What with the late night snow and ice it was with a sense of relief that I drew the curtains on a dark and dingy morning. Not too bad, I thought, all things considered. The ice on the car would need a serious scraping, but on the other hand the roads were clear for the first real day of our adventure.
We were heading for Chester, an old haunt of my companion and a place I hadn’t visited in decades. In fact, I had only ever really seen the Roman amphitheatre, so I was looking forward to visiting the town and the main reason we were going there… the medieval Cathedral.
Although we don’t really ‘do’ the cathedrals as a rule, they are so closely woven with the stories we write and the history of our land that we do have to visit them occasionally… and there are so many legends and tales about Chester and its founders that we would have had no excuse. Then too, my companion knew it well and it was a pleasure to start our journey in a place of which he had fond memories.
We arrived in Chester before the place had woken. The streets were almost empty as we followed the river to a gate in the city walls. A sliver of moon still hung in the sky as we climbed up onto the ancient walkway. The walls of Chester have encircled the city, in some form or another for almost two thousand years. The defences were first built by the Roman invaders to protect their legionary fortress and town of Deva Victrix as they called the place, then maintained and improved throughout history.
It is always an odd feeling to step back so tangibly in time. Outside the walls you feel the ordinary life of a waking town. There are still Georgian and Tudor buildings rubbing shoulders with the glass and steel of modernism on both sides of the curtain of stone, but inside it is different.
The sense of being within an enclosure seems to resonate with some primal understanding of security, perhaps; time seems to slow, centuries blend into one another and the ghosts of Roman soldiers and medieval monks make way for the ethereal forms of Regency dandies and Victorian ladies. History animates the images imprinted in the stone.
We walked the walls for a while, looking out across the chimneypots towards the snow covered mountains of Wales, before heading through the narrow, cobbled streets towards the town centre and breakfast. Every period of architecture seems represented here. Many buildings carry a date… 1571, 1508… and while their shop windows may speak to the modern consumer, their very fabric breathes the quiet passing of centuries.
The four main streets are lined with the medieval Rows… covered walkways above street level now house shops with several floors above and crypts and undercrofts below. The Rows are truly unique, nothing else exists quite like them anywhere in the world. They date back to the thirteenth century, though the original buildings are now broken by more recent constructions. Today they are preserved and protected.
We walked down to the old market cross in the centre of the town. From here many of the buildings are Victorian restorations in the Jacobean half-timbered style that harmonises well with the original character of the place. You can tell the older places though; the weathered stone and higgledy-piggledy warping of the wood mark them out from the crisper lines of the later works.
High on a wall a carved crest carries an ancient motto associated with the royal houses of Britain as well as with the legends of Albion… the Green Knight and the Round Table. Above one of the gates in the walls an ornate clock commemorates the Diamond Jubilee of Queen Victoria in 1897. Roman pillars stand in the town centre opposite a bronze baby elephant… Everywhere you look are traces of the distant past, hand in hand with the evolving life of a modern city.
The camera was working overtime… far too many pictures to post! I would regret that later in the day, after the cathedral and the hillfort… I can’t recall the last time the battery didn’t make it through the day! But the day had brightened, the skies had cleared to blue and it promised to be a glorious day. And it was still early… the cathedral wasn’t even open yet… and we still needed breakfast.