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Posted by: mike on Apr 10, 2013

Category:Victorian architectureHistoric ChesterBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

Chester St Michael's Row & Arcade:  1912 façade

Chester St Michael's Row & Arcade:  1910 interior

St Michael's Row and Arcade, Chester:  (top) 1912 façade;  (bottom) 1910 interior

Much of the centre of Chester is a Victorian reconstruction in the black-and-white idiom of the medieval buildings of the famous Rows [see Quaint old Rows].

It’s odd that the developer, the second Duke of Westminster, and his architect, William Lockwood (1863-????), the rugby-playing son of Thomas Lockwood (1830-1900) who had built much in the city, should have so badly miscalculated public taste when they faced St Michael’s Row and Arcade (1910) with an elaborate Beaux Arts confection of white and gold Doulton tiles, right in the middle of Bridge Street.

There was immediate uproar – from the local press, the City Council and the Bishop.

Within a year, His Grace agreed to demolish the frontage and at his own expense, around £4,000, rebuild it from row-level upwards in black-and-white revival style to fit with the streetscape.

The original Doulton ware remains within, and it is indeed elegant, but not the right style for the centre of Chester.

The Duke’s successors dramatically ignored the lesson when they conceived the gross Grosvenor Precinct in the same block in 1963-5.  No amount of tinkering has tempered its ugliness.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Jan 24, 2013

Category:Life-enhancing experiencesHistoric Chester

Chester Cathedral Refectory

Chester Cathedral Refectory

It’s hard work being a tourist.  You need to eat and drink.

When my mate Richard and I explored Chester recently, we had reasonable coffee in splendid surroundings at the Queen Hotel, directly opposite the railway station:  http://www.feathers.uk.com/premier-queen-hotel.

At lunchtime we had a pit-stop at a branch of Patisserie Valerie on Bridge Street:  http://www.patisserie-valerie.co.uk/chester-cafe.aspx.  This is a dependable food-chain experience, very French – so French, in fact, that I felt compelled to text my Francophone friend John to find out that ‘framboises’ means ‘raspberries’.  It’s a male thing, not liking to ask.

By teatime we’d reached Chester Cathedral.  We both take exception on principle to having to pay admission to a place of worship, but we’re more than happy to pay good money for superb cakes, tea and coffee in the Refectory Caféhttp://www.chestercathedral.com/chester-cathedral-refectory-cafe-opening-hours.htm.

Richard is adept at real-beer research, so by 5pm opening-time we were at the door of The Albion [http://www.albioninnchester.co.uk], where we put away a couple of pints of a beer called Flying Scotsman (“hints of raisiny spiciness and toasty dryness. Fresh, slightly citrus tang with a rich rounded finish” – http://www.caledonianbeer.com/flyingscotsman.htm) while gazing at evocative enamelled advertisements for Colman’s Starch “sold in cardboard boxes”, the Public Benefit Boot Co [http://freepages.genealogy.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~publicbenefit] and one with the reassuring strapline that “Craven ‘A’ will not affect your throat”.

For our evening meal we hiked back towards the station to the canal-side Old Harkers Arms [http://www.brunningandprice.co.uk/harkers], named after the chandler whose warehouse became a pub in the late 1980s.  Here we drank Great Orme Celtica (“full of citrus taste and aroma – http://www.greatormebrewery.co.uk/cask_cd.htm) and I ate an excellent steak-and-ale suet pudding.

We saw some buildings too.  See The Scrape School, The other Chester Cathedral and Quaint old Rows.

Posted by: mike on Nov 25, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesHistoric Chester

Chester St John's Church

St John’s Church, Chester, which lies outside the city walls near the half-exposed Roman amphitheatre, looks to all practical purposes Victorian, though with a ruined east end that has to be older and a stump of a tower in south-west corner.

When you step inside, the fine Norman interior comes as a surprise.

It has an architectural feature unique among English churches – the nave arcades have a barely perceptible but deliberate outward lean – and there is a noteworthy wall-painting of St John the Baptist on one of the columns.

This church was from 1075 until 1102 the cathedral of the former diocese of Lichfield, and even after the see was transferred to Coventry, St John’s remained a nominal cathedral within what was known as the diocese of Coventry and Lichfield until the Reformation, when the nave became a parish church and the east end was left to ruin.

You can see in the Norman architecture exactly where the bishop’s departure interrupted the building programme:  the nave triforium and clerestory are anything up to a century newer than the arches on which they stand.

Although the Victorian architect R C Hussey had carried out a restoration in 1859-66, the mainly sixteenth-century north-west tower collapsed in 1881.  The Chester architect John Douglas rebuilt the north porch, leaving the ruins of the Norman choir and Lady Chapel and the fourteenth-century choir chapels.

Most historic buildings are a palimpsest – a document repeatedly erased and rewritten – but St John’s has suffered more alterations than most.

St John's Church is open daily for visitors and worshippers.  No admission-charge is levied, and donations are welcomed:  http://www.parishofchester.com/donations.html.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Nov 23, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureSacred placesHistoric Chester

Chester Cathedral

The present-day Chester Cathedral began as the tenth-century church of St Werburgh, was refounded as a Benedictine abbey by the Norman Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, and at the Dissolution of the Monasteries became the centre of a new diocese, when the last abbot became the first Dean of Chester.  (Henry VIII had apparently first considered locating the see at Fountains, where the abbey buildings were kept intact for a brief, deliberate pause.) 

The present building was begun in 1092 and then remodelled and enlarged from the late thirteenth century onwards:  the later generations of builders kept their work in harmony with their predecessors, as did their contemporaries at Westminster Abbey and Beverley Minster.

Its exterior has been so repeatedly and heavily restored, by Thomas Harrison (1818-20), R C Hussey (from 1844), Sir George Gilbert Scott (from 1868) and Sir Arthur W Blomfield (after 1882), that it’s difficult to be sure if any of the visible fabric is earlier than the nineteenth century.

Certainly the apse at the end of the south choir aisle, with its exaggerated roof, is pure Scott.  This most notorious of the Victorian “Scrape” school of restorers, obsessively committed to tidying up and purifying the style of medieval churches, was heavily criticised for his work at Chester, yet some of his contributions, such as the choir screen and its wrought-iron gates (1876) are now highly-regarded designs in their own right.

He was not the only author of Victorian depredations:  Dean Howson, regrettably, ordered the removal of five medieval misericords, of which the subject-matter was considered to be “very improper”.

Ironically the medieval shrine of St Werburgh survived the Reformation because the base was used for the Bishop’s throne.  Sir Arthur W Blomfield restored it as best he could in the late Victorian period.

The Chapter House, described by Pevsner as “the aesthetic climax of the cathedral”, dates from the thirteenth-century, but was restored by R C Hussey in the mid-nineteenth century.  Similarly, the south side of the cloisters is a reproduction by Sir George Gilbert Scott.  The refectory, still with its monastic pulpit, has an east window by Giles Gilbert Scott, installed in 1913, and the roof is by F H Crossley, completed in 1939.

In contrast, the most modern, uncompromising yet least obtrusive addition to the Cathedral is the Addleshaw Tower, a detached bell-tower by George Pace, completed in 1972-4, after the old bell-frame in the central tower was found to be beyond safe restoration.

So Chester Cathedral looks now like it never did in the past.  This is true of most ancient buildings.  I think this complexity makes it all the more interesting, once you know what you’re looking at.

Chester Cathedral operates as a tourist attraction, charging for entry outside service-times:  http://www.chestercathedral.com/chester-cathedral-visiting-opening-hours.htm.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on May 1, 2012

Category:Victorian architectureHistoric ChesterBlack-and-white architecture ancient and modern

1-4 Bridge Street, Chester

1-4 Bridge Street, The Cross, Chester

The city of Chester is celebrated for its black-and-white architecture, particularly the distinctive Rows, a system of split-level street frontages along the four main streets, apparently created in the thirteenth century on the remaining rubble of the Roman city of Deva.

The Rows buildings contain visible remains of medieval and older structures, making shopping a distinctive experience.  In fact much of the black-and-white architecture is Victorian or later.

As far back as the 1850s, writers in the early volumes of the Chester Archaeological Society Journal drew attention to “the rich and lively façades, the curiously carved fantastical gables, which distinguished the brief but gay rule of the Stuarts” and campaigned vigorously for their restoration.

So, when buildings such as Bishop Lloyd’s House (1615), God’s Providence House (1652) and the Leche House (late-17th century) reached the point of physical collapse, their timbers were retained and incorporated in the rebuilding.

It was ever thus.  The magnificent classical brick façade of the Booth Mansion (1700) on Watergate Street conceals considerable remains of two timber-framed medieval houses dating back to c1260-80.

A succession of local architects, beginning with Thomas Mainwaring Penson (1818-1864) and his pupil, Thomas M Lockwood (1830-1900) and dominated by John Douglas (1830-1911) and his pupils, Edward A L Ould (1852-1909) and Charles Howard Minshull (1858-1934), created modern Chester, which superficially looks like ancient Chester could have done.

The buildings which celebrated Chester on the Royal Mail 7-pence stamps for European Architectural Heritage Year in 1975 at The Cross were in fact by T M Lockwood dating from 1888 and 1892.

John Douglas in particular built much in the same style from scratch.  His Shoemakers’ Row on Northgate Street was begun in 1897.  It is beautifully detailed, with an unusually proportioned figure of Edward VII that could pass for George V.

This process of sensitive preservation continued after the Second World War, focused by Donald W Insall & Associates’ survey of 1968 and energetically monitored by the Chester Civic Trust: http://www.chestercivictrust.org.uk

Some conservation battles resulted in defeat, and Chester has its share of regrettable post-war architecture, but its ancient charm is remarkably intact, powered by an economic necessity that was obvious as far back as 1857:

But we earnestly warn our fellow-citizens, that if Chester is to maintain its far-famed celebrity as one of the “wonder cities” of England,– if the great European and Transatlantic continents are still to contribute their shoals of annual visitors to fill our hotels, and the not too plenteous coffers of our tradesmen, one course only is open to us.  We must maintain our ancient landmarks, we must preserve inviolate our city’s rare attractions,– our quaint old Rows, unique and picturesque as they certainly still are, must not be idly sacrificed at Mammon’s reckless shrine!

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.

Posted by: mike on Sep 1, 2011

Category:Historic ChesterVictorian architecture

Chester Westminster Car Works

Just before Easter I listened to John Minnis give a talk on 'Early Automobile Architecture' to the Victorian Society South Yorkshire Group.  John is already known to the Group because some years ago he was the joint author, with Group member Ruth Harman, of the Pevsner City Guide Sheffield.

Now he's working on an English Heritage project surveying the architecture of the motor trade from its inception in 1896 – garages to repair cars, garages to store them, salesrooms to sell them and accommodation for the chauffeurs.  Like the contemporary development of the cinema, architects responded to a new technology with astonishing speed, which is why it's a suitable subject for a Victorian Society event, even though the Society's remit ends in 1914.

Motor cars were, of course, originally thought of and designed as horseless carriages, and John's illustrations showed how ways of marketing and stabling the new vehicles grew directly from the existing practices of horse-drawn transport.  There were significant distinctions, however:  cars do not produce tons of manure, and their fuel is even more inflammable than hay.

(The famous requirement that London taxis should carry a bale of hay in the boot was only repealed in 1976.)

The Group Chairman, Valerie Bayliss, suggested in her vote of thanks that all the components of the motor trade – including dodgy second-hand dealers – were in existence by the 1820s, apart from the internal combustion engine.

One of the best known and most distinctive examples of early motor architecture is the Westminster Coach & Motor Car Works on Northgate in Chester, very near to the Town Hall. This elaborate terracotta façade is dated 1914, but appears to be based on an earlier building for the carriage-builders J A Lawton & Co that was burnt down on July 1st 1910.  Their building was two storeys high, but otherwise apparently similar to the existing design.

Cars were sold on the site until the 1970s, and a new library was built behind the façade to an award-winning design by the Cheshire County Council Department of Architecture in 1981-4. The library itself will move on soon, apparently, and the Car Works site will become a market.

Future meetings of the Victorian Society South Yorkshire group are advertised at http://www.victoriansociety.org.uk/south-yorkshire/forthcoming-events.  Guests are welcome.  The biscuits are excellent.

The 48-page, A4 handbook for the 2009 Historic Chester tour, with text, photographs, and a reading list, is available for purchase, price £15.00 including postage and packing.  To view sample pages click here.  Please send a cheque, payable to Mike Higginbottom, to 63 Vivian Road, Sheffield, S5 6WJ.


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