The rows of Chester

On the train home tonight I read an evocative essay by the late Tony Barrell, published in the Griffith Review some years ago. Unfortunately I never met him because he died about six months before I started work at the ABC in 2011, though people would speak very highly of him. It was a pleasant surprise to come across his writing as I had only ever heard his radio work.

In his essay, The gift of the hinterland, Tony Barrell writes about the hinterlands of three cities: Chester in England, Molivos in Greece and Kyoto in Japan.

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I particularly enjoyed his descriptions of Chester, where he spent part of his youth. It explained what we experienced when we stopped by Chester almost exactly two years ago on our brief trip through Ireland, Wales and England:

The central part of Chester is still well populated with half-timbered black and white cottage buildings with mullioned windows and steep, slated roofs. It seems archetypically ‘ye olde’, but is also quite strange and unique; running along three of the four main streets are elevated walkways known as ‘the rows’, wooden or stone pavements above the ceilings of ground-floor shops, with another level of businesses and residences overhead. The rows were not planned; they just grew from the lines of street stalls, but eventually removed pedestrians from the street and the weather. To pass along the older parts of the Watergate and Bridge Street rows, you need to duck your head to miss the old black oak beams, and the floor level often changes from shop to shop. It is possible for pedestrians to get around a lot of the town without ever descending to pavement level, although at the end of each block, you climb down narrow stairs, cross a street or lane, and climb up to the next section.

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We didn’t set out to visit Chester and only heard about it a few days before as a worthwhile stop between Llandudno in Wales and Liverpool in England. It ended up being an unexpected highlight because of its Roman walls and the charming stores along its rows. It felt distinct, keeping its character. I guess it was the kind of surprise that can appear when you make space for it in your itinerary.

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