I have lived most of my life in the suburbs
of the ancient city of Chester, with its
walled centre of Roman, Saxon, and Norman
ramparts of cut sandstone. Even though
the city, a Royalist stronghold, was besieged
during the English Civil War, the walls
remained more or less intact until
the road traffic demands of commerce.
I went to a school in the old city,
a coveted school with two entrance exams.
It was one of many such establishments
in market towns across England created
by Thomas Cromwell from the assets
of the monastic abbeys his master,
King Henry, had seized: schools to manufacture
Protestant clerks to collect the King’s taxes.
The building, as our head master – himself
an Anglican cleric – used often to say,
was ‘in the shadow of the cathedral’ once
an abbey church. Was that pulpit rhetoric,
or an unintentional irony?
The city’s four main streets follow the routes
of the thoroughfares of the Roman Camp,
each leading to one of the four main gates.
The meet at The Cross. Nearby, in Northgate Street,
there used to be a tobacconist who sold
small Cuban cigarettes in packets of five.
Armed with supplies we doughty band of smokers
would leave the school premises each break,
cross Abbey Square (past the Bishop’s House),
down Abbey Street (past the Dean’s and Archdeacon’s),
and onto the walls near the Kaleyard Gate –
a postern, originally for the monks
to daily access and tend their rows
of vegetables outside the city walls.
Come shine or rain, tourist crowd or none
we would walk quickly to Phoenix Tower,
which has a phoenix – then the emblem
of the Painters’ Guild – carved above the door.
The tower is popularly known as
King Charles’ – for Charles I is said to have
stood on the roof and watched his cavalry
routed by the Roundheads on Rowton Moor.
More likely he had climbed the narrow, spiral
staircase in one of the cathedral’s towers
to get the best view. After the regicide,
the Dean and Chapter, no doubt, made up
the story about the Phoenix Tower
I am sure we spoke of little else but
the Reformation and its aftermath –
the doomed monarch, the brief Commonwealth,
the cynical Restoration, those
centuries of violent bigotry in these
Celtic Islands, and England becoming
a global trading power – as we stood there,
privileged white boys in striped ties and blazers,
hurriedly inhaling cheap tobacco
from the Caribbean.
Caribbean tobaccoChester CathedralChester City WallsHenry VIIIKing's School ChesterReformationRoundheadsRoyalistsThomas Cromwell