Investigating Chester: Walking the Roman Landscape, 30 August 2020

When I asked people for ideas to help explore Chester, Sarah May @Sarah_May1 mentioned walking and Romans… after a bit of thinking, I decided to put together a walk covering key parts of Chester’s Roman landscape. You can see my route here.

I won’t fully explain every point on the route, partly so I can do that another time and partly because this was really about the walking rather than visiting certain sites. However, in terms of the Roman landscape I walked from near the location of some farmsteads in Lache across to the large settlement at Heronbridge, my proper start point. From there I walked north on Watling Street through the cemeteries and quarries, across Old Dee Bridge and through the southern canabae into the centre of the fortress. Then I went north, roughly on the line of the Via Decumana, leaving the fortress through the north gate, and walked as far as Bache Brook before turning around and walking south into the fortress again then west along the Via Principalis, through the larger of the canabae, to the site of Chester’s historic water supply. Nearing the end now, I then walked back into the centre of Chester and continued west through the Watergate and out along the River Dee before returning to The Cross to finish.

According to my phone, the walk was about 16 km and it was a great way to get an appreciation of the scale of the Roman landscape. I’ll post a few pictures below with a few short observations.

Heronbridge > The Cross

Start point, the settlement at Heronbridge
Along the historic Watling Street, one mile to The Cross

Walking in from the south, it it easy to gain some appreciation of the topography as you drop down towards the Dee then rise again towards the Roman city. It’s not always obvious that Chester is perched on a sandstone outcrop, but you can feel it in your legs if you walk.

North to Bache Brook and back to The Cross

Bache Brook

Leaving Chester and dropping down the hill towards Bache Brook, you can really feel the sense of leaving the town, especially as you approach the watery landscape around the brook. The route of the Roman road north of here is not well known.

East to the water supply and back to The Cross

Dee Valley Water reservoir near to the Roman and later water supply.

West along the River Dee and back to The Cross

View along the Dee
Start of the Coastal Path, one for another day
Railway viaduct on New Crane Street, rather reminiscent of the old Roman east gate (below)

The ‘watery-ness’ of this part of the landscape is evident, not just in the river and the nearby Water Tower, but in the canal, locks, and building names like Old Port Spa and Waterside Court.

That’s it! As I said at the top, this was about the walking, not the locations along the way, all of which I’m sure I’ll visit again.

Help me walk other period landscapes! Let me know if you have any ideas. Walking the Civil War defences and siegeworks is probably next for me.


Investigating Chester: Borderlands, 14 August 2020

Looking at maps of Chester to see where I might walk, I became particularly interested in this patch of ground straddling the border between England and Wales.

Trackway looking south-west
Trackway looking north-east

In my call for ideas to use in investigating Chester, Lorna Richardson had suggested having a look at Boundary Road, along which the border runs, and I did a bit of that as well, but this bit of land intrigued me most as the actual location of the border was, on Google maps at least, very hard to pin down.

Wales-England border at Saltney via Google maps and, below, the area I went to look at

I love little spaces like this. Clearly the border is in there somewhere and must relate to geographical features, but how? Has it ever mattered that there is this little trackway that leaves the road and crosses the border through the fields?

Boundary Road is, as I say, part of the Wales-England border. It looks like this:

Boundary Lane looking north, 14 August 2020

I was hoping to caption this image to say that the silver car had crossed the border to pass the red car, but the border actually runs along the pavement on the left of the photo, so the silver car has been in England the whole time (Wikipedia wrongly states that the border runs down the middle of the road). However the red car is parked with two of its wheels in a different country! Presumably the location of the border means that the road was here before the pavements, or at least the Welsh pavement which, interestingly, is in better condition than the English one.

Looking at maps to work this space out, two things leapt out. The first is that Boundary Lane, so obviously named after the border that runs along it, is actually Foundary Lane, the location of Dee Iron Works and other industrial sites. Second, that the area I went out to look at is a mess of boundaries that I haven’t quite managed to unpick; the City of Chester boundary seems to be nearby as well as another parliamentary boundary and, of course, the border.

1871 OS showing Foundry Lane
1871 OS showing many boundaries

But we can also see here that that odd little space is literally underneath the border as shown on the map. Its dimensions seem to correlate to the thickness of the line. Doubtless just a coincidence. But also of interest is the trackway that leads at right angles off it, south-east into the fields. This trackway appears to still exist, but isn’t clearly visible from the road. At some point, this area has been part of an access route across the fields from Balderton into Saltney and beyond into Wales.

The 1883 and 1947 OS maps show the trackway just inside the English side of the border, while contemporary Google maps shows it in Wales. The latter might make most sense as it now runs along a ditch attached to Balderton Brook, a handy natural feature to refer to in the landscape.

1883 OS
1947 OS
The trackway. The red line is the ditch, the border according to contemporary Google maps, and the yellow line is the border on historic OS map (if this is the same trackway).

So what’s going on? Well, there are three possibilities: 1) that either Google maps or the OS is wrong, 2) that the border has moved between 1947 and now, or 3) that the trackway on historic maps is actually adjacent to the one visible today, i.e. the layout of the site has changed.

I might find out one day. The border has been fixed since 1536 so my working hypothesis, without any real effort to check yet, is that the layout of the roads has changed and this trackway is what remains of the old Green Lane, kept here as access to the cross-field track to Balderton.

This, perhaps, is the trackway seen on historic OS maps. The ditch is to the right of the lighter nettles.

But, for now, I’m happy to leave it as an odd little spot between countries, and between past and present. It sparks joy in me to not know for sure either way and to imagine this little slab ‘bridge’ over the ditch as the border crossing between England and Wales.

Bridge crossing the Welsh-English border

I would love to find other, similar sites around Chester, sites whose identity is hard to decipher, for whatever reason. Do you know any?


Investigating Chester: Visiting Minerva 08 August 2020

On our first Saturday back in Chester we decided to follow the advice of @sylviamdunn37 who responded to my call for ideas with a suggestion that we should:

Go over the Handbridge and find Minerva in Edgar’s Field.— sylvia dunn💚 (@sylviamdunn37) August 1, 2020

Despite being from near Chester and pretty heavily into history and archaeology growing up, I had no idea this was here, so had to drag Saini and Elvi along for a look. We walked from The Cross in the centre of town and, in terms of the Roman city, went south from the principia, leaving the historic fortress to cross the rather more recent Grosvenor Street into Lower Bridge Street. A bit less than 2000 years ago this part of Chester was an extra-mural area, though possible with its own wall, containing a large ‘coaching inn’ and other buildings. Basically, it was where you would stay when you arrived in Chester if you didn’t fancy the probably more mixed, informality of what is now Foregate Street. The area is now inside the later medieval wall line, so at the bottom of Lower Bridge Street we left the post-Roman walled City through the Georgian Bridgegate to cross the Old Dee Bridge into Handbridge.

Lower Bridge Street looking through Bridgegate to Old Dee Bridge and Handbridge beyond

On your right as you come from Chester is Edgar’s Field, a small park whose entrance is dominated by a busy playground and the open balcony of The Ship Inn, both full of enthusiastic participants.

Edgar’s Field signage

Beyond is Minerva, a shrine to the Roman goddess of, among other things, wisdom. The site is a former sandstone quarry and I find myself wondering whether building a shrine to the goddess of ‘defensive war’ in a quarry extracting stone for a legionary fortress was an attempt to build divine protection into the city walls. The popular interpretation is that it was carved by workers, but I can easily imagine the shrine holding more significance for those who commissioned the work.

Shrine to Minerva in the former sandstone quarry

Either way, it felt like we should leave an offering for Minerva to help ease our move into the life of the city. We left a 50p coin that we found on the floor on our way there and, one of Minerva’s symbols being an olive tree, poured a libation of olive oil.

Minerva, Edgar’s Field, Chester

Help me investigate Chester!

We’re moving to Chester where I’m starting a new job. Now, Chester’s not exactly new to me, I grew up in a village not far away, but I’ve barely been back since I went to university and am really looking forward to discovering the city again as an adult. That’s where you come in!

I’m fascinated by the little projects, actions, tasks that people use to get to know new places. Maybe you walk a transect or around the outside. Perhaps you look at signposts, graffiti or churches. Some of you take photos, draw, write. Or maybe you listen. Collect? Look for traces of long-gone parts of town? In the past, I’ve done all sorts to get to know new places and spaces: collecting, writing, tracing, cleaning, I’m up for most things.

I would really love to hear your suggestions for things I could to to start the process of being in Chester again. Please comment below or on Twitter and we can get things going. I’ll consider anything, though might speak with you to tweak things to make them practicable. Feel free to make suggestions for me alone or for the whole family.

I’ll post about everything we do so you can see where your ideas lead…

A few things to think about:

  • I lived nearby until I was 18 so know my way around
  • But that knowledge is mostly restricted to the centre of Chester rather than the suburbs
  • COVID precautions apply, parts of the city centre have a one-way system
  • Things for the whole family need to not be much longer than an hour
  • I won’t post pictures of my daughter online
  • Please assume only basic technology and technical competence
  • If I’m on my own a 10 mile round trip is probably my limit for walking
  • If you want to use the historic landscape as inspiration, I’ve marked the approximate location of our house on the 1899 OS below. It’s about 30 mins walk to the centre of Chester.

With that in mind, let me know your ideas. How should we get to know Chester?