In Early September 2010, we visited the amphitheatre to view Gary Drostle's finished mural and to make these photographs for your enlightenment.
We were, to put it mildly, disappointed by the (we assume) completed work. After a few re-visits and many conversations with fellow-visitors to the site, we felt that a number of questions now need to be answered:
Where is the promised re-creation of the grandeur of the amphitheatre as its builders designed it- the largest in the whole of the province of Britannia, a place fit for Emperors?
Where is there any attempt to educate the viewer about the grand architecture of the monument and its methods of construction?
Where is the skilled trompe l'oeil, persuading the visitor that the other half of the amphitheatre is really there before them? A glance at the pictures above will clearly show that the mural is unconvincing in this respect.
What, we wonder, is the expected lifespan of the mural? We noticed that, despite the paint being barely dry, signs of staining and decay are already in evidence.
A visit to the artist's website will soon convince you of the excellence of much of his work- we particularly admire his mosaics. So what went so very wrong here in Chester? A snip at a mere £20,000, we have ended up with an uninspiring work that does little to illuminate this very special space.
In January 2012, the Chester Renaissance Board
made the following report regarding the future of Dee House:
"Two potential developers are now working on indicative business proposals for delivering a first class visitor experience in Dee House. The Cheshire West and Chester Head of Property has agreed to receive and review the proposals at the end of February 2012.
One proposal is proving to be genuinely quite exciting for the site and at first glance, appears to have (unconfirmed) funding routes identified, thereby potentially reducing the burden of investment required from CWaC. If delivered, this could have a major impact on the tourism and visitor economy of the city".
Sixteen months later than predicted by the above announcement, in June 2013, citizens were invited to attend a 'drop-in' in Chester Town Hall where they were addressed by Ms Rita Waters of the new slimline Chester Renaissance and one Patrick Parsons, of a 'heritage and structural engineering' company bearing the same name. A visit to their website reveals an impressive track record of work on such sites as Durham Cathedral, Saltair and the Frontiers of Roman Empire on Hadrian's Wall.
Upon being asked, Mr Parsons said he was "not the developer but working on behalf of a developer", the name of who is currently unknown, and strongly presented the case for Dee House to be transformed into, to use his phrase, "a world class visitor attraction".
The exact nature of this "world class" attraction was not made clear- it was "early days", we were told, nothing definite had been decided and our views were sincerely sought. What there was of plans on display made mention of possibilities including the usual developer's cocktail of restaurants, bars, 'visitor experience' and conference centre.
Was this, then, just more of the same tired 'business as usual' those of you who have waded thus far through this history of the amphitheatre have become so familiar with- or could there be something decent on the cards at last?
It was repeated like a mantra that English Heritage would never agree to the removal of the rotting 18th/19th century Dee House, it being listed and all, preferring to keep the archaeology beneath safely buried until some future time when it would be somebody else's responsibility. But, then, we were also told by Ms Waters that English Heritage was of the opinion that it was doubtful anything much remained of the amphitheatre's other half anyway. Which is, of course, total nonsense. One of the visitors expressed the opinion that EH "were not fit for purpose" and this seemed to be widely accepted by the room.
"Excavations already carried out in the 1960s to display the northern part strongly suggest that the remaining portion of the amphitheatre can be successfully recovered and displayed."
English Heritage's Head of Ancient Monuments, Mrs E J Sharman, 1987.
Thirty years ago, remember, when local entepreneur Tony Barbet proposed to demolish Dee House and excavate and display the amphitheatre, EH were all for it.
People who care have been calling for just such a total excavation, and sympathetic display of, the monument for over eighty years, in the face of all manner of philistine threats, right from the time soon after its discovery when Chester Council, caring little, immediately planned to build a road across it.
Alternatively, a retention of Dee House may possibly be desirable to serve as a much-needed extension to the Grosvenor Museum. Chester, after all, possesses umpteen thousands of ancient treasures- discovered both here at the amphitheatre and throughout the city- lying in storage which nobody ever gets to see. Whether the city's museum service would be willing to work in partnership with a private developer to achieve this is another matter however. They were certainly less than keen in the 1980s when Tony Barbet's exciting proposals were being debated.
Excavation of much of the hidden half of the amphitheatre could still go ahead, right up to the walls- and perhaps beneath- Dee House, in whose cellars traces of the monument may already be seen. A quality 'Romans in Chester' interpretation centre be established within it that, if done properly, would surely prove a magnet to visitors and be, at last, something locals could be proud of. There'd likely still be room for that restaurant and bar too..
The letters pages of the Chester Chronicle, June 13th 2013 made it clear, for the umpteenth time, what people really think. With the exception of jokers of the "build a Tescos" and "car park" variety, every comment was exactly as such comments have been for decades:
"Demolish it for heaven's sake and make something of the amphitheatre"
"Knock it down. Listed or not, the amphitheatre is of far greater historic and tourist value"
"As much of the amphithetare opened up as possible with a museum and interpretation centre in Dee House".
"Knock it down. People have asked me if it's a prison! Don't waste any more money on it. As for visitor attractions, what has ever cared about visitors other than race goers and shoppers?"
"..demolish Dee House and open up the space. Maybe even a part-reconstruction of the amphitheatre? Or create an 'amphitheatre gardens'? Why do we always have to build something?"
"The amphitheatre would be an amazing sight if it was complete"
"Perhaps develop it in conjunction with the amphitheatre into a Roman experience museum?"
Quangos, politicians, planners, 'heritage experts' and developers come and go but what people want for the amphitheatre has remained the same through decades. When, oh when will somebody start to listen?
Watch this space for the latest.