site unseen : The Hermit's Cell, Chester
Friday 19 April 1996
The Victorians are sometimes flayed for their architectural vandalism. Not in Chester, though. Here they built new structures that chimed in perfectly with the best of the Tudor and Stuart old. And if you prefer water to dry land, then the River Dee encircles two sides of Chester and the Shropshire Union Canal forms yet a third boundary.
The best way to see the city is by wandering around the ramparts of the still largely complete walls. High up, this two-mile perambulation allows you to admire both inside and outside the city: towers, gates, the racecourse, the Roman amphitheatre, the castle - these delights all come and go as you stroll along, helped by an informative series of panels.
At one point, beside Georgian Stanley Place, is Sedan House with its unique double-doored porch allowing the occupant of the sedan chair to dismount under cover if it was raining - a kind of refined taxicab rank.
Further on are the Wishing Steps. Tradition has it that if you make a wish and then run up, down and up again without taking a breath, your wish will come true. I confidently expect an assortment of personalities to be bounding up and down here in the near future: John Major, Tony Blair, Terry Venables, members of the Royal Family. Perhaps the English cricket team might like to pay a visit.
One of the most intriguing sights in Chester lies just outside the walls, and sits on a raised chunk of sandstone. This is the Hermit's Cell where King Harold, he of the arrow in the eye fame, is supposed to have taken refuge after his defeat at the Battle of Hastings in 1066.
In fact, Harold perished on the battlefield, and his girlfriend - the wonderfully named Edith Swan Neck - sought out his corpse after the massacre, recognising him from "certain bodily parts" (no sniggering at the back, please). She then buried him at Waltham Abbey, Essex where the small gravestone is today out in the open, and is sometimes used by irreverent boys as a goal post.
In other words, Harold had nothing to do with Chester, but tellers of legends have never allowed the facts to get in the way of a good story.
The cell is currently up for sale, offering purchasers a chance to buy the most unusual offices in Britain, and to speculate what a hermit would make of mobile phones and laptop computers.
The Hermit's Cell is sandwiched between St John's church and the Groves, Chester
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