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.
Normally I’d be raising a glass of the black stuff to celebrate. But, like everything else, it looks be a bit different this year with Visit Ireland live streaming the craic via YouTube.
But, pre Covid, I had celebrated the big day in the west of Ireland, joining walking guide Ged Dowling to climb Croagh Patrick, the holy Irish mountain towering over County Mayo.
I had gone to discover why some 120,000 people hike the treacherous trail to the summit each year, and to learn more about the man behind the folklore-shrouded myth of St Patrick with which is it so closely associated.
Patrick spent 40 days and 40 nights atop the summit of Croagh Patrick in 441AD, fasting, praying and communing with God in a lonely vigil, which established this formerly pagan peak as the new summit of Irish spirituality.
Ever since, the annual Croagh Patrick pilgrimage for St Patrick’s Day has felt like walking in his holy footsteps.
“Croagh Patrick was revered as a place of ancient spirituality long before Patrick was in town,” says Ged. “To me, it feels reassuring — like visiting an old friend.”
His hometown of Shrewsbury marks his birthday on February 12 each year by hosting an international festival of natural sciences. And his 1859 book, On the Origin of Species, forms the basis of our understanding of evolution.
But the naturalist Charles Darwin [pictured above] embarked upon his lifelong quest for knowledge as a small boy in the Shropshire market town and often drew on experiences from his great-outdoors childhood in his later writing.
I’ve come to Shrewsbury, with its half-timbered buildings and historic English Bridge, to join a walking tour in the footsteps of the town’s most famous son.
Down House, Darwin’s Kent home since 1842 may be better known, but the lesser-visited childhood haunts reveal a more human side to the man behind the black-and-white photographs of the stern Victorian scientist.
“Darwin’s ideas were revolutionary on a global scale,” says DarwIN Shrewsbury Festival Organiser, Jon King, “but Shrewsbury is where they were formed.”
The tour starts at the Arts and Crafts-era Morris Hall, the public meeting space with the granite Bellstone in the courtyard a symbol of the unique geology of Shropshire.
Darwin was born in 1809 at Mount House, on the fringe of the town’s Quarry Park, and was loved exploring these geological features in the fields behind his house as a boy.
We move onto St Chad’s Church, where Darwin was baptised, and stroll past the town’s historic Market Hall to the Unitarian Church he attended with his mother, Susannah, whose father was Josiah Wedgwood of the pottery empire fame.
Charles had been born into a well-to-do family, his father, Robert, a respected local doctor, and boarded at Shrewsbury School from 1818, the former school building now converted into the town’s library, while the modern-day school has relocated across town to the banks of the River Severn.
The small square in front of the original school building is today home to a statue of Darwin but, as my tour guide Jon points out, he sits with his back to the school entrance, having not enjoyed the drab rote-learning of his schooldays.
Indeed, his teachers at the time branded him “an average student”.
Darwin later attended university in Edinburgh and went on to Cambridge, but he rebelled against his father’s wishes for him to train as a doctor or a clergyman.
He preferred to indulge his passion for natural history by studying earthworms and barnacles amongst others on a series of study tours.
It was only when he was offered a place on an expedition ship, The Beagle, in 1831, the chance came for him to prove himself.
Standing outside the Lion Hotel today, we can still imagine the young Charles rushing to take the next stagecoach to plead for his place on the expedition at The Admiralty in London.
The unpaid role as the resident naturalist on the five-year voyage would change the course of history when the ship sailed from Plymouth on December 27 with Captain Robert FitzRoy at the helm.
We finish the walk under Darwin’s Gate, a public art installation with three seemingly free-standing columns symbolising the three key influences of his formative years, namely the local geology, his religious views and his early study of scientific classification.
“Darwin attracted more criticism than any other scientist, but he simply saw life with more clarity than most of us,” says Jon. “He was an early pioneer of the stewardship of nature, not control — ideas that still resonate today.”
Darwin died in 1882, and was buried in Westminster Abbey, but remained a Shropshire lad at heart. Indeed, the poetic closing words from On the Origin of Species, could have been written about his Shrewsbury upbringing:
“From so simple a beginning, endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved.”