ugust 2008: The madness continues. The following is a copy of this writer's letter that was published in the Chester Chronicle in late July 2008:
"Will the philistinism never end at Chester's Roman amphitheatre? Much as I would like to say that I couldn't believe my eyes when reading the Chronicle's news that Dee House may be converted into a hotel "to help create an inspirational experience for visitors to the amphitheatre which it overlooks"- in actuality, I was little surprised, but greatly saddened, that the foolishness surrounding this very special place just keeps on happening.
Back in May, the Chronicle reported how Mr Damon Yoxhall, manager of the Westminster Hotel, had stopped recommending that his guests visit the site because of the disgusting state it has been allowed to fall into and it seems difficult for caring Cestrians- who have wearily followed this sorry saga for too many years now- not to agree heartily with him.
I am the author of a popular internet 'virtual stroll' around out city and a busy independent tour guide. During the course of my guided walks, I increasingly find my heart sinking as we approach the amphitheatre, realising that once again I must see our visitor's looks of puzzled disappointment when they first encounter it and when they learn of how it came to be this way. Be assured, I do my best to fairly present both sides of the debate, telling them, "there are those who wish to see Dee House turned into apartments, or commercial offices- or (now, apparently) a hotel- and there are those who would prefer to see both it and the courthouse behind it promptly demolished, the ancient monument at last fully excavated and displayed and a decent interpretation centre/museum built nearby. OR that, should Dee House be retained, that it should be transformed, in partnership with the council's museum service, into an imaginative 'Romans in Chester' museum and the amphitheatre's excavation be pursued to its very walls- and into its cellars? What do you think?"
I must declare that I have never yet encountered anyone at all, from anywhere in the world, who has expressed a preference for the former option.
The surrealism continued in the Chronicle's coverage when we were informed, in all seriousness, that, in the opinion of the big-brain experts, the amphitheatre "has failed to fulfill its potential because it is trapped within the urban landscape and isolated by the busy inner ring road".
What does this mean? One would have thought that those seemingly responsible for sorting out this mess would have run out of pathetic excuses by now but it being "trapped within the urban landscape" is a new one on me and could be considered highly amusing- if it wasn't so very sad.
The truth is that the amphitheatre has "failed to fulfill it potential" because Chester's planners, politicians and 'heritage experts' are patently not up to the task and haven't got a clue and never have. They didn't have a clue in the 1930s when they wanted to build a road across it and they still haven't got a clue three quarters of a century later. Their suggestion that half the amphitheatre should now be hidden beneath a hotel, "inspirational" or not, comes as no surprise to te rest of us. After all, building hotels and apartments is apparently all they know how to do these days.
Here we see scenes from an excellent Festival of Archaeology event, Chester Amphitheatre brought to Life that was held on the 18th and 19th of July 2009. (The pictures were taken on the sunny Saturday- the Sunday was, sadly, rather a wash-out..)
Not only were there gladiators battling to the death in the arena, said to be the first such 'games' held here for 1,600 years, but also Roman military displays, period shops and stalls, exhibitions of some of the finds to be unearthed and future plans for the site- not to mention a magnificent ensemble of Egyptian dancing girls.
Attendance was excellent- crowds of locals and visitors turning out to enjoy the atmosphere and learn from the Roman soldiers and archaeologists. Listening in on conversations was revealing- people were undoubtedly having a good time but many were commenting upon the scruffy state of the amphitheatre, for example the rough stone chippings covering the area where the most recent investigations had been carried out and the walkway installed when the dividing wall had been lowered- but now unaccountably locked and inaccessible. But most of all, unsurprisingly, visitors coming here for the first time were amazed to find that half the great monument was hidden beneath the decaying Dee House and astonished that the modern court building was ever allowed to be built. And who can blame them.
This was undoubtedly a well organised event- and many thanks to all involved in its planning- but we couldn't help thinking that the amphitheatre in its current dreadful state remains a continuing source of embarrassment and shame to our city and no amount of Roman soldiers and Egyptian dancing girls (gorgeous as they were) is going to change this.
More photographs of the weekend may be seen in our new amphitheatre gallery.
Selling briskly at the event were copies of Chester Amphitheatre: From Gladiators to Gardens, written by Stewart Ainsworth (of TV's Time Team fame) and Tony Wilmott which was published in 2005 by Chester City Council and English Heritage. In most ways, a splendid little guide to the monument and its history, it nontheless, stands also a fine example of 'deception through omission'; part 2 of the booklet is entitiled Exploring the Landscape and informatively guides us around the notable buildings and features in the vicinity of the amphitheatre- Dee House, the Visitor Centre (once a school, built in 1883), the lovely St John the Baptist Church, Grosvenor Park, the Hermitage, The Groves, the Roman Garden, the Bishop's Palace, the Wolf Gate / New Gate, the South East Angle Tower, Lumley Place, even the obscure St. John's Cottage (a small private residence unnoticed by most visitors)- a comprehensive and fascinating list to be sure, but what of the court house? Such a dominant building standing immediately next to- no indeed, partly on top of- the amphitheatre surely rates a mention? Should not its story be considered as pertinent a part of the amphitheatre's history as any other? But no. not a mention. Similarly, in a chapter dealing with the monument's discovery and subsequent history- not a word.
It's as if the thing wasn't there at all. Very curious.
The book's title, remember, is From Gladiators to Gardens. The gardens alluded to are those that long ago flourished around the elegant mansions of the late 17th and 18th centuries. It suggests that those gardens remain, but (with the notable exception of Grosvenor Park) they are long gone and the area's once-genteel atmosphere is far removed from the unsightly urban hodge-podge we see today.
A few quotes...
"..the Roman amphitheatre has once again been brought back to life for visitors coming to the site".
"Dee House.. reminds us of former Georgian elegance..."
"This is now genuinely a landscape of recreation and congregation, but fortunately now without the conflict of earlier times"..
How ironic. Surely not the conflict that has continued from the 1930s to the present day, regarding the management of the amphitheatre and the people's demand for its full excavation and proper display? Sorry lads, but that particular argument is still very much with us.
The book contains one final curiosity. While telling of the establishment of the fortress, the authors tell us that "the amphitheatre was one of several remarkable buildings in Roman Chester, at least one of which, the so-called Elliptical Building, now beneath the Town Hall, is unique in the Roman World".
"Is unique"? Was unique, surely, for this unprecedented structure is by no means "under the Town Hall". Discovered after the old Chester Market Hall was demolished, it was entirely destroyed during the course of developing the new, ironically-named, council office and shopping complex, The Forum. Its excavation and recording, in 1968/9, would surely have been rather difficult if it was lying beneath the Town Hall, which has been standing there since 1869, exactly a century earlier.
"The council of course continues a long tradition which has seen the destruction of the Elliptical Building, unique in the Roman Empire, under the Forum Shopping Centre, and many other sites about the city, such as the unexcavated remains destroyed beneath the Grosvenor Centre". (Dr Clive Tolley, January 2000).
But that's another story.
The Festival of Archaeology weekend certainly succeeded in reviving interest in the amphitheatre, so this may be an opportune time for new readers to study our archive of letters to this site and to the press which clearly express what many concerned individuals- archaeologists, academics, business people, politicians, residents, visitors- throughout the world have really thought of the monument's 'management' over the last decade or so. What do you think? Keep the interest alive by writing to your councillor, English Heritage, the local and national press- and to this site...
About the time the above event was taking place, preparations were being made by the council and the recently-established, unvoted-for quango Chester Renaissance to spend many thousands of pounds on a major facelift for the amphitheatre, involving new signage, a bridge crossing the northern entrance, building new walls (really!) to mark out the lines of the ancient structure beneath and other such fiddling. No mention, of course, of a decent solution to the endless problems of the court house, Dee House or of a proper excavation... We will be bringing you further details of the plans as soon as time and money allow.
The plush offices of Chester Renaissance are just across the road from the amphitheatre in the Chester Visitor Centre (or were; they were seriously downsized in 2012 and now occupy much humbler premises in Abbey Square. Why they continue to exist at all remains a mystery to most interested locals). Looking out at the current eyesore amphitheatre must have proved a trial to them. The avowed, well-funded aim of these imported 'experts' is to "make Chester a must-see destination by the year 2015". So what, many would ask, has it been so far?
On to the amphitheatre story part XII or move on just a few yards to a happier place- but with a few problems of its own- the ancient and beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist...
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