Views from Chester Cathedral
PUBLISHED: 11:18 05 January 2011 | UPDATED: 17:43 20 February 2013
Patrick O'Neill climbs to the top of Chester Cathedral's tower to gasp at 'the finest panorama in the whole of Cheshire'
Until my latest visit to Chester I had always believed that the finest view in the area was on a ferry cross the Mersey from Birkenhead, where you get a panoramic vision of the Liverpool skyline, two Liver birds, three Graces, a brace of cathedrals et al.
Now I know better. Let me take you on a trip up a tower to the ultimate roof with a view. Here you can see three castles, two countries, a trio of counties, a pair of cities, one dukedom...
For that exclusive opportunity, I needed to climb 150 leg-stretching feet and a breath-sapping 170-odd stairs for a 360-degree vision as far afield as Blackpool Tower, Pennine peaks and the whole historic city of Chester. A phew with a view, you might say.
The two countries are England and Wales, the brace of cities Liverpool and Chester. The counties are Cheshire, Shropshire and Lancashire. The three castles are Beeston, Peckforton and Chester, and the Dukedom, of course, is Eaton Hall, home to the Duke of Westminster.
I am talking here of the breathtaking views you get from the very top of the medieval tower of Chester Cathedral.
Here photographer John Cocks and I stood, following in the dusty footsteps of a motley of medieval masons, a chime of brave bell-ringers and King Charles I himself, who viewed defeat at the Battle of Rowton Moor from this very spot in 1645.
Now, thanks to a 7.5 million project which plans to establish Chesters historic Cathedral Quarter as the heart of the city both physically and spiritually, the aim is to attract 130,000 extra visitors to Chester each year.
And the pinnacle of the project will aim to open the top of the tower with a viewing platform to allow visitors to see for themselves a panorama which also includes Chester Racecourse, Helsby Hills and a hidden world of spiral staircases, kings follies, architectural arches, monks galleries, bishops bells, and stunning stained glass windows. Called the Cathedral at Heights, it could be completed by 2012.
The transformation of the Chester Quarter, (which, by the way, is a real quarter of the medieval walled city, not some made-up marketing project) will be the most significant since the Reformation.
It involves the cathedral itself, surrounding streets, Roman relics, Victorian venues and one of the finest medieval complexes in Europe. The project envisages a new city square centred on Werburgh Street, a visitor reception centre, and lighting that will bring the Cathedral alive after dark.
The cathedrals patron St Werburgh is perhaps most famous for restoring the life of a goose that had been stolen and eaten
The epic undertaking is a partnership between Chester Cathedral, Chester Renaissance and Cheshire West and Chester Council.
Under the watchful eye of erudite cathedral custodian, historian and guide Nick Fry and chief executive Annette Moor we also examined some of the old curiosities which make the cathedral so endlessly fascinating.
Like the Chester Imp, a carving of the devil in chains; the Green Man, a pagan fertility symbol with acorns and oak leaves; and my personal favourite The Elephant and Castle, a souvenir of the crusades in 1386, when men saw Saracens on the backs of elephants. But because the Cheshire carver had never seen an elephant, he gave it horses hooves.
Other curios include the Cobweb Picture showing the Virgin and Child and painted incredibly on the net of a caterpillar. Theres a mosaic of Judas Iscariot who has been stripped of his halo. Theres a crumbling carving of one of the actual masons who built the place, another of a dog scratching his ears and even a bagpipe player. But whether he plays for God, the dog, or the devil is a mystery.
And theres the shrine to the cathedrals patron St Werburgh, who is most famous for restoring the life of a goose that had been stolen and eaten.
Of course the prime function of the cathedral remains what it has been since its foundation 1,000 years ago, as a place of prayer and pilgrimage. It is a sanctuary for the inner and outer man with three services a day, five on Sunday and an excellent refectory which gives visitors the opportunity to dine in the exact spot used by 13th century monks.
It is also a focus for charitable causes, university graduations, civic ceremonies and magnificent music from the choir - including the organ placed here by Sir George Gilbert Scott in 1876 and providing echoing accompaniment ever since. Ill say Amen to that.
Patrick ONeill was editor of Cheshire Life for 18 years until