Roman Chester

By | Category: Travel destinations

© Kat Foster

A few years ago I wrote about my love of Chester and presented a possible days’ worth of sights. My enthusiasm for this small Roman city, with over 2000 years of history and some beautiful architecture, has never changed – it is still one of the first places which I recommend to anyone visiting this country.

A good place to start and get an overview of this Roman city would be a tour around the walls. This historic walled city possesses the most complete circuit of Roman walls in Britain!
During Roman times, Chester was known as Castra Deva (“the military camp on the River Dee”), and was one of the most important military bases for over three centuries. It was 30 years after the Romans invaded Britain (AD 43) before they set up camp in North-West England, when the work to construct the impressive fort overlooking the River Dee, an important trade route at the time, began. Later this became one of the finest strategic outposts of the Roman Empire.

So what of this important Roman city remains?

Hard to believe but the Chester racecourse – the oldest in England – was once a Roman harbour where the export of raw minerals (e.g. lead and copper from nearby Welsh mines) took place to the rest of the Roman Empire took place. Part of a sandstone Roman quay wall survives below the medieval city walls. At the racecourse itself, little is obvious but Roman artefacts still turn up from time-to-time and the racecourse owners sponsor archaeologists, to unearth more evidence of times past.

Minervas shrine © John S Turner

A wonderful block of sandstone located in Edgar’s field public park actually, unbeknown to me previously holds a Roman shrine to the goddess Minerva! Although weathered, she still stands guarding the old Roman road into the southern end of the fortress. Dating from the second century this is the only shrine still in situ anywhere in Europe. Today it is a grade one listed monument.

Quite frankly, you just need to explore Chester and ask around – the structure of the architecture means that gems of Roman Chester can be found in the most unlikely of places, e.g. the Hypocaust (a system of under floor heating) below ground level in the Spud-U-Like at 39 Bridge Street. There is also a reconstructed hypocaust at Newgate and both are open to the public without necessarily having to buy a spud!

I ventured further, and with an interest in the continued archaeological work undertaken, I visited the Dewa Roman Museum , where Kat (a budding artist who was inspired to digitally create the Roman for this article!) and I started our journey into Roman Chester in the dark hold of a Roman Galley, where we were warned of the dangers we might face…. All the sights (reconstructions of barracks, bath-house, granary, taverns and market stalls), sounds (the child in me just loved the rhythmic beating of the drum of the Oars Master as we learned of our fate!) and smells (far more civilised than my memory of the Viking museum in Irving!) provided an insight into what the lives of the Roman legion were like.

a mosaic at the Dewa Museum

A beautiful collection of Roman artefacts from both Chester and further afield are on display, and it was very difficult not to fall in love with the Roman jewellery or be amazed by the array of grooming utensils which the Romans fashioned. There is also a “hands-on” area with the opportunity to dress up as a Roman, create your own mosaic and a variety of other fun games and activities which can be enjoyed by children, or simply those young at heart – Kat took it too far and ended up in Roman gaol though. (you can have too much fun!).

Chester has its own amphitheatre although some remains covered by newer buildings. Nonetheless this is the largest one yet found in the UK and our knowledge will only widen as more archaeological work is planned on the site.

In the city’s Grosvenor Museum, you’ll find two galleries given over to the Romans. It houses Britain’s largest collection of tombstones from a single Roman site. But both galleries will give you a greater understanding of the Romans and their importance to Chester and British history without being as dry as some museums can be.

Unlike most museums, the Dewa Roman Experience is located on an actual archaeological site – the remains of a fortress which were discovered in 1991!

the dig below the Dewa Museum

These are open for viewing by the public as part of the museum experience, and are not just restricted to the Romans –Saxon and medieval remains are also labelled – a stratigraphic column of history is visible, one on top of the other!

Local archaeologist, Mike Emery will be continuing work on the layers of history beneath the site of the museum in December, and if you visit you will have the opportunity to see him working hard and uncovering history.

So if you’re visiting Chester remember to ask about what might be below ground as well as seeing what’s above.

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