Chester and York, offer glimpses of British history


By Victor Block

In Chester, England, guests at a medieval inn often claim they see the ghost of a woman looking for her lover who was killed during a 17th-century battle.

Visitors to the Shambles, a narrow street in the town of York, learn that the homes were designed with overhanging second stories to protect pedestrians below when residents emptied chamber pots from upstairs windows.

Chester and York are English heritage cities that offer intriguing looks back in history, introductions to enticing museums and castles, and encounters with the lives of people from the past. They’re worth a visit for anyone planning to attend the Summer Olympics in London July 27-Aug. 12, or visitors to England at any time.

Roman Legions arrived in Chester in 79 A.D., and the city’s main thoroughfares follow the routes laid out at that time. A stroll along the two-mile ring of red sandstone Roman walls, which encircle the town center, provides views over one of the most authentic medieval cities in Europe.

According to history, in 1645, King Charles I watched from a turret as his army fought a losing battle outside. Nearby lie the ruins of an amphitheater that was used to train soldiers, and for combat among gladiators.

Within the walls, Tudor and Victorian-style buildings give the town its present character. The Blue Bell Inn is where the ghostly Henrietta bade her lover farewell as he left for battle in 1645. After learning that he had been killed, she committed suicide in an attempt to join him. Her ghost continues to haunt the second floor of the house.

The Rows is the name of arcades built above ground floor shops, which lined the four main streets of Chester during Tudor times, about 1485 to 1600 A.D.

The covered second-story walkways pass antique and other shops and dwellings where wealthy families once lived. One of the most beautiful is the Leche House, named for doctors who during the 14th century served as “leeches” (surgeons) to King Edward III.

The magnificent Chester Cathedral was built over a 250-year span beginning about 1250 A.D. Among its notable features are soaring arches and colorful stained glass windows.

Among intriguing hidden gems is a carving near the ceiling of the devil in chains. According to legend, a monk told the Abbot of the cathedral that he spotted the devil looking in through a window. The Abbot instructed the monk to mount a carving of the chained devil so he would know what fate awaited if he returned.

Stalls in the choir feature intricate images of people and animals carved into the wood. Of special interest is an elephant obviously fashioned by a craftsman who had heard of such a beast but never seen one, and who gave it the legs and feet of a camel.

“If you liked Chester, you’ll love York,” a guide promised during my visit there. Indeed, who could fail to appreciate the best-preserved medieval city in Great Britain?

Sections of York’s original Roman walls and fortifications still stand, along with other reminders of Rome’s influence. The remains of ancient bath houses are hidden beneath a nondescript pub named, appropriately, The Roman Bath. Peering into the trepidation (warm pool), fridgarium (cold pool) and claderium (hot steam room), visitors can conjure up images of toga-clad men dropping by for their daily soak.

The departure of the Romans in the fifth century A. D. was followed by an incursion of explorers from Denmark (who named the city Jorvik, from which York is derived) and then by Normans.

The most impressive structure is the York Minster. It’s the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe, after that in Cologne, Germany.

Construction began in 1220 and was not finished until 1472. The magnificent Minster stands on the site of earlier chapels and churches. A descent into the foundations provides views of those structures, going back as far as the time of the Roman garrison.

York Minster is home to countless riches. Its 128 stained glass windows include the largest in the world dating from medieval times.

Some visitors unfortunately don’t take time to visit the Chapter House, located beside the cathedral vestibule. There, strange, fanciful beasts and unusual human figures hide among delicate carvings of foliage.

Also overlooked are superb scenes of the Genesis story from the Old Testament above the arched West Doorway of the Minster. They include the hand of God creating earth, Adam and Eve and Noah’s Ark.

Equally intriguing in a very different way is the Jorvik Viking Center, a kind of 10th-century archeological site with a 20-minute ride through eerily lifelike dioramas. After a humorous audiovisual introduction, visitors are transported through a tunnel past realistic scenes of life in the Viking community that occupied the location in 975 A.D.

Life at a later time is encountered at Barley Hall, a restored medieval town house that is hidden down a narrow side street not far from York Minster. There, the family and servants of William Snawsell, a goldsmith who served as lord mayor of the town, spring to life by means of an audio tour.