Where was I? Oh, yes, I was telling you how I arrived in Chester. That was one of my last stops in England, for I had plans to drive my wagon all down through Wales. I had heard many interesting things about Wales.
I had heard that Chester was once the largest fortress in Britain, and one of the most northerly. Back then it was called Deva, after the river Dee which flows right past the fort. As I arrived, I saw kayakers on the river, practising against the currents, and, only a few yards away, several long-necked cormorants diving for fish.
When the Romans built it, Chester was a walled fort, and the walls stand to this very day. Of course, the city has grown and it is only the centre which is inside the walls now. Many of the original Roman stones are still there, with Saxon walls built on top of them.
I left my wagon outside the walled city and walked in. When I heard that the walls were still intact, and, in fact, I could walk all the way around Chester on the walls, I decided to go and experience this marvel. I hurried the remaining few blocks and eventually found myself at the Newgate. There I saw people walking the walls, and found some stairs that would let me join them.
Gradually I noticed that Chester is a city of Gates. You can enter through one of four large gates, guarded archways, which stand in the middle of the four sides of the city -- the Northgate, the Eastgate, the Bridgegate (on the Dee) and the Watergate. A few hundred years ago, they added the Newgate (the one by which I entered). The Eastgate, the largest and most impressive of the gates, was under construction and I could not see the handsome clock I had been told about. The Northgate is high and wide. The Bridgegate has sentry boxes to guard the approach from the river (and from Wales), though they were unoccupied when I visited there.
The main roads of Chester are named for the four great gates. There is also a main road called Foregate Street, which I walked as I approached the walls. This confused me for a while, until I saw that it changes its name to Eastgate Street as it passes through that gate. I wonder whether it is called Foregate Street because it is before the gate, or whether perhaps there was once an outer gate guarding this approach. I also found a Shipgate Street near the Bridgegate and no Bridgegate Street (though there is a Bridge Street and a Lower Bridge Street). I wonder if there used to be a Shipgate which, perhaps, led to the docks and was used for loading and unloading cargo. Even the Newgate has its own street, though it does not lead to the centre of town. I also saw an older gate called the Wolfgate, located quite close to the Newgate. None of the gates were alike, and some had their own towers.
The people of Chester are proud of their wall, and quite rightly so. Much of it provides a wide, shaded walk, with a parapet on one side, a comfortable height for looking down into the town. There are plaques at regular intervals along the wall, describing the view and what wonders lie in each direction. Many of the shops have two levels, one at the street, and one on the wall, and many of the buildings have obviously been built to be seen from the wall. The older buildings are predominantly black and white, white buildings criss-crossed with black beams. I was told that many of the black beams came from ships.
Since the time of the Romans, Chester has been a centre of commerce, with the result that there are a great many inns. Some, like Ye Olde King's Head and The Bear And Billet, have inn signs visible from the wall. One inn has large letters, picked out in white along one of the ancient black timbers: "The Fear of the Lord is a Fountain of Life." I wondered about the drinking habits of its regulars.
All around the city, both inside and outside the walls, there are many signs of the Roman habitation. Having seen the workings of the Roman baths at Bath, I was able to recognize the under-floor heating stacks for a set of baths, though the baths themselves are now gone. The ruins of an old amphitheatre are wide and peaceful. Only a small part of it has been unearthed, but they claim this is the largest Roman Monument in all of Britain. It could hold over 8000 people, and the Romans used it for military exercises and gladiatorial shows. The old Roman quay still exists, though the river has since changed its course and the quay lies incongruously in the grass at the edge of the racetrack. A Roman garden, with its pillars mostly broken partway up, is still enjoyed as a place to relax, and I was not the only one visiting it.
While I was walking around, I heard people talking about something called the Deva Roman Experience, which was supposed to give the experience of living in Deva in Roman times. I determined that I would visit it before I left Chester.
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