Tag: Chester

Book review: Chester AD400-1066 by David Mason

chester400-1066adI couldn’t resist more Chester history, so now I am reading Chester AD400-1066: From Roman Fortress to English Town by David Mason. I’ve just read Jane Laughton’s book on late medieval Chester covering the period 1275-1520 (review here), and read David Mason’s book on Roman Chester (review here) towards the end of last year. This book fills most of the gap between those two books, but not quite.

Evidence for the early part of the period is sparse, particularly in the earlier years between about 400AD and 600AD – it isn’t known as the “Dark Ages” for nothing. During this time, after the Roman withdrawal, no durable mass-produced items such as coins or pottery were being produced. Elsewhere, in nearby Wroxeter, archaeological evidence suggests that the early Britons built wattle-and-daub huts within substantial Roman buildings. In Chester there is little such evidence. The various Roman buildings in Chester would have decayed at different rates. The baths under the now Grosvenor Shopping Centre had metre thick walls and would have only fallen down slowly, whilst the barracks in the north east quarter of the city were less substantial. At the barracks there are black deposits, possibly pigeon droppings, deposited between Roman and later date-able layers. It would seem that for most of the period from 400AD to 900AD Chester was a Roman ruin with some desultory farming and living taking place within its walls.

A little after this earliest period to 600AD there are are some written records, such as the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles, and Bede’s History which were written some time – dozens, even hundreds of years – after the event. There are songs and poems from Wales, transmitted orally, which refer to the period.

Chester enters the historical record of the period with the Battle of Chester in AD616, for which there is archaeological evidence in the form of a mass burial at Heronbridge, just south of the city. Here 120 skeletons were found dating to the same period as documentary evidence for the battle and with wounds consistent with dying in battle.

St John’s church, founded in 689AD sits next to the old Roman amphitheatre from whose remains it was built, although there is some suggestion that Christians were martyred at the amphitheatre, so it wasn’t simply a case of being unwilling to carry heavy stones further than necessary!

In common with the Roman period, and the later period covered by Laughton’s book Chester holds a key strategic position between Wales and Ireland on the one hand and the rest of England, variously inhabited by Dane’s and Anglo-Saxons on the other. I found some of the discussion here confusing with what I would refer to as “Celts” from Wales, the West Country, Scotland and Ireland described as “British” and those from Mercia and Wessex as “English”.

The final third or so of the book is devoted to Chester as a burh one of the network of fortified towns set up by King Alfred – Chester was established in 907AD. It’s at this point that Chester appears to turn into a proper town, and a moderately important one at that. In the years after its establishment as a burh Chester had “moneyers” – effectively a mint, twice the size of London. This is reflected in the discovery of coins minted in Chester being found in Ireland and around the Irish Sea. The establishment of the burh mandated taxation and physical labour to build its defences and bridges – it’s likely in this period that the modern circuit of the walls was constructed. There is more archaeological evidence from this period and the start of some form of systematic written records, rather than the non-contemporaneous writing alluding to previous periods.

It is during the period after the establishment of the burh that King Edgar holds his coronation in the city, in 973AD. By the time of the Norman conquest and subsequent Domesday census Chester had 431 houses and a further 56 belonging to the Bishop (presumably of St. Werburgh’s church which was founded by in Edgar in 758AD). It also had a system of laws and taxation detailed in the Domesday book.

The book ends with Chester suffering a setback in the years after the Norman conquest as a result of its part in rebellion against the incoming King William.

Chester AD400-1066 is a fairly slender volume but more readable than Roman Chester. As a result of the sparsity of the archaeological and written records for the period it is wider in its scope than books set before and after this period.

Book review: Life in a late medieval city by Jane Laughton

medieval_chesterI’m back to local history with my next review. A while back I read Roman Chester by David J.P. Mason. I have his book Chester 400AD –1066AD on my “to read” pile but instead I am jumping forward to Life in a late medieval city: Chester 1275-1520 by Jane Laughton.

The book starts with some definitions and background. How do we define a city? What was the hierarchy of settlements in Cheshire and indeed the rest of England and Wales? This information can be inferred from various charters, and the like.

The book is laid out thematically, so having covered definitions of towns it then goes on to provide an overview of the historical background to the period. This is generally revolves around what kings were doing (invading Wales, crushing rebellions) but also mentions the rise and fall of Chester with famine and the Black Death.

Chester was an important location in Roman times, acting as a forward base for the Roman invasion of northern England and a potential jumping off point for Ireland. So it was in the late medieval period. The start of the time span of the book coincides with the time Edward I’s invasion of Wales when Chester was used as a garrison for the invasion force.

The next chapters cover the topography of the city and the built environment. The central streets of Chester, Eastgate, Bridge Street, Northgate and Watergate play a key part here – as they do to this day. In the period covered by the book these streets provided the key administrative divisions of the city, when citizens interacted with the bureaucracy they were labelled with their name and home street.

I am intrigued by the Pentice, which was a lean-to structure built against St Peter’s church at the Cross in the centre of the city which served as the base for administration for many years (you can see a picture of the Pentice on this page) – it was finally demolished in the early years of the 19th cenutry. The “Rows” are a key feature of the built environment even now, as they were in the late medieval period. For those that haven’t visited Chester the Rows are an arrangement whereby walkways runs through the first storey of the shops on Eastgate, Bridge Street, Watergate and Northgate (to a limited extent). Towards the street from the Row there is a flat, slightly sloped “stall” which was used to lay out goods in the past, beyond which is open to the street at first storey. Opposite the stalls are shops, and beneath the “Rows” are undercrofts. You can see pictures of the rows here, they haven’t changed a great deal over the years.

Laughton makes it clear that the book is based on the records of courts and taxation within the city. So we know, for example, that the tanners in the city worked outside the Eastgate because there are court records of them being charged with blocking the city ditch with their cess pits. We know of the types of trade taking place in the city through taxation, rental and customs records.

Sometimes the relationship with the underlying records feels a bit direct. We are introduced to messuage with no explanation, a messuage is a dwelling and its land. And also pavage, murage and even pontage – these are taxes raised for the purpose of building and maintaining roads, walls and bridges respectively. The portmote, crownmote and piepowder courts are similarly introduced with little ceremony. Portmote are essentially courts in port town, crownmote are courts which cover the most serious offences and piepowder courts cover justice surrounding traders coming in from outside the city. Similarly a range of now obscure occupations such as corviser, souter, barker are introduced with little explanation. On the plus side I have learnt a host of new words for which to find application!

The book goes on with chapters on the hierarchical society and urban government. There is some overlap here with men moving through positions in the government of Chester, more rapidly if they are nobility.

This history of Chester is quite distinct from my readings in the history of science, the period it covers lies before the main developments in Western science. Copernicus (1473-1543), Mercator (1512-1594) and Galileo (1564-1642) are the earliest I’ve read about, most of the history of science I’ve read is post English Civil War. Science does have an equivalent to the administrative records in this book but they are impersonal records of the locations of stars and planets, and the like. Reading Life it strikes me that Chester (and undoubtedly the rest of England) had quite complex systems of law, ownership, trade and so forth from a very early time – science is something of a latecomer.

It feels like a book a bit more for the specialist than the general reader but I found it pretty readable and enjoyed the link it gave me to the medieval inhabitants of the city I live in.

ARK exhibition at Chester Cathedral

I’m not quite at the “Don’t know much about art but I know what I like” level of art appreciation but I’m not that far off. So it feels a bit odd to be taking to the airwaves to rave about a sculpture exhibition at Chester Cathedral. The exhibition is called ARK and runs until the 15th October. (Details of ARK here). It’s free to enter although we bought a map for £2 and a catalogue/guide for £12 which I count as exceedingly good value for money.

The first hint that Something is Going On is the piece outside the normal cathedral entrance: what appears to be a life-sized seventies style ceramic model of a Shire horse, pulling a cart containing two concrete marrows which look remarkably like the BFG’s snozzcumbers. It’s actually Perceval by Sarah Lucas.


As you round the corner and are faced with three giant egg-shaped structures. Fructus, Phyllotaxus and Corpus by Peter Randall-Page. I saw these being delivered off the back of the lorry with a crane on my way into work. My picture shows two of the three.


From there it is into the cathedral through a path less-used which is actually rather pleasant, the normal entrance takes you through a winding path past the refectory whilst the exhibition entrance takes you directly into the south transept of the cathedral. Either side of the entrance are re-workings of guarding lions. Comme des Lions by Olivier Strebelle.


As you go in the first “sculpture” that will catch your eye is most likely Damien Hirst’s False Idol.


Even a philistine like me recognises the names of some of the sculptors featured in this exhibition, as well as Damien Hirst there are pieces by Anthony Gormley and Barbara Hepworth amongst many others.

One of the exciting features of the exhibition is the placement of the pieces in the cathedral, what objects they sit alongside. Perhaps this is best illustrated with one I only spotted when I was reviewing my photographs at home.

1-IMG_0261 This is Charlotte Mayer’s “Voyager”, it looks like an ammonite to me. In the background you can see a red guard rope coiled to reflect the shape of the sculpture! I never thought I’d laugh at a sculptural joke. As we went around Lynn Chadwick’s Rad Lad IV was the most obvious example of this placement:


The sculpture in the foreground picks up the fluting of the rather fine Victorian radiator in the background. Radiators were, apparently, the original inspiration for the piece although Mrs SomeBeans and I were both reminded of bacteriophage viruses.

I like the way Ann Christopher’s Line of Silence picks up the colour of the fresco behind it.

1-IMG_0341The theme of the exhibition is animals, hence the name ARK, I must admit this didn’t strike me as I went around. Perhaps this is through frequent exposure to Chester Zoo which means I anticipate that every attraction should be filled with animals. Anyway, we liked the Aardvarks (mother and child) by Anita Mandl, as we like the aardvarks at the zoo.


There are quite a few zebras to be found, as well as gorillas, birds, goats, cats…

Another theme is reflections, a number pieces are highly reflective and the cathedral has some excellent features to reflect. This is William Pye’s Coraslot, reflecting a stained glass window.


I think this is Bryan Kneale’s Curlew, reflecting some stonework in the cloisters. It might be Plover.


At one point I thought “who’d have thought of putting art into a cathedral”, thereby wilfully ignoring some 1500 years of the history of art in Western culture!

An odd thing about the exhibition is the way it makes you look at the cathedral in a different way, this is the view down the knave.


Normally this view is “spoiled” by ranks of chairs for the congregation but here it is largely empty with pools of light falling on the floor from the windows. The cathedral isn’t a stranger to sculpture, The Water of Life has sat in the cloister courtyard for twenty or so years.


The fun finishes outside with more sculptures in the grounds, this is Eilis O’Connel’s Capsule for Destinies Unknown which reminded Mrs SomeBeans of silverfish. I like the juxtaposition of the picnickers and the Georgian cathedral precinct buildings.

1-IMG_0354Thinking back the only art I’ve previously appreciated to this level has been land art around Grizedale Forest Park where again the art picks up its surroundings.

You can see all my photos online here, I’ll try to label them over the next few days.

Go see this! We’re definitely going again.

Chester Cathedral

Chester Cathedral from the North

After 7 years living in Chester I have finally gotten around to visiting the cathedral, actually it took a parental visit to get me over the threshold! It was a cold frosty morning in January when we visited.

I am an atheist, but culturally a Christian one, so in a sense I feel at home. I tend to see cathedrals as medieval moon-shots – endeavours of almost unbelievable scale for the time in which they were constructed. We approached the cathedral from the North, along the city walls. Passing along Abbey Street where we saw this rather skewed gateway:

A gate on Abbey Street

Charles Kingsley, author of “The Water Babies”, was canon at the cathedral and also founder of the Chester Natural Sciences Society. I will spare you the photo of the blue plaque from which I gleaned this information. On the way into the cathedral, the Cloisters.

The Cloisters

You’ll have to forgive me, I’m not too up on the nomenclature for ecclesiastical architectural features, here I am looking down the nave at the altar screen (probably). I’m having problems because of the large variations in light intensity within the scene. There is also some evidence for my problem of always taking photos at a tilt:

Looking East along the nave

A detail in the roof of the nave:

Detail of the roof in the Nave

Off the nave is the Consistory Court, this is the Apparitor’s Chair, or maybe it isn’t the information board hedged slightly on this point. The woodwork in the Consistory Court dates from the early 17th century.

Apparitor's Seat

This fabulous device is a Gurney Warm Air Stove, installed in the late 19th century. Sir Goldsworthy Gurney, the inventor of the stove, was an interesting chap.


Chester Cathedral was built in stages, based on a monastic Norman church built in 1093, there are some traces of this original building in the North Transept:

Detail in the North Transept

You can’t go to a cathedral without trying to photograph a stained-glass window:

Stained-glass window

The Choir Stalls, fantastically ornate and clearly difficult to dust:

Choir Stalls

Frustrated at trying to take photos of difficult to photo things, I thought I’d try something easier: the floor tiles:


That went well, I’ll do some more!


A detail of the ceiling in the the East Nave:

Detail of the ceiling in the East Nave

Stone detail in the Cloisters:

Stone detail in the Cloisters

Out into the Cloister gardens where there is this fine sculpture by Stephen Broadbent, from here we could hear the croaking of what sounded like ravens, however the little tinkers remained hidden in the heights of the cathedral tower so it was difficult to be sure:

Stephen Broadbent's Water of Life sculpture


I found cathedral photography rather challenging, the problems are that it’s dark and where it isn’t dark it’s very bright! The human eye-brain combination is terribly clever, it seamlessly accounts for enormous variations in brightness without any great degradation in the user experience. As a photographer this all becomes very obvious. There are workarounds: you can provide your own lighting or you can ramp up the sensitivity of your virtual film (increasing the ISO number), use a tripod (if that’s permitted) to allow longer exposure times, and take multiple shots at different exposures melding them into one shot (known as high dynamic range (HDR) imaging).

High dynamic range imaging and display are hot research areas. The problem on the display side is that if you display a picture of a bright window with a dark surround, even an HDR image, then the surround will “look” too dark. What you need to do is vary the brightness of pixels according to their surrounding pixels – it’s called “tone mapping”, precisely what algorithm you should use to do this is the subject of research.

Most of these shots were taken with my new Canon 50mm f/1.4 although a couple were done with the Canon 28-135mm. Next time I think I’ll try out my ultrawide angle lens: 10-22mm, handy for those smaller corners and perhaps a bit less prone to blur.

Photographing Chester

I’ve lived in Chester for 7 years but realised recently I have scarcely any photos of the city, so a few weeks ago I went off on a morning of indiscriminate photography using a Canon EF-S 10-22mm f3.5-4.5 on my Canon 400D. You can see the results of my labours on this and an earlier trip here.

The 10-22mm lens is a nice, very wide-angle lens but as you can see below it can produce some odd effects when used close-up to take picture of buildings. This can be seen in the picture of Chester Library shown below:

Chester Library

The library is housed in the old Westminster Coach and Motor Car Works, built around 1913-14 with a rather nice brick and terracotta front (see history here).

Aside from my usual problem of apparently having one leg shorter than the other, the verticals in the building converge. The “short-leg” problem can be fixed using Picasa, the aesthetic problem of converging verticals needs a different approach.

It’s worth pointing out that the image shown above is “correct” in the sense that the vertical lines of the building should converge because the top of the building is further away from the photographer than the bottom of the building. This problem is more severe when using a wide-angle lens. I want something that looks like the image below; what’s sometimes known as an “architectural projection”.


In the old days an architectural projection could be achieved using tilt-shift lenses or rather odd darkroom techniques. By the way, Cambridge in Colour, linked to for tilt-shift above is my first port of call for the mechanics of all manner of photographic things.

These days perspective corrections of this sort can be achieved using software, such as Hugin. Hugin is designed as a photostitching software but as a side-effect of this it needs to have all manner “projective geometry” knowledge. Projective geometry relates the real, 3D world to what will appear in a camera (a 2D projection of that world); it’s important in machine vision applications, computer graphics and in this sort of image processing.

The process of “correcting” converging verticals is described in a very good tutorial on the Hugin website. There is also a related perspective correction tutorial, this stops both horizontal and vertical lines from converging, this can have the effect of shifting you from an oblique view to a square on view (sort of). Applying this to my original image of the library we get this:

Chester Library

Which I find rather pleasing. This is Chester Town Hall, built in 1869, similarly treated:

Chester City Hall

Finally, the Blue Coat “Hospital” which was never a hospital but actually a school, it’s also a demonstration of the perspective correction pushed a little too far, something odd is going on with the dome tower. This is because the things I am applying a warp to are not all in the same plane.

Blue Coat Hospital

It’s easy to grow familiar with a place, not realising it is a little bit special. Chester really is architecturally special although it’s at times like this I wish there was a filter for modern signage and vehicles. There are a number of black and white “timber framed” buildings, often these are “mock” dating back to the late 19th century:

Building on the Watergate/Bridge Street Corner Whilst others are genuinely old, such as the Bear and Billet Inn built in 1664:

Bear and Billet Inn

The Three Old Arches is reputedly the oldest shop front in England:

Three Old Arches dates 1274AD

And there are all manner of interesting little twiddly bits, I keep spotting more of these each time I visit now:

Back of a building on St Johns Street

A load more of my photos of Chester here.