Chester Racecourse and its architectural history

Chester Racecourse is often said to be the oldest continual use sports venue in Britain. This is because the records show that it has been in almost continual use as a horseracing venue since 1540.

It has an unusual design that evolved over the centuries. The course is particularly well known for its distinctive ‘rood’ (raised mount), which gave the course the nickname of the Roodee.

Chester Racecourse

The origins of Chester Racecourse

The history of the racecourse is a long and interesting one, which bears testament to the importance of choosing the right location, and paying attention to how a venue is designed.

The first races

In 1540, the first races were held on a patch of land that sat between the city walls and the River Dee. From that point onwards, races were held on an annual basis. The racing calendar was only interrupted by war, and a period of Puritanism that took place during the 17th Century.

Then, as now, most of the races took place on the flat. At first, the track was laid out in an informal way, and the whole city was able to watch the races free of charge. Many chose to do so from the top of the city walls.

The 1600s

Not much is known about the development of the racecourse during the 1600s. No doubt there were structures in place that supported the racecourse, but these were all likely to have been temporary tents and stalls.

However, there is evidence that the racecourse was by that time seen as a source of revenue for the city. During this century, the city council ruled that horses that wanted to take part in this event should be stabled in the city for at least eight days before they were due to run. Later, this was reduced to six days.

This meant that extra stabling had to be built in the area. That and the fact there were more people in the city for that week helped to bring revenue into the city, and enabled local landlords and innkeepers to maintain bigger buildings. It is, therefore, true to say that the racecourse had a significant effect on the structure and architecture of the city itself.

Chester Racecourse in the 1700s

In 1709, the track was extended, and it was the canalisation of the River Dee that created the necessary space for this. This formed the basic shape of the course that we see today. A new timber yard was also constructed in the 1730s.

The 1800s

The 1800s is when the modern racecourse started to take shape. In 1819, £2,500 was raised to build a new grandstand. It was built primarily to attract the gentry class.

This grandstand was accessible directly from the city walls, so those who wanted to could enter the course without coming into contact with people from the lower classes. This new area was first referred to as the Roodee. It was built on an area of land that was elevated above the rest of the course. The builders of this area were simply taking advantage of what was a natural feature of the landscape.

River Dee 4

In Roman times, the area the course is situated on was a floodplain for the River Dee. The Romans took advantage of this by building a harbour, in the middle of which was the raised plot of land now known as the Roodee. It was effectively a little island. When the water levels dropped and the land was properly drained, the island appeared to be a mound, located in the middle of what is now the modern racecourse.

Inside that area, refreshments were sold from tents and booths. This area proved popular, so the Roodee was extended in 1929.

The Dee stand was built in the southern part of the course in 1840. That too proved very popular with the upper classes. By that time, people were travelling from many different parts of the UK to attend the racing at Chester.

Chester Railway Station

The fact that Chester could be reached by a railway from 1848 onwards brought in even more spectators from outside the city. However, initially, the cost of rail fare meant that most of the new attendees were from the gentry classes.

Without a doubt, during this century the racecourse began to be run more as a profit-making enterprise. In 1893, admission had to be paid by the working classes as well as the gentry.

Initially, the introduction of this entrance fee reduced the size of the racing crowd. However, it put the racecourse on a far firmer financial footing. This flow of funds allowed the public areas, and other facilities, to be developed.

Initially, the changes were subtle. For example, a press box was added late in 1893, and a telegraph office in 1894. Both architectural additions were there to help the racecourse to function better in the modern world.

They were both of vital importance for the marketing of the racecourse. For example, the press box attracted reporters to the course, which meant the races were more widely written about, and, therefore, better known. This helped to swell the size of the crowd, and make the racecourse even more of a success.

The 1900s

People soon got used to paying, and by the early 1900s the course was once again busy, driving development of the facilities at a pace not seen during the previous 300 years.

New stands were commissioned in 1900. The County Stand was a beautiful addition to the course, with its half-timbered design being functional as well as aesthetically pleasing.

The stand allowed 5,000 spectators to watch the races without fear of getting wet, or too hot. Unfortunately, this beautiful stand was lost to a fire in 1985. In 1988, a new stand was built to replace it.

Modern racing at Chester Racecourse

Today, this ancient horseracing course remains a very important sporting venue, and its development is ongoing. In 2016, the Winning Post Enclosure was completed, and the VIP Paddock Club revamp was completed in 2015.

Both areas offer spectators the chance to enjoy a day at the races in luxury. The Winning Post Enclosure features a rooftop-viewing platform, which allows an elevated view of the course.

Chester Racecourse 2

At D2 Architects, we truly appreciate the value of good design. We know that if a building, or facility, is well designed it can serve its purpose for centuries just as Chester Racecourse has. It does not matter whether you want to extend your home, build a new one, or have new premises built for your business – we are here to help. All you need to do is to give us a call and ask for an initial consultation with one of our experienced architects.

Posted by Mark
September 6, 2016
Features

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