Chester Guided Walks

If you find our 'virtual stroll' stimulating, why not treat yourself to one of our real guided walks?
Join photographer, author and historian Steve Howe to wander Chester's world famous City Walls, the most complete in Britain, and discover the delights of the city they have guarded for 2000 years. See sights and hear stories you'll never find in any guidebook! Booking is simple- click on the picture to learn more..

The Amphitheatre II

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part III

The Amphitheatre IV

Back to parts 1 | 01 and II On to parts IV | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX | X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 - or on to St. John's Church

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McLeans courthouseThose readers who have made it this far through the sorry story of the Chester amphitheatre, and therefore presumably formed their own opinions regarding the development proposals, may be interested to see the 'artist's impression' of McLean's masterpiece which appeared in the local press at the time. The architects were Downs Variava of Didsbury, Manchester.

It did not go unnoticed that their design bore a remarkable similarity to the hotels previously erected by McLean's on Princes Dock and at the Old Haymarket in Liverpool city centre. But then, it seems, so does much else of their 'off-the-peg' brand of architecture.

Note the semi-circular lines in the car park indicating the buried monument beneath- the excavated portion of the amphitheatre lies out of shot on the right. Sounds like a bad joke but here are some photographs of the real thing...

• Several years later, in January 2007, the author noted that the scruffy painted indications of where the monument lay beneath the car park had been greatly improved- by replacing them with rows of cobblestones.

Equally incomprehensible were some of the tiny thoughts of the leaders of the political parties within Chester City Council. In a surely-unprecedented act of party unity, they issued a joint statement strongly criticising this author. Signed by Councillors John Price (Labour), Graham Proctor (Lib Dem), Brian Bailey (Conservative) and Doug Haynes (Independent), they accused him of urging potential visitors to boycott Chester and that he was "betraying the city, putting jobs and livelihoods at risk and undermining the tremendous work being done to maintain Chester's reputation as 'The Jewel of the North. We would urge people who visit Chester to make their own minds up about the heritage, culture, top quality shopping and beautiful countryside that has helped establish our renowned international reputation... besmirching the city on the world wide web is not the way to win an argument and does everyone a great disservice".

As indeed did maliciously misrepresenting what was actually written, and publishing it on the City Council website. Betrayal of our fair city over the matter of the amphitheatre (let alone the old Market Hall, Electric Light Building, Grosvenor Precinct Roman Bath House and, doubtless coming soon, the Northgate Development) there most certainly was- in cartloads- but certainly not from this direction.

Cllr Bailey in particular should have noted that fellow Tories, such as the prospective Conservative candidate for the City of Chester, David Jones, the Shadow Culture Secretary, Peter Ainsworth and ex-Environment Minister, John Gummer were all horrified by the redevelopment proposals and issued press statements to that effect. McLean's sign on Dee House(However, to his immense credit, Cllr Bailey has since been prominent among opponents of the courthouse and, in late April 2000 was brave enough to publicly state, "It was a mistake, and we were all to blame").

Right: Jumping the gun? This sign at the entrance to Dee House long declared 'New office and heritage development by David McLean with Chester City Council'- despite no decisions having been made regarding the future of the building. It only disappeared when members of the public kicked up a fuss.

The aforementioned Mr Jones- who assured us that Chester's Conservatives have always opposed building on or near the amphitheatre- wrote in the local press, "Until the late 1920s the existence of the amphitheatre was a matter only of speculation. Its discovery was a sensation, and when, in the 1930s, it was planned to build a new road through the site, there was an international outcry. The amphitheatre is the largest in Britain and is a treasure to be cherished. I find it impossible to believe that the new court had to be built here, and could not have been built on one of any number of other sites around the city. If Chester is to continue to attract visitors and maintain its position as a heritage city of international importance, it must find ways of protecting sites such as the amphitheatre and presenting them in an imaginative way that respects their archaeological significance. Quite simply, Chester deserves better. I hope that, even at this late hour, a way can be found of stopping the Court development. If not, then the question must be asked: How on earth was this allowed to happen?"

How indeed. Former minister John Gummer, writing in Construction News in May 2000, criticised the development as "a second-rate building, despoiling a first-class archaeological site, in a city of world renown". In the article, he blamed the Lord Chancellor's Department for the development, accusing it of commissioning a succession of poor quality buildings. He continued: "Now they've surpassed themselves in Chester by threatening to build a really mediocre building on the site of the Roman amphitheatre in one of the great cities of Europe. As a result, we shall lose the last chance to excavate the Roman remains that have yet to been seen in modern times. There is no doubt whose responsibility this is. It is the client- Her Majesty's Government".

chester guided walksPeter Ainsworth had this to say: "Chester's Roman heritage is one of the glories of England. What will future generations think of a city council which, given responsibility for the largest amphitheatre in Britain, decides to build a court house on it? It frankly beggars belief that planning permission was granted in the first place. We should be investing in our cultural heritage and displaying it with pride, not burying it under concrete and ".

Mr Ainsworth also wrote to the Arts Minister, Alan Howarth and to Sir Jocelyn Stevens, Chairman of English Heritage, to express his deep concern and Mr Jones contacted Chester City Council Chief Executive, Paul Durham, to seek assurances that the new County Court building to be erected on the site of Chester's Roman amphitheatre complied entirely with the terms of the planning permission granted in April 1995.

"The planning permission was for 'new build offices', intended as the corporate headquarters of the developers" said Mr Jones. "The building now planned, however, is a courthouse, containing three courtrooms. Although there will be ancillary offices, it seems to me that the primary use of the building is rather different from what was proposed in the planning application. There is considerable opposition in Chester to this project, and I think it fair that Chester City Council should be asked to give the public a total assurance that, in terms of planning law, a courthouse is identical to an office block".

In Mr Durham's reply, he agreed that there was indeed a change of use- but not a material change of use.

The highly-respected Chester Civic Trust held a special meeting about the amphitheatre on 7th February 2000 at which "it was alleged that a controversial planning decision had been made by a council officer without any consultation with the full council and it was agreed by all present to individually contact all the relevant authorities concerned in an attempt to have that decision reviewed".

What could this have meant? The officer in question, there was little reason to doubt, was none other than City Council's former 'Conservation Officer', one Peter de Figueiredo, less-than-fondly remembered locally for such splendours as the ludicrous roof needlessly added to the medieval Thimbleby's Tower, the wooden bollards that now clutter up much of our city centre and, of course, those flagpoles in Market Square.

A richly deserving winner of the 1998 Bob Clough-Parker BCP For Taste (All Bad) Award and whose name produces the strangely-appropriate anagram, 'EERIE FIDGET DOER-UP', even publicly-available documents showed that he was engaged in negotiations with Court Service architects as long ago as November 1998- over a year before the people of Chester got wind of the proposals.

All this, of course, was before his departure to take up a senior regional position with English Heritage, who, we recall, have since contributed greatly to the confusion due to their unbending opposition to further excavation of the amphitheatre...

(A gauge of the great one's taste may be ascertained from his comments at a public lecture later in 2000 about the monstrous 1960s facade of the Chester Market Hall. Regarding its recent replacent by Scottish Widows, he felt that "Chester may come to regret the loss of this bold building")

City council press officer, Michael McGivern was quoted in the Chester Chronicle in May 2000, saying that councillors were informed about the change of use from offices to courthouse in November 1998, but the councillors themselves declared that they knew nothing of the proposals until December 1999, thirteen months later! Who were we to believe?

aerial view of amphitheatreAround this time, the Civic Trust was taking the lead in Chester's celebration of 2000 Years of Building by preparing a signposted 'heritage trail' to assist our visitors in finding their way around what architectural splendours Chester still had to offer. We much doubted at the time that McLean's artless efforts would be qualifying for a blue plaque.

Right: an aerial view of the excavated northern half of the Chester amphitheatre. Dee House is on the left and the car parking area below it is now the site of McLean's County court and office complex. St. John's Church is seen bottom right. Another fine aerial view of the site may be seen here

The local press of February 11th 2000 quoted former city archaeologist, now employed by commercial consultants Gifford's, Tim Strickland as claiming that "the amphitheatre would cost £5 million to excavate" but that "national funding is unlikely to be forthcoming as English Heritage is opposed to excavation". It was therefore suggested that "this would result in a rise in council Tax bills of £11 per year for the next ten "...

Although we personally thought these figures- presumably based upon what his company would have charged- were deeply questionable, we were nontheless convinced that a great many individuals and businesses in Chester and beyond would have been more than willing to contribute in order to see that this great monument was dealt with in a way that we could all be proud of. But were they ever given the chance?

Compared to the £50 million quoted as the eventual (?) cost of the ludicrous CDTS Busway, surely a small fraction of this could be found to save this nineteen hundred year old monument? In fact, five million pounds seems like remarkably good value for money considering the economic and cultural benefits a fully-excavated amphitheatre would doubtless bring to our city in the years- even centuries- to come.

Standing upon the City Wall near the Newgate in late February 2000, it was ironic to see the effort being put in to the restoration of the so-called Roman Garden, just across Souter's Lane from the amphitheatre, right down to the mosaic work, marble benches and newly-planted cypress trees. Now completed, it looks splendid and is a great asset to the city, but it remains, nontheless, little more than a pretty sham, its collection of columns and other relics having been largely torn from their original locations during the construction of the Forum and Grosvenor Precinct.

Whereas, looking beyond it, the genuine article was being shamelessly abused: one could watch a digger at work on the edge of the site and see a growing pile of sandstone blocks piling up next to it, and by a few months later, the concrete 'raft' was laid and the new building was being rapidly erected.

Who do you think was Chairman of the Planning Committee, back in April 1995, that granted permission for all this to go ahead in the first place? None other than Chester's then- Member of Parliament, Christine Russell, who was doubtless be less-than-pleased that the matter had been discussed at Westminster and that her constituency had become the subject of international ridicule and disbelief. Despite which, she long failed to make any public statement whatsoever upon the subject. The Chester Chronicle reported, however, that she had told them she "didn't remember" how she voted at the time, but, remarkably, did recall arguing that "the plan should be sent back for a complete re-design". Uh-huh.

ephesus theatreThe people of Chester and beyond are unlikely to forget the actions- or lack of action- of those politicians, planners and developers concerned for many, many years to come. When air raid trenches were dug across part of the amphitheatre site in 1939, the father of archaeology in Chester, the great Professor Robert Newstead wrote, "What an outrage! A monstrous piece of stupidity and wanton destruction"... We wondered what he would have had to say regarding the contemporary situation?

Putting Chester's amphitheatre somewhat to shame is the great Roman theatre on the slope of Panayir Hill, Ephesus, Turkey. Originally built in the 3rd century BC, it will seat 25,000 spectators and is still used for major concerts today. Photograph by the author.

A correspondent in the local press around this time made the entertaining suggestion "Why not get a couple of lions from Chester Zoo and see how our elected representatives will fare in half an amphitheatre with not much room to manoeuvre? Daniel made it- why shouldn't the people of Chester?"

On 5th April 2000, a packed public meeting at Chester Town Hall gave its overwhelming support to the setting up of a charitable body- the Chester Amphitheatre Trust- with the long term aims of acquiring the site of the amphitheatre, fully excavating it and running it as a public amenity.

The very next day after this meeting, the following press release appeared on the City Council's own website:

'City Council is Protecting Amphitheatre'
Protection for future generations, not destruction of Chester's Roman amphitheatre and two listed building is Chester City Council's aim.
That's the response of head of communications, Mike McCabe to those campaigning for a full excavation of the site. He says," We are and always have been sympathetic to the idea of full excavation at some time in the future, but the council cannot intervene in development of the new county courts which will, in any event, take up less than 2% of the uncovered site. Also we could never support some of the proposals for full excavation of the amphitheatre being aired now because they would require demolition of the listed Dee House and the medieval St John's Tower. This council is determined to protect all of the city's heritage and is keen to promote the amphitheatre as a public open space and centre of cultural and educational activity. Central to plans for the area is the complete restoration of Dee House. The council is now working with developers on proposals for the rejuvenation of the whole area. Ideas being discussed include:
* Removing the unsightly wall that bisects the site;
* Creating a public piazza in front of Dee House for leisure and cultural activities
* Using the amphitheatre for staged music and drama
* Interpretation of the history of the site, to encourage tourists and educational visits
* Community archaeological projects, involving local people in supervised small-scale excavations which will gradually reveal more of the monument
* Improved access including access to the arena for people mobility problems"

Read what people really think: a growing collection of letters Go on to Part IV - or visit the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist..

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

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