Dee House was built in stages from the Georgian period. Although grade 2 listed, the building which has fallen into serious disrepair is not especially lovely. It’s perhaps more interesting due to the site it occupies above an unexcavated section of the Roman Amphitheatre. Having been out of use for around four decades, the building is now a dilapidated eyesore in an otherwise attractive area of the city.
For many years, there has been fierce debate about whether Dee House ought to be demolished to clear the way for excavation of the Amphitheatre. On Thursday 4th July, a well-attended public event organised by Chester Growth Partnership at the Grosvenor Museum considered the thorny issue of making better use of Dee House and the Amphitheatre. This event comprised the first part of a public consultation into the work of the Dee House and Chester Amphitheatre Working Group, which in partnership with a wide range of interested parties, is considering options for this unique, historic site which encapsulates a huge part of not only of the history of Chester, but England as a whole. The working group have approached their task in a refreshingly open-minded and evidence lead manner.
This event shared the latest expert knowledge about the site which the group have gathered in the initial fact-finding stage of their project. Speakers gave an insight into the amazing history. Beneath the Roman levels of the Amphitheatre, Archaeologists have discovered evidence of Iron Age farming. Poignant reminders of the early Britons thrown off their land overlooking the River Dee by the imperial invaders. Mesolithic flint tools were also found beneath the Roman layers – back before the pyramids were built in Egypt, early Cestrians were perhaps sat here watching the sunset over the Welsh hills knapping flints and chewing over the big issues of the day, such as when the Northgate development will be completed. The Saxon period is also preserved in both the ground and the street plan here – another set of invaders, the Normans, built Chester’s first cathedral at St John’s Church next to the Amphitheatre site. Liverpool isn’t the only Northwest city with two cathedrals.
This complex and fascinating history lies at the heart of the dilemma regarding the future of the site: should Dee House be retained and restored? An option in conflict with the wish shared by many to see Dee House demolished, thus allowing the Amphitheatre to be fully excavated and displayed at the heart of a major heritage attraction. Archaeologists point out that excavation is an essentially destructive process which may potentially unearth interesting and rare artefacts, but in doing so destroys much evidence. Moreover, recent excavations have demonstrated that previous generations have taken almost all of the stone from the Roman site for reuse in other buildings, including nearby St John’s church. It is therefore possible that the full excavation may not find much Amphitheatre to put on display. History is a complicated old business.
Dee House cannot be left in the state it’s in and there’s no low-cost option for dealing with the site. The working group must exercise the judgement of Solomon and make a recommendation based on their evidence gathering in due course. In the meantime, many strong opinions were aired by the audience in the Q&A which concluded the event. These included using a renovated Dee House as: a heritage interpretation centre, a multi-use community building, a relocated museum, an art gallery, an educational facility, alternately demolish Dee House and excavate the full Amphitheatre site. Either way, I for one don’t envy the working group their task of recommending a way forward. One thing’s for sure – it’s a wonderful thing to hear from so many people who have deeply held opinions and really care about their heritage.
You can check out the presentations in this webcast published by Cheshire West and Chester Council here.
Images courtesy of Chester Elements.