Indeed, I used to regularly take my children to this local park, but it was ages before I realised there was a 2,000-year-old historical artefact just behind the swings.
The park is Edgar’s Field in Handbridge and the carving is the Roman goddess Minerva [pictured above].
The shrine is said to have been carved into the sandstone in the second century AD and is believed to the only site in Europe still in its original location, according to experts at Historic England.
Today we’ve come for an audience with Minerva.
Minerva was the patron of arts and craftsmen and, later in Roman history, she became the goddess of war with temples in Rome devoted to her.
She was often portrayed wearing a chiton, which is an ancient Greek garment, and a helmet. Many statues of her show her holding a spear and a shield, to represent her warlike qualities.
But she can often be found offering an olive branch to the defeated as Minerva was a compassionate victor, who had pity on those her armies vanquished.
This is now a quiet park on the banks of the River Dee but it was once a massive quarry, excavating the huge blocks of sandstone to build Chester’s Roman walls.
And this weathered rock shrine was once a site of ancient Roman worship.
The quarrymen, who carved the effigy, would have made offerings and prayed for safety during their gruelling, risky labour.
Sadly, Minerva looks a bit the worse for wear these days — 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 shoulder on the right.
The awning over the shrine is a 19th-century addition, placed there in the hopes of warding off further damage.
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 973AD.
From here the king visited nearby St Johns Church, which was built in 689 AD. Writings from this time describe the scene of Edgar being rowed up the Dee by eight Saxon, Welsh and Viking 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.
My children are grown up now — but I still come to visit Minerva.
I love the way that Chester may change yet Minerva stands, serene and stoic, keeping watch over the good people of Handbridge from her freeze-frame stone tomb.
I used quieter time over the last few months to tinker away at a creative project, creating a new audio tour to my home city of Chester.
The result is Haunted Chester, a 60-minute circular walking trail based on the tours I lead for Chester Ghost Tours.
Those tours have been in hibernation during lockdown, returning hopefully in May.
But, meanwhile, you can download this self-guided tour to your smartphone and explore with just my voice and a detailed map to accompany you.
It’s the ultimate in social distancing.
VoiceMap uses local writers and guides to create quirky walking tours that offer local-knowledge insights and insider tips.
Here’s what my new tour promises:
If you like ghostly goings-on and spooky stories, then this walking tour around the centre of the historic city of Chester offers tantalising tales of the supernatural.
We’ll visit some familiar landmarks — but don’t expect a dry history lecture.
I know my home city well and will be highlighting some of the hidden corners that you don’t find on typical tours. After all, I’m a local boy and I’ll be sharing my insider knowledge.
On this tour, you’ll hear about:
• Roman soldiers still guarding their historic garrison
• The grisly tale of Chester’s last public execution
• The ghostly monk that haunts the city’s spookiest passageway
• Chester’s only official exorcism
Allow one hour for this walk. There are plenty of cafes and bars along the route for a quick coffee stop.
Whether it’s your first time in the city, or you’re a local keen to learn more about your home, Haunted Chester is the perfect way to see it in a different light.
Download the VoiceMap app to your phone and search for Haunted Chester, or use this link:
February 21 marks International Tourist Guide Day, celebrating tourist guides as cultural ambassadors for their home regions.
But guides — and that’s me pictured above, leading a ghost tour of Chester — haven’t had much to celebrate of late. As tourism fell victim to the pandemic, many guides found their livelihoods taken away overnight.
Some refused to give up, however. They adapted their craft for virtual tours and continue to embrace evolving technology to reinvent tourist guiding for the post-Covid recovery.
London Blue Badge Pepe Martinez was an early adopter, reimagining his themed walking tours, such as London’s old East End and Street Art, for a locked-down audience last spring.
He has since trained over 400 guides in technology-enhanced guiding skills. “I’ve guided more people in the last year than I had in the last ten. It has really opened my eyes to the value of virtual tourism,” he says.
“While they can’t recreate the visceral experience of face-to-face tours, virtual tours do offer a unique level of connectivity and interactivity that my clients have readily embraced.”
Another convert is Bath-based Fred Mawer, a Blue Badge Guide to the Southwest of England.
Fred, who is developing new, themed walking tours around Bath, sees the value of virtual tours both in their own right, and as teasers to entice potential clients.
“Virtual tours can sometimes be more effective than live tours, for example bouncing people around between locations, or zooming into details,” he says.
He has also found new practical applications having honed his virtual skills. He was recently approached by a company to conduct virtual tours of the University of Bath campus to prospective international students.
“Even when so-called ‘normality’ returns, I expect to see sustained demand for virtual tours.”
As well as the professional guiding skills of local knowledge and engaging storytelling, the secret to successful virtual tours is to keep the technology relatively simple.
While some tourist boards have invested in VR technology, Pepe guides with just Keynote (for presentations) and Zoom loaded onto his iPad. This even works for live-remote tours, such as broadcasting live from a museum.
“VR is phenomenal,” he says, “but it’s still three steps ahead of where my clients are right now.”
For Emma Fox of Manchester Guided Tours, pivoting to online tours required a new skillset.
“Keep it concise — 45 minutes with a Q&A to end. I use strong, engaging visuals, and like using Google Maps and Street View to add value,” says Emma, who is currently planning virtual tours of Worsley village in advance of the opening of RHS Garden Bridgewater in May.
“While I miss the chemistry of live tours, I’ve found the format allows for more creativity and flexibility.”
There will always be a place for the eye-to-eye contact of guides in situ of course.
Indeed, the Institute of Tourist Guiding (ITG), which represents members across England, Northern Ireland and Jersey, recently launched a pay-it-forward Blue Badge voucher scheme to gift a tour to friends and family once restrictions ease.
But, at a time of vaccine passports and £1,750 hotel-quarantine bills, technology-enhanced tours are more than just a stop gap, relieving pent-up demand for travel experiences.
Is this a chance to reinvent tourist guiding for a whole new chapter in the travel journal?
I believe so. I had started training as a Green Badge Guide to Chester and North Wales, combining my love of storytelling with street-level knowledge of my Roman-heritage home patch.
With UK staycations set to be popular again this summer, I’ve used my time during the current lockdown to develop a VoiceMap audio tour, Haunted Chester, to download to smartphones.
“Looking to the future, I think guides will work with fewer large groups and be busier in the winter months as virtual tours evolve,” says Pepe.
“And I guarantee that delivering virtual tours will be included in most, if not all, guide training in the future.”
As one of the new-generation trainee guides, it feels like guiding is overdue for a major shake-up. So, park the coach and retire the giant follow-me umbrella, the future of tourist guiding is a blended approach.