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The Amphitheatre V

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Amphitheatre part VI

The Amphitheatre VII

Go to parts 1 | 01 | II | III | IV | V | VII | VIII | IX X | XI | XII | XIII | Gallery | 2 On to St. John's Church

"We regret that no progress has been made in uncovering the amphitheatre site. The inactivity and indecision in the matter is deplored, and although several communications have been adressed to the City Council on the subject, we appear to be no nearer a solution. Instead of the site being an attraction to the city, bringing visitors and so increasing trade, it is becoming a rubbish heap and a disgrace."
Extract from the Annual Report of the Chester Chamber of Trade, 1933

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Between July and September 2000, while the Chancellor's courthouse and car park continued to rise over part of the amphitheatre, the previously-excavated half was subjected to a small-scale 'community-based' excavation, run by the city council's Chester Archaeology with the assistance of the Chester Archaeological Society, students from Chester College and other volunteers. The reason for the exercise was explained by its leader, Keith Matthews:

"Following extensive excavations in the 1960s and full publication in 1976, one might be forgiven for thinking that we know all there is to know about the amphitheatre in Chester. But are any of the published 'facts' correct? Do we need to excavate the unexcavated 60% of the monument to find out? Many of the research questions relating to the Roman period that can be considered of 'national' or 'international' significance are capable of being addressed without fieldwork, through archive reassessment or other desk-based research. At this level, much of the fieldwork that might help answer various questions would best be targeted, small-scale work."

Right: a bronze 'trumpet brooch' c. AD100, with silver inlay featuring a stylised animal head, excavated from the seating bank of the amphitheatre in 1961

"The rationale behind the project was to see how much (if any) archaeology had survived the extensive excavations of the 1960s. Our understanding was that the post-Roman deposits had been bulldozed to one side of the site and then spread over the area that became the seating bank when the Ministry of Works landscaped the site in the early 1970s. We expected that little would survive under the modern gravel of the arena floor and that, at best, traces of the timber amphitheatre might survive under the seating bank. We were also concerned that stone we could see eroding through the gravel in the north entrance might be in situ archaeology. We therefore located our trenches to test these ideas."

It was also being claimed in some circles that the dig was a hurredly put together PR exercise designed to show that a much-criticised city council could at last be seen to be getting its finger out and 'doing something'. Mr Matthews was at pains to deny this, saying they'd been working towards the excavation since 1995 and the work was "unrelated to" the council decision of just a couple of weeks earlier to work towards full excavation and to demolish Dee House. That English Heritage's granting of permission for the dig and the council decision came at the same time was merely "coincidental"- although he believed that the work would help with the preparation of a full excavation strategy.

He also emphasised the difficulty of doing anything with Scheduled Monument Consent, saying that it takes "a cast iron Project Design, informal chats, formal letters, a correctly filled-out application form and then a minimum of six weeks 'consideration' by English Heritage".

Finds on the site included the expected shards of Roman and later pottery and also a bronze hairpin dating from around 100AD, a period when the stone-built amphitheatre was brand new, and would seem to indicate that it wasn't used only as a military training ground; the 4 inch-long pin would once have held in place a wealthy Roman lady's elaborate hairstyle, so affluent women were evidently visiting the amphitheatre at this time, and presumably not merely to watch squaddies drilling...

amphitheatre digIn addition to the above, something much rarer was unearthed by a volunteer working at the site- a flint blade dating from around 12,000 BC. It would have belonged to one of the first colonists of Britain after the Ice Age, from the Upper Paleolithic period. Although finds of a like antiquity have previously been made around Abbey Green, this was the first prehistoric artefact found in the area of the amphitheatre. A few days later, another volunteer discovered an arrow or spear point dating from around 4500BC- a period before widespread farming when hunters roamed the land in search of game such as deer and wild boar.

In the arena, much evidence came to light of the damage done to the site during previous excavations and the consolidation of the remains for public display by the Ministry of Works during the 1960s and 70s. Indeed, it looked as if part of the exposed sandstone bedrock had actually been 'shaved off' to make a level surface onto which they laid their 'protective' layer of gravel. The 'restorers' had showed even less respect for the Roman drains: the peripheral drain had been completely replaced by a concrete feature, while the axial drain had fared similarly badly. Worse still, a herringbone pattern of concrete land drains had been installed, designed (unsuccessfully) to improve the poor drainage of the arena.

Incidentally, when the printed report upon the dig was published in the Spring of 2001, it made the puzzling claim that "the local press had given the impression that it was the exposed part of the monument that was due to be built on" (we are in possession of a virtually complete set of cuttings dealing with this issue, but ne'er a mention of this can we find)- and "at least one tour bus announced that the archaeological trenches were part of the foundations of a new superstore".

chester guided walksHmm. Having overheard stranger yarns than this emanating from certain local tour guides, we'll admit that this is quite possible...

Keith Matthews and his team undertook a further series of excavations in 2001.They came up with some spectacular findings, which you can read about here.

Around the same time, Autumn 2000, the Chester Amphitheatre Trust was asked by the city council to set out its detailed initiative for the excavation of the monument and to come up with ideas for how it could be funded. The council stressed, however, that "plans from other interested parties would also be welcome".

Conservative Group Leader, Councillor Brian Bailey commented, "The resolution of the council makes it very clear that responsibility for the amphitheatre now rests with the council (now rests? Whose was it before?)- which has asked its officers to prepare, in partnership with other interested bodies, detailed and costed proposals. It means...that officers will bring forth the proposals..."

However, we gathered that Cllr Graham Proctor had requested that the Trust submit their own plans, something they were apparently reluctant, in the current climate, to do, saying that "to produce a plan of quality and depth requires the input of the city council itself and other knowledgable individuals and organisations. We could spend a lot of time and money putting together something that might be unacceptable for some reason".

And which may doubtless have proved to be of great benefit to one of those other 'interested parties'...

Trust founder Dr Liane Smith reacted to Cllr Bailey's suggestions by emphasising that "the input of the knowledge of the officers" would be needed but the excavation plans themselves would need to be drawn up by a "recognised local Roman expert with due consideration given to post-Roman remains".

The Trust announced in early September 2000 that a major fund raising drive was to commence in the near future- with an initial target of around £600,000. Company sponsorship was hoped to provide a high proportion of the money needed, paying for the demolition of Dee House, the clearance of the site and two years of excavation. "Companies would give donations if they know that there will be clear recognition of their contribution in terms of company logos at the visitor centre".

After that, it was hoped that a visitor centre would bring in revenue of up to £750,000 per year, paying for future excavation as part of a 10-year scheme.
Dr. Smith drew up an initial 'plan of action' entitled Steps to Success to formerly define the Trust's aims. It outlined three key elements:

• The production of an excavation plan that would be of a standard to convince English Heritage to allow it. "We would want to convince them that this is an excellent project which they could support".
• The provision of a self-funding visitor centre "to display the findings and present the site imaginatively to people".
• Fundraising issues; the initial cost of implementing Steps to Success would be £25,000, including £15,000 to York-based heritage experts Past Forward to advise on a business plan for the visitor centre.

Steps to Success is currently being studied by City council Head of Culture, Paul Gover and by the council's four group leaders.

aerial view of amphitheatreHere is a revealing aerial view of the Chester amphitheatre and its surroundings taken a few years ago. Compare it with the dramatic 1940s 'artist's impression' of what could have been here, with these early maps- and also this aerial photograph of the area in late 2001 showing the new court house in situ. Aside from the dramatic semi-circle of the excavated portion of the monument, also visible in the picture are...

1. The Church of St. John the Baptist. Claims from some quarters that a fully-exposed amphitheatre would result in the destruction of the remains of this unique and ancient church's West Tower (just visible, surrounded by trees in the picture) may clearly be seen to be quite untrue. Cullinan's proposals, circa 1998, for a semi-circular hotel 'wrapping around' a completely excavated amphitheatre also demanded the destruction of this tower.

2. The River Dee. The skyline of the city as viewed from the Handbridge side of the river is now dominated by the newly-erected courhouse, as may be seen here.

3. The 'Roman Garden'. This pleasant park housing a collection of old stones rescued from development sites around the city underwent a splendid restoration around the same time that the 'real thing' next door was being built upon.

4. The Newgate and City Walls. This was the south-east corner of the Roman fortress. Enlarged by the Saxons a thousand years ago, the city walls now extend down to the River Dee.

5. Dee House. The now-cleared red-roofed structures- extensions to the old telephone exchange- behind Dee House were on the site of the new County Courthouse and the open area to their left is now the court's car park. Although quiet when this photograph was taken, the line of Pepper Street / Little St. John Street / Vicar's Lane running around the edge of the amphitheatre is normally one of the most congested sections of Chester's Inner Ring Road and access from it to the court site is extremely restricted.

Our city is blessed with the unique combination of the fine open spaces of Grosvenor Park (just out of shot, beyond the church on the left), the Roman Garden, the beautiful Groves & River Dee- and the magnificent amphitheatre itself. To many it would appear sheer lunacy to knowingly condone the erection of a large commercial building and promote even more traffic in this extremely sensitive area...

dee house interiorIn late September 2000, the first meeting of a City Council panel set up to resolve the future of the amphitheatre and Dee House agreed that a conservation plan should be set up for the entire area and committed the sum of £15,000 towards it, a similar sum to be sought from English Heritage.
All four Town Hall political groups were said to be backing moves "to progress the redevelopment and future management of the amphitheatre and its surroundings"- although individuals within those groups remained deeply divided on key issues such as the retention or demolition of Dee House. The Chairman of the panel, for example, council leader John Price, as we have learned, is now much in favour of the former option.

The meeting was doubless astonished to hear Amphitheatre Trust co-founder Alan Williams announce that the Trust envisaged that a "timescale of 50 to 100 years" was likely to be necessary for the completion of the project- indeed, fellow members of the Trust were apparently equally astonished at Mr Williams' unilateral declaration, as was Conservative leader, Brian Bailey, who responded, "50 to 100 years is a very long time. We need to be doing something very much more quickly than that- as soon as we have a conservation plan. I hoped we would be thinking about a very much shorter timescale". Cllr Haynes agreed, saying, "It must be something less than 50-100 years".

Left: the destroyed interior of Dee House

The news must have been music to the ears of those within some areas of the planning machine however. In their eyes, it would allow the court house to remain in use for the rest of the century, make the commercial redevelopment of Dee House much more viable and, of course, allow many of the difficult decisions to be 'put off' to eventually become the problem of some future generation.

What was in Mr Williams' mind to compel him to make such a statement is a mystery- and a source of great concern to many. Perhaps it was just a slip of the tongue. A fellow Trust member told us they feared his remarks "were likely to cost us a great deal of the support we've built up among the public". And we agreed with them.

And what of Dee House, now the resolution had been passed "against the advice of officers" to go ahead and demolish it?
The council is legally responsible for maintaining the listed building in a 'weatherproof condition' until such time as a final decision is taken regarding its future. The repair of the as-yet unexplained fire damage to the roof has been completed, presumably having been paid for from insurance, but we were told that a sum of around £210,000 was apparently needed straight away to make good the results of long term neglect.

Some asked, if the roof had been fixed, what else was involved in this figure produced by the council officers? There were few new costs as far as they could see.

But in addition, a survey of the building's architectural features- what's left of them- is apparently necessary before demolition consent can be given- at the remarkable cost of around £20,000... Then there would be the annual maintainance costs to keep Dee House in good order until it is either done up or knocked down.

On top of this, a brief for the eventual excavation and presentation of the amphitheatre has to be drawn up for consultation- at a cost yet to be ascertained. Remembering the vast quantities of glossy, one-sided documents floating around during the CDTS Busway so-called 'consultation' exercise, we predict it'll be a high one.

amphitheatre gardens 1958Unfortunately for the council, and to the amazement of interested citizens, it transpired that they had actually made no provision at all for the above not-inconsiderable expenses! City Councillor Doug Haynes remarked after a meeting in July when these matters came to light, "This is the first time I have left a council meeting feeling embarrased and ashamed. None of these costs is in the budget. We already have an estimate of almost £250,000. I don't wish to see anything cut from other services".

Right: A view from 1958 of the gardens which formerly covered part of the amphitheatre site. Behind may be seen the Grosvenor St. John's School, now the Chester Visitor Centre, and the remains of St. John's House, then being demolished by the Chester Archaeological Society to commence the excavation of the amphitheatre. The gardens, further views of which may be seen here and here, were to follow soon after.

Cllr David Evans won the Understatement of the Year Award when he described the financial implications as "interesting". He admitted, "We have always known we had an obligation to keep Dee House in order, yet it appears we have nothing in the budget to do this. It would be worthy of Alice in Wonderland if, having decided to demolish Dee House, we should be faced with a bill to put it in good order".

'Interesting' was not the adjective we would have chosen. To declare that there was "nothing in the budget" for schools, libraries or highway maintainance would have produced a justifiably angry response from the citizens. So what was the difference regarding Dee House? Emptying the bins or protecting listed buildings- both are legal obligations upon local authorities. Where was the necessary money to come from? And what could have accounted for such an act of omission? We assumed that the original idea was for Dee House and its associated expenses to have been off the council's hands by now, delivered safely into the tender care of David McLean Ltd, and being turned into lovely offices...

In October 2000, the scandal of the Chester Amphitheatre was discussed at the Tory Party Conference! City councillor Eveleigh Moore Dutton adressed a 3000-strong audience on the final day of the conference in Bournemouth, describing the courthouse project as "outrageous and contrary to the will of the people of Chester and common sense" and mocked the Lord Chancellor by referring to him as "Lord Invine of Lairg and Wallpaper" (a satirical reference to his having shortly before spent £650,000 of public money upon the redecoration of his Westminster residence).

Summing up, Cllr Moore Dutton said "Thus our heritage is being locked away beneath a courthouse and associated car park. The amphitheatre is part of our national heritage and I therefore appeal for your help and support".

Go on to Part VII, read a growing collection of letters to us and the local press about the amphitheatre- or visit the ancient Church of St. John the Baptist instead...

Top of Page | Site Front Door | Site Index | Chester Stroll Introduction | Amphitheatre I | 01 | II | III | IV | V | 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! (published in 1932) | On to St. John's Church

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