As a professional archaeologist who has spent most of his working life investigating
Chester's past, and as the speaker who presented the case for the removal
of Dee House and full excavation of the amphitheatre at the meeting held by
the Chester Amphitheatre Trust in the Town Hall on May 10, I should like to
respond to some of the comments made in your letters column last week.
It is perfectly true that Chester's amphitheatre, even when completely exposed,
could not compare with the impressive examples at Arles, Nimes, Verona and other
cities abroad. However, its importance is nonetheless very considerable; nationally,
because it is the largest military amphitheatre in Britain and, locally, bccause
it is our amphitheatre.
But the amphitheatre is more important merely than the sum of its parts because
it has an added and far greater significance for Chester. Most of the city's
finest Roman buildings, along with, it must be said, important archaeological
remains of other periods, have been destroyed over the years, chiefly in the
1960s, making the amphitheatre the last surviving major Roman monument the city
has that is suitable for and worthy of display. It is the final opportunity
the city has to do proper justice to Roman Chester (the largest legionary fortress
in Britain, a sizeable town, and the major port on the west coast) and to atone
for the sins of the past.
Normally one would not propose the demolition of a listed building simply to
expose an ancient monument located beneath it. But in rare cases like this,
one has to judge which can make the greater contribution to thc cultural life
of the community. There is also, of course, the possibility of removal to another
site rather than demolition.
Some people consider periods of Chester's history other than the Roman to be
more important, and that is their prerogative. Yet the difference is that they
have plenty of surviving buildings to view and appreciate whereas those interested
in Chester's much-trumpeted Roman heritage do not.
A fully excavated amphitheatre would make it far easier for visitors to understand,
appreciate and enjoy the monument as well as creating a new public space in
a beautiful part of the city surrounded by a rich heritage. An accompanying
visitor centre/museum of high quality, built to a design chosen from an international
architectural competition would provide a much-needed venue to present in the
form of imaginative displays the vast amount of new information about Roman
Chester which has accrued in recent decades and which the present museum facilities
cannot hope to accomodate.
If the archaeological remains are no longer in situ for the public to
see, then at least let the information they yielded be available to the public
along with far more of the city's collection of Roman inscriptions and sculptures,
one of the best in Western Europe.
Such a project might even enable Chester to put to good use some of the unallocated £1 billion believed to lie currently in the reserves of the Heritage Lottery
There is much government literature these days exhorting the improvement of
public access (both physical and intellectual) to our heritage but this seems
to be a feature of policy which has escaped the notice of the Lord Chancellor's
Access to the vast majority of Chester's Roman heritage has been denied to both
resident and visitor alike not merely for the time being but forever because
of short-sighted planning policies which gave priority to forms of development
highly destructive of archaeology.
The excavation of the remainder of the amphitheatre is something which the people
of Chester have looked forward to for more than 30 years; even the nuns who
staffed the Convent School fully expected this to happen when they left Dee
House in the early 1970s.
There must be many who simply cannot comprehend why successive government departments
responsible for the monument failed to purchase the rest of the site when the
opportunity arose firstly in the early 1970s, then again in the late 1980s,
and most recently in 1995. Not only has the job been left half-done but also
the hard work and ideals of those citizens who raised the money to save and
excavate the northern half of the amphitheatre have been betrayed.
Archaeological deposits are of course a finite and precious resource and should
not be disturbed unthinkingly. Equally, however, policies relating to this resource
need to be applied intelligently. A blanket ban on investigation means that
understanding of the past stagnates, the opportunities for improving techniques
are reduced, and, perhaps most important of all, public interest and support
There has been talk of compensation running to many millions of pounds if the
court building project was stopped. There is, in fact, a practical solution
to the situation which would require no financial compensation whatsoever by
or to any of the parties involved if only they would listen and act now. The
details of this proposed solution have been put forward by the Chester Amphitheatre
When in use, the amphitheatre could accommodate around 8,000 people, which is
the equivalent of the entire Twentieth Legion, as well as much of the civilian
population of Roman Chester. It was a public building for use by all of the
community. It should be returned to the public in its entirety, not appropriated
for misuse by a privileged few.
The shrine next to the north entrance of the amphitheatre contained an altar
set up by a centurion as the result of a vision, and surely vision is
what is desperately needed for the management of this, our last Roman monument.
Dr David Mason, Hope Mountain, Caergwrle, Flintshire
9/6/00 I suppose it is inevitable that the standard of debate
over such a serious matter as the future of our Roman amphitheatre should
start to deteriorate, but it is sad that Tony
Fitzpatrick has to use such emotive phrases as 'a hole in the ground'
and 'brainless wits'.
His letter also goes on to detail a number of points which are frankly irrelevant
to the present situation. Mistakes of the past, such as the poor quality of
the modern Watergate Street buildings and the loss of the building adjoining
the Town Hall, should be markers to ensure that such vandalism does not occur
Let us have a serious debate on the present situation. I have no doubt that
there are finer examples in the rest of Europe, and those I have seen in Turkey
are indeed magnificent, but we do not exactly have a surfeit in this country.
Of course one realises that much of the original has been lost but the form
is clear, and who knows what might lie under Dee House, which is a poor derelict
example of a style of architecture of which there are thousands of examples
The office building of mediocre merit being erected is hardly worthy of becoming
a court building and could be better sited in another part of the city. The
successful use of the part of the amphitheatre available at the moment for last
year's concerts must surely show the possibilities for the complete whole. We
are not going to reveal the remainder in pristine condition but part-restoration
would enable visitors to see what the original was like.
The letter relating to the appeal
in the 1930s is of particular interest as I have just had the opportunity to
see a copy of a paper published in April 1932, some 68 years ago, by the Chester
and North Wales Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society.
Its notable patrons included the Duke of Westminster and among the signatories
was the well remembered figure Dr (later Sir) Mortimer Wheeler who said:
"From an archaeological and historical standpoint it is probable that the
scientific excavation of this structure would throw a new light upon the early
history of this country."
The appeal was made because of the prospect of the new inner ring road being
built across the centre of the site. It was in due course diversed round the
edge via St John Street. It is also interesting to note that the then Commissioners
of Works were so impressed by the case that they offeredto defray the cost of
the excavation of the site and urged the city council to delay operations so
that the road could be diverted and properties purchased to clear space for
further excavation. The sum of £8,000 was to be raised and the proprietor of
the Plane Tree Cafe offered £100 on condition that 49 others did the
Another interesting point is that Mr R G Collingwood described it as
"a relic of altogether exceptional interest and in every way finer than
I am also saddened by Dora Taylor's dismissal of the amphitheatre as a "saucer dip in the land", and the Grosvenor
Museum's "stacks of bits of pot which are said to be Roman remains".
Your photograph showing the backdrop to the BBC Music Live concert does not
display much of architectural merit!
Finally, I was touched by the letter from the young pupils in Llandudno. I would like to believe that they will be
able to fulfil their hope to see the whole amphitheatre excavated. I think there
is a saying that starts "out of the mouths of babes"...
Butterell, Claverton Court, Queens Park Road, Chester
9/6/00 On Tuesday, May 30, I visited the amphitheatre in time
to see the removal of the 'Save Our Amphitheatre'
Four men were involved in the operation. One appeared to be in charge of a mobile
phone! Two, wearing hard hats, were responsible for holding, at ground level,
that part of the banner they could reach that had been unscrewed from the wall.
The fourth, not wearing a hard hat, was working from the top of an unsupported
ladder of inadequate length and over-reaching to unscrew the fastenings. I was
concerned at the health and safety aspect relating to the gentleman removing
Later that same evening I telephoned the number displayed on the banner (01244
330102) to seek clarification as to the ownership of the wall and
the nature of the permission sought to erect the banner. I am surprised that
it had been considered necessary merely to consult the concert organisers rather
than seek permission of the city council.
Those promoting the cause of the Chester amphitheatre should capitalise on the
height of the summer tourist season. We have a ready made forum for free speech
at the Cross. Midsummer Watch and the Mystery Plays are almost upon us. On the
streets of Chester let us have numbers of pro-active campaigners uttering a
message not of 'Woe, woe, and thrice woe!', but of 'Support the aim to achieve
the fullest possible excavation and reconstruction of our amphitheatre'. Let
the message be spread in terms loud, repeated and clear, so that visitors and
residents alike may take home an appreciation of, and regard and support for,
the depth of feeling aroused in the breasts and hearts of those who cherish
the full Cestrian heritage.
Cologne has its Romisch-Germanisches Museum. Why should Chester not have its
amphitheatre and amphimuseum as an attraction for all to cherish?
Alan Bonner, Meadow Lane, Huntington
9/6/00 The council was very quick to take down that 'Save
Our Amphitheatre' banner, apparently because it didn't have permission to
go up. Would the council give the same swift judgment to the building that is going
up at great speed behind Dee House, since that also does not have planning permission?
K Flanigan, Upton, Chester
9/6/00 The statement made by Chester City Council spokesman
Michael McGivern regarding the removal of the amphitheatre sign stated that
"The council does not allow banners to be placed on council property without
permission and certainly a not on an ancient monument".
Surely one vital aspect of this statement is flawed. The banner was displayed
from the wall that separates the excavated part of the amphitheatre from Dee
House and the new court building. The banner was not hung from any part
of the Roman remains.
At least the statement does clearly demonstrate why over four years ago the
council voted for planning permission to be granted for the new court building.
It is clearly the wall that was considered to be the ancient monument rather
than the unique Roman remains beneath- an easy mistake to make?
At least all is clear! Seriously, I do hope that council members and their executives
will reconsider and allow the banner to be returned to the amphitheatre site.
It is vitally important that the fate of this unique part of our heritage is
brought to the attention of a broad spectrum of people, not least the thousands
of visitors from all over the world who come to Chester, many just to see our
If anything should be taken sult down on the site, it is that wall!
Paul Crofts, Saughall Road, Chester
9/6/00 A great outburst of vocal histrionics, with much use
of the word 'facts', is usually a prelude to anything but. An so it is with Tony Fitzpatrick's letter
on the amphitheatre.
We get a tour of our and Europe's ancient monuments with bull fighting thrown
in, plus some detail of Anglo-Saxon history for good measure. None of which
has any bearing whatever on our amphitheatre.
I have managed to salvage two facts from his epistle, though. One is that Mancunians
seem to be allowed much more editorial space than us Cestrians and, two, yes
he is right that all too often the city has been obsessed by the exploitation
A real fact is that very little Roman evidence remains. Little heaps of remains
are scattered around the city- few in their real locations- but it is precisely
this that has generated the desire to reverse the process. If tourism benefits
as well that's good, isn't it?
Let's save what precious little we have got left before it's too late. And as
for those whose sole argument is 'we know what's there' please change the record.
You almost certainly don't know what's actually inside Dee House, le alone under
Alex Wood, Long Looms, Great Barrow Chester
9/6/00 I find it hard to believe that the council is trying
to support excavation of the amphitheatre when it decided to order that banner to be taken down from the amphitheatre
wall. I thought everyone was supposed to be working together?
Personally, I thought the banner was a good means of making people aware, as
well as brightening up the dullest wall in Chester. Can't we have it back?
Mrs M Hargen, Shepherds Lane, Newton Chester
9/6/00 I am concerned about the idea that permission could
be given in 1995 for a completely new building on top of the amphitheatre site.
I know that most people in Chester share this concern and it has been written
about several times by the Chester Civic Trust.
It simply doesn't make sense to most people in Chester. The letter by Mrs
C Harding describing her weekly collection of sixpence as a child in
the 1930s towards the excavation of the amphitheatre really brings it home.
People in Chester have been working towards the excavation of the amphitheatre
for two generations now. Some people have devoted literally decades of their
life to this aim. The city council, David McLean and the Lord Chancellor surely
have some collective conscience about the part they are all playing in this
Together they could reach a mutually satisfactory solution to the present situation
today and bring the amphitheatre site into public ownership, forever.
Dr Liane Smith, Trustee, Chester Amphitheatre Trust,
37 Mount Way, Waverton, Chester
9/6/00 Having followed the issue of the amphitheatre over the
past few months, I had been wondering when our MP would express her opinion
on a matter which is obviously of great importance to her constituents? Now
at last we have the benefit of a letter from Christine Russell and I am sure I speak for a great number of Chester
residents when I say that I am very disappointed by its limp and defeatist tone.
It is obvious that Mrs Russell's main concern is to avoid personal responsibility
for the new county court building- which she cannot do, because she was on the
committee the granted planning permission in the first place. Beyond that, she
is offering no support to the thousands of her constituents who want everything
possible done to stop the amphitheatre being buried under concrete and tarmac.
Christine Russell ought to understand that most people in Chester regard the
planning permission as history. Everyone knows it was a mistake, but what we
want is something done now to put matters right and quickly, before it is too
Mrs Russell's performance on the amphitheatre question has been weak and uninspiring.
We expect to see bit of fight in our MP. Instead, we have had months of silence
followed by by surrender.
Donald Thompson, Blacon, Chester
9/6/00 Presumably the decision to construct a new courthouse
on the amphitheatre site was taken by majority vote in council and
not left to the whims of a select committee? If this is so, then the councillors
concerned should be ashamed of their actions in deciding against the opening
of the amphitheatre.
Am I being naive in thinking these councillors should realise Chester is a 'tourist'
city and the opening of the extended part of the Roman artefact would only enhance
its reputation as such? I know of numerous cities who would love to display
such a treasure and advertise it to the world, with beneficial results.
As a Cestrian 'in exile' I have no voting power, but if I had, I would need
to know who voted for the courthouse and would have them deselected at the next
elections. They obviously have no regard for the wellbeing of Chester and its
prestige. I ask you: a Roman treasure to be hidden by an unnecessary new courthouse
which no doubt will be a modern monstrosity of steel and concrete (how tourists
would love to see that!)
It would also appear your Member of Parliament is unconcerned. Remember this
at the next General Election, citizens of Chester.
The whole situation beggers belief. Wake up, Chester, preserve your assets-
don't bury them.
Mr S C Watkinson, Millgate Lane, Didsbury Manchester
9/6/00 The general idea is, or was, that councillors represent
the views of those who elect them.
Two high profile cases in recent times cast doubt on this and also raise the
question of who is in control, if anyone, at the Town Hall.
First, we have the masts and we find, via the Chronicle survey, that none of
the councillors interviewed seemed to know who had granted planning permission
and most knew nothing about them until they mysteriously appeared on Market
Now the revelations of a monstrous muddle emerging from the Town Hall seem to
suggest that the same sort of thing applies to the scandal regarding the amphitheatre.
We hear that council officers appear to have acted on their own without telling
councillors what is going on in the very Town Hall where these councillors are
supposed to exercise ultimate political control. If the councillors aren't in
control of their own show and the officers aren't either, who on earth is running
There seems to be a resounding silence from the Town Hall- perhaps someone could
John Lindop, Duddon Common, Tarporley
9/6/00 What was the point of setting up a polling station
in the Town Hall Square and constantly urging voters to use their votes
when the will of the people is blatantly defied by officials who have sanctioned
the building of the civil court over the site of our Roman amphitheatre?
This has ceased being a matter only of the amphitheatre and become an issue
Local democracy seems to count for nothing and I can suddenly understand the
desperate sense of frustration and anger that leads the populace to erect barricades
in the streets.
Cllr Eveleigh Moore Dutton, Tushingham Hall, Tushingham
16/6/00 Copy of a letter to the Rt Hon The Lord Irving of Lairg,
The Lord High Chancellor, House of Lords, London:
You are aware of the high level of concern in Chester over the construction
of the County Court House on the site of the Chester Amphitheatre, concern voiced
on lhe national stage.
I write as chairman of the Amphitheatre Liaison Group in Chester which includes
representatives of the Civic Trust and members of the public campaigning for
the Chester Amphitheatre. I write particularly in response to your reply of
April 15, 2000, to the letter sent to you by Stephen Langtree, chairman of the
Chester Civic Trust. You recount many but not all of the relevant facts, which
I suggest, leads you to draw the wrong conclusions, particularly in the current
site contains a Grade II listed building, the Ursuline Convent, which is now
commonly acknowledged will have to be demolished or relocated for the Amphitheatre
to be excavated. The choice is between retaining the Grade II listed building
or excavating the Scheduled Monument, the Amphitheatre. The tide of public opinion
in Chester appears now to be in favour of the Amphitheatre.
The site is bounded on the east side by another Scheduled Monument, the ruins
of the tower of St. John's Church. There is
no suggestion that there should be any excavation which would impinge on these
ruins nor upon the road which runs past the base of the tower to St. John's
Cottage and the Old Bishops Palace, a Grade II listed building directly to the
south of the Amphitheatre site.
The tower is adjacent to the present St John's Church, a Grade I listed building.
The tower and road would prevent the excavation of only about 3% of the Amphitheatre
site. The Amphitheatre is bounded on the west by Souters Lane, beyond which
is the City Wall, another Scheduled Monument. To the North of the site lies
Little St John Street, retained, at the instruction of the then Prime Minister,
on its present line in the 1930s specifically in order to avoid the Amphitheatre
In summary, the Amphitheatre, a Scheduled Monument, lies in a site bounded to
the east by another Scheduled Monument and a Grade 1 listed building, to the
south by a Grade II listed building and to the west by another Scheduled Monument.
It is the largest known Amphitheatre in England. This is therefore a site of
great scenic and architectural beauty which must rank among the finest urban
sites in the country.
Prior to December 1999, councillors and most of the informed public in Chester
were of the belief that any building would be of high quality design, located
to thc south of the Amphitheatre and semi-circular. This would have allowed
for excavation of the Amphitheatre in the medium if not in the short term. This
would have complied with the policy of the city council as stated in the council
resolution of November 9, 1998.
We are now at the position that this site is having a court house of mundane
and uninspired design which together with its car park will cover 20% of the
Amphitheatre. This present scheme has no architectural or other merit.
In addition there is no need for the court to be located on this site. It could
be constructed anywhere and other sites would be likely to offer advantages.
The decision to give planning permission, the business negotiations between
the Court Service and David McLean Developments, and the fact that the design
will not further damage the Roman remains may be accurate, but are irrelevant
to the overriding case. The situation is that a wholly inappropriate development
is taking place which will prevent the excavation and presentation of a superb
archaeological and urban site, probably for a 100 years.
Chester's history goes back almost two millennia- are we to witness an act of
institutional vandalism on this scale? I am asking you to call a halt to construction
and enter into constructive discussion, so that an alternative way forward can
I would draw your attention to the resolution of Chester City Council of April
12 which has deferred a decision to carry out renovation work on Dee House in
order to allow further consideration of the issue. The resolution also asked
that you enter into discussion with the council regarding the future of the
There is still time to act. I look forward to hearing from you.
Cllr Brian Bailey, Chairman, Amphitheatre Liaison Group
Cllr Bailey has commented on the above: "I have received
a reply from a Civil Servant in what is laughably described as the Customer
Service Unit, which is dismissive in the extreme. None of the matters of substance
I raised is even acknowledged let alone answered.
One has to wonder whether the Lord Chancellor has been made aware of the situation
regarding the Amphitheatre site or is it that the matter is being dealt with
solely by functionaries incapable of understanding the real issues involved?"