Yesterday we journeyed to the ancient city of Chester, founded as a Roman fortress in 79AD and still surrounded by almost all of its (much rebuilt and restored) city walls.
I scheduled it as our first excursion partly because we’re marching through British history in our coursework, and Chester is such a beautiful, comprehensive historybook of a city—but also because it’s a mere 45 minutes from Liverpool, one easy station-to-station train ride and therefore a good introduction to British rail and how we’ll travel as a group.
I’m glad to report that everyone was (mostly) on time, and no one was lost or left behind.
We spent the first hour or so of our visit following a loquacious fellow in a Roman getup who called himself Crassus and gave us an informative and extremely entertaining account of the structures the Romans left behind and the kinds of lives that were once lived in them.
I worried a bit when I booked this tour, because when I looked at the dressed-up tour guides on the company website, I could hear my 11-year-old’s voice in the back of my head: “Too babyish.” Would a group of university students really go for this kind of thing?
They did. I did, too.
I don’t blame the man for putting on a bit of a show, because Roman ruins—let’s face it—aren’t always that impressive on their own, mostly stumps of stone that require a great deal of imagination to bring to life in the mind.
The present on top of the past
We spent a good deal of time hearing about Roman baths, and the various implements Romans used to groom themselves (examples of which Crassus kept in various pouches under his cloak). We went to the amphitheater and talked about combat games. Perhaps the most dramatic moment of the tour, however, was when Crassus boldly marched up one of the main streets of the modern city and led us straight into… a Pret A Manger.
In he went, in we followed, straight back behind the counter(!), straight down the steps to the basement, and into a room that contained the foundations of the original Roman principia or central building of the Roman fortress. We lingered for a few minutes in the shadows of the past, running our fingers over the old, weathered stones while tourists ate their hummus wraps in the shop overhead.
May we never see a Pret a Manger the same way again—or, for that, matter any modern city street.
Of course, the present and the past are rarely as neatly separated as we found them in the restaurant and its basement.
The present in place of the past
Often the present simply replaces the past, especially if old buildings were not built as strongly as a massive Roman principia. The real jewel of Chester is its medieval Cathedral, begun in the eleventh century. Actually, however, the eleventh century is when the current cathedral was begun, the Normans having demolished the wooden structure that apparently stood on the same spot for four centuries before that. Alas, we cannot go into the basement of the cathedral to see the old Anglo-Saxon church. It is lost to time—or at least to space.
The present adjacent to the past
The cathedral does, however, preserve much of its past since the eleventh century. Original stonework is still visible, including the rounded arches favored by the Normans long before the pointed Gothic style became popular in the thirteenth century. At that point, some—but not all—of the church was rebuilt and expanded in the new aesthetic, so that a few centuries of architectural history are evident side by side in the existing building.
In those cases, the present did not erase the past, as with the original church building, or preserve but eclipse it, as we saw in the Pret a Manger. Present and past sit neatly side by side.
The present disguised as the past
Most intriguing, to me, are the more baffling situations in which the present pretends to be the past. Many, many of the medieval-looking things in this genuinely medieval cathedral are actually nineteenth century. The Victorians were fascinated with Gothic architecture and imitated it wherever they could.
So when you enter the original cloisters of Chester Cathedral, for instance, you are confronted with several windows of old saints—a few of whom we’ve read about in Bede—in faux-medieval stained glass.
If you take the time to read the text in the dedications, however, you’ll find mostly dates in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.
The Puritans knocked out all of the original glasswork in the seventeenth century, and the Victorians (and moderns) replaced them with what, to an untrained eye like mine, look like medieval windows.
When we look at these windows, we are seeing actually two panes of history—the medieval and the Victorian—but it seems as if we’re seeing only one. We are seeing the present disguised as the past.
Also impressive were the massive biblical mosaics along the north wall of the nave, featuring nearly life-sized images of figures from the Old Testament. The enormous panels were completed in the late nineteenth century, at great expense, in Italian marble to imitate the style not of medieval Britain but of ancient Rome.
Which brought me back to our good man Crassus and his feathered helmet. Why would someone disguise the present as the past? Our tour guide and the Victorian glaziers at the cathedral would seem to offer two different answers.
Crassus wore his helmet, cape, and sword to emphasize the difference between present and past. The disguise is not intended to be a disguise at all. We weren’t really supposed to believe that he was a member of the Roman legion. I asked myself whether the outfit helped us to bridge the centuries and see ourselves back in the second century—and I decided that it didn’t. There were too many schoolboy puns, too many modern movie references. The whole point of the “disguise” was the incongruity. (I spent a lot of time watching passers-by as they watched Crassus, wondering whether Chesterfolk were used to guys like him on the streets. The way they gawked and pointed and laughed suggested that they weren’t—but I suspect that most of them were tourists, not locals.)
For the Victorians, it’s obviously more nuanced and complicated. They weren’t going for laughs. They seem to have imitated the medieval style not as a gimmick with a wink, not to emphasize the incongruity of past and present, but rather to… ?
That’s an ongoing question for us in Liverpool, which is almost entirely a product of the nineteenth century and later.