must be many Cestrians, and thousands of others further afield, who will be
deeply dismayed by the recent announcement that David McLean is to implement
his planning permission for a new office block at the rear of Dee House.
Dismayed but hardly surprised that, once again, the avarice of a property developer
coupled with the complacency and complicity of the City Council and the arrogance
of English Heritage have conspired to deny the people of Chester, and its many
visitors, the all too rare opportunity these days to witness the uncovering
and restoration of one of its few remaining major archaeological treasures-
the amphitheatre of the Roman legionary fortress of Deva.
This part of the city is so rich in heritage remains and leisure facilities-
St. John's Church, the Walls, the south-east angle tower of the legionary fortress,
the Roman Gardens, the Groves amd Grosvenor Park- that it practically constitutes
a cultural zone or antiquities park yet the council is promoting the growth
of a commercial canker at its heart.
I suppose this should hardly come as a surprise for the council is merely continuing
its long tradition of archaeological vandalism. True, it nowadays fulfils its
obligations under planning law to archaeological remains by ensuring they are
either recorded before being destroyed to make way for development or left untouched
in the ground, but when it comes down to treating them imaginatively or ensuring
public access the city council has always lacked vision and ambition. Given
what other places with a far more modest archaeological inheritance have managed
to do, Chester's achievements in this direction are positively Lilliputian.
One must assume that familiarity breeds contempt. This is the authority that
allowed the destruction of the Elliptical Building- an extraordinary
and fascinating Roman building without parallel anywhere in the Roman World-
in the late 1960s together with the well-preserved remains of an adjacent bath-building
with walls still standing 10 feet high. And what new building was so important
as to justify this destruction? None other than the new council offices with
their accompanying underground car-park named, both erroneously and insultingly,
as the Forum. All that is left to see is a minute and neglected portion
of the neighbouring Headquarters Building.
It is both ironic and depressing that the city has lost so many of its archaeological
treasures, with little or no record, in order to accommodate the motor-car when
as little as 20 years later the authorities are trying to keep them out of the
Chester suffered an even greater loss a few years earlier in 1964 when the impressive
ruins of the main bath-building of the fortress- which included enormous rooms
40 feet wide and 70 feet long containing mosaic floors, complete underfloor
heating systems, bathing pools, and enclosed by walls 4 feet thick and 12 feet
high- were bulldozed aside to enable the construction of the Grosvenor Precinct;
it is true, as it says in the recent television advertisement, that the precinct
is "surrounded by history" but it certainly doesn't have any beneath it any
more. Preserving and placing on display any one of these buildings would have
made Chester a centre of excellence in the heritage field and miles ahead of
Today the council spouts impressive sounding policies in its jargon-laden "mission
statement" and produces numerous feasibility studies but, as is so often the
case these days, there is much gloss and little substance. The city trades on
its Roman heritage but does surprisingly little to protect and enhance it. Instead,
it rests on its laurels and exploits and takes credit for the past work of others,
doing just enough to maintain its historic heritage but showing little sign
of understanding its real worth or what, if imaginatively managed, it could
contribute to the economic as well as the cultural life of the city.
The vision of those who control the authority rarely lifts above the horizon
of their expense and allowance claims or exploiting those short term populist
causes for their own self-interest. With very few exceptions the "heritage assets"-
to use an ugly but handy phrase- of Chester were preserved or established by
individuals and independent bodies. The Grosvenor Museum was built by public
donations raised chiefly by the Chester Archaeological Society and that
organisation was also responsible for recovering the internationally important
collection of Roman inscriptions, sculptures and fragments of architecture which
it houses together with many thousands of other artefacts.
There used to be a strong partnership between the council and such voluntary
sector bodies but that relationship appears to have been devalued and discarded
by the council in recent years. Having (ostensibly at least) taken on board
the concerns and some of the functions of such groups the council seems to feel
that it can now ignore them and their views with impunity. It, or rather the
councillors and the highly salaried chief officers, have become arrogant to
the extent that they are convinced they know best and if they can't make a project
work they'll make damned sure that no-one else can. Yes they can plead constraints
by central government on expenditure but that is no excuse for preventing others
from trying to succeed where they have failed. They regard themselves as "professionals"
and all others as "amateurs" but they would do well to remember the real meaning
of those two terms. Not really interested or caring, and with only a shallow
understanding themselves, these people ridicule those with a deeper knowledge
as "elitists" or "academics". They are truly at home in the current age of the
To return to the case of the amphitheatre. The history of the discovery and
management of this monument well illustrates many of above points. It was discovered
in 1929 by the Chester Archaeological Society which paid for excavations to
determine its exact position and outline. At this time, a scheme for the straightening
out of Little St John Street was being planned by the council with the diverted
road planned to run right across the amphitheatre. The Society lobbied not only
the council but also the government and launched a national appeal for funds
to purchase the strategically placed St John's House and its grounds so that
the remains could be protected and eventually excavated and displayed. A tremendous
success, gaining even the support of the-then prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald,
the council was shamed into postponing the road scheme. The money raised by
the Society enabled them to buy the property and, after the interruption of
the Second World War and its aftermath, they came to an agreement with the Ministry
of Public Building and Works, later the Department of.the Environment, whereby
the property was donated to the nation so that the northern half of the amphitheatre
could be excavated and placed on public display. The Society not only gifted
the site to the government but also paid for the costs of demolishing St John's
House and even donated more than £5,000 to the costs of excavation and conservation;
a tidy sum at 1960s prices. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, when the monument
was opened to the public in 1972 the Society's instrumental role was overlooked
and is entirely without mention on the information panels or the site.
It was only two years later that the first opportunity to achieve the exposure
of the rest of the amphitheatre presented itself when the Ursuline Convent then
occupying Dee House placed it on the open market. Neither local nor central
government seized the opportunity and Dee House was sold to British Telecom.
It came onto the market again in the mid-1980s and a local businessman, Tony
Barbet, negotiated an option to purchase the site, hoping to realise his
ambition not only to expose the other half of the amphitheatre but also to build
a new museum and visitor centre at the south end of the site which could tell
far more of the story of Roman Chester than current facilities allowed.
Mr Barbet could have handled the publicity more sensitively for his scheme was
criticised for being disney-esque and hardly worth the loss of the by now listed
(but only with Grade II unstarred status) Dee House. The local branch of the Civic Trust and the national period societies objected vehemently and
vociferously. Some in the council were also upset, seeing the scheme as a threat
to the city's museum services. Yet, after years of discussion and having to
undergo the rigours and costs of a public inquiry, Barbet won the day and was
granted permission for his scheme, including the demolition of Dee House, in
1990. By then though his expenditure had become too great to bear and he was
A few years later and the site was up for sale again. One might have thought
that by now English Heritage, given that the DoE had spent so much on uncovering
one half of the amphitheatre, would have stepped in and purchased the remainder
for the nation. But no, in what to many must have seemed a betrayal of the hard
work and aspirations of local people as well as the principles of the DoE in
earlier times, they stood aloof and allowed the site to be bought by the property
developer David MacLean who 'generously' allowed the city council to
buy the older part of Dee House and some of its grounds.
By now, English Heritage had adopted its "leave it undisturbed if at
all possible" policy even in cases such as this where half of the monument had
already been excavated by their predecesor organisation. A need to avoid
expenditure rather than the oft-quoted concern to await improvements in investigative
techniques was the real motive for this policy. It is a further irony that
the general public was denied access to its archaeological heritage in past
decades because it was destroyed, often even without record, and now the same
is happening because government policy says leave it untouched (though not necessarily
unaffected) by development. The council obviously had no idea of how to take
the project forward, they were merely displaying their usual dog-in-the-manger
attitude of being afraid of anyone else stepping in and taking up the existing
planning permission and thus creating a facility which would put their own museum
service in the shade.
Much publicity surrounded the council's purchase and it was announced that Dee
House would be retained and used as a heritage interpretation centre, the Civic
Trust and allied bodies being relieved at its retention, with some promised
improvements to the exposed part of the amphitheatre. This appeared to put an
end to any hopes of exposing the entire amphitheatre and David McLean's reward
was planning permission to demolish the 1930s extension at the rear of Dee House
and put a new office block in its place. English Heritage raised no objections
to this scheme and so effectively cut the legs from under those who still believed
in the attainment of a complete amphitheatre.
To take their scheme forward, the council set up a charitable trust, the Chester
Heritage Trust - whose membership consisted of city councillors, members
of the Civic Trust, and other local 'worthies' including the usual ego-tripping
architect but, astonishingly, not a single archaeologist, let alone a representative
from the Archaeological Society. In view of subsequent events, they may be thankful
they were not associated with it. Four years on and what has that body achieved?
First, it attempted unsuccessfully to get a grant from the Heritage Lottery
Fund for the costs of a feasibility study of the refurbishment of Dee House.
Then, it came up with the idea of persuading McLean to abandon his scheme and
build a hotel instead, at the same time demolishing Dee House and excavating
the southern half of the amphitheatre. This was actually supported by those
same members of the Civic Trust who only a few years earlier when Barbet attempted
to do this had supposedly been outraged at the idea. The words hypocrisy and volte face spring to mind.
Anyway, in this they also failed, apparently lacking any idea how to mount a
campaign to raise the necessary funds. Now we are in the situation where McLean
intends to implement his planning permission and erect a new building which
will hinder, but not actually prevent, the exposure of the rest of the amphitheatre.
At the same time, because of all this prevarication the deterioration of Dee
House has reached a very serious state despite it being owned by the city council.
Perhaps they will have the courage to demolish it and pursue the full exposure
of the amphitheatre as a long term goal, something which is their stated aim
in the Council minutes. Don't hold your breath though, because we now hear from
the city's Chief planning officer, Andrew Farrall, that talks are underway
to convert Dee House to mixed heritage/commercial use; perhaps moving Chester
Visitor Centre to the ground floor with commercial offices above. The organisation
with which these talks are being held is no doubt David McLean Developments.
We are told that the firm is "reluctant to link its (Dee House's) future with
work on the new county court building". However, the game is given away by the
next sentence of the statement by Mark Thomas, the company's development
director, who said "The building due to start next month is stage one of our
Mr Farrall sees this as a "win, win, win situation". No Mr Farrall! It is perfectly
clear to all those who are not obsessed solely with economic development at
any cost that if it goes ahead this will be a "lose, lose, lose situation".
The condition of Dee House is now such that it is very doubtful if any of its
historic interior, or the few features which survived BT's occupancy of the
building, can be salvaged. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if the 'refurbishment'
being concocted by Mr Farrall and his co-conspirators at McLean's entails the
preservation merely of the building's facade with the remainder demolished and
And as to the possibility of money being available from the commercial rents
obtained to pay for further excavation of the aniphitheatre, this is meaningless
as the very retention of Dee House and the space needed for access precludes
the investigation of all but a tiny section of the Roman structure; sufficient
for a 'kiddies-corner dig' but little else. So, those who wanted to see Dee
House preserved intact will lose; those who wanted to see the investigation
and exposure of the entire amphitheatre will lose; those who wanted to
see a new Roman museum on the site where more of the city's magnificent collections
could be displayed rather than packed away in a warehouse will lose;
the city itself will lose because it will have given away what is probably the
last of many opportunities it has had to be an international centre of archaeological
excellence befitting its status as one of the most important sites of Roman
David McLean, too, will lose in the long term because he will be throwing away
the opportunity to act imaginatively and with public spiritedness to develop
the site along the lines I have described and, by using his commercial shrewdness
(just think of the popularity of the "Time Team" and similar television programmes,
Mr McLean)- guarantee its future success and himself a place in the pantheon
of local benefactors for as long as Chester exists.
Only those uncultured barbarians who pursue short-term gain or who prefer
heritage trivia over quality education facilities will stand to gain.
So rise to the occasion David McLean, English Heritage and the City Council!
Put this scheme on hold, think again, consult more widely, and take informed
advice as to how a combined amphitheatre excavation and new museum complex could
be made a reality.
Otherwise, hang your heads in collective shame and remember that the shrine
in the amphitheatre which you have dishonoured belongs to the goddess Nemesis.