Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

The Chester Amphitheatre

Letters to this site and the local press regarding the current development proposals part IV. On to parts V | VI | VII | VIII | IX

McLean's sign on Dee house12/5/00 "City council is not split over amphitheatre issue"...
Ever since joining Chester City Council I have been one of those who have been saying that Dee House should be removed and the amphitheatre excavated and its full scope realised.
The amphitheatre is a unique and priceless asset both to Chester and to Britain as a whole. Sitting alongside the Roman walls and partly overlapped by St. John's Church, which is said to have been built from its stone, it has the power to excite the imagination more than any other Roman remains in Chester.
For the last two years the city council's clearly expressed wish to achieve the full exposure of the amphitheatre has come to nothing. Without the support of bodies such as English Heritage, and national and even international funding on a large scale, that aim will remain unachievable.
However, it seems perverse in the extreme that a new courthouse is being built over part of the amphitheatre, so putting at an end any possibility of people seeing the whole amphitheatre for the next 100 years or so.
I am not one of those who might be satisfied by the claims of the promoters of the new courthouse that the archaeological remains will be little disturbed by the new construction. Clearly, it is the fully-exposed form of the amphitheatre which is the most interesting prospect. Besides, a decision to expose the whole amphitheatre would set in train a major archaeological excavation, which itself could be a wonderful source of interest for many years.
Nor am I one who would be content to see a new building built around the edge of the amphitheatre. To do that would totally dominate the site and destroy any possibility of invoking the atmosphere of the place. Even a fully exposed amphitheatre would appear a mere sunken garden against the backcloth of such a proposal.
Nor am I distracted by the attempts of the promoters of the new courthouse to point the finger at any one group of councillors or other for past decisions. Clearly, they hope to get thelr way by promotlng division among councillors. My impression from the last council meeting was that there was no such division and that all were in support of the aims of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust.

If that be the case, how on earth did they manage to land us in the current mess? Ed)

I suspect that the people of Chester will be appalled to see the new courthouse when it emerges in all its size and height. Very few have had the chance to see even an illustration of it. More than that, those visitors who are taken by the Roman Legionaries along the wall and who look across the Roman Gardens, newly laid out by the council, will wonder what on earth got into us. This building could do great damage to Chester's reputation as a heritage city,not only in this country, butin the eyes of our visitors across the world.
A decision to stop the courthouse now is overdue.
Cllr Neil Ritchie (Con), Chester City Council, Tilston Ward

12/5/00 A reading from the book of Philistines.
Yea, it was so, certain peoples who would behold to the name of planners and councillors. They did gather and chastise and ridicule anything gone before them.
They did go into the city with theodolites and all measures of metricize.
And they did become upon a wondrous sight, a Roman amphitheatre. Much pacing and scratching of their craniums was done. And they did say "Let us build a county court on the amphitheatre. We will make it functional and tasteless. And it shall be many cubits high and wide. Let us destroy for ever the Roman artefacts. We careth not what mere mortals thinketh."
And planning permission was thus granted.
And they did decide to make pedestrian crossings that maketh no noise. But included studded paving for those who hath problems of seeing, in the crossings' construction. They careth not. For they did journey all of ye time in four wheel chariots calleth the automobile.
Then they did decide to build subways. Places for muggers to go and do their business, scribes to placeth their graffiti and a place for the drunkard to urinate.
Much wailing and crying out in the wilderness was spake and written on papyrus. The planners ignored the people who be of little wealth and 'understanding'. Instead they maketh the city into one almighty car park. And they did count the many shekels in their wages.
However they realised the needs of ye tourists. So they did gather. And they did thinketh of ways of attracting the camcorder nomads. And finally one Planner he did speaketh, "Let us purchase a Gondola. And we shall maketh Deva the Venice of the North!" The planners did thinketh this would maketh a good idea. And one who shall be nameless was heard to speake, "Why doeth we not buy two and breed them?"

12/5/00 Who is telling the truth, Chester City Council press officer Michael McGivern or the city councillors?
Mr McGivern states (Chronicle, May 5, 'Developer's proposal kept from public for a year') that councillors were informed of the change of use from offices to a County court in regard to the amphitheatre site in November 1998.
Councillors say, however, that they knew nothing about the court scheme until December 1999,13 months later.
Indeed, most of them believed the current scheme under consideration as for a hotel designed to avoid impinging on the amphitheatre structure.
Who are we meant to believe, Mr McGivern, you or the councillors?
Or do you mean that a certain few councillors knew about this decision and not others? Perhaps councillors should start asking questions instead of being obediently whipped?
Vanda Hargen, Upton, Chester

12/5/00 Mark Thomas of David McLean Developments says the present public debate over the amphitheatre is five years too late. It is hard to see how the public debate could have taken place earlier when when the public have been kept in ignorance. The whole process has been marked by an attempt to deny and limit public consultation to the very minimum and present a fait accompli- no wonder people are angry!
If local councillors are to be believed, they were also shocked when news broke about the court development- presumably they too feel angry.
Chester City Council, along with our National government, has signed up to the principle of Agenda 21 from the World Conference in Rio, which states that the public should participate in decision making related to their local area.
Is this, then, mere rhetoric or does it actually mean we are going to be listened to and not ignored?
Steve Howe, Lime Grove, Hoole Chester

12/5/00 I have visited the beautiful town of Chester in the past and I have just learned about this crazy plan to build a court on a scheduled ancient monument.
I can scarcely believe it is true that the courts themselves would remove the choice of the local people to carry out proper research and investigation of the site for the next century. I thought Britain was a democratic country.
Maybe people in Chester need to learn from my native France and make their views known with the help of lorry drivers to force a reversal of this plan.
Thierry Chevrot

12/5/00 As A frequent visitor to Chester I, being Italian, was shocked to hear that a court is being built on the site of the Roman amphitheatre.
Where is the justice in that? But after some more consideration, I think this is a wonderful idea to bring our roots to the ancient past. In fact, it seems that amphitheatres were used by Greeks, and maybe by the Romans too, to celebrate public trials in the presence of the public. So do away with the building and just open the amphitheatre to public trials, and maybe the clamour around that will help you to fund the completion of the excavation work.
Mario Celant, Italy

26/5/00 And still the Chester Roman amphitheatre fiasco rumbles on. The Chester Amphitheatre Trust's meeting last Friday with Jane Kennedy MP, New Labour's minister with responsibility for the Lord Chancellor's office, temporarily dashed the Trust's hopes of putting the building of the courthouse on hold.
Part of the problem is that Chester City Council maintain that whether the developer builds offices (the subject of the original planning application) or a courthouse, there is 'no material change'.
But the legal opinion the trust received early this week must give them, and us, renewed hope. According to Vincent Fraser, a leading planning barrister, the city council's position is 'flawed'. In Mr Fraser's judgment, it's not a question of what might have been carried out under a previous use of the land but what was actually done. In summary, this means that because the proposed offices have not been built, and in the current situation never will be, it has to be accepted that a material change will occur if the courthouse building goes ahead.
When you think about it, it could end up with the Lord Chancellor, of all people, having illegal occupation ot a building no one in Chester wants.
We are, as they say, living in interesting times.
Bob Clough-Parker, Chester Chronicle

26/5/00 Jane Kennedy, the Minister for the Lord Chancellor's Department, says that the amphitheatre is a matter solely for Chester City Council and the developer. Why then does our council not try to please the people who put them In office?
The position of the new court will stick out like a sore thumb if it is allowed to develop, spoiling the skyline and entire area, overshadowing the Nine Houses, city walls, St John's Church, the Hermitage etc.
Chester Council has raped the city to accommodate yet more cars within the city walls. Surely the council can see that rarities are what attracts and there are very few rarer things than our amphitheatre.
Anne Stewart, Saughall

26/5/00 Chester has a tourist-based economy. Visitors come from all over the world to see Chester's Roman remains. An extended excavation of our amphitheatre would provide a huge boost to local pride and enhance Chester's reputation internationally.
The Cheshire Constabulary have plans to move from thelr Chester HQ (an ugly tower block) which is located next to the present Crown Court and the Magistrates' Court. Apparently, we need a new County Court which Is presently being constructed on top of the unexcavated half of the amphitheatre. Please, please, please, can we have a bit of common sense and forward thinking. Why Is It not possible to wait until the police have relocated and then knock down the ugly 60s tower block and build an attractive new court In lts place?
Liz Shanklin, Chairman, Dodleston Parish Council

26/5/00 Copies of two letters to Chester MP Christine RusselI:
I have to write to you because I am not 100% satisfied with your input so far. The enclosed letter is toned down and I really do hope that it will allow you some scope for increasing your involvement. I am passing copies to the national newspapers as I feel that the campaign needs to raise its profile to a much higher level.
The Trust still believes that the Court Services Department, along with local barristers and judges, must be held to account for their misguided decision to promote the building of a new courthouse on top of a scheduled national monument. If Jane Kennedy MP will not allow this to happen locally, then we must escalate it as a matter for national concern.
Our final option will be to question the sensibilities of the UK judiciary at European and international level. This is a solemn promise and neither Liane (Smith- co-founder of the Trust) nor I will be swayed until the building work is stopped.
Alan Williams, Chester Amphitheatre Trust, PO Box 3050, Chester CH3 7WJ

26/5/00 I was disappointed with the meeting that you chaired at your offices on Friday (May 19). I was not pleased with the layout of the room and you could have been more supportive of our aims. It was not appropriate for 10 people to sit around a coffee table to discuss the future of one of Chester's most important monuments. The presence of a tape recorder in the centre of the small table was intimidating and may have prevented a frank and open debate.
At the outset you deliberately prevented the Junior Minister from answering my questions. You accepted many of the unsubstantiated statements made by the Court Services and put them as awkward questions to the city council's chief executive officer. At no time did you try to persuade Mrs Kennedy to think again about building over the top of the amphitheatre. In fact, you allowed the Lord Chancellor's Department to deny all responsibility for the project.
I accept that the role of the Chair is to act impartially but I think that you acted in too neutral a role. You appeared to be fulfilling your duty as a Labour MP (alongside Mrs Kennedy) instead of putting forward the concerns of your constituents. Please come off the terraces and join Chester's battle against the Lord Chancellor. We need you in the arena as a gladiator, not as a referee. Sharpen your sword and Iead us to Westminster. You can still be our champion but you must act immediately. Chester needs all of its Roman amphitheatre and your legions are ready and waiting.
Alan Williams, Chester Amphitheatre Trust

Read our MP's long-delayed thoughts upon the subject here...

26/5/00 Your generous coverage of the amphitheatre controversy must be appreciated by many readers.
May I offer some extra information? As a contribution to the 2000 Years of Building Millennium Celebration, Chester in Concert is staging four brass concerts, three in the amphitheatre, and one in the newly refurbished Roman Gardens.
Dates and details of the amphitheatre concerts are:
Monday, May 29, 1pm-5pm, Cheshire Youth Band, Vale Royal Schools band, Chester City Schools Band. Saturday, June 3, 12.45-3.30pm, Point of Ayr Brass Band.
Saturday, June 10, 2pm-4pm, Lancashire Artillary Band.
The Roman Gardens concert takes-place on Saturday, June 17, 2pm-4pm, with the City of Chester Band.
All these events are free so I hope that everyone will come along, enjoy the music and think about the future of this famous monument.
James Latham, Sandy Lane Chester

Peter Ainsworth MP today attacked the Lord Chancellor's determination to build a courthouse on the site of the largest Roman amphitheatre in Britain. The Shadow Culture Minister expressed his utter dismay at the plans after visiting the site in Chester yesterday. Mr Ainsworth said:
"We are witnessing an act of grotesque and needless cultural vandalism. What I saw in Chester simply beggars belief. The City Council has offered Lord Irvine another site for his courthouse but, despite doubts over the very legality of the planning consent, the Lord Chancellor has stubbornly refused to listen to local and international opinion. Instead, men in hard hats are erecting, at public expense, a mediocre new block on one of the most important Roman sites in Northern Europe.
All work on this site should cease immediately and the Lord Chancellor should insist that his officials talk to the City Council about an alternative site.
No other country in the Western World would contemplate what is happening in Chester. The amphitheatre should be fully excavated; it would then become a spectacular centrepiece of the City's Roman heritage and be a major benefit to tourism and the arts.
If this is allowed to continue, history will remember Lord Irvine less for the lavish restoration of his chambers in the House of Lords than for his desecration of our history."
Commenting, Prospective Conservative Parliamentary Candidate, David Jones, said: "Peter Ainsworth was appalled by what he saw at the Amphitheatre site; he described it as an "atrocity".
I now urge the Lord Chancellor to look again at the planning permission. It is unthinkable that the Department responsible for administering the legal system of this country should occupy the new court building unless it is entirely satisfied as to the validity of the existing planning consent.
But the Chancellor should go further. We cannot call ourselves a truly civilised country if we allow important archaeological sites to be desecrated so carelessly.
To site the courthouse here was a mistake. The Government should own up to it and now do everything it can to put matters right. The building work must stop now.
Press release: David Jones, Prospective Conservative Parliamentary Candidate

28/5/00 Not content with the furore over his decorating activities in the House of Lords, which involved £300 rolls of handprinted wallpaper, Lord Irvine, the Lord Chancellor, is now causing a stir elsewhere. In the City of Chester there is a Roman amphitheatre dating back nearly two millennia, which locals want to see restored to some sort of glory as a tourist attraction. Half has been excavated, but half is still underground. Now Irvine is backing a plan by his department to build a modern court complex on top of it. Over to the Conservatives' culture spokesman, Peter Ainsworth: "Cultural vandalism".
The Sunday Times, Atticus column, 28 May, 2000

1/6/00 The County Court Service will see increasing business over the coming years as government changes in the handling of criminal cases means that more work is shifted from the Magistrates Court to the County Court. Anticipating these changes one would expect the new County Courthouse presently being built on the southern end of Chester amphitheatre site to offer spacious, flexible accommodation, adaptable to changing future demands.
The Chester Amphitheatre Trust has said all along that the planned new courthouse is smaller than the existing court at Centurion House. Many people have scoffed and said they can't believe the court services would make such a basic mistake in the face of all the new government legislation, but now it has been positively confirmed by the Chief Executive of the Court Services, Mr lan Magee (letter of 15th May). He agrees that the floor area is less but states that there is better efficiency of distribution of the rooms, which makes the space more useable.
Examination of the building plans certainly suggests that the layout will be better, specifically for the judges. At present judges have to pass through public areas to enter courts, which gives them some concerns, and at worst could even present a threat to their personal security.
In the new building they have no such worries, they have separate rooms for robing with private entrances to the courts, it should suit them fine. But what about everyone else who has to use the building? Since the floor area is smaller, it doesn't take a degree in mathematics to work out that you can't fit in as many rooms for consultation, and the space for the public is more cramped than in the present building.
So who could possibly have given approval for this building? According to Mr Robert Angel, a court service official in Mr Magee's department, the only people who were consulted about the new building were "the local judges." So no-one asked the local court officials (Mr Clive Grant, manager of the present county court, has confirmed that his department has not been involved in any respect) and no-one asked the local solicitors who use the building.
Most significantly, no one asked the public of Chester. However, the public has made its opinion clear over the last four months. In letters to the local press and by turning out to express their concerns personally at public meetings. The conclusion is clear, we don't want that building at the location.
Chester City Council has identified alternative sites in the city where a court could be built, of fitting design and dimensions to meet the growing County Court needs. One of the potential sites is the small public car park adjacent to the present magistrates court. As the magistrate's court activities are to reduce significantly in the coming years, close proximity to that building would certainly allow for flexibility of use with obvious cost-savings for the court services over the longer term.
A change of sites would give David McLean Developers chance to redeem their reputation by putting up a building which the citizens of Chester can admire.
The city council and its officers have everything to gain by co-operating in enabling a swap of sites- they would get full ownership of the amphitheatre site, completing a plan set in motion seventy years ago when the amphitheatre was first discovered.
The Chester Amphitheatre Trust is working hard towards this all-win scenario. It is understood that it will take good will and effort on all sides, but it is possible if all parties will recognise the benefits.
Dr Liane Smith, Chester Amphitheatre Trust PO Box 3050 Chester

2/6/00 Hail to the dynamic duo whose vision whilst watching a recent weekend football match at Waverton followed through to the creation of the Chester Amphitheatre Trust! Hail to those who have supported their vision and to those who have inspired plans for possible development of the amphitheatre!
Despite cries of 'injustice' in relation to the present David McLean development, one thing seems certain: that justice WILL come to the amphitheatre area in the form of the county court building. So what next? Demolition of part of Dee House to facilitate a greater visible amphitheatre area, with development of the remaining structure on an aesthetic scale to create what might be called the Dee-Va House Amphimuseum?
With development of an extended amphitheatre space, a tiered seating facility could be constructed along the Roman lines of the amphitheatric semi-circular shape of the Epidaurus theatre 40 miles from Corinth. The enhanced attraction of the site could be further utilised for musical and dramatic presentation. Precedents for this type of event have been successfully set at the amphitheatre by a local architect.
With the professionalism and expertise available to the Chester Amphitheatre Trust it might even be that some of the outstanding acoustic qualities at Epidaurus can be recreated.
The spirit and extent of present amphitheatre interest deserves to be recorded in the annals of local and wider history as marking a watershed in global recognition being focused more importantly on the attractions of Roman Chester. ALL HAIL!
Alan Bonner, Huntington, Chester

2/6/00 Copy of a letter to the Chester Amphitheatre Trust
We would like to support your campaign to save Chester's Roman amphitheatre. As part of our topic work in school last term we compared our town Llandudno with Chester. We learnt all about the Roman way of life and about the Roman fortress of Deva. When we read about the plans to build over part of the amphitheatre we could not believe it and wanted to do something to help. Therefore we have written letters to support your and Stephen Langtree's campaign to stop the plans from going ahead and we hope that one day wo can see the whole amphitheatre excavated.
Joanne Roberts, Class teacher, on behalf of alI the pupils in years 3 and 4, Ysgol Yr Wyddfid, Llwynon Road, Llandudno

2/6/00 Week after week you read 'should we, or shouldn't we open up the amphitheatre?'
It's all a case of cost. I attended Hunter Street Girls School from 1933-35 and the girls were asked to take 6p a week to collect money for the sole purpose of the argument going on now. I wonder who or what got the money all the schoolchildren took. Is there anyone who could answer that question?
C Harding, Western Avenue, Blacon, Chester

2/6/00 With her letter to The Chronicle last week, City of Chester MP Christine Russell broke her public silence on the saga of Chester's Roman Amphitheatre.
It carried no sense of encouragement for those of us who want to bring a halt to the building of a courthouse on the amphitheatre site. Nor, according to the letter from the Chester Amphitheatre Trust's Alan Williams, was there any encouragement from Mrs Russell's contribution to the recent meeting on the issue with her fellow-New Labour MP Jane Kennedy, of the Lord Chancellor's department.
But at least let us welcome the fact she has at long last spoken out on something other than the Downing Street line, even if she seems to have ignored the views of what must be the majority of the constituents she seeks to represent.
Two things flow from her comments. First, on what possible basis does she assert that it would cost £15m to switch the courthouse to another site? Has it been costed and if so by whom? In any event, even if it did come to such a figure, who says that it would necessarily fall on the local taxpayers?
Secondly, in the same edition of The Chronicle, there is an article reporting that the former Army buildings on Castle Square are on the market and a tenant is actively being sought. Surely this would not only be a better position for a new courthouse but, indeed, would be an ideal site.
As I understand things, oddly, the Lord Chancellor's department has not been told about its availability.

Bob Clough-Parker, Chester Chronicle

6/6/00 I'd like to thank you for your wonderful web site. I discovered it last year while preparing to visit Chester. I actually printed up your guide to the walk around the wall and brought it with me!
I am saddened to learn the extent to which the battle between developers and antiquities still rages. I naively believed such struggles were unique to the US and that the British did all they could to preserve the past. Perhaps it is only an illusion fostered by the fact that there is so much ancient stuff in the UK that if only a small percentage survives it looks like a lot to me.
I'd like to comment on the current effort to excavate the Amphitheatre and on its potential as a tourist attraction. I live in San Antonio, Texas, an impoverished city depending largely upon the tourist trade. One of our most attractive features is known as the Riverwalk. This area meanders along the San Antonio river with walkways, bridges, shops, and restaurants. There is even an amphitheatre there, with the stage on one side of the river and the audience on the other (obviously, it's not a large river.) Passenger barges ply the river and it's even possible to charter catered barges for special dinners afloat. This magical place is one of our most valuable assets. Yet in the 1920s, the city proposed that this entire section of the river be enclosed in culverts and the result be paved over, giving us a new street! Fortunately, a group of citizens formed the San Antonio Conservation Society, which saved the river area and continues to fight to preserve historical structures.
I hope the effort to save Chester's amphitheatre is similarly successful. I am looking forward to revisiting Chester--and spending more time there--with my wife and son at the end of July. Thank you again for your efforts on behalf of your beautiful city and thank you for your wonderful, informative web site!

John Schulze, San Antonio, Texas USA

Now go on to the next selection of letters about the Chester amphitheatre...

Top of Page | Site Front Door | Site Index | Chester Walls Stroll Introduction | The Chester Amphitheatre | Amphitheatre Letters parts I | II | III | V | VI | VII | VIII | IX
The Other Side: some alternative views | Save our Amphitheatre! (1932) | 'Round in Circles' by Flavius