Chester Racecourse, known as the Roodee, is according to official records the oldest racecourse still in use in England. Horse racing at Chester dates back to the early sixteenth century. It is also thought to be the smallest racecourse of significance in England at 1 mile and 1 furlong (1.8 km) long.
The 65-acre (260,000 m2) racecourse lies on the banks of the River Dee. The site was once a harbour during the Roman settlement of the city during the Dark Ages, but was closed as the river silted up thus making navigation impossible. Towards the centre of the in field is a raised mound which is decorated by a small cross known as a “rood”. It is from this that the race course derives the name “Roodee”; Roodee is a corruption of “Rood Eye”, meaning “The Island of the Cross”.
According to legend the cross marks the burial site of a statue of the Virgin Mary sentenced to hang after causing the death of Lady Trawst, the wife of the Governor of Hawarden. The legend states that she had gone to church to pray for rain but when her prayers were answered by a tremendous thunderstorm the statue was loosened and fell, killing her. As a holy object, hanging or burning the statue would be sacrilege so the statue was left by the banks of the river and the tide carried it down to Chester. The statue was found guilty by a jury of 12 men. If the legend is true, then this is the first recorded case of a jury being used in a court. In an alternate version of the legend, the statue was instead carried to St John’s church. An ancient statue of the Virgin was recorded at the time of the reformation but may not be the same one. The statue was thrown down as a relic of popery, used as a whipping post for scholars and burned. The site was formerly the home of the original Chester Midsummer Watch Parade, temporarily banned by Oliver Cromwell but finally abolished in 1677
The east of the race course abuts directly onto Chester’s ancient city walls which were once used to moor Roman trading vessels, before the course of the river changed. Spectators can watch races for free from the walls which offer a clear view of the whole circuit. The Grosvenor bridge, at one time the longest single arch bridge in the world, passes over the south-eastern corner. The north of the course is bordered by a long railway bridge carrying the North Wales Coast Line over the River Dee. The course is overlooked from the opposite bank of the river by the mansions of Curzon Park, which can be seen dominating the skyline from any of the three grandstands.
The Chester Racecourse site was home to the famous and bloody Goteddsday football match. The game was however very violent and, in 1533, banned by the city, to be replaced in 1539 by horse racing. The first recorded race was held on February 9, 1539 with the consent of the Mayor Henry Gee, whose name led to the use of the term “gee-gee” for horses. Races originally took place on Goteddsday (Shrove Tuesday) until 1609, and thereafter on St George’s Day, both major festivals during the medieval period. Victors were awarded the “Chester Bells”, a set of decorative bells for decorating the horse’s bridle, and from 1744 the “Grosvenor Gold Cup”, a small tumbler made from solid gold (later silver). In 1766 a May Festival was introduced, and in 1824, the Tradesmen’s Cup Race (the predecessor to the Chester Cup) was also introduced.
However, the racecourse was at that point still just an open field, with the first grandstand finished in 1817 and the first admittance-fee not being taken until 1897. The stand was rebuilt in 1899-1900, and was replaced after being destroyed by a fire set by an arsonist in 1985.
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