St Michael’s Row Arcade, Chester


Chester’s history goes back to Roman times, with many of the shops in the city centre under cover along raised walkways in Tudor buildings lining the main streets. The city’s only arcade, in An Arcades Project’s sense of the word, is St Michael’s Row, which runs off Bridge Street and through the façade of a classic Chester Tudor building. The arcade dates, though, from 1910.

Signage at the entrance to the arcade tells us that the original tiling in the arcade was cream and gold ceramic, but that this was considered ‘too much’ for a traditional city like Chester. And after much discussion, the black and white ‘Tudor’ – look to the façade was put back.

To reach St Michael’s Row, you need to climb the steps up from Bridge Street, and pass underneath the gargoyle-looking figures carved into the doorway leading into the arcade itself. There are more carved figures that line the row of units above the ground, with decorative stonework above those office windows, and attractive windows on that first-floor level.

The glass ceiling is not original, but some of the ironwork keeping the roof in place probably does date back to the arcade’s origins in Edwardian days. The arcade ends where it opens out at the far end into a more modern shopping mall completely under cover, with no natural light.

The shops these days are mostly high-end, with a ladies’ boutique, a handbag store, a jeweller’s, a made-to-measure men’s store and an art gallery (featuring work from Johnny Depp and Billy Connolly) taking up virtually the whole length of the arcade along one side. The only High Street brand, Laura Ashley, must have been a recent departure as her signage was still in place around the empty shop unit.

Chester is a great test of the question: ‘What is an arcade?’ For visitors from Spain, all the shops under cover along the main streets, with arched awnings, might seem familiar in style, and would probably be called ‘arcadas’ in Spanish, but they are not what we define as an arcade for the purposes of this project. The glass ceiling with iron supports makes St Michael’s Row Chester’s only shopping arcade.

My pick of the arcade’s past

Houghton’s opticians were early tenants in the arcade at No 5 after it opened in 1910. They were still going strong 20 years later.

The arcade was surrounded by police in August 1950 when a man tried to escape over the roof after stealing a pair of scissors from the Red Cross charity shop. The man was a private in the Army, based at a barracks near Chester. Once surrounded by police, he shimmied down a drainpipe and gave himself up.

Audrey Heywood, who bought furs, suede and leather items for a women’s clothes boutique in the arcade in the 1970s, reckoned she could take 10 years off a woman’s estimated age by the right choice in suede or leather.

Dunlop tennis rackets – used by Lew Hoad – featured in large adverts taken out by H. Hack’s shop at No 10 in the arcade in the 1950s.

This arcade in films or books

I’m sure Chester has been the setting for many a novel or film, but I have yet to see or read of St Michael’s Row in any of the ones I have come across. Can anyone help?

What memories do you have of visits in years gone by?

Have you got any good stories to add on the past of this arcade?

What’s your favourite shop in the arcade today?

Is there a website for this arcade?

No, nor is there any social media activity I could find, but a number of the boutiques and other businesses in the arcade are on Facebook and Instagram

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