Mapping Chester, a City of Stories.

Fog on the River Dee. Photo: Tom Axford.

A few weeks from Christmas a new dawn rises on the sleeping city of Chester and a wintery fog creeps up from the river to explore the Rows, famed for their black and white timbered buildings and tiered pathways. No-one appears to be about yet but this is the time of day, when, if you have the eye, you’ll see them.
At this strange, quiet time, the shadows of people who were once here can still be picked out and sometimes you can hear their stories too, whispered softly into the mist.

There’s the Roman soldier sitting on a step at the corner where all the roads meet. He lazily cleans his fingernails with the tip of a knife and pulls his cloak tighter missing the warmth of his home country.

Another soldier from another time leans against the wall at Bridge Street, shifting his heavy bow onto the other shoulder. He waits patiently for the call to arms, the call to fight the Welsh, or the French or whoever else threatens his king. He waits patiently to put into practice his archery skills, famed across the land.

A broad cheeked man pushes his wares up the cobbles of Watergate Street. He’s setting his stall up before the market begins and the Guild has been on his back to pay church dues. There will be pageants and minstrels in the streets later and he’ll watch from the balconies and drink strong ale. Everything will be better then.

You catch the flash of an eye and a thin white cheek in the gloom of the Dark Row. A girl, her hair hidden by a soft cap, lifts her face to smell smoke on the air. Her city has been under siege by Cromwell’s army for 18 months now and she knows it won’t be long now till the walls and the cross fall. The plague will come not long after.

A woman stands in mauve satin at the top of the staircase flanked by white pillars at Browns of Eastgate Street. She surveys her emporium proudly and goes to unlock the doors, to invite her customers in. Trade is the backbone of the Empire but has always been the beating heart of Chester.

Listen carefully, and you’ll hear the stories of these city people from many times. Walk the streets and there’s still evidence of their lives.

This was what I was asked to map in a recent commission by Marketing Cheshire for Visit Chester and Cheshire. The map shows the Rows and their multi-tiered levels as part of a trail around this historic shopping district. It showcases the Roman foundations, Medieval structure and grandiose Victorian reinvention via the civil war, the plague and the broad history of commerce.

The map was inspired by a 17th century design with an elaborate cartouche, side decorative borders and a flat perspective. Black and white, the map reflects the look of the Rows themselves with featured buildings slightly enlarged and highlighted with a red dot. The initial drawing-out was laborious using multiple map plans, architectural elevations, satellite and Streetviews. I also took photos on a rainy site visit walking the streets there, sketchbook in hand.

Of course, while I was in Chester, I spoke to as many people as I could who were kind enough to show me the, often hidden, history of their buildings – the Medieval beams in the Dutch Houses or the plague-time plasterwork ceilings of the God’s Providence House.
I was regaled of the ghost stories by Hannah at alternative gift shop, Suzie K’s- there’s an old sea captain (from the days when Chester was an important port) amongst others.
I was invited to explore the tiny museum of Chester memorabilia – of the Titanic, of Churchill and a heritage of silverwork – above the immaculately preserved premises of jewellers Lowe and Sons.
I was given a personal tour of Medieval Chester by expert Roland (in full chain-mail) from Chester Medieval Tours
Anecdotes were collected and added to the map too.

And so the tale continues. The city centre will always change and adapt. More maps will be made and more whispered voices will clamour to be heard as time travels on.

View along one of the covered Rows.

And perhaps, one misty winter dawn not much before Christmas, a future visitor, unable to sleep, will decide to stretch his legs and take a walk down Northgate Street. And perhaps, from the corner of his eye, he’ll catch the shadow of a bedraggled woman, making notes in her sketchbook and taking photographs.

The fog is rising from the river as it’s done for centuries and dampens all sound but if that visitor listens very carefully, he can just about hear her as she endlessly walks the Rows asking for stories…

You can find the map of the Rows here.

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