I stopped in Chester on my way back from a long weekend in Llandudno yesterday. For once the sun was shining and I decided to explore this beautiful city, which I knew had started its existence as one of three Roman forts in the region built at the order of Vespasian in the 70sAD.
Given the name Deva Victrix , it could have been destined to become the capital of Britannia Superior, a title which eventually went to Londinium further south. The Romans, of course, abandoned Britain in 410, but the city still boasts the impressive remains of an amphitheatre that could seat 10,000 people. Its shrine to Minerva is the only remaining rock-cut shrine in Britain still in its original place. I only had a couple of hours to spare, so I decided to walk around the city walls, said to be the most complete city walls in Britain.
The walls were built as wooden palisades to protect the fort in Roman times. They were set on ramparts made from the earth obtained while digging the usual V-shaped ditch surrounding Roman walls. Experts reckon they must have been some 3 metres high. Some time around 100AD, a sandstone wall replaced the earth ramparts but it looks like it was never completed, although stone gateways and arches were added. The wall was patched up, rebuilt and looked after by a succession of invaders and town inhabitants. It survived sieges and attacks and, today, is one of Chester’s top tourist attractions.
Walking along it, you feel distanced from modern day life going on below, even when brushing past other camera-wielding visitors. You wonder how many sandalled feet tramped the same route, their owners’ eyes peeled for any movement in the pitch-dark countryside beyond. Every brick in this wall must have been witness to military action of some sort.
My favourite part was the section overlooking the Roman Gardens. They were opened in 1949 and boast a collection of plants and trees one would find in a Roman garden and ancient Roman stonework discovered in various spots around Chester. There is also a reconstruction of a hypocaust, an ancient Roman heating system, made to look as if it was dug up on the spot. The original can be seen in the basement of a fast-food joint in the city.
The garden has some lovely mosaics, mostly the work of artist Gary Drostle. I think they are inspired by the mosaics in the famous port of Ostia. The one right in front of the hypocaust is a hippocampus, a mythological sea creature that was said to drive Poseidon’s horses. I plan to post about hippocampi another time, because I have built quite a collection of pictures of them around the world. But that’s for another day. Now I really, really must return to the day job….