This amazing photograph instantly gets your attention, I think, because it’s an unusual juxtaposition of different eras. Obviously taken at the end of the 19th century or beginning of the 20th–judging from the fashions of the people at the bottom I estimate it’s about 1895–the buildings depicted here are a mix of Tudor and earlier medieval styles, and are extraordinarily well-preserved. The color is artificial; this was colorized by hand (a “Photocrom” by the ever-dependable Detroit Photographic Company) but there’s still a lot of eye-popping detail. You want to walk right into the picture and expect to find yourself in a sepia-toned facsimile of the past, on this English street more than a century ago.
These famous buildings are called The Rows, and they’re located in Chester, England, UK. No one is sure exactly when or how The Rows got their start, but they first appear in the historical record toward the end of the 13th century, where they were apparently merchants’ shops on what was once a busy market street, probably teeming with people, animals and carts full of goods for sale. Eventually residential quarters were built above the shops, enclosing the walkways and creating a medieval equivalent of what we might call “mixed-use development” in a modern city. There have long been rumors that The Rows were built on rubble left behind from Roman-era buildings that fell into ruin. These buildings feature magnificent undercrofts, made of stone, that were apparently used as storerooms. They date from about the 1300s, forming a modern link with Chester’s ancient past.
The Rows were a tourist attraction in Chester every bit as much in 1895 as they are today, though modern development has encroached on them. It’s always interesting to see how people of the past conceived of their past; we who live in the modern day, of course, are not the first to appreciate the trappings of history around us. A view like this adds another layer of history, contributing to a richer appreciation of how we conceptualize where we’ve been and what it means to us.