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Chester: all roads lead to the Romans

Chester: all roads lead to the Romans
18 Feb
2019
For this month’s Discovering Britain trail, Laura Cole visits Chester, following the unusual traces left by the Roman occupation

For more great walks, trails and viewpoints, be sure to check out the new Discovering Britain Facebook page by clicking here.

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The trail starts under the Eastgate clock, a grand archway entrance to Chester’s walled city. Immediately, there are traces of the Romans. The clock face has Roman numerals and sits on a rebuilt section of the Roman wall, which straddles a Roman road. ‘The most enduring legacy of the Romans is probably their genius infrastructure,’ says Rory Walsh, writer of this Discovering Britain trail. ‘They mastered Britain’s geography to give us roads, bridges, good plumbing – almost everything that makes for a lasting settlement.’

Roman Chester was huge for its time. ‘Deva Victrix, as it was known then, was the largest of nine legionary fortresses in Britain,’ says Walsh. ‘Established in 75AD, it measured 56 hectares and had room for 5,000 soldiers.’ The fort was designed as per the standard template with a rectangle of walls, gridded roads and main gates at each compass point. The crossroads between the Eastgate, Bridge, Watergate and Northgate streets, marks what would have been the centre of this fortress and offers a good view of the symmetrical plan.

‘It was 20 per cent larger than any other fortress built in the British Isles at the time, so there are theories it was intended to be the Roman capital of Britain,’ says Walsh. Why Chester? That would have been down to the local geography. ‘The river Dee and its wide estuary gave direct access to the Irish Sea.’ Though mostly remembered for its roads and marching columns of soldiers, the Roman Empire in fact relied heavily on water for transport – especially when invading the island of Britain.

Because of the fortress’ size, you might expect to find row by row of barracks-style construction making up the layout of the middle of this ancient city. However, the Chester locals (or Cestrians) that followed down the ages eventually broke free of the regimented Roman town planning. Dozens of narrow passageways that weave diagonally through the back and sides of buildings are testament to the human preference for taking the shortest route over the straightest.

The buildings themselves are another of the city’s more striking features. Lines of shop fronts are set half a floor below street level, while their first floors are fronted with wraparound passageways, or ‘the rows’, as they are known. Standing at street level, it is possible to see into both floors, giving the buildings the look of giant doll’s houses. This architectural quirk isn’t entirely Roman. Medieval through to modern building designs have all committed to this two-tiered effect. ‘However, the basements are thought to have come from the old levels of the Roman buildings,’ says Walsh, ‘and their remains are still being found.’

shutterstock 1151587373A view of the Eastgate Clock in the historic city of Chester

Moving north through Northgate Street, a clear tile in the corner of Pret a Manger allows us to glimpse the base of an original Roman column, while outside a gastropub, a full column and remnants of the sophisticated plumbing system are in full view. ‘These artefacts would look at home in a museum,’ says Walsh, ‘but it’s remarkable to be able to see them still embedded in a working city.’

Turning down one of the narrow pedestrian short cuts off Northgate allows an even closer look. A glass wall in the side of a shopping centre reveals a hole in the earth under the building. At the lower level are the bases of 2,000-year-old pillars. The view is one that few Romans themselves would have had access to. The space below was one of the most heavily guarded in the city – the Strongroom. Cut right into the sandstone bedrock, it would have hidden the army’s most coveted riches and religious artefacts. ‘In many ways, the Strongroom was the core of Deva Victrix,’ says Walsh. ‘It formed part of the Principia, or principal buildings, at the centre of the city and reminds us that one of the fundamental reasons for the Roman invasion of Britain was to amass resources and wealth.’ Back then, Britain was seen as something of a wilderness with untapped resources of lead and iron ore. As the Roman Empire spread across Britain, it exploited this mineral wealth.

That thirst for resources had a visible impact very close by. Walking out of the city walls and across the Old Dee Bridge there is a concave area of land featuring a small children’s playground called Edgar’s Field. It is the bed of an ancient quarry which supplied the sandstone for Deva’s foundations and walls. On its near side is something entirely unique in the UK: a shrine to a Roman goddess – Minerva, the goddess of quarrying, wisdom and strategic warfare. ‘Not necessarily in that order, but probably the quarry was the reason for her shrine being here,’ says Walsh. On the sandstone, a carving of her figure is still roughly visible. She holds a spear and carries an owl on her shoulder. She’s been worn from weather, vandalism and even stray bullets from WWII shooting practice that took place near the area. ‘The shrine of Minerva is the only confirmed rock-cut Roman shrine in the UK,’ says Peter Carrington, vice president of the Chester Archaeological Society. ‘It is believed to have been carved in the early second century AD, at a time when the original fortress was being rebuilt in stone.’ Despite the fact that goddesses were widely worshipped in Roman Britain, Minerva’s shrine is the only one left. In fact, it is the only outdoor Roman shrine in the whole of Western Europe still in its original location. While Roman infrastructure has endured for millennia, the polytheism of the people has not.

The plunders of the quarry are visible from the north side of the city. Looking into the gully created by Chester Canal in the 1770s, it is possible to see the layer cake that makes up the city wall. This particular section is topped by a newer Georgian promenade, and bottomed by the Victorian cuttings of the canal. Around the middle are the hefty chunks laid by the Romans. The size of the bricks – one foot high and one foot thick – gives an idea of the manual labour needed to cut and move them. ‘It’s likely this work was carried out by slaves,’ says Walsh. ‘While Roman ingenuity for infrastructure is celebrated, it’s often forgotten that much of the construction would have been through forced labour.’

Nowhere is this clearer than in the amphitheatre to the southeast of the city. The huge arena would have been given over to cock-fighting, bull-baiting and gladiatorial combat and at 90,000 square feet, it is the largest ever discovered in the UK, with seating for over 8,000 people. Another shrine, this one to the goddess of retribution, Nemesis, would have been built at the northern entrance. From the wall it is possible to see that the remains are only half revealed – its south side being covered by a busy road and listed Georgian buildings. 

Luckily, the trail ends on a gentler note. To the south of the amphitheatre are the ‘Roman’ gardens, a park created in the 1950s intended as a home for many of the city’s artefacts and as a tribute to Roman food cultivation. ‘We owe our pears, peas, plums, grapes, cabbages, carrots, garlic, onion, celery, turnips, mustard and walnuts to Roman occupation,’ says Walsh. Even apples, native to the UK, were not grown in orchards until the Romans arrived.

The banks of the Dee are an appropriate end to this month’s trail. ‘The river brought the Romans here,’ says Walsh, ‘and without the Dee there would be no Chester.’ In the centuries that followed, the river silted up and trade moved ten miles north to the Mersey estuary, however this move away from Chester could bring hidden benefits. ‘It’s possible,’ says Walsh, ‘that the shift of development pressure towards the north meant that many more aspects of Roman life could be preserved here undisturbed.’

TRAIL

• Location: Northwest England
• Type: Urban
• Duration: 2 miles, 3 miles
Click here for more details

Unearth more of our nation’s history and find more great walks, trails and viewpoints around the UK at discoveringbritain.org or via the new Discovering Britain Facebook page.

This was published in the February 2019 edition of Geographical magazine

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