History's Britain; Heritage Cities of Chester, Edinburgh Open Up Past

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Guests of a medieval inn at Chester, England, sometimes see the ghost of a woman peering out an upstairs window, looking in vain for her lover, who was killed during a 17th-century battle.

Visitors to the Shambles, a narrow street in York, England, that was lined by butcher shops during medieval times, notice large meat hooks that still adorn some houses; these centuries-old houses have overhanging second stories, so designed to ward off the sun. Guides explain that the overhangs also protected pedestrians below when people emptied chamber pots from upstairs windows.

Americans visiting Edinburgh, Scotland, get a new perspective on history there. An area of the city called New Town dates to the 1760s.

Chester, York and Edinburgh, along with England's Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, have been designated Britain's Heritage Cities. My recent trip to the first three combined a traditional peek into the country's history, including visits to castles and museums and to interesting people from times past.

The Heritage Cities I explored share a number of common traits. For example, soldiers from Rome dropped by all three when their empire extended so far. The cities exhibit architectural treasures that rival those of much larger and better-known places, yet in a more intimate setting that makes discovering those gems a pleasure.

Ever since legions from Rome arrived in A.D. 79, Chester's four main streets have followed the line of roadways laid out in the Roman fort. The original two-mile ring of Roman walls, which were extended in medieval times, still circles the Tudor and Victorian buildings that give the town its present-day character.

In addition to history or architecture, a sense of the past comes alive more meaningfully through tidbits I learned, such as that the records of births, marriages and other passages of life that occurred in Chester up to 1,000 years ago still are retained in the town's archives.

I strolled along back streets that trace the original layout of Roman barracks and storehouses, and I commiserated with Henrietta, the woman who in 1645 bade her lover goodbye at the Blue Bell Inn as he left for battle, committed suicide there when she learned he had been killed, and on occasion continues her hopeless vigil.

The Rows, galleried arcades built in Tudor times on top of ground-floor shops, line four streets that meet at the cross of the original Roman grid plan. The second-level walkways pass antique and other shops and magnificent dwellings such as Leche House, named for 14th-century residents who were"leeches" (surgeons) to King Edward III.

Chester Cathedral was built over a 250-year span beginning about 1250. Along with soaring arches, magnificent windows and other dramatic touches, I preferred hidden gems. A close examination of the wooden stalls in the quire (choir) reveals fanciful carvings of people and animals. An elephant, apparently fashioned by a craftsman who had heard of such a beast but never seen one, sports the legs and feet of a camel.

A walk along the two-mile ring of red-sandstone Roman and medieval walls that circle Chester provides an excellent view of one of the most medieval-looking cities in Britain. The turrets include the Water, Goblin and King Charles towers, from which Charles I is said to have watched in 1645 as his army was defeated. Just outside the walls lie the ruins of an amphitheater used by the Romans for weapons training as well as for battles among gladiators.

In the words of King George VI, "The history of York is the history of England."

In the words of our somewhat chauvinistic local tour guide, "If you like Chester, you'll love York."

Who couldn't love what is widely considered to be the best-preserved medieval city in Great Britain? Especially one that is compact and flat, well-signed and comfortably explored on foot. …