- The Washington Times - Friday, June 6, 2003

Guests of a medieval inn at Chester, England, sometimes see the ghost of a woman peering out an upstairs window, looking in vain for her lover, who was killed during a 17th-century battle.

Visitors to the Shambles, a narrow street in York, England, that was lined by butcher shops during medieval times, notice large meat hooks that still adorn some houses; these centuries-old houses have overhanging second stories, so designed to ward off the sun. Guides explain that the overhangs also protected pedestrians below when people emptied chamber pots from upstairs windows.

Americans visiting Edinburgh, Scotland, get a new perspective on history there. An area of the city called New Town dates to the 1760s.

Chester, York and Edinburgh, along with England’s Bath and Stratford-upon-Avon, have been designated Britain’s Heritage Cities. My recent trip to the first three combined a traditional peek into the country’s history, including visits to castles and museums and to interesting people from times past.

The Heritage Cities I explored share a number of common traits. For example, soldiers from Rome dropped by all three when their empire extended so far. The cities exhibit architectural treasures that rival those of much larger and better-known places, yet in a more intimate setting that makes discovering those gems a pleasure.

Ever since legions from Rome arrived in A.D. 79, Chester’s four main streets have followed the line of roadways laid out in the Roman fort. The original two-mile ring of Roman walls, which were extended in medieval times, still circles the Tudor and Victorian buildings that give the town its present-day character.

In addition to history or architecture, a sense of the past comes alive more meaningfully through tidbits I learned, such as that the records of births, marriages and other passages of life that occurred in Chester up to 1,000 years ago still are retained in the town’s archives.

I strolled along back streets that trace the original layout of Roman barracks and storehouses, and I commiserated with Henrietta, the woman who in 1645 bade her lover goodbye at the Blue Bell Inn as he left for battle, committed suicide there when she learned he had been killed, and on occasion continues her hopeless vigil.

The Rows, galleried arcades built in Tudor times on top of ground-floor shops, line four streets that meet at the cross of the original Roman grid plan. The second-level walkways pass antique and other shops and magnificent dwellings such as Leche House, named for 14th-century residents who were”leeches” (surgeons) to King Edward III.

Chester Cathedral was built over a 250-year span beginning about 1250. Along with soaring arches, magnificent windows and other dramatic touches, I preferred hidden gems. A close examination of the wooden stalls in the quire (choir) reveals fanciful carvings of people and animals. An elephant, apparently fashioned by a craftsman who had heard of such a beast but never seen one, sports the legs and feet of a camel.

A walk along the two-mile ring of red-sandstone Roman and medieval walls that circle Chester provides an excellent view of one of the most medieval-looking cities in Britain. The turrets include the Water, Goblin and King Charles towers, from which Charles I is said to have watched in 1645 as his army was defeated. Just outside the walls lie the ruins of an amphitheater used by the Romans for weapons training as well as for battles among gladiators.

In the words of King George VI, “The history of York is the history of England.”

In the words of our somewhat chauvinistic local tour guide, “If you like Chester, you’ll love York.”

Who couldn’t love what is widely considered to be the best-preserved medieval city in Great Britain? Especially one that is compact and flat, well-signed and comfortably explored on foot.

Like many old English cities, York once was a Roman town. Sections of the original fortifications remain, and ghostly legionnaires reportedly are sometimes seen marching through the streets.

The departure of the Romans in the fifth century was followed successively by the northern German Saxons, the conquering Danes — who named the city Jorvik — and the Normans. The town began to assume its present-day shape during the 13th century with the erection of the limestone walls, which are pierced by four main gateways (called “bars”).

Along with major reminders of Roman times, I discovered less impressive, but equally enticing, hidden treasures. These included the often overlooked remains of Roman baths beneath an otherwise nondescript pub named, appropriately, the Roman Bath. Peering into the tepidarium (warm pool), fridgarium (cold plunge pool) and claderium (hot steam room), it was easy to imagine toga-clad men dropping by for their daily soak.

The most impressive architectural structure in town, visible from almost any vantage point, is York Minster. It is the largest Gothic church and one of the most important historic and religious places in Great Britain. Built from 1220 to 1472, it stands on the site of even earlier chapels and churches. A descent to the foundations provides sightings of traces of earlier buildings going back as far as the Roman garrison.

York Minster is home to countless riches. Its 128 stained-glass windows, which include the largest in the world dating from medieval times, comprise fully half of all the stained glass in England remaining from that era. The enormous Great Eastern Window, created in the early 15th century, depicts the beginning and end of the world.

Too many visitors miss the Chapter House, located in a side vestibule, where strange beasts and unusual human figures hide among delicate carvings of foliage. Also overlooked by many are scenes of the Genesis story — including the hand of God creating Earth, Adam and Eve, and Noah’s Ark — carved above the arched West Doorway of the Minster.

Even more intriguing in ways is the Jorvik Viking Centre, a kind of 10th-century Disney World that combines a real archaeological site with a ride past eerily lifelike dioramas. After a humorous audiovisual introduction, visitors are transported through a tunnel past scenes of life in the viking community that occupied that location in A.D. 975.

The wattle-and-daub buildings and clothing and rubbish uncovered there — including items such as broken combs with head lice still lodged between some teeth — provided clues that guided reconstruction of Jorvik. The 20-minute ride passes amazingly lifelike tableaux of people going about their daily chores, animals scratching around back yards and other activities, accompanied by a realistic sojourn to pause before the exhibits of artifacts found at the site.

Life at a later time is encountered at Barley Hall, a restored medieval town house hidden down a narrow side street not far from York Minster. There, the family and servants of William Snawsell, lord mayor and goldsmith, come alive by means of an audio tour narrated by Dame Judi Dench.

I especially enjoyed whispered asides by the scullery maid, who revealed that her employer “is an old man who likes his food chopped up in a good sauce” and reported that the kitchen help “don’t get to drink wine — at least not if the master is watching.”

Edinburgh, the largest of the Heritage Cities, combines similar encounters with everyday people from the past as well as with royalty over many centuries.

It is ironic that what became Scotland’s royal capital in the 11th century is in some ways the least Scottish of Scotland’s cities, in part because of its proximity to England.

No city is more closely identified with a single building than Edinburgh with its castle. That fairy-tale structure looks over the city from its towering crag, the stone towers and walls appearing to be an extension of the volcanic rock on which it stands.

The castle is home to the Scottish crown jewels and the Stone of Destiny, the coronation stone for Scots kings. The oldest space is a tiny chapel where King James VI of Scotland was born.

At the opposite end of the city center stands Holyroodhouse, an imposing round-towered palace that has been the official Scottish residence of Britain’s royal family since the early 16th century.

The building is set amid spacious grounds where kings and queens once strolled and occasionally still do. Beside the palace is a lodge known as Queen Mary’s Bath House, where Mary Stuart is reputed to have bathed in red wine.

The stretch of road between the palace and the castle is the Royal Mile, so called because kings and queens traveled along it, but this streetscape also is where the entire citizenry of Edinburgh lived and worked for centuries.

The Royal Mile and its side streets comprise a virtual historical museum. Parliament House, once home to Scotland’s legislature, today serves as its supreme court. St. Giles Cathedral, built where a church of some sort has stood for more than 1,000 years, once was the scene of strife between Catholic and Protestant believers.

But it is the well-preserved 16th- and 17th-century houses, and tiny passageways called “closes” that run off the Royal Mile, where Edinburgh’s past truly springs to life. Some of these alleys are so narrow that a person can reach out and touch the buildings on both sides. A stroll into any of these “wynds” evokes the crowded, bustling city of that time.

Many of the little closes — such as Market, Advocates and Old Fishmarket — still are named for the activities that once took place there. Others, like Marlin’s Wynd and Mary King’s Close, bear the names of people who lived in the homes hundreds of years ago.

A stroll down any of these narrow lanes evokes the lives and times of the tradesmen, working people and beggars who lived and died there. Other lifestyles from centuries past may be experienced at Edinburgh Castle, York Minster, the Rows of Chester and countless other attractions in Britain’s Heritage Cities.

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