The unique design and history of Chester Rows

Residents and regular visitors of the city will know that the Chester Rows have a second tier of shops above the ground level at Watergate Street, Northgate Street, Eastgate Street and Bridge Street. The design of the rows is unique to Chester.

The original rows were constructed in the 13th Century, but only a few buildings from that date remain. Most of the rows standing today were built in Victorian and Edwardian times.

The impressive half-timbered rows attract tourists from all over the world to admire their unique architecture.

The beginning

The first documentary mention of the rows was in 1293, but the ambiguous language used does not necessarily refer to an elevated walkway. There is evidence that in Northgate Street there were buildings with undercrofts in the 1290’s, but there was no continuous system as there is today. he first mention of the term “elevated walkway” occurred in 1356. Most historians believe that the rows were constructed sometime in the 14th century. They were most likely completed by 1350.

In 1278 there was a serious fire in Chester which destroyed most of the town within the city walls. After the fire, it has been suggested that property owners had to make their buildings fireproof by using stone-lined undercrofts. At the same time, there could have been a move to increase the commercial potential of the shops by making two stories of shops. There is no evidence to prove the accuracy of this story.

The Romans conquered Britain in about 43AD. About 30 years later they arrived in Chester and built a large fortress which became one of the most important military bases in Britain.

There is a theory that Chester town centre contained large piles of rubble from Roman buildings that had become derelict and the original rows were built on top of the ruins. There is no proof of these claims.

What is known is that the rows were constructed on undercrofts on top of rubble, but what is disputed is whether the rubble was from Roman buildings.

The black and white half timbered look of the rows was probably introduced in medieval times, but most of the row buildings seen today date from Victorian and Edwardian times.

Redevelopment

From November 1644 to February 1646, Chester was under siege during the English Civil War. The city was extensively damaged and its commercial life ruined. To restore the city a rebuilding program was initiated. Timber was chosen by the builders as a main material to restore the rows. Restoration continued well into the 1660’s.

Blocked Rows

During the 17th Century Chester’s economy recovered and several wealthy people constructed buildings on the rows.

The original rows were continuous, but later developments blocked some of the walkways. For example, Lower Bridge Street used to have a continuous row, but in the 17th century a large house was constructed at the north end of Lower Bridge Street. The Grosvenor Family built and lived in the house.

The Grosvenor’s house set a trend for more large houses to be built that blocked access from the rows. These included Bridge House, the first neo-classical house designed in Chester.

During the Georgian Era more houses were built that blocked the walkways. In 1808, the Commercial Coffee House was constructed by Thomas Harrison in Northgate that did not contain a walkway on the upper floor. In 1860 the Chester Bank opened on Eastgate Street and also blocked the rows.

The 1960’s was not immune from this row blocking trend when a modern building was constructed in Watergate Street.

Chester Rows Research

In 1984, the Chester Rows Research project was formed to research the history of the rows and highlight the importance of the Rows to Chester’s history. Their ten year research into the architecture and the history of the Rows work culminated in the publishing of the book The Rows of Chester which is perhaps the definitive account of the Row’s history. The book contains many copies of Victorian and Edwardian watercolour pictures of the Row buildings.

The Rows today

The rows today are a system of covered walkways with shops and commercial premises on two levels. The upper levels are reached by staircases situated at regular intervals. A variety of shops, bars and restaurants occupy the rows, although there are a few private houses. There is mix of the usual High Street chain shops and more unique independent shops and cafes.

There are many fine examples of early architecture in the rows. Visitors can view them without charge, though there are many temptations to buy goods in the shops and stop for refreshments in the cafes, bars and coffee houses.

There are a few shops that still have stone cellars dating from the Medieval period. The Three Old Arches in Bridge Street is claimed to be the oldest shop in Britain and was probably part of the earliest structure of the rows. Because the row are still a thriving commercial area, the buildings in the rows are generally in good repair.

Cowper House was built in 1664. It was constructed above undercrofts with six bays built on top of rubbles. Thomas Cowper was Mayor of Chester between 1641 and 1642.

At 17 Watergate Street is Leche House has a reputation for being the best preserved mediaeval Chester town house.

There are 20 undercrofts still in existence in the Rows that date from the 13th or 14th century. Some of them are vaulted. Perhaps the most impressive undercroft is at 12 Bridge Street which contains six vaulted bays.

At 28 Eastgate Street, Brown’s Crypt dates from the 13the century and was probably used as a cellar for a wealthy merchant. In 1858, the shop Brown’s of Chester, rented out the Crypt to a wine merchant. The Crypt is now the site of a cafe.

There are many reasons that visitors come to Chester, the Roman amphitheatre, the city walls, the Chester racecourse, but perhaps the best attraction is the Rows. Where else in Britain can you shop in buildings with a history over 700 years old?

Posted by Mark
May 5, 2017
Features

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