Today I took my level 5 (second-year) Contemporary Past student field trip around the memorials of Chester’s city centre, focusing on the Town Hall and Chester Cathedral. Even in this small area, we identified a wide range of monuments and sculptures of interest. I’m going to try and briefly sum up the themes we addressed here, looking at 5 zones/themes:
- Commemorating the First World War through Oak
- Reused Gravestones around the Cathedral
- The Cheshire Regiment Memorial Garden;
- The First World War Memorial;
- Memorials and Monuments around the Town Hall
The Oak Memorial
On the north side of the cathedral close, there are hardly any memorials. This private, ‘back’ side of the cathedral has been the home of a recent sculpture display, but has only one permanent memorial on view plus a few 18th/19th-century gravestones reused as paving (see below). The memorial exception is distinctive and arboreal in form: an oak tree with plaque and Cheshire regimental wreath. It commemorates the First World War, but how it does so is more complex than might first appear. Among its memorial dimensions are how it:
- deploys the symbolism of a tree as a metaphor for ‘growing remembrance’;
- deploys a species of tree which embodies the patriotic and primordial symbolism of ‘England’;
- it constitutes an arboreal translation and thus a mnemonic citation: the oak was taken as a sapling from Tyne Cot cemetery, Passchendale, home to 12,000 Commonwealth war graves;
- incorporates in its plaque two stages to its biography, its planting to mark the 50th, and then repair/re-dedication to mark the 75th, anniversary of Armistice Day;
- is placed over the historic churchyard of the cathedral, now cleared of gravestones. It is thus cenotaphic through both place and citation.
In all these ways, the oak tree memorialises multiple pasts and alludes to death, memory and martial patriotism. The Western Front and Chester Cathedral are enmeshed via this growing oaken memorial.
Reused Gravestones around the Cathedral
In the Cheshire Regiment Memorial Garden and to the east and north of the cathedral, a wide range of 18th/19th-century gravestones have been reused as paving following the 19th-century closure and landscaping of the cathedral grounds. Integrated into the design of the regimental memorial and pathways, the memorials to the dead are now ‘undead’: no longer living memorials, no longer dead ones. They are the ‘walked-on dead’.
Some are placed at different angles: integrated into the paths. Others are placed in carefully selected positions so as to react with the memorial garden and the cathedral itself, such as the 18th-century elaborate memorial at the east end of the cathedral, and the small gravestone at the east end of the memorial garden.
In addition, there are some memorials seemingly in their original position, covering tombs close to the church wall.
The war dead and the ‘normal’ dead of 18th/19th-century Chester are bound together in the Garden and both configure different kinds of absence through paving, reminding the visitor of the history of this as a burial ground since the Middle Ages.
The Cheshire Regiment Memorial Garden
In the south-east corner of the Cathedral close, between the church and the bell tower, is the Cheshire Regiment Memorial Garden within which are the aforementioned 18th/19th-century memorials. There are two foci – a giant cruciform geoglyph with the regimental insignia at its heart, and an altar-like memorial, a cenotaph, commemorating the Second World War dead. They are linked by a central W-E path.
This has many memorial dimensions including benches commemorating local veterans’ associations of the regiment, and others bearing individual memorials. The bell tower itself has a memorial inscription, commemorating its opening.
The First World War Memorial
The elaborate neo-medieval First World War memorial sits in the south-west corner of the Cathedral close. It is a war memorial, but also a fragment of a war memorial because its text cites links to the bronze inscription of the names of the war dead in the Town Hall. The same text also cites links to the names of the dead upon the hearts of those that mourn. The memorial is thus distributed between internal and extramural elements, and asserts connections with the bodies of the living.
The choice of Saints depicted around the plinth is notable: Chester’s patron, St Werburgh is looking west, but then also St Martin, St George and St Michael, three warrior saints, two slaying dragons. St Alban and St David complete the group, alluding to the distant Christian past of Britain. Conflict and Britain’s past – actual and spiritual – are thus conjoined with the commemoration of the Great War’s dead.
It has an additional inscription to the dead of the Second World War, simply stating the years of the conflict, and again not the names.
There is also a sign telling you not to sit on, picnic on, or let children play on, the war memorial.
One of the students also noted fragments of plastic poppy: fragments of 2017’s the remembrance services, wreaths and offerings.
Notably, the benches in this area have no memorial plaques, so the space is kept ‘clean’ for the war dead alone.
Finally, the heart-shaped planting of flowers is notable, although it isn’t clear if this is another war memorial dimension or not.
In summary, this area is dedicated exclusively to the war dead, but in a contrasting fashion to the Regimental Garden because it emphasises the war dead alone; there are no regimental associations or the reuse of earlier gravestones.
Around the Town Hall
Between the cathedral and the Town Hall, there are an eclectic range of monuments and memorials.
The baby elephant sculpture commemorates the link between the zoo and the city. It materially and textually binds together natural conservation and heritage conservation in its setting.
There is also a modernist sculpture commemorating the spirit of enterprise of the city and the links with the cathedral and the walls enclosing it. It’s a bit bizarre as a piece of civic art, but each to their own.
There is also an assembled collection of fragments as a ‘heritage memorial’. This is an arrangement of Roman and 18th-century ‘spolia’ assembled to commemorate the winning of a heritage award. The classical and neo-classical are displayed together as part of the commemoration of heritage and the commemoration of heritage practice.
Then there is the crudely classically inspired Forum shopping centre and neo-Gothic Town Hall, which together with the cathedral and mock-Tudor buildings, frame these memorials.
What’s the story connecting all these memorials together? At one level: there isn’t one. This is a cumulative mnemonic ‘hetereotopia’ (or maybe ‘dystopia’).
If there is any theme, it is a broad theme of commemorating the city as place and heritage. The memorials strongly allude to Chester’s civic and martial identity past and present. Situated at the heart of the city, the memorials have accrued over time and commemorate different aspects of the past in contrasting media from Roman times to the present. Citation is a key theme, binding memorial elements together.
Still, perhaps the most significant pattern in all of this is that there is no pattern!