Cheshire is a county in northwest England which is commonly known for its rural villages and picturesque countryside. Its county seat, Chester, was founded as a Roman fort in the 1st century AD, and today is home to the ruins of a Roman Amphitheatre, a shrine to a goddess, the city walls – which are the oldest, longest and most complete city walls in Britain – and much more besides.
More recently, Cheshire’s involvement in the Industrial Revolution, given its proximity to nearby hubs Manchester and Liverpool, has left behind the fascinating Quarry Bank Mill. Another must-see is the famous Chester Cathedral, which features both medieval and more modern architectural elements.
Here’s our selection of 10 of the best historic sites to visit in Cheshire.
1. Chester Cathedral
Formerly the abbey church of a Benedictine monastery, Chester Cathedral is a Church of England cathedral which was constructed as early as the 10th century. The building, which is Grade I listed, is thought to be built on a site which has been used for Christian worship since the Roman era. Since 1541, it has been the seat of the Bishop of Chester.
The cathedral is notable for featuring various styles of medieval English architecture, including Norman and Perpendicular. In the 20th century, a free-standing bell tower was added. Today, the cathedral is a centre of worship, a major tourist attraction and a venue for concerts and exhibitions.
Little Moreton Hall is a Tudor manor house in Cheshire, England, once home to the wealthy Moreton family and called by some ‘a stranded Noah’s Ark’ because of its top-heavy design. Famous for its asymmetrical build and timber framing, Little Moreton Hall is an architecturally whimsical structure entirely distinct from other Tudor era manors.
These days the public can visit the beautiful and quirky building, have tea and cake in their cafe, walk around its famous knot garden or peruse pre-owned books in the bookstore. Walking inside the house is a breathtaking experience, giving one a unique glimpse into the Elizabethan upper-class way of living.
3. Walton Hall
Located in Walton, Cheshire, Walton Hall is a designated Grade II listed building that was built in 1836-1838 for Sir Gilbert Greenall, 1st Baronet. In 1869-1870, the house was extended and offices and a new wing with a tower for guest rooms were added. After Sir Gilbert’s death in 1894, the house was inherited by his son until his death in 1938. In 1941, the house and grounds were purchased by Warrington Corporation.
In 1945, the gardens and grounds were opened to the public, and feature activities such as pitch and putt, crazy golf and bowls. Inside, function rooms are open for hire and are used for concerts and weddings.
Chester Roman Amphitheatre is Britain’s largest known Roman amphitheatre, whose remains give an idea of what was once a thriving centre of Roman life. Originally part of the Roman settlement of ‘Deva’, founded in around 79 AD in what is now Chester, Chester Roman Amphitheatre would have been able to seat between 8,000 and 12,000 spectators. At its peak, Chester Roman Amphitheatre was a training ground for Rome’s 20th Legion yet also an entertainment venue for the people of Deva.
Today, two-fifths of Chester Roman Amphitheatre are visible to the public, and the site provides a valuable window onto Roman Britain. Though most of its materials were used to construct the Chester City Walls and much of it is buried under the modern landscape, the outline of the amphitheatre is clear, affording visitors an idea of its vast size.
Minerva’s Shrine is a shrine to the Roman goddess Minerva in Edgar’s Field, Handbridge, Chester. Dating from the early 2nd century, the shrine is carved into the face of a sandstone quarry. It is an extraordinary monument, both for its historical significance and because it is the only monument of its kind in Western Europe that remains in its original location.
The shrine stands beside the route of the old main Roman road into the fortress of Deva from the south. As the Roman goddess of war, knowledge and craftmanship, Minerva is often depicted with a helmet, shield, breastplate and spear. In this instance, however, she is shown simply standing in a representation of a temple.
Quarry Bank Mill is one of the best surviving bastions of the Industrial Revolution, situated near Styal, Cheshire. Quarry Bank Mill was established by the wealthy Samuel Greg, soon becoming a site notable for its innovations in machinery and attitude towards labour relations. The mill was driven by a 32-metre diameter water wheel – equivalent to the power of 120 horses. In 1810, the owners had bought a steam engine to help keep cloth-production going during the winter months when the river level was low.
Quarry Bank was gifted to the National Trust in 1939 but the industrial core of the site never left. The Trust leased space for local businesses and power was free, continually generated by the water wheel. Today, the Quarry Bank Mill houses the most powerful working waterwheel in Europe. Step inside the mill to see working machinery from the Victorian period, guided by the technical team. Then visit the Apprentice House, open from 11am to 4pm which shows where the child workers lived, ate and slept. Be aware there are a limited number of daily tours.
7. Eastgate Clock
Situated on the site of the original entrance to the Roman fortress of Deva Victrix in Chester, Eastgate is a permanently open gate in the Chester city walls. It is a prominent landmark, and features a clock which is said to be the most photographed clock in England after Big Ben in London. The original gate was guarded by a wooden tower that was replaced by a stone one in the 2nd century, which was in turn replaced in the 14th.
The archway visible today dates from 1768, and in 1899 the iconic clock was added as a celebratory token of the diamond jubilee of Queen Victoria two years earlier. The whole structure was designated a Grade I listed building in 1955, and today is a popular attraction.
8. Norton Priory Museum & Gardens
Located on the edge of Runcorn, Norton Priory Museum & Gardens is the most excavated monastic site in Europe. Once home to a medieval church, Norton Priory was founded in 1134, but was dissolved during the Dissolution of the Monasteries in 1536. Between 1545 and 1921, it was a family home.
Today, visitors can explore the 12th-century undercroft with its beautiful vaulted ceiling, while outside are the priory ruins which indicate just how large the structure would have once been. The museum houses thousands of objects discovered at the site which tell the story of the 900-year-old history of the priory as both a religious building and later, as a house.
Chester Roman Gardens is a small park complex close to Chester Roman Amphitheatre, containing a number of artefacts gathered from various sites in Roman Chester. Chester’s Roman past is one of Britain’s most famous, with the ancient fortress of Deva once positioned there. Deva was first built in around 70 AD by the Romans as they advanced north against the native Brigante tribe, and was rebuilt twice over the following two centuries.
Originally built in 1949 by Charles Greenwood and Graham Webster, Chester Roman Gardens were designed to showcase a number of artefacts from the city’s Roman past in an open public setting. Most of the artefacts derive from the city’s 19th-century excavations, with items from Deva’s most important buildings, such as its baths and legionary headquarters, now on display.
10. Beeston Castle
There are indications that the Norman Beeston Castle stands on land once used as a gathering point in Neolithic times. And with the site’s vantage point – offering views across 8 counties on a good day – it’s perhaps unsurprising that the Normans chose to develop a stronghold there. The castle was erected in the 1220s by Ranulf de Blondville on returning from the Crusades.
Henry III took over in 1237 and the building was well kept until the 16th century when strategists felt it didn’t have further military use. Oliver Cromwell and the English Civil War saw the castle return to action, but it was damaged by Cromwell’s men to the point whereby in the 18th century the site was used as a quarry. Beeston is now in ruins and is a Grade I listed building and also a Scheduled Ancient Monument administered by English Heritage.