The best preserved walled city in England, and one of the richest in architectural and archaeological treasures, Chester is a living testament to 2000 years of English history. The abundance of Roman remains, an almost complete circuit of medieval walls, beautifully preserved black and white timber framed Tudor buildings, the attractive riverside, the cathedral and the strikingly unique 'Rows', together create a fascinating ensemble. No other town conjures up more vividly the atmosphere of old England.
An earth and timber fortress was built on the site and completed by AD79 as a garrison for the 2nd Legio Adiutrix, later to be replaced by the 20th Legio Valeria Victrix which then remained in Roman Chester throughout the occupation. Rebuilding in stone of both the defences and the internal buildings occurred early in the 2nd century.
As with other permanent Roman military fortifications, a civilian settlement very quickly developed outside of the fort's perimeter, its inhabitants drawn to the site both for protection and because the soldiery provided a ready market for civilian goods. There is evidence for potters, bakers, butchers, carpenters, blacksmiths all plying their trade in Deva in common with other Roman townships throughout the empire. As the town grew in wealth so it cultivated an import trade for luxuries such as fine wines, exotic fruits and ornate earthenware.
Unfortunately, modern day Chester stands above the site of Roman Deva, and sandwiched between them are Saxon, Norman and late medieval layers of overbuilding - the natural consequence of the city's strategic position. As a result, only isolated fragments are available for viewing with the exception of the fort's north wall and its amphitheatre.
The north wall is still preserved to an amazing height of 15ft, only lacking its wall-walk; this section of wall dates largely from the 4th century period of rebuilding. The most interesting monument of Roman Chester, however, is undoubtedly the amphitheatre opened to the public in 1972 - only the northern section has been excavated. Because the best part of the amphitheatre lies buried beneath a convent it can never rival that at Caerleon, even though Chester's arena is substantially larger, in fact, the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain holding some 7000 spectators. Adjoining the western entrance to the arena is a shrine room devoted to Nemesis, goddess of Fate. The amphitheatre would have been used for military practice, blood sports, gladiatorial contests and public executions.
Elsewhere in Chester, a section of the Roman quay wall is situated on part of the present day racecourse; a Roman quarry-face with a much weathered figure of Minerva carved into the rock is preserved in situ in a public garden called Edgar's Field; a garden including excavated Roman stone remains, a mosaic and a reconstructed hypocaust is open to public viewing. Finally, the Grosvenor Museum contains one of the finest displays of Roman military remains and sculptural material in the UK.
As with other Romano-British urban centres in the early 4th century, once the legions had been withdrawn to defend the eastern empire in about AD407, Roman civilisation began to breakdown and people drifted away from the towns leaving them partially or wholly abandoned. The withdrawal from the garrison at Deva probably occurred in about AD380.
After the Norman Conquest, Chester grew into an influential trading centre and port; the city's growing prestige encouraged it to undertake elaborate building projects. More towers were added to the walls, among them Eastgate and the Water Tower in the city's north- west corner, built in 1322. Inside the walls, building was also underway. Chester's galleried streets, known as The Rows, date from the 14th century, and have a truly distinctive style - they are two-tiered raised wooden walkways and shopping arcades, with intriguing names such as Broken Shin Row. Several half-timbered Tudor houses, built in a similar style to the Rows, most notably Bishop Lloyd's House, God's Providence House and Old Leche House, have an abundance of rich carvings cut deep into age blackened exterior panels. The British Heritage Museum contains a life-size replica of The Rows, as they were in the 19th century, complete with sounds and smells.
The red sandstone cathedral, at the heart of the city, was built over a 10th century church, which contained the relics of St Werburgh, a Mercian princess who died in AD707. It was a Benedictine abbey until its dissolution in 1540, when it was established as a cathedral for the new diocese of Chester. The magnificently carved stalls in the choir date from the late 14th century, when the cathedral was extensively rebuilt. The Chester Mystery Plays are a surviving link with the abbey, performed in what is now Abbey Square. The plays, banned by Tudor Puritans, were revived last century, and are now performed every few years on their traditional site.
During the English Civil War, Chester chose to back the losing side, the Royalists. From the King Charles Tower, built into the city wall, Charles I is said to have watched the defeat of his troops at the Battle of Rowton Moor, in September 1645. Today, the tower contains an exhibition portraying life in the city during the grim period of siege after the King's defeat. Another reminder of Chester's violent past is the Bridge of Sighs, over which condemned prisoners made their way to hear their last church service in the Chapel of Little St John, before their execution.
Two of Chester's many ancient inns can be found in Northgate Street. The 16th century Pied Bull still displays a board announcing distant destinations to be reached by stage coach, while the Blue Bell is considered to be the city's oldest domestic building, dating from the 15th century. The ornate clock over the Eastgate, commemorating Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee in 1897, is one of Chester's most popular landmarks.