chair, so that passengers could enter or leave the house without being exposed to the weather” Note to self: we need more Georgian Lego buildings.

On the other side of the bridge is the Roomzz hotel. It used to be the job centre, where in a former life I signed on the dole and wrote a series of letters to the then flourishing Standard Letter’s Page about how the job search computers rarely worked. The silence over the racecourse reminds me of the reminds me of the essential needed task of degreasing the Lego version.

The HQ building, built as council offices after County Hall was sold to the university in a controversial move, replaced the controversial monolithic police HQ. The concrete block was erected in 1967 and won a Civic Trust award just 2 years later. It was demolished in 2010. Chester Races occupy one floor of the building and it no longer serves as Council HQ.

A pair of special binoculars overlooking Britain’s oldest racecourse flanked by 2 information panels promise a trip to the past via specially created visuals charting the changes in the area when it was once one of the busiest ports in Britain. “These are no ordinary binoculars” says the information panel , in fact they haven’t worked for 5 years or so- getting this repaired would be an easy fix for our tourist offering- either that or removed the sad looking thing.

The Castle offers more wistful wasted potential. “Too many depressing posts” complained someone recently. You’ll never take that sadness and longing out of Shitchester, that’s how it all started after all, wanting more and better things for us all. In my fantasy Sim City, the Castle (built by William the Conqueror) houses a mega museum charting the city’s history with a fun time travel ride from the Romans to the Civil War and beyond. Credit to the volunteers from English Heritage , and the reenactors who have opened the Castle up in recent years, there was a great Victorian event at Christmas as well. It’s going to take a lot of patience, money and time to do that place up right. A whole lotta spending money probably.

Before crossing the Bridge gate I look over at the impressive Grosvenor Bridge, once the largest single stone arch in the world. Remember when Princess Victoria (later the Queen) visited to name the bridge? Or when a bit of it fell off last year? Or when Nun’s Road was closed due to construction on the super drain? Or when the Roodee car park housed a Covid test site? All a patchwork of memories like Joseph’s Coat.

The highlight of the next stage of the walls from The Wishing Steps to the Newgate is the view down Albion street. Used several times as a TV filming location, memorably in 2014 the street was taken over by the Foyles War team, with rubber mats covering the road markings and extras in soldiers costumes checking their cell phones during breaks. It was a fun afternoon adding up to about 30 seconds of screen time. Last year Jason Isaacs visited to film a Cary Grant biopic complete with a giant green screen. If anyone ever devises an Alternative Chester Tour, this location should be on the list.

Next I’m imagining Godzilla carrying out a controlled demolition of the important historical building Dee House. Despite promises of investment and repair we have seen no concrete action for years. Back in 1979 the building had just closed as a school and was owned by The Post Office. Meanwhile, on the other side of the road, OFF THE WALL has lost an L , but I need a bigger fix these days.

I cross the walkway over the collapsed area of the walls from Jan 2020, a cataclysm still not explained or remedied. The information panels on the hoarding highlight the repairs carried out over the last decade including the painstaking 4 year repair period for the Northgate steps. Before that the collapsed steps on St Johns street was another multi year rebuild and inspired another letter to The Standard. The price we pay (again) for living in an historic city….

A view to be proud of

After a pause to admire the always pretty view from the clock, the next stage of the walk is very different from how walkers would have experienced it in 1979, with the impressive 2 layer shopping and dining complex Mercia Square lost to time. If it was still around today however all of the shops would probably be empty , and its role as a social meeting space has easily been filled by the New Market. Still, despite the rose tinted view we are left with a nothingness at the back of Poundworld, which plans for a new hotel, may rectify.

Walking past the sweet baking smell at the rear of Sergios, we see the Bell Tower. Only recently opened at the time of the guidebook’s release, Brian describes it as looking more like a “plump missile on its launching pad” than a Church building.

A disappointed couple turn away from their dog walk towards the Dean’s Field realising that it is closed to the public. Someone’s definitely using it judging by all the Litter on the field, unless its all been blown there by the wind.

I turn the corner past the rarely open King Charles’ Tower and look out across the canal to George Street, considering how this areas has changed in the last decade- the Delamere Street medical complex and the car park, the Escape rooms, the pocket park, the new bus interchange in the distance, its green roof visible amongst the patchwork of rooftops. Past Hanoi Social on the walls (in the old Hypha unit) I head down the steps to Rufus Court. In the lonely courtyard, I notice that Sunrise Patisserie, maker of Portuguese tarts are taking over the old Doughnut Whisperer shop, and feel a nostalgic twinge at the closure of Tri-active, once ShitChester HQ.

The walls walk ends at a twilight Northgate, the gatehouse that previously served as a prison. Harris describes the bridge as “sombre” in keeping with its grim history of condemned men in tiny cells. People make their way home, most probably unware of whose ancient footsteps they tread.

“Take a picture of this bridge! ” Says a man below on Northgate street: “Theres a beautiful view from the top…”

2 Replies to “Thursday, walk the walls instead”

  1. Ah, fond memories. Mine are a bit less recent, having lived seven or so years ago in King Street. Just up the street, the wall at Northgate proceeding west was closed for so long I never saw that section open in the three years I was there. And then a collapse or two; one appeared to be the result of some over-exuberant gardening, the other I know not why. It’s time I feel to get the council to collect murage (a tax levied for repairing town walls). They’re so important to Chester’s image.

    Good stuff. Thanks.

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