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Exploring St John's Church in Chester

St John's Church

CHESTER is my favourite English city. Not that I’ve visited every city in England. Just that Chester has given me several years of enjoyable work, day trips and good memories from a compact place that’s just about as full of history as you could get.

Having a Welsh name of “Caer” shows that it has stood on contested ground for some time. If you look west from on top of the East Gate, or from the Northgate area, you see towards the Clywdian Range of mountains. In some respects Chester is high up, relative to its locality. A useful spot for settlement, just like the mountains watching from the west.

Indeed, during the amphitheatre excavations several years ago, Iron Age post holes were discovered in the surface beneath the seating for the Roman entertainments. Chester has been lived in for a long time, and the Romans were not the first inhabitants. In this first visit to Chester, it’s an historic church which has a strong relationship with the amphitheatre I’d like to write about.

St John’s Church is on the south west side of the amphitheatre, between the law courts and Grosvenor Park, and sits high above the River Dee. A connection between the church and theatre can be assumed on the basis of an exciting discovery during the most recent excavations. The hitherto concealed feature was a centrally placed stone with a lead plug and shorn off iron hoop which would have been used for tethering beasts and people, ensuring their visibility to all attending the venue. Given the immediate proximity of a Christian building, it’s not an unreasonable progression to think there may have been martyrdoms carried out upon the stone.

While there may have been something of a church on the site since the 5th century AD, the earliest which can be documented is in 689AD, initiated by Æthelred King of Mercia. It was further developed in 907 by the daughter of Alfred the Great. In 1075 it became Chester’s first Cathedral, and kept that status until the Reformation in 1540.

For a centrally placed church, serving the resident community as well as tens of thousands of visitors each year, St John’s couldn’t have more to offer. It’s free to visit. It has an amazing interior, remains of Saxon Crosses, intriguing memorials (see the Warbutton memorial in the Lady Chapel). The atmospheric ruins are befitting historic dramas or horror movies, with a coffin high up in the wall and bats to flit around at dusk. There are many more specifics, but saying it’s a Grade I listed building should give you a good idea of what’s in store.

Some people describe it as a very ‘thin place’, where the veil between the seen and unseen worlds almost lifts, and a sense of ‘Otherness’ can fall. Others speak of the Ghosts disappearing through the railings into Grosvenor Park, or the Ghost of Monk loitering around the Hermitage Steps just beneath the east end of the church.

St John’s needs help to keep going, and there are a variety of ways you could help. You can get involved and see what’s happening. There’s the http://www.parishofchester.com website, with links to tours on YouTube, Flickr and Twitter. An official Facebook page for St Johns, Facebook page for the Parish of Chester.