It can be tricky to tell what the Romans did for us
Martin Newell asks why the Roman Circus in Colchester isn’t as packed with visitors as other historical attractions.
An autumn wind scouring Butt Road has the rain on its back as I march past Artillery Folley towards the turn-off for the Roman Circus.
More people should visit the Roman Circus. Actually, now that I come to think about it, perhaps more people should know how to get there. From Headgate it’s less than half a mile from the town centre: up Butt Road, turn left at Le Cateau Road and left again at Roman Circus Walk.
The visitor centre has a pleasant, roomy café where you can still get a pot of tea and a piece of cake at pre-Gulf War prices. Alternatively, if you want to go the pretty way, from Scheregate Steps, you might sashay down Abbeygate Street, through the underpass, past St John’s Green, up Flagstaff Road and then turn right. It’s about two hundred yards off, which is only a couple of minutes longer than going Butt Road way.
When the archaeologists excavating the old garrison first happened upon the two buried stone structures they were puzzled. They’d expected, since the site was outside the ancient town’s walls, to have found graves. Then they found gravel, which initially they thought might have been a Roman road. Then someone mentioned chariots and the penny dropped: “It’s a Circus!” said the archaeology supremo, Philip Crummy.
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Indeed it was. Here, about 1,800 years ago, with seating for several thousand spectators, the Romans held chariot races. All around the old barracks, under those conker trees, parade grounds and gardens, was a Roman Brands Hatch. Britain’s only known Roman Circus which Philip Crummy describes as an “A1 Triple Star archaeological discovery” is barely a spear’s throw from Butt Road. For centuries the inhabitants of Colchester have been strolling around conducting their lives with absolutely no idea of what was lying underneath their feet.
The Roman Circus is about eight minutes walk from our modern town centre. Why then, isn’t the place teeming with visitors, like certain other of the town’s historical attractions? For me, the simple answer is that Southway, our cherished dual carriageway, once it was completed in 1973, bisected the town in such a way as to give the psychological impression that everything south of it is almost another suburb, rather than being only a few yards from the town’s historical centre.
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On the southern side of Southway are pleasant streets and perfectly good pubs: the Abbey Arms, The Fat Cat and The New Inn among them. To reach them, however, pedestrians must traverse Southway via one of four slightly edgy underpasses, their designs conceived in the brutalist 1960s.
It was a paradoxical decade, the Sixties. An optimistic time of prosperity, with a fabulous soundtrack, it was also notable for its architecture, much of which might have been heisted directly from the former eastern bloc.
For those who can just about recall a smaller, quieter Colchester of 50 years ago, the changes wrought in the name of progress have been enormous. Picture postcards of the town’s past, confirm the sheer extent of the rapine visited upon it by bad planning and unfettered development. In Crouch Street, Balkerne Hill, High Street and elsewhere lies the evidence: lovely old buildings torn down and replaced by boxy ugliness. Even in my own time, Colchester was a pretty little country town.
Successive councils over the decades, either through laxity or simple lack of vision, have allowed a shameful evisceration of the town. The talk here is always of “heritage” and “history” and yet the deeds have been of steady destruction and over-development. Infilling development for instance, of the type which has steadily occurred on the post-industrial sites flanking Hythe Hill, has been vast.
Here exist myriad homes, either with tiny gardens or none at all, all of them housing people who now attempt daily to travel to work, school or other destinations on congested roads. At those old planning meetings, when the maps were spread out and plots carved up, among the handshakes, signatures and bank drafts, did anyone, even briefly, ever mention the inevitable traffic increases which would result?
A fortnight ago, on a wet Monday morning, I sat on a bus, then later, walked across town from north to south, where I witnessed Colchester in gridlock. The problem? Officially, a burst water main near Maldon Road roundabout. It took a reported ten hours to sort it all out.
The root of the problem was not, of course, really to do with a burst water main. It was one of over-population. The problem is that far too many people are now driving far too many vehicles on inadequate roads, because planners have given successive developers a blank cheque. All of this without any thought of how an already over-populated part of England in the Late Oil Age might possibly cope with the consequences. I promise I’m not banging any dull green drum here but these are the simple maths of it.
You just can’t crowd people together in this fashion and expect them somehow to get to work on time. Somebody, on the proceeds of rampant over-development, may well be sitting in the Bahamas drinking tequila sunrises. But it sure wasn’t anyone stuck in the traffic the other morning. How ironic, therefore, that Southway, that nasty 1970s symbol of King Car’s total dominion over Colchester, should stand between the casual stroller and our Roman Circus, birthplace and monument to Britain’s earliest boy-racers.