Tuesday, 28 December 2010

The ongoing Roman Circus saga

Back in 2004 archaeologists realised that the bits of Roman masonry, that they had been uncovering over the years, formed a neat and very long line. What could it mean? The only known Roman Circus in Britain had been discovered. Six years has passed since that incredible discovery. What have we done about it?
Like any unique find of this type, we realised its immense potential for putting Colchester on the heritage map and we took steps to tell the world about what we had found, to display and interprete this fantastic archaeological find, we built a museum and visitor centre to accommodate the thousands of people who came to Colchester to see this remarkable site. Colchester became the No 1 heritage destination in Britain with schools, families, oversees visitors and academics alike, all flocking to the oldest recorded town in Britain - the place where British civilisation began - to see all that we had. Special plans were made to welcome the thousands of vistors who were to come to Britain for the 2012 Olympics; to make Colchester a 'must see' destination.
One can but dream.
What did we actually do? Absolutely nothing perhaps? Surely not?
Surely we made a basic effort of putting up some signs to show visitors and townsfolk where the circus lay? No! Not one sign or road name change.
Surely we took steps to bring the site into public ownwership and to protect it against future housing development. No! If it wasn't for English Heritage hurriedly making the find a Scheduled Ancient Monument, we would have houses built all over it by now. Many of our councillors didn't even know that it had been classified a SAM, such was the lack of interest at the Town Hall. Essex County Council and Colchester Borough Council made no attempts to acquire the site or to assist others to acquire the site. They even overturned a previously set 10 metre exclusion zone ruling that prevented house building encroaching on the circus location, such was their lack of interest.
So, it was left to the people of Colchester to do something about it. A public appeal was set up to work with the Colchester Archaeological Trust, to buy a building known as the Sergeants Mess, the gardens of which held the site of the circus starting gates. Thousands of people contributed. Money that a little boy was saving to buy a rabbit was given to cause. The owners of the building refused to sell the garden land without the building. The building was Grade II listed and had been severely vandalised, yet no enforcement order has ever been made to make the owners repair their building. Anybody who bought the building would have to do the repairs at their own cost, on top of the ridiculously high £750k asking price. Added to that, there were no water or electricity or gas services. All would need to be provided at considerable cost. The public appeal raised the required £250k and various other contributors and partners made the purchase possible. However, the bureaucrats put stumbling block after stumbling block in the way and, after key partners pulled out, the appeal had to finally admit defeat, after working so hard to acquire the site.
What is absolutely clear is that the relevant county and borough councils could have resolved this matter very easily. They chose not to. What other place in the UK would treat such a remarkable heritage site as this, in such a way? The mind boggles at our complete lack of vision! May history judge us.

Interesting times ahead!

I have not written here for some time so I have some catching up to do. So much is going on in Colchester at the moment. The VAF is nearing completion, the Roman Circus campaign has taken a knock, our High Street is on its way to pedestrianisation, the Cultural Quarter plans are awaking, Mile End is threatened with masses of new housing, government cuts are hitting hard and the way of life that we have become accustomed-to is under threat, the Chelmsford/Colchester political divide continues, with Colchester being the loser. As the outgoing government said in a note to the new incumbent of the treasury, 'There is no money left. We spent it all!' Interesting times ahead.

The Romans left these shores in AD410, exactly 1600 years ago. So a group of us walked the walls of Colchester on Boxing Day, some of us dressed in Roman soldier attire. Was this the first time that it had occurred in 1600 years, one wonders? Romans walking the walls I mean!