The River Dee in Chester

Why was Chester built where it was?

The City of Chester began as a Roman fort in the first century AD, almost 2000 years ago. There were several reasons why Chester was a good site for the Romans to build a fort when they began moving north through Britain. These reasons were all linked to the River Dee.
    When it was built, the Roman fort was at the mouth of the River Dee, where it met the sea. Sea-going ships could sail right up to the fortress walls, bringing supplies to the soldiers. The Romans could also use the fort as a base from which to send supplies to their soldiers in Scotland and North Wales, where they were fighting the local tribes. They might even have been planning an invasion of Ireland from Chester.
    There was a sandstone outcrop above the river floodplain, surrounded on two sides by the river. This was a good place to build the fort for defence against the Welsh tribes on the other side of the river: they could not easily attack the fort over the water, and the Romans could see attackers coming from their high position.
    There was a supply of fresh drinking water from the River Dee. A good supply of fresh water is important, because water is vital to human life.
    There was higher ground either side of the river, so a bridge could be built. The Old Dee Bridge (built in 1387) still stands at the point where the Romans probably built their first bridge over the River Dee, at the point nearest the sea where this could be done safely. The bridge provided a route into Wales that could be defended. 
These CGI pictures, created by Take 27, show the site of Roman Chester, and the River Dee at the time
Roman Chester, 250 AD - the wide River Dee provided a natural harbour Looking north west towards the Irish Sea: the fortress was built
almost where the River Dee met the sea, before the river silted up.
Images Copyright 2013 Take 27 Ltd

Uses of the River Dee in Chester
The waters of the River Dee have been used in many ways over the centuries:

The power of falling water can be used to turn a wheel. The Ancient Greeks were the first to realise they could use this power to grind corn in mills, using waterwheels, as shown in the animation to the right.

The Weir

In Chester this idea was used from at least the eleventh century. Hugh Lupus, first Earl of Chester, ordered the building of a weir in 1093, near the Old Dee Bridge (the only bridge in Chester at that time). This weir still exists today, and is a very important historical monument (listed grade 1 by English Heritage).

The weir directed the flow of the River Dee towards the right-hand bank, between two arches of the bridge, as shown in the photos to the right.

At the end of the weir, beneath the arches of the bridge, the water suddenly dropped, driving waterwheels to power the mills.
The Mills
Over the centuries the waterwheels on the weir were used to power many different mills, grinding corn from the eleventh century, and later snuff (tobacco). They also powered a needle-making factory and a paper mill. The photos below show some of the mills.

The mills on either side of the weir:
the Dee Mills, and the Snuff Mills, 1855
from John McGahey's painting
View of Chester from a Balloon

Watch this video to find out how
watermills make flour from corn.
The Dee Mills, on the town side of the bridge
The waterwheels were inside the building
(demolished in the early 1900s)
The Snuff Mills, built in the 1780s
on the far side of the weir
(demolished in the 1960s)
Hydro-electric power
After the Dee Mills were demolished, a hydro-electric power station was built in their place. This provided electricity for Chester between 1913 and 1939, using water power to drive turbines which made the electricity.
The building still stands today, as shown in the photo below.
There are plans to build a new hydro-electric station in the same place.

The hydro-electric station
on the Old Dee Bridge


The River Dee has been one of the most important salmon fishing rivers in the country for 1000 years or more.
In the 1830s there were 32 rowing boats used to fish the Dee in Chester. There was a salmon fishing community in Handbridge, to the south of the Old Dee Bridge, which fished from 14 special places within 2 miles of the bridge (now there are only 6).
A small number of salmon netmen still work i
n the estuary and the canalised section of the river.

Fishing with bag nets in the King's Pool
near the Old Dee Bridge, 1760

Nets were also hung between the arches of the Old Dee Bridge to catch fish, and in the late 1500s a 'salmon cage' was built to catch the fish coming through the millrace on the south side of the weir.

Much later, in 1913/14, a 'salmon leap' was built alongside the weir, to allow the fish to swim past the weir. It has four pools which act like a staircase for the fish.

The 'salmon leap' at the weir,
built to let the fish swim
back upstream.

A salmon fisherman on the Dee

The weir creates a pool behind it, from which water is taken for Chester's own water supply. It also creates a 'lake' that stretches back to Huntington Water Works, where water is taken from the Dee and treated by United Utilities. This water is then pumped to supply the Wirral and surrounding areas.
The Dee and part of the
Huntington Water Works.

The River Dee has long been used for recreation - rowing, sailing and pleasure cruises, even raft races!
Sailing clubs Pleasure cruises Pedalos at the Groves Chester Raft Race

Watch our video about leisure on the Dee

Still to come

The bridges

Still to come

Some excellent websites about Chester and the River Dee
Chester - A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls
The River Dee in Chester
British History Online (
Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls (
Gung Ho Photography (