Chester City Walls
In the past, many important towns and cities were defended by walls, but today only Chester has a complete circuit around the city.
The Walls are about two miles long and were first built by the Romans nearly 2,000 years ago. They were extended and developed in the Saxon period (10th century). During the 12th century, the Normans rebuilt and extended the Walls so for the first time since the Romans, the Walls formed a completed circuit around Chester. Throughout the middle ages, Chester was one of the most protected and strategically important cities in the county.
Since then they have been constantly altered, repaired and sometimes attacked. One of the reasons they survive today is because from the 18th century they were no longer needed for defence and were adapted to become a fashionable walk and public amenity.
Maintenance of the City Walls
We are responsible for the Walls and for many years we, and the previous city council, have ensured the ancient monument is cared for and preserved by co-ordinating general maintenance and major restoration projects. To-date, since we have been responsible for them, around £6m has been spent to ensure the Walls can be enjoyed by generations to come.
All work on the Walls has to be granted permission by Historic England.
Every day of the year a lot of work goes on behind the scenes to care for the City Walls:
Current work on the Walls
Collapse on the City Walls by the Eastgate Clock
On 16 January 2020 a section of the wall collapsed close to the famous Eastgate clock. To ensure that residents, visitors and businesses can still benefit from and enjoy this section of the walls our engineers, alongside external specialists, have designed a temporary walkway which is incorporated into the scaffolding that is needed to prop up the wall. The scaffold was carefully designed to protect the Wesley Church Centre, take into account crypts and other buried archaeology between the Church and the walls, and maintain a fire escape route for the surrounding buildings.
More scaffold propping has been designed to support the partially-collapsed inner wall to prevent any further loss and to create a safe working area. When this is in place a roof will be added to protect the site while investigation and repair works take place.
Access to this land-locked site is extremely difficult for vehicles and so all building materials and equipment have had to be brought in by hand. Negotiations are ongoing with surrounding property owners to gain access to the collapse side to install the next phase of the propping. When this is in place engineers and conservation specialists can investigate the condition of the remaining structure and plan the repairs in consultation with Historic England.
Repair projects completed
Handrails at Watergate Bridge
Last summer new assistance rails were installed on both approaches to Watergate Bridge. The new rails have been well-received by the public and people with reduced mobility and will now be the template for assistance rails in other areas with difficult access around the City Walls.
Replacement staircase at King Charles Tower Green
A set of wooden steps leading onto the City Walls from King Charles Tower Green and the Iceland car park had been propped for several years because the wood was slowly rotting away.
This dark and damp north-eastern corner of the City Wall receives very little sunlight even in high summer, which has provided perfect conditions for rot-causing fungi to flourish year-round.
Last year the wooden steps were dismantled and replacement steps were produced to conform more closely to current design and accessibility regulations to make them easier to use for people with reduced mobility or vision.
The new structure is made from fibre reinforced polymer which looks almost identical to wood but is made from recycled plastic bottles (approximately 140 x 500ml plastic bottles per square metre of material) surrounded by a glass fibre outer skin. It has a design life of 60+ years, requires little to no maintenance, is resistant to vandalism and blends in well with the historic backdrop of the City Walls.
The new steps are now in place and were opened in early March 2023.
Other work completed on the Walls
See a full list of the historical repairs completed:
The rebuilding of Chester's historic Northgate Steps, began in September 2019. A set of solid, vertical steps have been revealed now the scaffold has been removed, bringing this famous section of the City Walls back to its former glory. Handrails have been installed and a mysterious-looking polymer panel has been put in place on the landing (this is only a temporary measure while plans to display archaeology from the site via a viewing chamber are in progress).
Although work at Northgate Steps was completed recently, a section of wall immediately west of the site also needed to be investigated in phase two of the repairs, this section of the famous City Walls is fully open to public.
Yes, there is a temporary walkway close to the Eastgate Clock that now allows the full circuit to be available.
The Schedule of Monuments is a list of historic buildings or sites managed by Historic England and kept by the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport. Consent must be given by the Secretary of State for any work on a scheduled monument.
Any invasive repair, maintenance and conservation work on the City Walls needs scheduled monument consent from Historic England. An agreement is in place with Historic England for us to undertake minor repairs.
The City Walls are inspected by an engineer every two years. The inspector looks at the condition of the wall, records the significant defects and notes any changes since the last inspection.
There is a rolling five-year plan covering large and small-scale work, but this is subject to constant revision as new problems arise.
Investigation work and planning of the repairs is done in close consultation with Historic England as well as our own archaeologists and conservation officers.
Some parts of the City Walls have to be assessed by specialist roped-access teams or by a mobile platform. There is a fall protection system installed on the top of King Charles Tower which allows engineers to inspect the roof.
Before any major work takes place, we commission a specialist laser scan survey which gives accurate, scaled drawings that can be used in discussions with Historic England to plan the work. Further scanning is done after work is complete, and added to the historic record .
Routine maintenance work is carried out year-round according to the season.
Vegetation removal is a spring/summer/autumn activity although the section to the north of the city alongside the canal must be treated in late winter.
Small-scale masonry repairs and pointing are done during the warmer months . An annual paving survey in spring aims to pick up any paving stones which have been loosened over the winter.
Drain clearance, handrail checks, pest control and graffiti removal are done regularly and as the need arises.
The expectation is that traditional materials and techniques should be used as far as possible. Before any work is done, the structure is scanned and photographed, and stones are archaeologically recorded before being carefully dismantled and stored so that each one can be re-used in its original location.
If part of the wall core needs to be replaced, it must be carefully built by hand. Where stone needs to be replaced, the repair must be worked by hand by time-served master-craftsmen to match the original as closely as possible in size and shape.
Finding the right craftsmen who are suitably skilled in the right techniques is not easy but is absolutely essential to the success of any repair scheme.
It is often the case that the City Walls construction can be radically different in two places a very short distance apart and so repair plans sometimes have to change part-way though.
Finally, all dismantling work must be done under the supervision of an archaeologist who records every single feature. For all these reasons, repairs are several times more time-consuming and expensive than similar repairs to a modern structure.
After part of the City Walls next to The Grosvenor Hotel collapsed in 2008, a risk assessment of the rest of the wall found other problem areas which were monitored and then propped.
Since the Council was formed in 2009, the most urgent issues have been addressed and propping removed. The remaining propped structures are open and safe for the public to use and their repair will be prioritised, balanced with other outstanding work needed on the City Walls, and resources.
Water is the most severe threat to the City Walls. Over time, water can get into joints between stones and wash away some of the material in the wall leaving behind voids. Recent repairs have included adding a waterproofing layer just below the paving to prevent any further loss. Our long-term aim is ultimately to waterproof the entire City Walls circuit.
The use of very hard cement-based mortar in post-war repairs also affects the masonry. Water cannot evaporate out of the masonry through the hard cement joints and so it evaporates from the face of the stone instead, causing severe erosion. The effect is amplified in parts of the wall most exposed to the weather, such as alongside the racecourse and along The Groves. It is replaced with a traditional lime-based mortar which allows moisture to evaporate safely.
Although the protective handrails running round the inner wall are in good condition, they are not in keeping with the status of the walls as a heritage structure of national importance. There is a long-term aim to replace the handrails with a new design as trialled near to the Eastgate clock and at the recently rebuilt Northgate Steps.