Chester: A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls

The Chester Amphitheatre

Letters to this site and the local press regarding the current development proposals page V On to pages VI | VII | VIII | IX

9/6/00 As a professional archaeologist who has spent most of his working life investigating Chester's past, and as the speaker who presented the case for the removal of Dee House and full excavation of the amphitheatre at the meeting held by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust in the Town Hall on May 10, I should like to respond to some of the comments made in your letters column last week.
It is perfectly true that Chester's amphitheatre, even when completely exposed, could not compare with the impressive examples at Arles, Nimes, Verona and other cities abroad. However, its importance is nonetheless very considerable; nationally, because it is the largest military amphitheatre in Britain and, locally, bccause it is our amphitheatre.
But the amphitheatre is more important merely than the sum of its parts because it has an added and far greater significance for Chester. Most of the city's finest Roman buildings, along with, it must be said, important archaeological remains of other periods, have been destroyed over the years, chiefly in the 1960s, making the amphitheatre the last surviving major Roman monument the city has that is suitable for and worthy of display. It is the final opportunity the city has to do proper justice to Roman Chester (the largest legionary fortress in Britain, a sizeable town, and the major port on the west coast) and to atone for the sins of the past.
Normally one would not propose the demolition of a listed building simply to expose an ancient monument located beneath it. But in rare cases like this, one has to judge which can make the greater contribution to thc cultural life of the community. There is also, of course, the possibility of removal to another site rather than demolition.
Some people consider periods of Chester's history other than the Roman to be more important, and that is their prerogative. Yet the difference is that they have plenty of surviving buildings to view and appreciate whereas those interested in Chester's much-trumpeted Roman heritage do not.
A fully excavated amphitheatre would make it far easier for visitors to understand, appreciate and enjoy the monument as well as creating a new public space in a beautiful part of the city surrounded by a rich heritage. An accompanying visitor centre/museum of high quality, built to a design chosen from an international architectural competition would provide a much-needed venue to present in the form of imaginative displays the vast amount of new information about Roman Chester which has accrued in recent decades and which the present museum facilities cannot hope to accomodate.
If the archaeological remains are no longer in situ for the public to see, then at least let the information they yielded be available to the public along with far more of the city's collection of Roman inscriptions and sculptures, one of the best in Western Europe.
Such a project might even enable Chester to put to good use some of the unallocated £1 billion believed to lie currently in the reserves of the Heritage Lottery Fund.
There is much government literature these days exhorting the improvement of public access (both physical and intellectual) to our heritage but this seems to be a feature of policy which has escaped the notice of the Lord Chancellor's Department.
Access to the vast majority of Chester's Roman heritage has been denied to both resident and visitor alike not merely for the time being but forever because of short-sighted planning policies which gave priority to forms of development highly destructive of archaeology.
The excavation of the remainder of the amphitheatre is something which the people of Chester have looked forward to for more than 30 years; even the nuns who staffed the Convent School fully expected this to happen when they left Dee House in the early 1970s.
There must be many who simply cannot comprehend why successive government departments responsible for the monument failed to purchase the rest of the site when the opportunity arose firstly in the early 1970s, then again in the late 1980s, and most recently in 1995. Not only has the job been left half-done but also the hard work and ideals of those citizens who raised the money to save and excavate the northern half of the amphitheatre have been betrayed.
Archaeological deposits are of course a finite and precious resource and should not be disturbed unthinkingly. Equally, however, policies relating to this resource need to be applied intelligently. A blanket ban on investigation means that understanding of the past stagnates, the opportunities for improving techniques are reduced, and, perhaps most important of all, public interest and support declines.
There has been talk of compensation running to many millions of pounds if the court building project was stopped. There is, in fact, a practical solution to the situation which would require no financial compensation whatsoever by or to any of the parties involved if only they would listen and act now. The details of this proposed solution have been put forward by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust.
When in use, the amphitheatre could accommodate around 8,000 people, which is the equivalent of the entire Twentieth Legion, as well as much of the civilian population of Roman Chester. It was a public building for use by all of the community. It should be returned to the public in its entirety, not appropriated for misuse by a privileged few.
The shrine next to the north entrance of the amphitheatre contained an altar set up by a centurion as the result of a vision, and surely vision is what is desperately needed for the management of this, our last Roman monument.
Dr David Mason, Hope Mountain, Caergwrle, Flintshire

9/6/00 I suppose it is inevitable that the standard of debate over such a serious matter as the future of our Roman amphitheatre should start to deteriorate, but it is sad that Tony Fitzpatrick has to use such emotive phrases as 'a hole in the ground' and 'brainless wits'.
His letter also goes on to detail a number of points which are frankly irrelevant to the present situation. Mistakes of the past, such as the poor quality of the modern Watergate Street buildings and the loss of the building adjoining the Town Hall, should be markers to ensure that such vandalism does not occur again.
Let us have a serious debate on the present situation. I have no doubt that there are finer examples in the rest of Europe, and those I have seen in Turkey are indeed magnificent, but we do not exactly have a surfeit in this country.
Of course one realises that much of the original has been lost but the form is clear, and who knows what might lie under Dee House, which is a poor derelict example of a style of architecture of which there are thousands of examples around.
The office building of mediocre merit being erected is hardly worthy of becoming a court building and could be better sited in another part of the city. The successful use of the part of the amphitheatre available at the moment for last year's concerts must surely show the possibilities for the complete whole. We are not going to reveal the remainder in pristine condition but part-restoration would enable visitors to see what the original was like.
The letter relating to the appeal in the 1930s is of particular interest as I have just had the opportunity to see a copy of a paper published in April 1932, some 68 years ago, by the Chester and North Wales Architectural, Archaeological and Historic Society.
Its notable patrons included the Duke of Westminster and among the signatories was the well remembered figure Dr (later Sir) Mortimer Wheeler who said: "From an archaeological and historical standpoint it is probable that the scientific excavation of this structure would throw a new light upon the early history of this country."
The appeal was made because of the prospect of the new inner ring road being built across the centre of the site. It was in due course diversed round the edge via St John Street. It is also interesting to note that the then Commissioners of Works were so impressed by the case that they offeredto defray the cost of the excavation of the site and urged the city council to delay operations so that the road could be diverted and properties purchased to clear space for further excavation. The sum of £8,000 was to be raised and the proprietor of the Plane Tree Cafe offered £100 on condition that 49 others did the same!
Another interesting point is that Mr R G Collingwood described it as "a relic of altogether exceptional interest and in every way finer than Caerleon".
I am also saddened by Dora Taylor's dismissal of the amphitheatre as a "saucer dip in the land", and the Grosvenor Museum's "stacks of bits of pot which are said to be Roman remains".
Your photograph showing the backdrop to the BBC Music Live concert does not display much of architectural merit!
Finally, I was touched by the letter from the young pupils in Llandudno. I would like to believe that they will be able to fulfil their hope to see the whole amphitheatre excavated. I think there is a saying that starts "out of the mouths of babes"...
Robin Butterell, Claverton Court, Queens Park Road, Chester

9/6/00 On Tuesday, May 30, I visited the amphitheatre in time to see the removal of the 'Save Our Amphitheatre' banner.
Four men were involved in the operation. One appeared to be in charge of a mobile phone! Two, wearing hard hats, were responsible for holding, at ground level, that part of the banner they could reach that had been unscrewed from the wall. The fourth, not wearing a hard hat, was working from the top of an unsupported ladder of inadequate length and over-reaching to unscrew the fastenings. I was concerned at the health and safety aspect relating to the gentleman removing the banner.
Later that same evening I telephoned the number displayed on the banner (01244 330102) to seek clarification as to the ownership of the wall and the nature of the permission sought to erect the banner. I am surprised that it had been considered necessary merely to consult the concert organisers rather than seek permission of the city council.
Those promoting the cause of the Chester amphitheatre should capitalise on the height of the summer tourist season. We have a ready made forum for free speech at the Cross. Midsummer Watch and the Mystery Plays are almost upon us. On the streets of Chester let us have numbers of pro-active campaigners uttering a message not of 'Woe, woe, and thrice woe!', but of 'Support the aim to achieve the fullest possible excavation and reconstruction of our amphitheatre'. Let the message be spread in terms loud, repeated and clear, so that visitors and residents alike may take home an appreciation of, and regard and support for, the depth of feeling aroused in the breasts and hearts of those who cherish the full Cestrian heritage.
Cologne has its Romisch-Germanisches Museum. Why should Chester not have its amphitheatre and amphimuseum as an attraction for all to cherish?
Alan Bonner, Meadow Lane, Huntington

9/6/00 The council was very quick to take down that 'Save Our Amphitheatre' banner, apparently because it didn't have permission to go up. Would the council give the same swift judgment to the building that is going up at great speed behind Dee House, since that also does not have planning permission?
K Flanigan, Upton, Chester

9/6/00 The statement made by Chester City Council spokesman Michael McGivern regarding the removal of the amphitheatre sign stated that "The council does not allow banners to be placed on council property without permission and certainly a not on an ancient monument".
Surely one vital aspect of this statement is flawed. The banner was displayed from the wall that separates the excavated part of the amphitheatre from Dee House and the new court building. The banner was not hung from any part of the Roman remains.
At least the statement does clearly demonstrate why over four years ago the council voted for planning permission to be granted for the new court building. It is clearly the wall that was considered to be the ancient monument rather than the unique Roman remains beneath- an easy mistake to make?
At least all is clear! Seriously, I do hope that council members and their executives will reconsider and allow the banner to be returned to the amphitheatre site. It is vitally important that the fate of this unique part of our heritage is brought to the attention of a broad spectrum of people, not least the thousands of visitors from all over the world who come to Chester, many just to see our Roman heritage.
If anything should be taken sult down on the site, it is that wall!
Paul Crofts, Saughall Road, Chester

9/6/00 A great outburst of vocal histrionics, with much use of the word 'facts', is usually a prelude to anything but. An so it is with Tony Fitzpatrick's letter on the amphitheatre.
We get a tour of our and Europe's ancient monuments with bull fighting thrown in, plus some detail of Anglo-Saxon history for good measure. None of which has any bearing whatever on our amphitheatre.
I have managed to salvage two facts from his epistle, though. One is that Mancunians seem to be allowed much more editorial space than us Cestrians and, two, yes he is right that all too often the city has been obsessed by the exploitation of tourism.
A real fact is that very little Roman evidence remains. Little heaps of remains are scattered around the city- few in their real locations- but it is precisely this that has generated the desire to reverse the process. If tourism benefits as well that's good, isn't it?
Let's save what precious little we have got left before it's too late. And as for those whose sole argument is 'we know what's there' please change the record. You almost certainly don't know what's actually inside Dee House, le alone under it.
Alex Wood, Long Looms, Great Barrow Chester

9/6/00 I find it hard to believe that the council is trying to support excavation of the amphitheatre when it decided to order that banner to be taken down from the amphitheatre wall. I thought everyone was supposed to be working together?
Personally, I thought the banner was a good means of making people aware, as well as brightening up the dullest wall in Chester. Can't we have it back?
Mrs M Hargen, Shepherds Lane, Newton Chester

9/6/00 I am concerned about the idea that permission could be given in 1995 for a completely new building on top of the amphitheatre site. I know that most people in Chester share this concern and it has been written about several times by the Chester Civic Trust.
It simply doesn't make sense to most people in Chester. The letter by Mrs C Harding describing her weekly collection of sixpence as a child in the 1930s towards the excavation of the amphitheatre really brings it home.
People in Chester have been working towards the excavation of the amphitheatre for two generations now. Some people have devoted literally decades of their life to this aim. The city council, David McLean and the Lord Chancellor surely have some collective conscience about the part they are all playing in this scandalous development?
Together they could reach a mutually satisfactory solution to the present situation today and bring the amphitheatre site into public ownership, forever.
Dr Liane Smith, Trustee, Chester Amphitheatre Trust, 37 Mount Way, Waverton, Chester

9/6/00 Having followed the issue of the amphitheatre over the past few months, I had been wondering when our MP would express her opinion on a matter which is obviously of great importance to her constituents? Now at last we have the benefit of a letter from Christine Russell and I am sure I speak for a great number of Chester residents when I say that I am very disappointed by its limp and defeatist tone.
It is obvious that Mrs Russell's main concern is to avoid personal responsibility for the new county court building- which she cannot do, because she was on the committee the granted planning permission in the first place. Beyond that, she is offering no support to the thousands of her constituents who want everything possible done to stop the amphitheatre being buried under concrete and tarmac.
Christine Russell ought to understand that most people in Chester regard the planning permission as history. Everyone knows it was a mistake, but what we want is something done now to put matters right and quickly, before it is too late.
Mrs Russell's performance on the amphitheatre question has been weak and uninspiring. We expect to see bit of fight in our MP. Instead, we have had months of silence followed by by surrender.
Donald Thompson, Blacon, Chester

9/6/00 Presumably the decision to construct a new courthouse on the amphitheatre site was taken by majority vote in council and not left to the whims of a select committee? If this is so, then the councillors concerned should be ashamed of their actions in deciding against the opening of the amphitheatre.
Am I being naive in thinking these councillors should realise Chester is a 'tourist' city and the opening of the extended part of the Roman artefact would only enhance its reputation as such? I know of numerous cities who would love to display such a treasure and advertise it to the world, with beneficial results.
As a Cestrian 'in exile' I have no voting power, but if I had, I would need to know who voted for the courthouse and would have them deselected at the next elections. They obviously have no regard for the wellbeing of Chester and its prestige. I ask you: a Roman treasure to be hidden by an unnecessary new courthouse which no doubt will be a modern monstrosity of steel and concrete (how tourists would love to see that!)
It would also appear your Member of Parliament is unconcerned. Remember this at the next General Election, citizens of Chester.
The whole situation beggers belief. Wake up, Chester, preserve your assets- don't bury them.
Mr S C Watkinson, Millgate Lane, Didsbury Manchester

9/6/00 The general idea is, or was, that councillors represent the views of those who elect them.
Two high profile cases in recent times cast doubt on this and also raise the question of who is in control, if anyone, at the Town Hall.
First, we have the masts and we find, via the Chronicle survey, that none of the councillors interviewed seemed to know who had granted planning permission and most knew nothing about them until they mysteriously appeared on Market Square.
Now the revelations of a monstrous muddle emerging from the Town Hall seem to suggest that the same sort of thing applies to the scandal regarding the amphitheatre. We hear that council officers appear to have acted on their own without telling councillors what is going on in the very Town Hall where these councillors are supposed to exercise ultimate political control. If the councillors aren't in control of their own show and the officers aren't either, who on earth is running the place?
There seems to be a resounding silence from the Town Hall- perhaps someone could enlighten us.
John Lindop, Duddon Common, Tarporley

9/6/00 What was the point of setting up a polling station in the Town Hall Square and constantly urging voters to use their votes when the will of the people is blatantly defied by officials who have sanctioned the building of the civil court over the site of our Roman amphitheatre?
This has ceased being a matter only of the amphitheatre and become an issue of democracy.
Local democracy seems to count for nothing and I can suddenly understand the desperate sense of frustration and anger that leads the populace to erect barricades in the streets.
Cllr Eveleigh Moore Dutton, Tushingham Hall, Tushingham

16/6/00 Copy of a letter to the Rt Hon The Lord Irving of Lairg, The Lord High Chancellor, House of Lords, London:
You are aware of the high level of concern in Chester over the construction of the County Court House on the site of the Chester Amphitheatre, concern voiced on lhe national stage.
I write as chairman of the Amphitheatre Liaison Group in Chester which includes representatives of the Civic Trust and members of the public campaigning for the Chester Amphitheatre. I write particularly in response to your reply of April 15, 2000, to the letter sent to you by Stephen Langtree, chairman of the Chester Civic Trust. You recount many but not all of the relevant facts, which I suggest, leads you to draw the wrong conclusions, particularly in the current circumstances.
amphitheatreThe site contains a Grade II listed building, the Ursuline Convent, which is now commonly acknowledged will have to be demolished or relocated for the Amphitheatre to be excavated. The choice is between retaining the Grade II listed building or excavating the Scheduled Monument, the Amphitheatre. The tide of public opinion in Chester appears now to be in favour of the Amphitheatre.
The site is bounded on the east side by another Scheduled Monument, the ruins of the tower of St. John's Church. There is no suggestion that there should be any excavation which would impinge on these ruins nor upon the road which runs past the base of the tower to St. John's Cottage and the Old Bishops Palace, a Grade II listed building directly to the south of the Amphitheatre site.
The tower is adjacent to the present St John's Church, a Grade I listed building. The tower and road would prevent the excavation of only about 3% of the Amphitheatre site. The Amphitheatre is bounded on the west by Souters Lane, beyond which is the City Wall, another Scheduled Monument. To the North of the site lies Little St John Street, retained, at the instruction of the then Prime Minister, on its present line in the 1930s specifically in order to avoid the Amphitheatre site.
In summary, the Amphitheatre, a Scheduled Monument, lies in a site bounded to the east by another Scheduled Monument and a Grade 1 listed building, to the south by a Grade II listed building and to the west by another Scheduled Monument. It is the largest known Amphitheatre in England. This is therefore a site of great scenic and architectural beauty which must rank among the finest urban sites in the country.
Prior to December 1999, councillors and most of the informed public in Chester were of the belief that any building would be of high quality design, located to thc south of the Amphitheatre and semi-circular. This would have allowed for excavation of the Amphitheatre in the medium if not in the short term. This would have complied with the policy of the city council as stated in the council resolution of November 9, 1998.
We are now at the position that this site is having a court house of mundane and uninspired design which together with its car park will cover 20% of the Amphitheatre. This present scheme has no architectural or other merit.
In addition there is no need for the court to be located on this site. It could be constructed anywhere and other sites would be likely to offer advantages.
The decision to give planning permission, the business negotiations between the Court Service and David McLean Developments, and the fact that the design will not further damage the Roman remains may be accurate, but are irrelevant to the overriding case. The situation is that a wholly inappropriate development is taking place which will prevent the excavation and presentation of a superb archaeological and urban site, probably for a 100 years.
Chester's history goes back almost two millennia- are we to witness an act of institutional vandalism on this scale? I am asking you to call a halt to construction and enter into constructive discussion, so that an alternative way forward can be found.
I would draw your attention to the resolution of Chester City Council of April 12 which has deferred a decision to carry out renovation work on Dee House in order to allow further consideration of the issue. The resolution also asked that you enter into discussion with the council regarding the future of the whole site.
There is still time to act. I look forward to hearing from you.
Cllr Brian Bailey, Chairman, Amphitheatre Liaison Group

Reply to Cllr Brian Bailey...
Thank for your letter of April 20 addressed to the Lord Chancellor.
Your letter has been passed to the Court Service for reply as we are the Executive Agency of the Lord Chancellor's Department responsible for the administration of the courts in England and Wales. I apologise for the delay in replying.
You remain concerned about the proposed new court at Chester. As you are aware, following a review of the provision of county court accommodation in Chester, the Court Service entered into a contract with David McLean Ltd, in 1999 to take a lease of new accommodation on this site. The developers had obtained all necessary consents for the development. The Court Service is obliged to complete its lease once the development is completed.
Accordingly, the issues raised by the Chester Amphitheatre Trust are a matter for the city council which granted planning permission and the developers who have proceeded to implement it.
Jane Kennedy MP, Parliamentary Secretary at the Lord Chancellor's Department, along with Court Service officials, have met with the Chester Amphitheatre Trust to listen to their concerns but the position remains that this is a matter for Chester City Council and the developers.
Sarah Percy, Customer Service Unit, Court Service

Cllr Bailey has commented on the above: "I have received a reply from a Civil Servant in what is laughably described as the Customer Service Unit, which is dismissive in the extreme. None of the matters of substance I raised is even acknowledged let alone answered.
One has to wonder whether the Lord Chancellor has been made aware of the situation regarding the Amphitheatre site or is it that the matter is being dealt with solely by functionaries incapable of understanding the real issues involved?"

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

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The Other Side: some alternative views | Save our Amphitheatre! (1932) | 'Round in Circles' by Flavius