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Many people know that Chester is Britain’s smallest racecourse, and many think that they know it is the oldest as well. But this second claim is questionable; whilst racing has taken place on the Roodee since 1539, when the sport began in Chester, it was already well established at York by 1530. There, racing took place outside the city and the move to the Knavesmire didn’t take place until some 200 years later.
But what of the Roodee before racing? In these weeks of heavy rain, it’s almost possible to believe that the track might revert to its state in Roman times, when it was permanently under water. The area was a tidal pool of the River Dee, and even now, beneath parts of the city walls, you can see some of the huge stones that made up the Roman harbour wall. There was a small island in the middle of the harbour.
The area was a Roman burial site as well, and in 1874 a tomb dating back to about AD90 was excavated near the south end of the old main grandstand. Under the tombstones were two skeletons, one wearing a gold ring. We know who they were, as the tombstone recorded, “To the spirits of the departed, Flavius Callimorphus, aged forty two and to Serapion, aged three years and six months. Thesaeus set this up to his brother and his brother’s son.”
The area remained a substantial port throughout the medieval period, and it was only in the 14th and 15th centuries that silting up of the Dee and a falling sea level led to the emergence of land there. The spot was named the Roodee, drawing its name from the Saxon word Rood – a cross – and the Norman suffix Eye – an island: the Island of the Cross. There’s the stump of a stone cross in the centre of the course to this day.
One legend says this cross was also a burial ground. In 946 the lady of the manor of Hawarden had gone to church to pray for rain. Her prayers were immediately answered with a violent thunderstorm, which loosened a statue of the Virgin Mary. This fell and killed Lady Trawst. As the statue was a holy object, it could not be burned, so it was left by the river, and subsequently carried down to Chester. Here, a jury found the statue guilty, and buried it on the island and away from the city.
Once the waters had properly receded, the area was home to a huge brawl in 1441 between jailers from Chester Castle and the Northgate prison. Hardly any less sedate were the Shrove Tuesday football matches, which started as a challenge from the shoemakers’ guild to the drapers. These were eventually banned in 1533, paving the way for horseracing, which began six years later.
The Geegeez site owes its name to the man who founded Chester Races, the city mayor, Henry Gee, as the common slang term for racehorses is taken from his surname. He is recorded as suppressing corrupt practices and appointments “with a high hand and unswerving purpose.”
Something for you to live up to, Matt?