Tag: heritage

Lockdown loafing: the truth about Chester’s favourite ghost story

It’s one of the Chester’s favourite ghost stories.

The tale of a mystery figure, dressed as a monk and spotted on a winter evening, walking along the spooky passage by St John’s Church — the one with the coffin in the east walls [pictured above].

The figure has been seen many times over the years, patrolling the passageway beyond the westerner facade, which leads towards The Groves, the riverside walkway.

His presence is linked not with the church, however.

The Hermitage, the hidden building on a sandstone outcrop between the city walls and the river, is alleged to be his home.

The mysterious building, now privately owned and a reputed hotbed of poltergeist activity over the years, is also known by the name on its tucked-away entrance gate, The Anchorite Cell.

The story suggests the mystery man could be King Harold Godwinson, the vanquished Saxon king who got something in his eye at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.

It’s a story we all know from school history classes and one made famous by the Bayeux Tapestry.

Waltham Abbey in Essex claims the last resting place of King Harold. There’s even a stone marked with the words:

“This stone marks the position of the high altar behind which King Harold is said to have been buried in 1066.”

But Chester offers a different version of the story.

Local historians suggest that Harold’s mistress, Edith Swan Neck, rescued her lover from the battlefield and brought him to Chester to live out days in The Hermitage.

Disguised as a monk, he blended into the local community of holy men, who made their home at St John’s since the 7th century.

Edith cared for him during his final days, bringing supplies to his secret Chester hideaway.

It’s easy to dismiss the story as ghost-tale tosh but the sightings over the year offer first-hand accounts.

And excavations of the collapsed western facade years later unearthed two human skeletons entwined together in an eternal repose.

It’s a story I look forward to retelling when Chester Ghost Tours return after lockdown, especially if I’m leading a tour around King Harold’s Day, the nearest Saturday each year to October 14th.

Could the mystery monk behind Chester’s favourite ghost story be a long-lost King?

That would be one in the eye for Essex.

Lockdown loafing: the hidden story behind the Roman Gardens

It’s a place I used to take my children to play when they were little. They jumped on the ancient stones in a game of stepping stones.

It’s also the place I watched the Grand Budapest Hotel under a picnic blanket as part of the Moonlight Flicks series of outdoor films screenings.

It may now be eerily quiet under lockdown but I can still learn something new about familiar places on my daily walks around my home city.

The blossom-showered mosaic [pictured above] marks the entrance to the Roman Gardens, which are not, strictly speaking, gardens, nor Roman.

But, according to Chester Tour, we learn the design of the gardens is deliberate to create a winding path towards the river in the shape of a serpent coiled around a staff.

The design is a tribute to Asclepius, the Roman god of medicine.

The gardens were laid out in 1949 to display fragments of the ancient Roman buildings found around the city — the stoneworks there today were originally eslwhere.

Many of the fragments come from the original site of the Roman bathhouse on the east side of Bridge Street.

Others were uncovered during renovations of the city walls in 1887. They had been taken from various buildings across the Roman citadel, established from 74AD, to repair the walls in the late Roman period.

The site never served as a garden. It was originally part of a Roman quarry, later partly home to a 18th-century clay tobacco pipe factory in the and, finally, a cockpit for cock fighting — until it was banned in 1849.

One day we’ll be back at the Roman Gardens, watching a film as part of Moonlight Flicks, or eating ice creams bought nearby at the riverside kiosks.

But, for now, I’m soaking up the silence and seeing familiar places in a new light.

Lockdown loafing: an audience with a Roman goddess in a Chester park

I took my children to the local park for years.

But it took ages for me to realise there is a 2,000-year-old historical artefact near the swings.

The park is Edgar’s Field, located in the Chester district of Handbridge, and the relief carving is the Roman goddess Minerva [pictured above], cut into the former quarry face.

The shrine is believed to have been carved into the sandstone in the second century AD.

Historic England believes it is the only such site still in its original location in Europe.

During my lockdown walks, I often come for an audience with Minerva.

Gracious goddess

Minerva was the patron of art, wisdom and craftsmen, amongst others. Later in Roman history, she became the goddess of war, too.

In many ways, she is similar to the Greek goddess Athena with temples built in her honour.

The effigy is often portrayed wearing a chiton, which is an ancient Greek tunic, and a helmet.

Many images show her holding a spear and a shield, to represent her interest in war.

But she can also be found offering an olive branch to the defeated. Minerva was a gracious goddess, who had sympathy for those her armies had vanquished.

Secret site

The shrine, first built by quarrymen working on then quarry during Chester’s Roman era, may look like a hobbit house.

But the weathered rock was actually an important site of ancient worship.

The quarrymen, excavating the huge blocks of sandstone used to build Chester’s Roman wall, first carved the effigy to honour Minerva.

They made offerings and prayed for safety in the course of their gruelling, risky labour.

Today, it now forms part a leafy park on the banks of the River Dee, situated to the south of the city centre.

Sadly, Minerva looks a bit the worse for wear — the weather and vandalism have seen to that.

But you can still pick out her figure, holding a spear and wearing a helmet, an owl over her right shoulder.

The awning over the shrine is a 19th-century addition, placed there to ward off further damage.

Hidden history

Edgar’s Field dates from the Saxon period and gets its name from King Edgar, the great-grandson of Alfred the Great, who held a council in or near the field in the year 973 AD.

From here the king visited nearby St Johns Church, Chester’s original cathedral, first built in 689 AD.

Writers described a scene of Edgar being rowed up the Dee by eight princes as an act of submission — a romantic image forever associated with Chester.

Edgar’s Field was laid out as a public park by the first Duke of Westminster, Hugh Lupus Grosvenor, who presented it to the City of Chester in 1892 as an act of philanthropy.

It’s an eerily quiet place right now, especially with the children’s playground closed for now for public health reasons.

But I love the way I learnt, pushing kids on swings and teaching them to ride bikes on the slope, that there’s a bone-fide Roman goddess at the end of the street.

The world changes but Minerva waits, serene and stoic, keeping watch over us all from her freeze-frame stone tomb.

 

Gazetteer

Friends of Edgar’s Field https://edgarsfield.weebly.com

Howard Williams, Professor of Archaeology at the University of Chester https://howardwilliamsblog.wordpress.com/2019/02/15/chesters-minerva-shrine-to-get-a-digital-afterlife/

Lockdown loafing: gone fishing

‘Here is a noble, stone bridge over the Dee, very high and strong built’ – Daniel Dafoe on a visit to Chester circa 1724.

It’s salmon season on the River Dee.

You can tell because the herons are out in force, queueing up on the weir like a a bunch of socially distanced shoppers outside Aldi.

The salmon, meanwhile, are taunting them, turning somersaults like Eastern European gymnasts as they swim upstream.

This Springwatch-style phenomenon is an event I’ve been observing recently on my daily exercise under lockdown.

The prime viewing platform is the Old Dee Bridge. This was historically the main entrance to the city from the Welsh side of the river.

It remains my gateway to city centre, the bridge that normally leads me to an event at Storyhouse, or the rendezvous-vous for an evening ghost tour.

We know from historical documents that the bridge was built around 1387, leading from the Bridge Gate on the city walls to an outer gate on the Handbridge side of the river.

The salmon swim upstream along the 11th-century weir alongside which is an area known as the King’s Pool.

Historically anglers would have to pay a fee to fish here, reflecting the importance of the Dee for salmon fishing.

The Abbot of Chester and his monks, meanwhile, had free access to this prime fishing spot.

Salmon fishing remains an important part of life on the Dee to this day with the hub of activity centred on an unassuming brick building known as the Chester Weir fish trap.

It’s here the salmon-fishing cognoscenti control the flow of the river to measure the number of salmon making their prodigal return to Chester.

The salmon’s return ebbs and flows, much like the waters of its host river, leading to the breeding season each autumn.

But I take comfort from the fact that, while global events evolve, some things endure.

As always, the herons know best.