“It’s a place we see every week, half of an Amphitheatre… But it’s not just any old Amphitheatre, it’s the biggest known Roman Amphitheatre anywhere in Britain and yet it still lies half buried, partly under a ruin of a listed building. A listed building that will cost millions to develop and if it is, will probably become more student flats or offices.” claims Cestrian and business owner Adam Dandy.
After the failure of the previous development proposals regarding Dee House, a new procurement process is currently taking place and the council are expected to announce the details soon.
The saga of the amphitheatre has been running for many years, since it was originally discovered in 1929, with frustration from many that the city has not maximised one its most significant historic assets. Built in the 1st century soon after the founding of Deva, it was the largest amphitheatre in Britain and was used for military training and entertainment. After the Romans left Britain it fell into dereliction and most of the stones were taken removed and used for other building projects. After initial discovery it took years of campaigning to excavate the site with the council originally planning to build a road through the site.
Dee House was built in 1730 and was previously a convent, but has now been derelict and decaying for many years, viewed as a blot on the landscape with a nearby information board almost taunting with its claim to represent “Georgian elegance” Obstacles to excavation include the listed nature of the building and English Heritage’s previously expressed views that they would rather retain the building and that they do not wish to carry out further excavations, believing that there is nothing left to be found. The other problem is the courthouse which was built over the site in 2001 which aroused much local anger and derision. In their 2015 report on the proposal to develop the site the Chester Archaeological society said that they welcomed the efforts to get the building back into use but that they were “deeply concerned ” about the projected 150 year lease deeming it to be “far beyond the probable lifespan of any private or public institution.” (See http://www.chesterarchaeolsoc.org.uk/CAS_PlanConsult15_CWaC_DeeHouseLease_PC_Comments_V01_05-11-15.pdf).
Joining the debate, archaeologist Dean Paton of BIG heritage said that although “everyone would love to see a full amphitheatre in all its glory.. it actually doesn’t exist. Most of what remains has long been destroyed though centuries of building and cellar digging. Excavating the tiny amount that remains would cost millions .” He also champions Dee House as being “hugely important to the city” saying that its “later role as a religious building forms part of an incredible story of ecclesiastical impact upon this landscape of this part of Chester. People may find it unattractive, but that is because it has been neglected thus far, and if everyone valued everything solely on looks, most of us would be sad and lonely!” he joked.
Adam Dandy is angry about the idea of Dee House being leased to developers saying it will remove “the possibility of any of us or our children ever seeing Deva’s Roman Amphitheatre in our lifetimes.” He says that the majority of people he surveyed on twitter support the restoration of “what could be Chester’s No.1 Tourist Attraction.”
He says that given the poor state of Dee House and the high cost of renovation, demolition would be the best option. Various developers over the years have been interested but have been unwilling to commit to the high cost. At one point in the 1980s a “Roman experience” similar to York’s massively successful Jorvik Viking centre received planning permission but failed due to funding. A Roman centre inside Dee House is an option favoured by many with former Lord Mayor Hugo Deynem expressing this view in a recent interview with this blog.
“It isn’t the draw that it should be. If we had something along the lines of a visionary interactive experience, the kids can see Gladiator and lions coming at them in 3D…You could enter it from the amphitheatre and build on the experience. My concern is , that because its up for change of use, it will become residential and we have lost it for 125 years.”
The development of Dee House into a Roman attraction would be a popular option, and although dependent on private funding, would provide a massive boost to the local tourism economy. For a city that is often seen as being in the shadow of York, the dilemma of living in an “historic city” is that walls and rows and Roman remains do not bring in funds directly. The walls for example, are quite rightly free access and a treasured asset, but the cost of maintenance is massive to the city. A further obstacle would be that if the Dee House was demolished, would English heritage allow any further development? Or should we take this opportunity to learn from past mistakes including the demolition of the much loved market frontage in 1967 and the destruction of part of the walls to build the ring road?
Adam Dandy continues saying that “if the site is to remain buried for our grandchildren to uncover, they will surely laugh at us and our unwillingness to embrace our heritage and the potential tourism and jobs that would have been created from it over such a period of time. If a developer turns the site into offices or flats which have flooded our historic city since the 1960’s, it will be a crying shame and whilst this may appear to be the easy option for CWAC, it most certainly is not the right option for the future prosperity of our city.”
“A painted wall simply isn’t good enough for the Jewel in our crown of tourism. I therefore call on CWAC Leader Sam Dixon to reconsider the councils position…” Could the amphitheatre be excavated or is it a pipe dream , stuck between the Chester we have and the dream of what the city could be ?
For a detailed history of the amphitheatre refer to the excellent http://chesterwalls.info/amphitheatre.html