A history-lover’s guide to Chester

  • City guides
3 min read
Alice Ostapjuk

Chester is steeped in over 2000 years of history. Take a quick stroll around the city centre and you’ll come across buildings from almost every century. Most of the city walls were created by Romans, the Cathedral was commissioned by William the Conqueror and, of course, the Tudor-style Rows sit at the heart of the city.

Whether you’re a wannabe historian or an expert in the field, there’s something for every level of interest in Chester. Here’s our roundup of the top historical spots to visit in the city centre.

Chester city walls

Built by the Romans (and re-modelled a few times since), the city walls remain more intact than any others in Britain. Hop on just opposite the Roomzzz car park entrance and stroll the two mile circuit to take in the sights and stories of Chester.

Standing on Watergate it’s hard to imagine the River Dee lapping up against the walls here, as it would have done until late medieval times. As you explore the red sandstone defences you’ll discover a 14th-century water tower, the iconic King Charles Tower, and catch glimpses of the city’s many architectural gems.

And if you’re feeling extra adventurous, be sure to follow some of the steps that lead above and below the walls to uncover gardens, secret spots and canal-side footpaths.

The Eastgate Clock

High up on the city walls, above a grand arch, sits the famous Eastgate Clock. It’s the North of England’s equivalent to Big Ben and is one of the most photographed clocks in the world – an absolute must-see. The clock, designed by Cheshire born architect John Douglas, was built to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee and was unveiled in 1899, two years later.

The intricate, black ironwork, with accents of gold leaf, deep red and brilliant blue, is an impressive sight to behold. If you look closely you’ll see how the structure is made up of scrolls, crests, leaves and flowers. The detail is quite unbelievable and looks better than ever thanks to restoration work in 2015. Keep the camera handy for this one!

Chester Cathedral

You can’t visit Chester without catching sight of the magnificent cathedral, it’s an essential piece of the city’s history (and it’s colossal so it would be pretty hard to miss even if you tried). Make your way through the surrounding gardens or grab a spot on a bench to gaze up at the architecture.

Originally founded in 1092, the cathedral was drastically changed and rebuilt in the Gothic style from 1250 to about 1350. It then took a few more hundred years still to finish the highly ornate details, and to build the tower and turrets. Fun fact: the turrets were apparently added to make sure that the cathedral was taller than the town hall.

It’s totally free to check out the inside of the cathedral but if you’re willing to spend a few quid, then we’d recommend booking on to the cathedral at height tour. The tour offers a totally different perspective of the building and is packed with interesting stories and facts (promise it’s not one of those stuffy, boring ones!). Wind your way up the spiral staircases that were once used by Benedictine monks (and on one occasion Charles I) to the bell ringing chamber, the belfry, and finally the roof of the tower for the ultimate aerial view of Chester.

The Rows

Completely and utterly unique to the city are the two-storey, half-timbered shops with adjoining balconies that form a continuous walk way along the first floor level. Some of the medieval-style buildings date back to the 13th century but the Rows didn’t start to look much like they do today until the 14th century.

These swoon-worthy buildings will transport you right back in time with their iconic black timbers in all sorts of eye-catching patterns. Look out for the carved figures and mythical creatures that lurk on many of the window and balcony supports. You might notice that the old windows have teeny tiny panes of glass – this is typical of Tudor-style buildings. And the intricate wrought iron sign brackets and balcony railings just add to the charm!

No two of these shops are the same so prepare to lose an hour or so if you’re a bit of an architecture nerd. You’ll find The Rows on the four streets that meet at The Cross.

St John’s Church

Step inside St John’s Church to marvel at the towering columns, colourful stained glass windows and a surviving medieval wall painting of St John the Baptist. This place was the city’s original cathedral and is a rare example of the evolution between the Romanesque and Gothic architectural styles. There’s also a stone store inside where you can gawp at memorial stonework and an effigy of a priest from the 14th century.

Outside you can wander amongst parts of the church that have gone to ruin over the years. In the remains of the South Eastern Chapel keep your eyes peeled for the mysterious medieval oak coffin, high above your head. Discovered in the 19th century, the coffin has the eerie phrase ‘dust to dust’ etched inside, in gold lettering.

Chester’s Roman Amphitheatre

You’re going to need a little imagination for this one as only two fifths of the amphitheatre ruins are still visible. The amphitheatre is the biggest building of its kind ever discovered in Britain. In the Roman era it would have been a place for public executions, wild-beast hunts and for Gladiators to fight (so not grim at all!).

Let yourself be transported back in time as you meander through the ruins. The two entrances that you can walk through today were once used by the performers here. You’ll find a few information panels dotted about the site so you can delve into the history, and a walk way to view the remains from an elevated angle.

Other historical gems to look out for:

The Queen’s Park Suspension Bridge

Head down to the River Dee to check out this white, skeleton-like suspension bridge, which opened in April 1923. This piece of history has the added bonus of incredible river views. Make sure to linger on the wrought iron bridge for a while to experience the suspension at work – you’ll feel it bouncing beneath your feet as other people walk by.

Chester Castle

Not far from the River Dee, in the Southwest of the city, are the remains of Chester Castle. The castle was founded by William the Conqueror in 1070 and was originally built from earth and wood. It was then rebuilt in the stone, and extended, during the 12th century. It’s not the prettiest of castles but what it lacks in looks, it makes up for in history. The castle was used as the royal base for the conquest of North Wales and has even been used as a meeting place for the Irish parliament in its time.

Stanley Palace

Just moments from the aparthotel, on Watergate Street, get an eye full of this picturesque, Grade II listed Tudor building. Stanley Palace was built in 1591 and is a great example of the city’s famous white wattle and daub, and black timber framed buildings. It’s all thanks to the Chester Archaeological Society that Stanley Palace is still standing – they saved it from demolition in 1899 (phew, that was close!).

We’re sure this history-lover’s guide will come in handy as you explore the city. Don’t forget to show us your favourite historical find on Instagram, by tagging #Roomzzz, for a chance to win a free night’s stay at any Roomzzz Aparthotel across the country. Check availability at the Chester Aparthotel, here.

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