The history of the Chester Rows

Chester is a beautiful city with a rich architectural history. It has a long and illustrious history, which is reflected in the quality of its buildings. If you enjoy architecture, Chester is certainly somewhere that is worth visiting, as you can see examples of buildings from virtually every century.

One of the most popular architectural sights in the city is the Chester Rows, parts of which were built as far back as the 13th Century. Every year, thousands of tourists flock to the city to visit them, and enjoy the other sights of the Roman city. There is nothing quite like these unusual shops anywhere in the world. People like to experience something unique and they love shopping, so it is hardly surprising that Chester’s Rows are so popular.

Bridge Street 3

What are the Chester Rows?

If you are talking to someone who has never shopped there or seen photographs of the Rows, it is hard to explain what they look like. The best way to describe them is as a set of shops in two-storey, half-timbered, medieval style buildings. With a continuous balcony, it forms a walkway that allows access to the shops located on the top storey.

Some people describe the Chester Rows as a medieval Arndale Centre. Whilst this description works on some level, it certainly does not reflect how beautiful these buildings are.

The city’s residents are rightly proud of these beautiful shops, and are now working hard to preserve them. As you will see, this part of the North Western city has a long and interesting history. The story of how this interesting architectural style was developed is an interesting one too.

How old are the Chester Rows?

When people visit them, usually, the first question they ask is when were the Rows built? It is an understandable and sensible question, which is strangely difficult to answer.

Chester is an old city, which was home to the Romans during the first century. It has a long history, and therefore the story of the city and its buildings is quite a complicated one.

Over the course of hundreds of years, most of the buildings in Chester have undergone significant changes. Much of the city’s significant architecture has been restored, changed or rebuilt multiple times – a fact that makes it hard to work out exactly when the Chester Rows were built.

Bridge Street 2

The origins of the Rows

In Chester, there is evidence of shop owners trading from balconies dating back as far as the Middle Ages. During that time, the craftsmen and women of Chester used to live above the shop, literally. To accommodate their businesses, many dug cellars under their homes. They used this additional space to work in and create their wares, as well as store their raw materials and stock.

The fact that the bedrock in the Chester area is not far beneath the surface meant that part of the cellar had to be above ground level. Usually, the home and shop area was built on top of this, so the doorways ended up being above street level. To get over this issue and give customers access to the actual shop area, the owners of these properties appear to have built a balcony. They sold the goods that they produced from these low balconies, so you could argue that the Chester Rows actually date back to the Middle Ages.

There is also documentary evidence that this type of shop was in operation in the St Peter’s Church area. At the time it was written, in 1290, this area was known as Ironmonger’s Row. The document specifically refers to these tradesmen working out of buildings with undercrofts.

Of course, this kind of shop, combined with workshop arrangement, was used in other parts of the UK. However, the fact that the bedrock was further beneath the surface in most areas meant the entire cellar was beneath ground level. Therefore, there was no need for a balcony to be built.

During Roman times, the settlement had two main trading streets, which today are called Eastgate and Watergate Street. In Saxon times, a new shopping street started to develop, which is now Northgate Street. All of these streets, and Bridge Street, eventually had modern Row-style shops built along them.

The modern Rows

However, the shops we have described so far were not like The Rows that we see today. Each property had its own balcony, but they were not linked and each shop had its own set of steps.

The Rows, as we know them today, did not come into existence until the 14th Century. At that point, proper two-storey buildings were built with balconies giving access to the first floor shop fronts. These balconies were linked together into a continuous walkway. Access to the shops located along the elevated gallery was gained via a staircase located at each end of the building. Property owners had to cooperate with each other to create a pleasant shopping area that gave them a bigger frontage.

There are several theories about why proper two-storey properties started to be built in Chester, around this time. One of the favourite theories is that there was a major fire in the city in 1278. Afterwards it is said that property owners were required to make the ground floor fireproof. This meant that stone had to be used in construct the undercrofts, which enabled owners to build a higher top floor. To give access to the shops, balconies were once again built, but this time they were higher, and the owners cooperated to build a continuous walkway to allow customers to pass between shops.

It is possible the property owners naturally collaborated to achieve this, but it is unlikely that is what happened. A more likely explanation is that the authorities issued an ordinance to make shop owners rebuild in this way. It is also possible that local trade bodies agreed that this style of shop would be beneficial to the city, and agreed amongst themselves to rebuild in this way. In truth, unless new evidence is uncovered, we are unlikely to ever find out exactly why the shops in Chester were constructed in such a unique way.

How old are today’s Row shops?

Over the centuries, some of the buildings in the Rows have had to be rebuilt many times. Therefore, the age of today’s Rows style shops varies. Between 1644 and 1646, the city was under siege. During that time, many of its original buildings were damaged. It took decades for the city to recover and start to be rebuilt. At that point in history, no doubt some of the original shops were lost.

During the late 1800s, The Rows came under threat again. At that time, the city once again evolved into a prosperous centre for trade. It became fashionable to live in Chester, so many local landowners, and successful traders, wanted to live close to the city centre. They wanted new, modern homes built in the latest style – not old, rickety buildings like the Rows.

Unfortunately, their solution was to knock down some of the Rows that had survived from medieval time, as well as many of those that had been rebuilt in the late 1600s. In some cases, they built something similar, but they were built using modern building materials. As a result, the Rows that you see today are a mix of styles and ages.

How the Rows were nearly lost

In addition, over the centuries, some of the Rows were changed from retail outlets into private homes. This was called ‘enclosure’. The new owners had walls built that incorporated the street frontage and balcony into their homes. The fabric of the original building was still there, but from the outside, it looked very different.

Once one section of the walkway was enclosed, owners of adjacent properties wanted to do the same. There was no reason for the city authorities to insist that the walkway be left open for public access once they had allowed a section of it to be blocked. Therefore, permission to enclose a building and turn it into a residential home was usually granted.

Without meaning to, the city’s authorities had created a dangerous precedent that nearly spelled the end of the Rows of Chester. Many of the Rows of Lower Bridge Street were lost in this way. The north side of Watergate Street was also affected by this type of development, although in that area it was commercial development that did the most damage.

How the Rows were saved

architects-with-plans

Fortunately, in other parts of the city, trade was still thriving in these unusual buildings, so shopkeepers did not want to sell to investors or developers. Gradually, the authorities woke up to the fact that precious retail space was being swallowed up in the city centre. They wanted Chester to remain a prosperous place, which meant maintaining the city’s reputation as being somewhere to shop and trade. They knew that the Rows were ideal for retailers and traders, so were a precious resource that needed to be preserved. Therefore, requests to enclose them and turn them into residential properties started to be turned down.

Some owners were still allowed to convert their properties, but were required to do so in a way that would preserve the walkway. This meant that the shops either side could continue to trade. As a result, this classic shopping area was preserved for future generations.

Occasionally developments that eradicated a section of the Chester Rows were still allowed. For example, in 1860, a block of shops in Eastgate Street was lost when the Chester Bank was built. However, this type of development became rare in the city.

Unfortunately, by that time, much of the Rows had already been lost. All four of the Rows’ streets had been affected, with each row being considerably shortened. However, there is still enough of the Chester Rows left for you to appreciate, and enjoy, today.

The Rows today

If you want to see examples of this style of shop dating back to the 13th and 14th Century you still can. No. 12 Cowper House in Bridge Street is a well preserved example of an original Rows-style shop. The original undercroft is still visible and is in good condition. Another example of an original Rows style property that dates back to the 1200s is the building that is known as the Three Old Arches, which is located at 48 Bridge Street.

Three Old Arches

In Lower Bridge Street, you can visit The Falcon pub. The core of this building also dates back to about 1200. It still has the original under croft and walls, but the balcony was enclosed in the 17th Century.

The Falcon

This was the first building to have its balcony area enclosed. When that happened, the precedent, which nearly caused the complete destruction of the Rows, was established. Therefore, it is a little ironic that we are suggesting that you visit this particular building. However, it really is the best place to get a feel for the dimensions of the original Rows, and a better understanding of how they were built, and later developed. In the bar area, you can still see the stone pillars that held up the upper floor. The original shop front walls have also been preserved, and incorporated into the building.

You can also enjoy shopping in large sections of the Rows including sections that were built in Tudor, Georgian and Victorian times. The council in Chester is working hard to preserve what is left of these unique shops. It has improved access to the shops, and put in place a pedestrianisation scheme to make shopping in the area easier.

Are the Chester Rows truly unique?

If you are looking for a way to combine a love of shopping with a love of architecture, a morning or afternoon spent in the Rows is ideal. It is a truly unique place to shop and there is nowhere quite like it in the UK.

Of course, we are not saying that this style of multi-tier shops did not exist in other parts of the UK. It most definitely did, at one time. For example, the original Royal Exchange, which was built in London, in 1571, was primarily a shopping centre. It was three floors high, so had galleries from which the shops were accessed. Unfortunately, this building was destroyed in 1666 after the Great Fire. It was, in all likelihood, similar to the Chester Rows, but it was more likely to look like an early version of a modern shopping centre. As far as we know, no other town or city in the UK had galleried shops set out along streets.

In all likelihood, there were other galleried shopping areas in other parts of the country, but they are all gone. Today, Chester really is the only place in the UK you can experience this unique style of shopping.

Posted by Mark
June 3, 2016
Features

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