On the Chester Heritage Week’s tour of the Medieval features of Chester Cathedral by Nick Fry, Green Badge tour guide Katie Crowther was in attendance and mentioned that she was leading a new weekly tour themed around Cestrian women, “Women of Chester”, bookable in person in the Chester Visitor Information Centre. So on Sunday 3rd July at 1130, I presented myself punctually to join the hour-long walking tour outside the Visitor Information Centre, geared up for sun, cold, and/or rain. Although slightly cool, it stayed dry and it was a very good day for an outdoor walk.
The Green Badge is only awarded to Chester tour guides after a lengthy course and a tough practical exam, so is a good indication that you’re in safe hands. Katie is one of life’s natural communicators, avoiding any temptation to swamp visitors with paralyzing volumes of data, and instead delivering an information-packed and enjoyable tour in an entirely digestible and memorable way.
The introductory talk took place midway between the Visitor Information Centre (itself incorporated into the 19th Century Town Hall), behind St Werburgh’s Cathedral, with a randomly placed Roman column in view. It was a well-mixed architectural locale for the enormously helpful potted history of Chester, providing the key chronological framework onto which the rest of Katie’s narrative was neatly hooked.
This is not a tour about famous women married to famous men at the top of Cestrian society. Nor is it a feminist agenda. Instead, it is part ancient history, part social history, delving into how political, cultural and economic life shaped the lives of women who, in turn, responded to the drivers of Chester life in different ways. In short, the tour has tentacles that reach into most parts of Chester’s rich and varied past. As well as looking at women who, in sometimes surprising circumstances, have performed conspicuous and/or leading roles in Chester life, the tour also looks at those who fell foul of religion, convention and tradition, and suffered for it.
Roman women are the earliest to be recorded in any detail in Chester, and are particularly visible on Roman tombstones, representing the upper echelons of Chester’s Roman society, those who experienced the most comfortable contemporary life. By contrast, a horribly unfortunate woman accused of witchcraft in the 17th century suffered terrible conditions in the local prison whilst others were burnt at the stake.
Two of the earliest women who are known to have played a pivotal role in Chester’s history, were Anglo-Saxon. It is remarkable that the revolutionary diplomat and strategist Aethelflaed (c.870-918), daughter of Alfred the Great and wife of Aethelred, Lord of Mercia, is so unrecognized in Chester that almost no mention of her is made. She came came to Chester during the illness of her husband to take on a critical role in the defence of Mercia against the Vikings here, and was remarkably successful. The second Anglo-Saxon name that is intimately tied to Chester is St Werburgh, who died in about 699. Her remains were brought to Chester Hanbury in Staffordshire at some time between 875 and 907 by the aforementioned Aaethelfaed, raising the profile of Chester as an important Christian centre and destination for pilgrimage. Chester Cathedral is still dedicated to her.
Amongst some of the many other women of Chester with great stories was one who kept an evocative record of what it was like to be under siege within the walls during the civil war; an 18th century pioneering commercial and retail entrepreneur; a mayor; a sheriff and two women who lost, respectively, three and four sons in the Second World War. Of course, Queen Victoria visited, and a famous Chester landmark is dedicated to her, although there is kink in the tail of this story that raises a smile. Suffrage and music hall provide equal, if more than slightly contrasting examples, both of women’s attitudes and of attitudes to women. Coco Chanel adds more than a touch of glamour to Chester’s story. Sculptress Annette Yarrow’s life-size female elephant calf called Janya is a fun way of highlighting the connection between the city and Chester Zoo and is a great presence. For those of us living in Churton, there is even a link to Churton Lodge! I won’t repeat any of the specifics, partly because I couldn’t possibly do justice to all the information imparted (particularly some of the funnier stories), but also because it would spoil the experience.
The walking tour ranges freely around Chester within the city walls, going up on to the walls for a chunk of the talk, and taking in a number of both famous and lesser known sites along the way. We also walked through the town, which retains the original Roman plan and in turn gave definition to the Medieval and modern town. As well as describing women in terms of Chester, and Chester in terms of the women who, though often invisible, helped to define it, the tour gives an excellent sense of the variety of architectural styles, old and new, and the use of space within the walls. Again, I won’t spoil the experience by saying which sites we visited or why, but there is something for everyone in the tour.
In terms of accessibility for those with unwilling legs or with wheel chairs or push chairs, there are disabled and wheeled options that avoid stairs. If your legs are fairly co-operative but hesitant, the number of staircases you have to tackle is minimal, with a couple of short flights of stairs up to and down from the city walls and the rows, all with good banisters to hold on to. If in doubt, ask on the day, and the guide will sort out either wheel-friendly or leg-friendly options. Apart from some slightly uneven pavements and the cobbled abbey square, there is nothing more challenging to tackle.
The “Women of Chester” walking tour is well worth an hour on a nice quiet Sunday, with lots of other places to visit afterwards to turn it into a day out. The tour offers a different slant on Chester’s history and it takes you to some interesting and sometimes unexpected parts of Chester’s heritage. The entire group of us, leaning perilously over a section of city wall to achieve a good view of a section of the wall immediately below us that had been rebuilt using Roman tomb stones, must have been a most peculiar sight! Some of those wonderful carved tomb stones, rescued in the 19th century, are now in an excellent display in the Grosvenor Museum.
It was a good outing, with a lot to make us smile.
The “Women of Chester” walking tour has been developed by three of the Green Badge guides, shown in the photograph to the right, and they take turns to guide this tour, so that each of them usually only delivers it once in every three weeks, ensuring that for each of them the material remains fresh. As new information is discovered it will be incorporated into the tour, meaning that it will be updated over time. At the same time, women who made a mark on Chester are being incorporated into a new database that it is hoped will provide a foundation for future research projects.
You can follow the Green Badge tour guides on Twitter at @visitchester and you can ask for more details about the Women of Chester tours on Twitter at https://twitter.com/WomenofChester