A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

Going Round in Circles

A Tale of Arrogance, Avarice and Hypocrisy at Chester's Roman Amphitheatre

By Flavius (a concerned and exasperated citizen)

here must be many Cestrians, and thousands of others further afield, who will be deeply dismayed by the recent announcement that David McLean is to implement his planning permission for a new office block at the rear of Dee House.

Dismayed but hardly surprised that, once again, the avarice of a property developer coupled with the complacency and complicity of the City Council and the arrogance of English Heritage have conspired to deny the people of Chester, and its many visitors, the all too rare opportunity these days to witness the uncovering and restoration of one of its few remaining major archaeological treasures- the amphitheatre of the Roman legionary fortress of Deva.

This part of the city is so rich in heritage remains and leisure facilities- St. John's Church, the Walls, the south-east angle tower of the legionary fortress, the Roman Gardens, the Groves amd Grosvenor Park- that it practically constitutes a cultural zone or antiquities park yet the council is promoting the growth of a commercial canker at its heart.

I suppose this should hardly come as a surprise for the council is merely continuing its long tradition of archaeological vandalism. True, it nowadays fulfils its obligations under planning law to archaeological remains by ensuring they are either recorded before being destroyed to make way for development or left untouched in the ground, but when it comes down to treating them imaginatively or ensuring public access the city council has always lacked vision and ambition. Given what other places with a far more modest archaeological inheritance have managed to do, Chester's achievements in this direction are positively Lilliputian.

One must assume that familiarity breeds contempt. This is the authority that allowed the destruction of the Elliptical Building- an extraordinary and fascinating Roman building without parallel anywhere in the Roman World- in the late 1960s together with the well-preserved remains of an adjacent bath-building with walls still standing 10 feet high. And what new building was so important as to justify this destruction? None other than the new council offices with their accompanying underground car-park named, both erroneously and insultingly, as the Forum. All that is left to see is a minute and neglected portion of the neighbouring Headquarters Building.

It is both ironic and depressing that the city has lost so many of its archaeological treasures, with little or no record, in order to accommodate the motor-car when as little as 20 years later the authorities are trying to keep them out of the city-centre.

Chester suffered an even greater loss a few years earlier in 1964 when the impressive ruins of the main bath-building of the fortress- which included enormous rooms 40 feet wide and 70 feet long containing mosaic floors, complete underfloor heating systems, bathing pools, and enclosed by walls 4 feet thick and 12 feet high- were bulldozed aside to enable the construction of the Grosvenor Precinct; it is true, as it says in the recent television advertisement, that the precinct is "surrounded by history" but it certainly doesn't have any beneath it any more. Preserving and placing on display any one of these buildings would have made Chester a centre of excellence in the heritage field and miles ahead of York.

Today the council spouts impressive sounding policies in its jargon-laden "mission statement" and produces numerous feasibility studies but, as is so often the case these days, there is much gloss and little substance. The city trades on its Roman heritage but does surprisingly little to protect and enhance it. Instead, it rests on its laurels and exploits and takes credit for the past work of others, doing just enough to maintain its historic heritage but showing little sign of understanding its real worth or what, if imaginatively managed, it could contribute to the economic as well as the cultural life of the city.

The vision of those who control the authority rarely lifts above the horizon of their expense and allowance claims or exploiting those short term populist causes for their own self-interest. With very few exceptions the "heritage assets"- to use an ugly but handy phrase- of Chester were preserved or established by individuals and independent bodies. The Grosvenor Museum was built by public donations raised chiefly by the Chester Archaeological Society and that organisation was also responsible for recovering the internationally important collection of Roman inscriptions, sculptures and fragments of architecture which it houses together with many thousands of other artefacts.

There used to be a strong partnership between the council and such voluntary sector bodies but that relationship appears to have been devalued and discarded by the council in recent years. Having (ostensibly at least) taken on board the concerns and some of the functions of such groups the council seems to feel that it can now ignore them and their views with impunity. It, or rather the councillors and the highly salaried chief officers, have become arrogant to the extent that they are convinced they know best and if they can't make a project work they'll make damned sure that no-one else can. Yes they can plead constraints by central government on expenditure but that is no excuse for preventing others from trying to succeed where they have failed. They regard themselves as "professionals" and all others as "amateurs" but they would do well to remember the real meaning of those two terms. Not really interested or caring, and with only a shallow understanding themselves, these people ridicule those with a deeper knowledge as "elitists" or "academics". They are truly at home in the current age of the 'barbarian manager'.

To return to the case of the amphitheatre. The history of the discovery and management of this monument well illustrates many of above points. It was discovered in 1929 by the Chester Archaeological Society which paid for excavations to determine its exact position and outline. At this time, a scheme for the straightening out of Little St John Street was being planned by the council with the diverted road planned to run right across the amphitheatre. The Society lobbied not only the council but also the government and launched a national appeal for funds to purchase the strategically placed St John's House and its grounds so that the remains could be protected and eventually excavated and displayed. A tremendous success, gaining even the support of the-then prime minister, Ramsay MacDonald, the council was shamed into postponing the road scheme. The money raised by the Society enabled them to buy the property and, after the interruption of the Second World War and its aftermath, they came to an agreement with the Ministry of Public Building and Works, later the Department of.the Environment, whereby the property was donated to the nation so that the northern half of the amphitheatre could be excavated and placed on public display. The Society not only gifted the site to the government but also paid for the costs of demolishing St John's House and even donated more than £5,000 to the costs of excavation and conservation; a tidy sum at 1960s prices. Perhaps as a sign of things to come, when the monument was opened to the public in 1972 the Society's instrumental role was overlooked and is entirely without mention on the information panels or the site.

It was only two years later that the first opportunity to achieve the exposure of the rest of the amphitheatre presented itself when the Ursuline Convent then occupying Dee House placed it on the open market. Neither local nor central government seized the opportunity and Dee House was sold to British Telecom. It came onto the market again in the mid-1980s and a local businessman, Tony Barbet, negotiated an option to purchase the site, hoping to realise his ambition not only to expose the other half of the amphitheatre but also to build a new museum and visitor centre at the south end of the site which could tell far more of the story of Roman Chester than current facilities allowed.

Mr Barbet could have handled the publicity more sensitively for his scheme was criticised for being disney-esque and hardly worth the loss of the by now listed (but only with Grade II unstarred status) Dee House. The local branch of the Civic Trust and the national period societies objected vehemently and vociferously. Some in the council were also upset, seeing the scheme as a threat to the city's museum services. Yet, after years of discussion and having to undergo the rigours and costs of a public inquiry, Barbet won the day and was granted permission for his scheme, including the demolition of Dee House, in 1990. By then though his expenditure had become too great to bear and he was ruined financially.
A few years later and the site was up for sale again. One might have thought that by now English Heritage, given that the DoE had spent so much on uncovering one half of the amphitheatre, would have stepped in and purchased the remainder for the nation. But no, in what to many must have seemed a betrayal of the hard work and aspirations of local people as well as the principles of the DoE in earlier times, they stood aloof and allowed the site to be bought by the property developer David MacLean who 'generously' allowed the city council to buy the older part of Dee House and some of its grounds.

By now, English Heritage had adopted its "leave it undisturbed if at all possible" policy even in cases such as this where half of the monument had already been excavated by their predecesor organisation. A need to avoid expenditure rather than the oft-quoted concern to await improvements in investigative techniques was the real motive for this policy. It is a further irony that the general public was denied access to its archaeological heritage in past decades because it was destroyed, often even without record, and now the same is happening because government policy says leave it untouched (though not necessarily unaffected) by development. The council obviously had no idea of how to take the project forward, they were merely displaying their usual dog-in-the-manger attitude of being afraid of anyone else stepping in and taking up the existing planning permission and thus creating a facility which would put their own museum service in the shade.

Much publicity surrounded the council's purchase and it was announced that Dee House would be retained and used as a heritage interpretation centre, the Civic Trust and allied bodies being relieved at its retention, with some promised improvements to the exposed part of the amphitheatre. This appeared to put an end to any hopes of exposing the entire amphitheatre and David McLean's reward was planning permission to demolish the 1930s extension at the rear of Dee House and put a new office block in its place. English Heritage raised no objections to this scheme and so effectively cut the legs from under those who still believed in the attainment of a complete amphitheatre.

To take their scheme forward, the council set up a charitable trust, the Chester Heritage Trust - whose membership consisted of city councillors, members of the Civic Trust, and other local 'worthies' including the usual ego-tripping architect but, astonishingly, not a single archaeologist, let alone a representative from the Archaeological Society. In view of subsequent events, they may be thankful they were not associated with it. Four years on and what has that body achieved? First, it attempted unsuccessfully to get a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund for the costs of a feasibility study of the refurbishment of Dee House. Then, it came up with the idea of persuading McLean to abandon his scheme and build a hotel instead, at the same time demolishing Dee House and excavating the southern half of the amphitheatre. This was actually supported by those same members of the Civic Trust who only a few years earlier when Barbet attempted to do this had supposedly been outraged at the idea. The words hypocrisy and volte face spring to mind.

Anyway, in this they also failed, apparently lacking any idea how to mount a campaign to raise the necessary funds. Now we are in the situation where McLean intends to implement his planning permission and erect a new building which will hinder, but not actually prevent, the exposure of the rest of the amphitheatre. At the same time, because of all this prevarication the deterioration of Dee House has reached a very serious state despite it being owned by the city council. Perhaps they will have the courage to demolish it and pursue the full exposure of the amphitheatre as a long term goal, something which is their stated aim in the Council minutes. Don't hold your breath though, because we now hear from the city's Chief planning officer, Andrew Farrall, that talks are underway to convert Dee House to mixed heritage/commercial use; perhaps moving Chester Visitor Centre to the ground floor with commercial offices above. The organisation with which these talks are being held is no doubt David McLean Developments. We are told that the firm is "reluctant to link its (Dee House's) future with work on the new county court building". However, the game is given away by the next sentence of the statement by Mark Thomas, the company's development director, who said "The building due to start next month is stage one of our plans".

Mr Farrall sees this as a "win, win, win situation". No Mr Farrall! It is perfectly clear to all those who are not obsessed solely with economic development at any cost that if it goes ahead this will be a "lose, lose, lose situation". The condition of Dee House is now such that it is very doubtful if any of its historic interior, or the few features which survived BT's occupancy of the building, can be salvaged. Indeed, I would not be at all surprised if the 'refurbishment' being concocted by Mr Farrall and his co-conspirators at McLean's entails the preservation merely of the building's facade with the remainder demolished and rebuilt.

And as to the possibility of money being available from the commercial rents obtained to pay for further excavation of the aniphitheatre, this is meaningless as the very retention of Dee House and the space needed for access precludes the investigation of all but a tiny section of the Roman structure; sufficient for a 'kiddies-corner dig' but little else. So, those who wanted to see Dee House preserved intact will lose; those who wanted to see the investigation and exposure of the entire amphitheatre will lose; those who wanted to see a new Roman museum on the site where more of the city's magnificent collections could be displayed rather than packed away in a warehouse will lose; the city itself will lose because it will have given away what is probably the last of many opportunities it has had to be an international centre of archaeological excellence befitting its status as one of the most important sites of Roman Britain.

David McLean, too, will lose in the long term because he will be throwing away the opportunity to act imaginatively and with public spiritedness to develop the site along the lines I have described and, by using his commercial shrewdness (just think of the popularity of the "Time Team" and similar television programmes, Mr McLean)- guarantee its future success and himself a place in the pantheon of local benefactors for as long as Chester exists.

Only those uncultured barbarians who pursue short-term gain or who prefer heritage trivia over quality education facilities will stand to gain.

So rise to the occasion David McLean, English Heritage and the City Council! Put this scheme on hold, think again, consult more widely, and take informed advice as to how a combined amphitheatre excavation and new museum complex could be made a reality.
Otherwise, hang your heads in collective shame and remember that the shrine in the amphitheatre which you have dishonoured belongs to the goddess Nemesis.

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