‘Dee House is a building of major historical and archaeological importance and is a prime asset which should be preserved for the future of Chester.’

This was the joint message of two archaeological experts to Chester Growth Partnership’s Dee House and Amphitheatre Working Group at its second meeting.

The working group is meeting monthly until June 2019 to consider all the facts and reach a collective conclusion on the best options for the future of Chester’s Dee House.

Each meeting is focusing on a different theme. This month’s meeting presented information on the findings of the Amphitheatre Project and how this impacts on Dee House’s future within the context of its surrounding area.

Tony Wilmott of Historic England and Professor Stewart Ainsworth from the University of Chester and formerly of English Heritage presented significant facts about the above and below ground archaeology of the site which included:

  • little of the Roman amphitheatre survives and further excavation is of limited value
  • Important and fragile evidence for Middle Saxon occupation has been found. An area between the church and the river, and including the former amphitheatre became the focus of settlement and religious activity before the Norman Conquest
  • Dee House is a small ‘country house’ and plays a significant role in Chester’s history.
  • As an area, St John’s, with its outstanding Norman cathedral architecture surrounded by its precincts, which included the amphitheatre, Dee House and the Bishop’s  should be celebrated as part of Chester’s long heritage.

Tony Wilmott, a senior archaeologist with Historic England, Co-Director of the Chester Amphitheatre Project and co-author of the first volume of the Project findings, said: “The excavation demonstrated that the preservation of the amphitheatre fabric was very poor, and not capable of display, but the archaeology of the site remains nationally important.

“The architecture and history of the amphitheatre is very well understood, and little more information on this phase of the site can be gained from further work. The most important field for future research should any further excavation take place is the middle Saxon period and not necessarily within the amphitheatre.

“The nationally important archaeology of the site is safely preserved in the southern half of the site, though little survives beneath Dee House. The professional recommendation is that this remains undisturbed.”

Professor Stewart Ainsworth, of University of Chester, a former senior investigator with English Heritage and well known landscape archaeologist with Channel Four’s Time Team, said: “Dee House is a building of major historical and archaeological importance and is a prime asset which should be preserved for the future of Chester.

“The Roman amphitheatre and Dee house are part of a unique urban landscape which encapsulates over 2000 years of Chester’s history. Although the amphitheatre is arguably its most high profile component, excavations have shown that this was only used for 80 years or so of the site’s 2000 year old heritage. We need to appreciate the value of Dee House and its legacy.

“The area within which Dee House resides is a cross between a cathedral close and a villa suburb. It is a rare survivor within Chester of what is in effect a small stately home within an urban city. It demonstrates Georgian wealth and was a prestigious building in its heyday in the early 18th century, at a time when Chester was a ‘must see’ place in an era when heritage tourism was emerging as a significant economic asset of Chester. Its importance continued in the 19th century when it was the focus of the re-introduction of catholic education into urban Chester. Dee House is a prime asset and needs to be preserved.”

Councillor Louise Gittins, Cabinet Member for Communities and Wellbeing, said: “We learned about the important and fascinating congregational, recreational and educational role this area of the City has played for Millenia. The experts explained the significance of the above and below ground archaeology that Chester should be celebrating and protecting for future generations.

The meeting was chaired by Andy Foster on behalf of the Chester Growth Partnership who said: “Our speakers have explained the historic importance of Dee House and the site on which it is situated. The information we have learned in this meeting is sure to play a significant part in the conclusions we reach at the end of this process. Our next meeting will focus on developing an understanding of the structural condition of the building and the associated costs and implications of tackling this for future options.”

The working group membership includes representatives from the Chester Growth Partnership, Cheshire West and Chester Council members from across the political spectrum, the Chester Archaeological Society, Chester Civic Trust, Chester Attraction Partnership, , Big Heritage, Dig Up Deva, a Chester University archaeological student,  Cheshire West and Chester Council officers, and Historic England in an advisory capacity.

Professor Stewart Ainsworth, Cllr Louise Gittins with Tony Wilmott beside Dee House