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Photographs of Chester by Chris Langford

Building of the Grosvenor Precinct, Chester c. 1969

The Grosvenor-Laing Precinct was opened in 1971, an outstanding example of the brutalist architecture of the period. Here we see it in its early stages of construction, viewed from the city walls just south of the Eastgate. The road running away from us is St. Michael's Street. At its end is the back of Brown's department store and the thin building with the semi-circular window is the former rear wall of St. Michael's Arcade which now continues into the modern pedestrian ways within the precinct.
In the left background may be seen the tower of St Michael's Church, which became Britain's first Heritage Centre. It houses many of Chester's rare archives and records- and some very helpful staff- and is well worth a visit.
The distant people in the modern photograph below are standing in approximately the same position on the city walls as the viewpoint above...

Excavation of the three and a half acre site in preparation for the construction of the precinct at the end of the 1960s revealed the remains of barrack blocks, a gymnasium and a vast bath house "with walls up to two hundred feet long, standing to twelve feet in height" surviving from the Roman fortress- but hardly a scrap of any of them was preserved in situ.
Dennis Petch, Curator of the Grosvenor Museum throughout the 1960s, recalled bitterly that, "The developer refused to give permission for any formal excavation once his work on the site had begun...with customary efficiency Laing's immediately commenced the earthworks for underground storage and delivery bays for shops to be built in the precinct above... it was soon clear that the great colonnaded hall hall under the arcade formed part of the same complex and was in all probability one of the earliest of the covered palaestrae of the north-western provinces of the Roman Empire. Even after the great size and high degree of preservation of the building had been clearly demonstrated, and protests against its impending destruction were made at local and national level, commercial considerations prevailed, effectively limiting our gathering of site data to piecemeal observation and recording at the pleasure of the contractor, supplemented by very little formal excavation.
This was not a very satisfactory way of proceeding in the case of such an important building which had apparently begun its life in the early years of the fortress and was still in use in the third century. This debacle attracted a great deal of public attention and criticism, and the upshot was a general conviction that such vandalism should not be allowed to recur".

If only that had proved to be the case. The (now defunct) Cheshire Observer of 5th September 1969 quoted the Oxford Professor of the Architecture of the Roman Empire, Prof S S Frere, then on a visit to Chester, as saying,
"It is absolutely disgraceful that modern businesses cannot see the value of the history of the town where they have their businesses and which they are expoiting"
What a great pity it is, then, that, thirty years on, Prof. Frere's words have still not sunk into the thick skulls of today's councillors and developers, as illustrated by the contemporary, shabby story of Chester's Roman amphitheatre - let alone the vast new shopping development planned for the area behing the Town Hall, the so-called Northgate Development...

During demolition and site clearance work, the rear of St. Michael's Arcade was sealed off from the public by a wooden hoarding, into which was thoughtfully inserted a number of windows through which the people of Chester could, in the words of archaeologist Dr. David Mason, "watch their precious Roman heritage being smashed up and carted away on the backs of lorries" (Roman Chester: City of the Eagles, p.20).

Visit the Newgate chapter of our guide, Chester: a Virtual Stroll Rround the Walls to learn more about this part of the city...

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