Imagine Deva (modern-day Chester), circa AD 79, some 2,000 years ago.
A legendary fortress town in the far-flung province of Britannia, the newly minted member of a European Union, albeit the Roman Empire… though without the freedom of movement, the benefits of a common marketplace and the generous cultural grants and handouts.
Britannia is overrun with foreigners and self-rule has eluded the native peoples of the land for over 300 years now. The people are restless for change, but they have no voice. The choice is stark. Embrace empiric rule and prosper? Or, fight back and reclaim sovereignty in a time of global uncertainty?
Sound familiar? Though sadly for Britain, after Roman withdrawal, sovereignty was fleetingly brief, with the Saxons invading the land, capturing the abandoned city of Deva which then assumed a succession of names derived from both Welsh and Old English such as Caerlleon and Legaester, arriving at Chester in the 11thCentury.
Deva was one of the most important of Roman cities in Britannia, thriving as it did beside the River Dee. A cultured and sophisticated city complete with a massive barrel-vaulted bathing complex some 16 metres high by 80 metres in length – a proper luxury spa by any account – hot plunge baths, sweat rooms and cold pools, with brightly painted mosaic floors and incredibly, an underfloor hypocaust heating system served by at least three raging furnaces running 24 hours-a-day, the whole system using an estimated 850,000 litres of water each and every day! Decadence in every sense.
Deva, AKA Chester is now a speedy 2 hours on a Virgin Train from London Euston and a short 20-minute cab ride into Wales and Ants’ bucolic home village of Hawarden.
Surprisingly, there’s quite a bit of old Deva left, with its largely intact Roman wall surrounding the city, though much added to over millennia. There are weathered Roman columns still standing (some beneath the Pret on Northgate Street), a hypocaust underfloor heating system discovered beneath the Spud-u-Like on Bridge Street and the largest stone amphitheatre so far uncovered in Britain.
But today, the overwhelming sense of Chester is of a medieval market town – uniquely enclosed by said Roman wall. There are iconic black and white timbered buildings throughout the city centre that charmingly lean against each, perhaps more for comfort than support, as little remains of the earliest 14thCentury wooden buildings consumed by fire over the ages. The unique-to-Chester first-floor covered walkways, ‘The Rows’, do remain intact though and now house modern shops, discreet department stores and tea rooms, despite their rickety floors, low-beam spaces and early 17th Century origins.