A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The 'Deva Roman Experience'

dee house 195n 1987, a company by the name of Deva Roman Centre Ltd unsuccessfully applied for planning permission to demolish the grade-II listed Dee House, sitting on the unexcavated half of the Chester Amphitheatre, and, more controversially, to reconstruct a sizeable portion of the site to resemble its imagined appearance in Roman times and run it as a tourist-orientated 'Roman experience'.

Published 9th January 1987, here are Piloti of Private Eye's comments (most of which, incidentally, we happen not to share) on the plan:

"Good ideas never die. What Mussolini did for Rome in the 1930s- sweeping away untidy old medieval and baroque buildings to expose ancient Roman monuments- the good councillors of Chester hope to do in the 1980s. Mussolini, of course, replanned Rome for the benefit of cars, and a misguided reverence for Imperial remains at the expense of later buildings, and to his own greater glory. In Chester it is slightly different: cars are still worshipped- ringroads and relief roads are everywhere- and it is important that the Grosvenor Estate is allowed to develop shopping centres behind every black-and-white facade; but the over-riding aim is the encouragement of yet more tourism.That is what brings in the money.

The case in point is Dee House, in Little St. John Street, a handsome Georgian building which is listed. Messrs Deva Roman Centre Ltd propose to demolish it to allow the excavation of a Roman amphitheatre underneath.

In other words, a listed building of quality is to give way to an ancient monument of dubious archaeological and no aesthetic value. Mussolini would have understood. Here is that English attitude to architecture, that reverence to antiquity rather than beauty, which John Betjamen called "Antiquarian Prejudice" and Robert Byron ridiculed because, "by these standards, a bit of old Roman wall is of more importance than Nash's Regent Street, and one ruined arch than all Wren's churches put together."

In fact, to expose the first half of the amphitheatre, one handsome Victorian Italianate building, St. John's House, has already gone. Then the site remained derelict until the city of Chester put pressure on the DoE to do something, so the Roman remains were 'restored' by carting away old dressed stone and replacing it with new. This is what is really scandalous. There is no reason to pull down Dee House on archaeological grounds as one half of an amphitheatre is just like the other. The real reason is commercial: It is proposed to reconstruct the original amphitheatre, to make a piece of conjectural bogus, 'instant history' which will make the Victorian 'restoration' of cathedrals seem a model of scholarship and tact.

And, in this new amphitheatre, tourists will be able to enjoy a 'Roman experience' and dine in a Roman restaurant. Perhaps Lord Montagu and English Heritage can help by staging the throwing of Christians to the lions- beginning, I suggest, with the Dean and Chapter of Chester.

Soon genteel, smug, picturesque Chester will be nothing but a huge Disneyland surrounded by roads and car parks, a stage set for the tourist and leisure industries. Give me Liverpool any day.


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