The origins of Chester pub names - part two

Some of the best beer and food in Chester is to be found in the old black and white timbered buildings of the city centre Words by Mike Smith Photography by John Cocks

Within the ancient walls of Chester, there is a wonderful collection of black-and-white buildings, many of which are public houses.

Some are ancient half-timbered structures, whereas others are 19th century imitations with blackened timbers superimposed on plaster or brick, but all of them contribute to an attractive townscape that draws in visitors from all over the world.

Two of the most impressive 19th century imitations of the medieval style stand on Northgate Street, a few yards inside the northern gate of the city. The Red Lion, with its ground-floor arcade and timbered gables, was built in 1810, on a site once occupied by a medieval tower, and the Coach House, with its elaborate black-and-white upper storeys, was erected on the site of an old coaching inn.

Bar team leader Andy Peto told me that the Red Lion, which is a Grade I listed building and has a very nicely preserved traditional interior, is now in the hands of Nicholson’s Brewery, which began business by taking over and sensitively refurbishing historic pubs in London. In keeping with its character, the Red Lion serves up traditional British food and classic wines. As assistant manager Kate TimberWoods pointed out, it also has a fine selection of ales from small breweries, including Thornbridge, Downton and Bath Ales.

The Coach House occupies an enviable position adjacent to the Town Hall and opposite Chester Cathedral. Completely refurbished in 2007 in a manner described as ‘tradition brought up to date’, it now has nine en-suite rooms rated as four-star by the AA, dispenses cask-conditioned ales and serves traditional British food from local produce. Its diners even have the privilege of being offered a private walking tour of the ancient city under the guidance of Mick Winslow.

No tour of Chester would be complete without a stroll along its unique first-floor arcaded walkways known as the Rows. First constructed in the 13th century, they stretch along the four main streets of Chester, which date from the Roman occupation and radiate from the Cross at the centre of the city. The Rows originally extended into Lower Bridge Street but the arcades on this stretch of road were progressively blocked up during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries.

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Although Lower Bridge Street has lost its Rows, it has retained some fine half-timbered buildings, including the Falcon Inn and Ye Olde King’s Head, both of which contain a wealth of original features. When I called in the Falcon, I met a man who had worked on the most recent restoration of the pub. He showed me a room constructed in the space which was formerly occupied by a section of the Rows and pointed out the ancient pillars that once supported the arcading of the walkway.

Sam Delamere, who is responsible, together with Becky Williams, for producing the pub’s bar food, told me that the Falcon was founded in the 13th century as a town house. During the Civil War, it was acquired by Sir Richard Grosvenor, who moved into the city from his residence at Eaton Hall and obtained permission to enclose a section of the Rows that ran through the front part of the house. The Grosvenor family vacated the building in the late 18th century, at which point it became the Falcon Inn.

The Falcon has one of the most striking fa�ades in Chester. Steps which climb from street level to the bar once gave access to the Rows; the lower storey of the pub is topped by a panel decorated with quatrefoil motifs and the upper storey is fronted by a remarkable full-width window divided into no fewer than 34 two-tier lights, which presumably provided illumination for a great hall when the building was a house.

Ye Olde King’s Head also began life as a town house. It was built some 400 years ago as a residence for the administrator of Chester Castle and was occupied by Randle Holme, Mayor of Chester, in the 17th century, when it was largely rebuilt. The building was restored in the 1960s and has had a major revamp since it was acquired by Harry Achilleos in March 2012. Home-cooked food is served in the Renaissance restaurant and accommodation is provided in eight re-furbished bedrooms.

Like the Falcon, Ye Olde King’s Head has a timber-framed upper storey which is jetted out above the lower storey. In common with all the other pubs we have visited, the building is topped by gables decorated in the distinctive black and white style which is such a prominent and attractive feature of the ancient walled city.