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Chester - the Hammer of the Welsh
By Gareth Powell

Celts rarely forget, are not quick to forgive. In the early fifteenth century Henry IV waged war on the people of Wales and their king, Owen Glendower. After a campaign that started in 1400 and lasted a dozen years Henry won handily. In victory, vengeance.

Henry vented his rage on the Welsh people with fines and restrictions and imposts that kept them poor and downtrodden for centuries. Mark you, this was only an extension of what Edward I had started at Rhuddlan Castle.

English history books rarely refer to this and, indeed, there is a spectacularly mendacious plaque at Rhuddlan which tells how Edward II brought the Welsh peace and prosperity. Pig's bum, he did.

My father used to speak of Edward II with considerable bitterness and it took me quite a while to realise that the subjugation of the Welsh had not happened in my father's time but in the twelfth century. My father was always pleased that Rhuddlan castle was slighted in 1648. (A lovely word, slighted. It means to bash great holes in castle walls so that they can never be again used for their original purpose. A speciality of Oliver Cromwell.)

Once he had beaten the Welsh Henry IV and his successors kept them caged and supervised from a series of castles many of which had been started by Edward.

One of the key points for the control of the barbaric Welsh tribes was the walled city of Chester which is right on the Welsh border, was called Deva by the Romans and is now one of the most attractive cities in England. Perhaps the most attractive. I am at one with James Boswell who wrote, 'Chester pleases my fancy more than any town I ever saw.'

Until the sixteenth century the good burghers of Chester were encouraged to murder any person of Welsh descent who was found inside the city walls after sunset and were rewarded for the efforts by the sheriff.

The last law allowing the Welsh to be penalised with a smart thumping for being Welsh and being in Chester at night was not repealed until 1958. Note most carefully that date. 1958. Less than 50 years ago. Recent history.

Thus, although I love Chester as a place of serene beauty, I tend to keep my eyes peeled when wandering around after sunset. Perhaps not everyone who lives in Chester has been kept fully informed as to the changes in the law.

The best way to get Chester into perspective is to walk right around the city walls. There is still a lot standing and restoration work continues apace. These walls are Roman with medieval admixtures. Indeed, parts of them might even be older than the Roman occupation.

The Romans enjoyed Chester although it was viewed as a frontier post to protect England against attacks by the ferocious Welsh tribes. For a time it was the headquarters of the Valeria Victrix legion whose proud boast was that it was never beaten in combat. Near Eastgate is the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain which could hold as many as 8,000 spectators.

The walls cover a distance of just under four kilometres and give you marvellous views of the city and of the surrounding countryside and the threatening hills inhabited by the Welsh barbarians over there on the near horizon.

You also see the meandering river Dee which made Chester an important seaport during sailing ship days and exported cheese, candles and salt. When steam came the ships went to Liverpool.

A Roman engineer laid out the streets of Chester sometime around 79 AD. Chester was important then, has been important ever since. For the land surrounding Chester was rich farming land and the wealth from the land and from the seaport was used in the building of the city.

The most obvious aspect of this wealth are the rows. Great galleried galleons of buildings in magnificent black and white. Some ancient dating back to the 13th century; some Victorian conceits that meld in perfectly.

The cathedral is a wonder of 14th century sandstone. The bells call the people to worship with a peal of Bob Major where the lead bell is driven by a carillon, a system unique, I believe, in the world. William Makepeace Thackeray and his wife are buried there.

From the sacred to the bravely profane. Chester Castle dates from the 13th Century - an original Welsh restraining order - but was extensively modernised by the Victorians so that now only the Agricola Tower is original.

Try if you go to Chester to avoid Saturday when the whole of Cheshire dressed in its best comes to parade the town. A complete people jam. Made worse by the fact that Chester attracts the very best buskers in Britain.

Last time I was there I heard a Peruvian Band playing the Andean flutes and a group of dashing young men in white ties and tails playing 42nd Street con brio. Magic stuff but the crowds make it difficult to even walk from the Eastgate to King Charles' Tower.

Weekdays is the time if you want to walk with a guide. They depart at 10.45 am from the Tourist Information Centre in the Town Hall. Or you can patrol the walls with a Roman legionnaire. My legionnaire had flaming Welsh red hair and an accent which owed more to Wrexham than Rome but let us not be picky.

If, like me, you prefer more solitary pleasures early Sunday is the time. The earlier the better. Then you can wander round and see the wonderful architecture without bouncing off people.

If you lose your way and stop to ask for directions explain carefully that you are Australian. It could be a disaster they thought you were Welsh. Old habits die hard.

Gareth Powell is a travel writer who runs

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