Chester is undoubtedly the best-preserved walled city in England and one of the richest in medieval architectural. The town centre has a distinctive old world charm, with galleried streets filled with timber-framed buildings of white plaster and blackened beams. No other town in Britain conjures up a more vivid atmosphere of old England.
The site was first settled in AD 79 by the Romans, on a sandstone spur north of the River Dee. The 20th Legion (Valeria Victrix) was stationed there to protect the fertile valleys of the north-west from marauding Welsh tribes and sea pirates. The original fort was named Deva but Chester's modern name is taken from the Latin 'castra', meaning a fortified camp. Situated near Grosvenor Park, to the east of the town, is the largest Roman amphitheatre so far unearthed in Britain, measuring 314 ft by 286 ft.
Chester expanded into an important trading centre and port during the 14th century, when additional fortifications and towers were added to its walls, among them the Water Tower and Eastgate. The Water Tower, built in 1322, was once lapped by water but now stands several hundred yards from the river, in the city's northwest corner. Eastgate supports an ornate clock, added in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee, which is now one of Chester's most popular landmarks.
Chester's galleried (two-tiered raised wooden walkways) and Tudor style buildings, known as The Rows, originally date from the 14th century, although many of the frontages are Victorian facsimiles dating from the second half of the 19th century. Northgate Street is home to two of Chester's ancient coaching inns; the 15th century Blue Bell, considered to be the city's oldest domestic building and the 16th century Pied Bull, which still displays a board listing the various destinations that can be reached by stage coach.
A reminder of Chester's violent past is the Bridge of Sighs, which crosses the canal outside Northgate. It was so called because condemned felons crossed it en-route from the medieval dungeons in the rock beneath the gate, to hear their last church service in the Chapel of Little St John.
A rather more lighthearted legacy is located in the south-east corner of the walls, where six short flights of stone stairs were built in 1785, known as the Wishing Steps. According to tradition a would-be wisher must run to the top, back to the bottom, then back up again without drawing breath, to have their wish fulfilled.
The ancient Chester Mystery Plays, once performed in the Abbey Square, against the imposing backdrop of the Abbey Gateway, have recently been revived. Previously banned by Tudor Puritans, they are now performed every couple of years on their traditional site and in the city streets, attracting spectators from all over the world.
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