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The Amphitheatre XI

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part XII

The Amphitheatre XIII

Back to parts 1 | 01 | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XIII On to Gallery | Gallery 2 | Gallery 3

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At the end of October 2009, the local press reported excitedly that "city planners have revealed new details of how they plan to make one of the area's ancient monuments into a major tourist attraction for the region with the hope of drawing visitors from across the world".

amphitheatre works signAt an estimated cost of £300,000, the Chester Amphitheatre was to be subjected to a radical programme of improvements, including better interpretation signage, a new walkway spanning the northern entrance and the re-opening of the central walkway running along the top of what was the dividing wall between the arena and Dee House (constructed when this wall was reduced in height in 2004 and which had remained closed "for safety reasons" pretty much ever since.)

In addition, the arena floor and other areas would be covered with "original sand"- whatever that may be- and, excitingly, the previously-inaccessible other half of the site would be opened up "to help give visitors a more accurate depiction of the original structure, which was a circular building".

The 'opening up' duly happened, resulting in a cheerless, sand-covered expanse populated by the occasional uncomfortable picnic table.

But then came the brilliant idea to build a completely new set of 'ancient ruins'- walls and the lines of seating banks- on top of the genuine articles lying beneath! Those behind the proposals, Cheshire West & Chester Council, English Heritage and the tiresomely-inevitable Chester Renaissance, "did not believe the construction of the walls would be controversial as its design would be as historically accurate as possible and in keeping with the records of English Heritage"....

Archaeologist Peter Carrington added that the phony structures, "will be bult of sandstone. We're hoping it will be a bit more of the golden colour, so that even on a miserable Autumn day, it will have a nice glint to it." Bless.

In March 2010, the press told us that "visitors to Chester are invited to watch an artist-in-residence create a mural on the back wall of the amphitheatre. Chester Renaissance hope that the 3D mural will give the illusion of a complete circular structure," (there being precious little chance of ever seeing the real thing) "bringing the arena to life"...

We recall the idea of a mural on this wall was proposed many years ago by the Chester artist Gregory MacMillan, who, among much else, created the splendid mural in the Roman gravestones gallery at the Grosvenor Museum. His sketches appeared in the local press and the idea received a great deal of support but money and vision were, sadly, in short supply. However, this time around they've got a Londoner in (naturally), one Gary Drostle, who will working over an eight-week period in the Summer.

A Chester Renaissance spokesman said of the plans, "the works will enable the amphitheatre to be brought back to life as an open air venue for concerts and theatrical performances, as well as a much-improved tourist destination".

But, one must ask, is this what Chester's residents and visitors really want to see? Sir Arthur Evans was much criticised for his reconstruction work at Knossos- as was one Saddam Hussein for his crude 'restorations' at Babylon. People from all over the world come to Chester to see its real City Walls, its real Rows- its real ancient buildings and streets. If our discerning visitors wanted mere make-believe, surely they'd have gone to Disneyland instead?

And, as we have learned over and over during the course of our history of the long-suffering Chester amphitheatre, huge numbers of people have demanded nothing less than a complete excavation and sensitive display of the monument ever since its sensational discovery over eighty years ago. One wonders what they would have thought of today's efforts?

The scheme's designer told us that the new works would be constructed so as not to cause damage to the ancient remains beneath and so that the whole shebang could be demolished and carted away at some future date. When sanity returns and pigs fly presumably.

Work on Mr Drostle's mural started in mid-July and was completed a few weeks later. The finished work, to our mind exceedingly disappointing- may be seen in all its glory on the next page...

Here we present a few photographs of the Chester amphitheatre as it appeared in late April 2010, the programme of 'improvements' nearing completion...

amphitheatre restoration 4

The first of four views of the brand spanking new "ancient monument". Here we are in the previously-inaccessable southern half of the site, looking west towards Dee House (centre) and the County Courthouse (far left). The re-opened central walkway can just be seen on the right hand side.

Amazingly, the still-unseen entire southern half of the genuine Roman amphitheatre lies beneath this rather cheerless expanse, containing as it presently does nothing but some brand new ersatz ruins and a great deal of sand. We're informed that it will be designated as a family picnic area.

amphitheatre restoration 1

Looking west, here we see the brand new walls marking the outer walls of the first and larger second amphitheatres and their supporting buttresses. On the far left, the lines of the seating banks have been laid out with lengths of timber set in sand.

amphitheatre restoration 2

amphitheatre restoration 4

Here it can be seen that the eastern section of the excavated half of the monument remains lying under its grassy bank, in front of which is the genuine arena inner wall. The infill stones used in the reconstructed 'ruins' in the foreground were taken from a Roman quarry which was discovered when the Delamere Street bus station was demolished a few years ago.

In the background, the venerable Church of St. John the Baptist has recently been covered in scaffolding in preparation for an extensive programme of repairs and restoration. A large number of trees and shrubs were cleared from the vicinity of the church in March 2010, making it much more visible. Visit our chapters about this much-loved building here...

amphitheatre walkway april 2010
The new walkway, which pays scant respect to the amphitheatre's main entrance, through which gladiators once strode into the arena...

dee house chapel

dee house

Of course, the positive impact of the shiny-new amphitheatre upon our visitors may be somewhat tainted by the looming presence of the rotting hulk of Dee House and the artless County Court building behind it. What next for these buildings?

21/7/10: One of our readers recently wrote to the council to ask about the future of Dee House. He received the following brief reply, which he forwarded to us and we now reproduce for your enlightenment:

"Thank you for your email regarding Chester's former convent to the rear of the amphitheatre. Currently the building, and Dee House which it adjoins, is condemned as an unsafe building. The Council does have aspirations to restore this site, but is not in a position to bring forward any scheme at the current time due to financial constraints. There are no plans to excavate the amphitheatre any more than at present.
Lyndsay Ainsworth, Senior Planning Officer, Cheshire West and Chester Council"

chester guided walksThe following interesting article appeared in The Sunday Telegraph, 11th July 2010:

Historians locate King Arthur's Round Table

"Researchers exploring the legend of Britain’s most famous Knight believe his stronghold of Camelot was built on the site of a recently discovered Roman amphitheatre in Chester.

Legend has it that his Knights would gather before battle at a round table where they would receive instructions from their King. But rather than it being a piece of furniture, historians believe it would have been a vast wood and stone structure which would have allowed more than 1,000 of his followers to gather.

Historians believe regional noblemen would have sat in the front row of a circular meeting place, with lower ranked subjects on stone benches grouped around the outside. They claim rather than Camelot being a purpose built castle, it would have been housed in a structure already built and left over by the Romans.

Camelot historian Chris Gidlow said: “The first accounts of the Round Table show that it was nothing like a dining table but was a venue for upwards of 1,000 people at a time. We know that one of Arthur’s two main battles was fought at a town referred to as the City of Legions. There were only two places with this title. One was St Albans but the location of the other has remained a mystery.”

The recent discovery of an amphitheatre with an execution stone and wooden memorial to Christian martyrs, has led researchers to conclude that the other location is Chester. Mr Gidlow said: “In the 6th Century, a monk named Gildas, who wrote the earliest account of Arthur’s life, referred to both the City of Legions and to a martyr’s shrine within it. That is the clincher. The discovery of the shrine within the amphitheatre means that Chester was the site of Arthur’s court and his legendary Round Table.”

This material was apparently expanded into a TV programme that was aired on The History Channel during July 2010.

There are, of course, numerous problems with the above, not least the twice-stated statement regarding the "newly discovered" Chester amphitheatre- which actually occured in 1929, as you'll know if you've followed our brief history of the monument. Just one more example concerns that 'shrine'- actually altar- within the amphitheatre, which, as is known to everyone that has visited it, is dedicated to Nemesis, patron goddess of amphitheatres and goddess of retribution, and was placed there by the Centurion Sextus Marcianus "after a vision". It has nothing at all to do with 6th Century martys. You can see a picture of it and learn more on the first page of our story of the amphitheatre.

But it is worth mentioning that a fascinating and convincing body of evidence was propounded by Robert Stoker in his book The Legacy of Arthur's Chester (1965) which points out that there were two towns bearing the name of Caerleon (see the 16th century Chester monk Henry Bradshaw's poem below) and, after the departure of the Romans, it was Chester that became the ecclesiastical and civil capital of the Kings of Britain and the city of the coronation of a not-so-legendary King Arthur, not Caerleon-on-Usk (Isca) in South Wales. The confusion apparently lies with Arthur's medieval chronicler (and notorious fabricator), Geoffrey of Monmouth, whose patron, Robert of Gloucester, was Lord of the Monmouth Marches, where Caerleon-on-Usk is situated.

It seems that Geoffrey, doubtess partly in order to please his Lord, attributed all references dealing with 'Caerleon-ar-Dour' (Chester) to 'Caerleon' without qualifying which one was meant. Historians have ever since, for example, been crediting Isca with having an archbishop since AD 180 because the local boy of Monmouth said so in 1100, and nobody has ever checked the record... Whatever the case, think of the still-magnificent old fortress on the Dee as you read Geoffrey's description of Arthur's coronation in the early years of the seventh century:

"From the approach of the Feast of Pentecost, Arthur... resolved the whole magnificent court, to place the crown upon his head and to invite all the Kings and Dukes under his subjection to the solemnity... He pitched upon the City of Legions as a proper place for this purpose, for beside the great wealth of it, above all other cities its situation... was most pleasant, for on one side it was washed by the noble river so that Kings and Princes from countries beyond theseas might have the convenience of sailing up to it; on the other side the beauty of the meadows and groves, and the magnificence of the Royal palaces with lofty gilded roofs that adorned it may even rival the grandeur of Rome. There came... the Archbishops of the three Metropolitan Sees- London, York and Dubricius of the City of the Legions, this Prelate who was Primate of Britain and Legate of the Apostolic See, was so eminent for his piety that by his prayers he could cure any sick person."

"Two Cities of Legions in chronicles we find;
One in South Wales in the time of Claudius
Called Caerusk by Britons had in mind;
Or else Caerleon built by King Belinus:
Where sometimes was a Legion of Knights Chivalrous.
This City of Legions was whilom the Bishop's See
To all South Wales nominate Venedocie.
Another City of Legions we find also
In the West part of England by the waters of Dee
Called Caerleon of Britons long ago,
After named Chester by great authority...
This City of Legions so called by Romans...
Proved by buildings of old antiquity...
Each house like a castle, sometimes of great pleasure"

Time to move on to some views of that marvellous mural in part XIII or instead go on to the ancient and beautiful Church of St. John the Baptist...

Top of Page | Site Front Door | Site Index | Chester Walls Stroll Introduction | Amphitheatre I | 01 | II | III | IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XIII | Gallery | Gallery 2 | 3
Letters page 1 | 2 | 3 | 4 | 5 | 6 | 7 | 8 | 9 | Some alternative views | Chester Amphitheatre Project | Save the Chester Amphitheatre! (1932)
St. John's House | 'Round in Circles' by Flavius | The amphitheatre on the Chester Wiki | On to St. John's Church

We've said it before, we'll say it again. The Chester Virtual Stroll is an independent publication. It supports the aims of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust and, more often than you'd think, of the City Council and English Heritage but is not otherwise connected with them, or any other organisation, in any way whatsoever.
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