Nathaniel Hawthorne visits Chester

Nathaniel Hawthorne visits Chester

Chester is well-known as a roman city, founded in 79 AD, and is one of the most popular tourist destinations in the United Kingdom. In 1853, Hawthorne wrote about two visits to Chester.

Note: The text reproduced here is unaltered from Hawthorne’s writing, although I have taken some liberties with paragraphs in order to improve readabiity and to link with the images presented to illustrate the text. Italics and highlighting in bold are also mine.

Extracts from Passages from the English Notebooks. 

October 1st 1853

Visit to Chester

Grosvenor Hotel and City Wall
The Royal (now Grosvenor) Hotel with the city wall, as mentioned by Hawthorne, in the background

October 1st.–On Thursday I went with Mr. Ticknor to Chester by railway. It is quite an indescribable old town, and I feel at last as if I had had a glimpse of old England. The wall encloses a large space within the town, but there are numerous houses and streets not included within its precincts. Some of the principal streets pass under the ancient gateways; and at the side there are flights of steps, giving access to the summit. Around the top of the whole wall, a circuit of about two miles, there runs a walk, well paved with flagstones, and broad enough for three persons to walk abreast. On one side–that towards the country–there is a parapet of red freestone three or four feet high. On the other side there are houses, rising up immediately from the wall, so that they seem a part of it. The height of it, I suppose, may be thirty or forty feet, and, in some parts, you look down from the parapet into orchards, where there are tall apple-trees, and men on the branches, gathering fruit, and women and children among the grass, filling bags or baskets. There are prospects of the surrounding country among the buildings outside the wall; at one point, a view of the river Dee, with an old bridge of arches. It is all very strange, very quaint, very curious to see how the town has overflowed its barrier, and how, like many institutions here, the ancient wall still exists, but is turned to quite another purpose than what it was meant for,–so far as it serves any purpose at all. There are three or four towers in the course of the circuit; the most interesting being one from the top of which King Charles the First is said to have seen the rout of his army by the Parliamentarians. We ascended the short flight of steps that led up into the tower, where an old man pointed out the site of the battle-field, now thickly studded with buildings, and told us what we had already learned from the guide-book.

The Cathedral

Cloisters of Chester Cathedral

After this we went into the cathedral, which I will perhaps describe on some other occasion, when I shall have seen more of it, and to better advantage. The cloisters gave us the strongest impression of antiquity; the stone arches being so worn and blackened by time. Still an American must always have imagined a better cathedral than this. There were some immense windows of painted glass, but all modern. In the chapter-house we found a coal-fire burning in a grate, and a large heap of old books–the library of the cathedral–in a discreditable state of decay,–mildewed, rotten, neglected for years. The sexton told us that they were to be arranged and better ordered. Over the door, inside, hung two failed and tattered banners, being those of the Cheshire regiment.

The Rows

The Rows, Chester
The Rows, Chester

The most utterly indescribable feature of Chester is the Rows, which every traveller has attempted to describe. At the height of several feet above some of the oldest streets, a walk runs through the front of the houses, which project over it. Back of the walk there are shops; on the outer side is a space of two or three yards, where the shopmen place their tables, and stands, and show-cases; overhead, just high enough for persons to stand erect, a ceiling. At frequent intervals little narrow passages go winding in among the houses, which all along are closely conjoined, and seem to have no access or exit, except through the shops, or into these narrow passages, where you can touch each side with your elbows, and the top with your hand. We penetrated into one or two of them, and they smelt anciently and disagreeably. At one of the doors stood a pale-looking, but cheerful and good-natured woman, who told us that she had come to that house when first married, twenty-one years before, and had lived there ever since; and that she felt as if she had been buried through the best years of her life. She allowed us to peep into her kitchen and parlor,–small, dingy, dismal, but yet not wholly destitute of a home look. She said that she had seen two or three coffins in a day, during cholera times, carried out of that narrow passage into which her door opened. These avenues put me in mind of those which run through ant-hills, or those which a mole makes underground. This fashion of Rows does not appear to be going out; and, for aught I can see, it may last hundreds of years longer. When a house becomes so old as to be untenantable, it is rebuilt, and the new one is fashioned like the old, so far as regards the walk running through its front. Many of the shops are very good, and even elegant, and these Rows are the favorite places of business in Chester. Indeed, they have many advantages, the passengers being sheltered from the rain, and there being within the shops that dimmer light by which tradesmen like to exhibit their wares. A large proportion of the edifices in the Rows must be comparatively modern; but there are some very ancient ones, with oaken frames visible on the exterior.


The Rows, Chester

The Row, passing through these houses, is railed with oak, so old that it has turned black, and grown to be as hard as stone, which it might be mistaken for, if one did not see where names and initials have been cut into it with knives at some bygone period. Overhead, cross-beams project through the ceiling so low as almost to hit the head. On the front of one of these buildings was the inscription, “GOD’S PROVIDENCE IS MINE INHERITANCE,” said to have been put there by the occupant of the house two hundred years ago, when the plague spared this one house only in the whole city. Not improbably the inscription has operated as a safeguard to prevent the demolition of the house hitherto; but a shopman of an adjacent dwelling told us that it was soon to be taken down. Here and there, about some of the streets through which the Rows do not run, we saw houses of very aged aspect, with steep, peaked gables. The front gable-end was supported on stone pillars, and the sidewalk passed beneath. Most of these old houses seemed to be taverns,–the Black Bear, the Green Dragon, and such names. We thought of dining at one of them, but, on inspection, they looked rather too dingy and close, and of questionable neatness.

The Royal Hotel

Grosvenor Hotel, formerly the Royal Hotel, but largely demolished and rebuilt.

So we went to the Royal Hotel, where we probably fared just as badly at much more expense, and where there was a particularly gruff and crabbed old waiter, who, I suppose, thought himself free to display his surliness because we arrived at the hotel on foot. For my part, I love to see John Bull show himself. I must go again and again and again to Chester, for I suppose there is not a more curious place in the world.


A couple of weeks later, Hawthorne wrote of what he had discovered in a history book about Chester:

October 13th 1853

October 13th.–In Ormerod’s history of Chester it is mentioned that Randal, Earl of Chester, having made an inroad into Wales about 1225, the Welshmen gathered in mass against him, and drove him into the castle of Nothelert in Flintshire. The Earl sent for succor to the Constable of Chester, Roger Lacy, surnamed “Hell,” on account of his fierceness. It was then fair-time at Chester, and the constable collected a miscellaneous rabble of fiddlers, players, cobblers, tailors, and all manner of debauched people, and led them to the relief of the Earl. At sight of this strange army the Welshmen fled; and forever after the Earl assigned to the constable of Chester power over all fiddlers, shoemakers, etc., within the bounds of Cheshire. The constable retained for himself and his heirs the control of the shoemakers; and made over to his own steward, Dutton, that of the fiddlers and players, and for many hundreds of years afterwards the Duttons of Dutton retained the power. On midsummer-day, they used to ride through Chester, attended by all the minstrels playing on their several instruments, to the Church of St. John, and there renew their licenses. It is a good theme for a legend. Sir Peter Leycester, writing in Charles the Second’s time, copies the Latin deed from the constable to Dutton; rightly translated, it seems to mean “the magisterial power over all the lewd people . . . . in the whole of Cheshire,” but the custom grew into what is above stated. In the time of Henry VII., the Duttons claimed, by prescriptive right, that the Cheshire minstrels should deliver them, at the feast of St. John, four bottles of wine and a lance, and that each separate minstrel should pay fourpence halfpenny. . . . Another account says Ralph Dutton was the constable’s son-in-law, and “a lusty youth.”

Hawthorne subsequently visited Chester again just over a month after his first visit, on November 5th:

November 5th 1853

The Cathedral

Chester Cathedral, exterior

November 5th.–We all, together with Mr. Squarey, went to Chester last Sunday, and attended the cathedral service. A great deal of ceremony, and not unimposing, but rather tedious before it was finished,–occupying two hours or more. The Bishop was present, but did nothing except to pronounce the benediction. In America the sermon is the principal thing; but here all this magnificent ceremonial of prayer and chanted responses and psalms and anthems was the setting to a short, meagre discourse, which would not have been considered of any account among the elaborate intellectual efforts of New England ministers. While this was going on, the light came through the stained glass windows and fell upon the congregation, tingeing them with crimson. After service we wandered about the aisles, and looked at the tombs and monuments,–the oldest of which was that of some nameless abbot, with a staff and mitre half obliterated from his tomb, which was under a shallow arch on one side of the cathedral. There were also marbles on the walls, and lettered stones in the pavement under our feet; but chiefly, if not entirely, of modern date. We lunched at the Royal Hotel, and then walked round the city walls, also crossing the bridge of one great arch over the Dee, and penetrating as far into Wales as the entrance of the Marquis of Westminster’s Park at Eaton. It was, I think, the most lovely day as regards weather that I have seen in England.