The Big DEEbate report

All pictures by @Jaspercapper

A debate about the future of Dee House and the surrounding area took place last night at the Town Hall and was attended by over 300 people. The long running amphitheatre/ Dee House saga erupted again over the summer after the council revealed plans to lease the listed Georgian building which sits atop the unexcavated site of the amphitheatre, to a developer for 150 years. The “Dig up Deva”  campaign who had amassed thousands of signatures in their quest to demolish Dee House did not attend and were not able to send a representative.

Organised by Chris Matheson MP in conjunction with the @ShitChester twitter account, the event aimed to be a non partisan and considered examination of the issues at stake. Introducing the event mr Matheson condemned some of the angry social media exchanges  saying that he didn’t want the event to descend into a “knock around”.

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The panel, Guy Butler, Anna Williams, Chris Matheson chair, Mike Nevell, Gordon Vickers.

The Town Crier David Mitchell bought the evenings discussion to a civilised start. On the panel: were Guy Butler of Chester Growth Partnership, Anna Williams of Marketing Cheshire,  archaeologist Mike Nevell , and hotelier Gordon Vickers.

Opening the debate up to the floor, the first speaker echoed the views of many when he said that Dee House was an “eyesore” and questioned if it had any historic value at all. Chris Matheson replied by reading out the information supplied by English Heritage outlining the history of the site , with the house being built as a Georgian Mansion in 1730. Mike Nevell on the panel agreed that Dee House had been neglected but that it was still historically important.

Another speaker, Simon Ward, ex Cwac archaeologist made the point that “archaeology is destruction” and that there should be a delay to any potential excavation. He rejected the view that there was a clear choice between keeping Dee House or excavating the site. “A lot of history will be destroyed by excavating down to the amphitheatre itself” .

 

Gordon Vickers, long time  amphitheatre campaigner was not swayed and said that Dee House should be demolished to allow full excavation and a huge appeal to tourists. “Think of the publicity. We want the amphitheatre, we want tourism” . He said that after removal of the top soil, excavation could be carried out by the university over a number of years.

Anna Williams of Marketing Cheshire said there were no current tourism figure for Chester but for the borough as a whole, visitor figures were 32 million and steadily rising.

The next question from the floor was from a local historian who has lived in Chester for 30 years. “I’m still astonished that you haven’t excavated the amphitheatre… Chester could make its name, which other city wouldn’t capitalise?” he argued. Guy Butler on the panel commented that as Dee House was a listed building it would be illegal to demolish it.

Another speaker questioned where the money could come from to regenerate the site.”We have to e realistic about where the money’s going to come from..” commented the chairman.Guy Butler replied and admitted that there was no public money to fund work, but that privately funded schemes could offer hope of regeneration.

A member of the Chester debating society commented that Dee House had been a “running sore” on the city for years. He was also concerned about the amount of work needed to make Dee House safe for use.

A former Chester City Cllr said that: ” I went onto the google to find out about Dee House” noting that it had been derelict for 20 years.” I don’t think it has any value to the people of Chester at all. We teach our children Roman history, we want people to come to Chester because we have an abundance of it..”

Dean Paton of BIG Heritage, a vocal critic of Dig up Deva said that “we’re not going to find gladiators popping out of the ground..People come to Chester for its layers of heritage, the walls, the Victorian clock, the rows” Heckled by an audience member he said that Chester’s history was about more than the Romans. He said that excavation was “not a panacea for all our heritage ills”  whilst bemoaning the actions of 1960s developers which destroyed many Roman remains.  He argued that Dee House should not be judged on its looks. He also questioned who would “dig up deva” given that “no archaeologist wants to do it”.

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Back to the panel and Mike Nevell accepted that many were passionate about excavation, but said that “If you dig something up you are destroying it… You have to build something on top of it, which is fake”.

Richard Wilding, a former fire fighter recounted how 20 years ago he dealt with a fire in the building and regretted it, saying that it was shameful of successive councils to leave the building in its current state .

Another former city Cllr, Sue Proctor asked who would be paying to “dig up Deva” and said that it would not be high on council tax payers priority list. She also expressed a positive view about the strength of culture in the city, citing the arts, festivals and the mystery plays. “Chester still has a lot to offer, not just what happened 2000 years ago”. Her view was that excavation was impossible.  Gordon Vickers replied:

“To get footfall, you must have attractions. We are looking for an attraction..”

Blue badge guide Richard McDonald was scathing about excavation saying that Chester was an attraction in itself and that tourists came to see the whole package. He also felt that building on the site would need massive infrastructure investment to cope with the supposed increase in visitor numbers.

Chris Matheson replied that he had constantly raised in Parliament issues relating to traffic on the M56 and concerns about the railways. Guy Butler said that using private money to sort Dee House and government money to improve transport links  would be a “win-win”. Anna Williams commented that marketing Cheshire were aiming to “make the most of what we have ” and that the amphitheatre would need extensive promotion as an attraction in its own right, feeling that excavating the other half would not necessarily lead to increased visitor numbers.

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History fan and worker at Norton Priory, Tom Hughes said that the Dee House debate had been going on all his life and spoke of family connections to the site. He praised the “wonderful juxtaposition” of history across the city and praised Dee House as being as relevant as any other historic building.

Former Lord Major Hugo Deynem thanked the organisers of the debate , and got a round of applause for suggesting that Dee House be turned into a paid for attraction which would increase the amount of time spent by families in the city. “We don’t have a Jorvik or a Warwick castle.”  He said that a visitor centre in Dee House was one of many options and attacked the proposed 150 year lease. He appealed to the council to listen to the strength of public opinion on the matter. Chris Matheson replied that although members of cwac were present, the debate was not part of a formal consultation.

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Hugo Deynem addresses the debate

 

Another Blue Badge guide commented that most tourists could not understand why Dee House was still standing. Roman soldier Jon Easton said that “heritage is all important and irreplaceable” and feared that commercial development of Dee House would damage the site. “I’d like to see a lot more history in Chester” he said.

A former resident of York compared Chester unfavourably , citing the rival citys long list of museums and attractions. She also asked for the councils plans for the site to be revealed. As the debate drew to a close local expert Steve Howe described the tortured history of the amphitheatre over the years, including the councils plan to build a road through the site soon after discovery. Another speaker praised the Neo Gothic architecture of Dee House and said it had value and needed restoring.

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“We should look at places like York”

 

In closing, Gordon Vickers said he was still in favour of demolishing Dee House as “there are not enough attractions here”. Mike Nevell said that Dee House still had a story to tell and that passion should be for the whole city and not just the amphitheatre. Guy Butler said that fears of damage to the site would be offset by listed building planning regulations.

He said that “The status quo is not acceptable”  and favoured development of the site rather than leaving it as it was.  Anna Williams ended on a positive note mentioning the opening of the long awaited new theatre next year and its impact for tourism.

Chris Matheson ended the very civilised and peaceful discussion agreeing that leaving Dee House in its current form was not acceptable.

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The proposed developer and plans for the site have not yet been revealed by the council. A decision on the future of Dee House has been ‘called in’ by the Conservative opposition with a decision expected next week.

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5 comments

  1. I enjoyed the Deebate last night, thanks to all the organisers. I did want to make a point towards the end, but we ran out of time…

    Out of my window I can see Clwydian hills, with hillforts on top of them. I can also see tower block windows, lit with electricity. Somewhere inbetween there’s Hawarden, with a string of hi-tech aerospace companies. If I go from Liverpool to Manchester on the train, I travel along the world’s first intercity railway line, for carrying imperial cotton from the ‘state of the art’ Albert Docks, to ‘state of the art’ steam mills. If I walk up the river Dee a little way past the dark age battle sites of Heronbridge (Vikings?), I get to a motte and bailey castle at Aldford (French Vikings!). A little further along you can get run over by cars, travelling REALLY FAST, due to their internal combustion engines!

    So how did we get from one to the other, and isn’t that what history is supposed to tell us? Is it normal for this range of history to coexist in the same area? Where else in the world can you see stone-age burial mounds, alongside high-speed jets taking off, and also have all the various stages of development in between with easy reach? How can all this history be packaged and commodified piece by piece?

    If you go to Las Vegas then you can see anything… Eiffel tower… Great Pyramids… Ceasar’s Palace… Showgirls… Casinos… Wouldn’t building an immitation amphitheatre obscuring the existing remains be turning us into a poor man’s Las Vegas?

    I still think you could get more use out of the county court car park. Removing two fences, a wall and cutting down some trees isn’t going to break anyone’s bank, even with £50 million pounds of government cuts on the way (which is probably the real story behind all of this).

    Building some kind of lightweight structure to mark out the amphitheatre’s (estimated) original outline could easily be done. There already is a line of tiles in the tarmac, couldn’t we improve on that somehow? How about some markers for use with a ‘Pokemon Go’ style augmented reality tour?

    Imagination and innovation can overcomes shortages of resources in various ways. So if we do have to deal with cuts imposed from afar, then let’s not do any long term, lasting damage in the process.

  2. Compliments to Chris Matheson (and others) for the airing of some of the issues.
    I originally was for demolition, but find the argument that if it should be left until funds and technology improve. Think of the archaeology advances in the last forty years. However control of the site MUST not be lost, as it would be with a 150 year lease.
    I also agree that we have other history to be proud of. Many of our Victorian industries were nationally and some internationally famous. We had a shipbuilding industry that rivalled the Mersey, Where in the city do we tell the story of the siege? I could go on and on

  3. I wish we could have a proper discussion on the origins of Dee House. As a convent school, through the effort of the nuns, it made an important contribution to harmony in Chester, previously strongly opposed to Catholicism, and on account of which there was a huge uproar when the opening of a convent school there became known. In the sixty years prior to becoming a convent school, a number of interesting people lived in a house that was largely removed by rebuilding for the Convent school. The debateable side is what was there before 1789, the earliest documentary reference to Dee House.

    A lot of stories have developed since the 1990s. There is nothing to verify it being built in 1730, by anyone, let alone the Comberbach family (1730 is a made-up date). They acquired some of the adjacent land and maybe the site of the house in 1726, but the building on the de Lavaux map 1745, with the Comberbach name beside it, is much larger that anything that followed. It could be the deanery, also known as Hugh Glaseor’s House, advertised for sale in 1725. If the Comberbach family built it they did not own it that long, and they probably let it as their residences are documented.

    Nice as the idea is, there is nothing to verify it was built by, or lived in by any member of the Comberbach family. But it was not a merchant house, which usually describes a much larger residence. The Comberbach family in Chester were primarily timber merchants. There is absolutely nothing that verifies it was built in 1730. The claims being made are modern inventions. Some people are trying to make out that Dee House is older than it was, but they seem unable or unwilling to back up their claims.

    The earliest recorded owner is Dr Daniel Orred from 1789. Make believe about anything further back I am sure is great fun for some. But the make believe is confusing the issue. It implies historical significance that just isn’t there. And given the seriousness of the current issues surrounding the amphitheatre and Dee House, can we see facts rather than stories?

  4. If we’re to keep Dee House then why not create another museum in there? It could contain all our current Roman artifacts which would free up space in Grosvenor museum for more modern items, maybe a pre and post medieval split between the two?

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