This week campaigners reached a 200,000 target in their fight to save Colchester’s Roman circus. But it’s just the tip of an iceberg of red tape the circus must dodge to survive as a tourist attraction. And while the city’s leading archaeologist is thrilled the landmark figure has finally been made, he warns there’s much more work to be done.
Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeology Trust, has long been fighting for the circus’ survival, and recongises the effort of everyone involved in keeping the dream alive: “We’re delighted that the sponsors and the public have been so helpful with this,” he says, “it’s been great. We’re now looking forward to moving on to the next stage – there’s a lot to do.”
The target is just one in a series of hurdles facing the campaign, which has already enlisted famous faces like Roman Mysteries author Caroline Lawrence, Time Team host Tony Robinson and TV historian Dan Cruickshank to fight its case. The future of the circus rests on the sale and restoration of the Sergeant’s Mess, a Victorian building sitting on top of the circus’ main gate. “This (money) is enough to do the first round of repairs,” says Philip. “The rest is from a mix of investors and public funding. It’s quite a technical process.”
The trust plans to excavate the gate area, and open a state-of-the-art ‘interpretation area’, where visitors can experience a Roman day at the chariot races. Other parts of the mess will be made the trust’s headquarters. Philip hopes to have something in place by this summer: “It could take as long as two years to get the whole thing done though,” he says.
“It takes a year just to get planning permission,” Philip adds. “By the summer we could, if all goes as quickly as possible, be in a position to start repairing the building. If we do get into the building we’ll put in a temporary display.”
Philip insists the long-term future of the project looks bright, with private and council initiatives leading the way: “We’re in talks with a major tea room company about leasing them part of the building. That will hopefully provide enough money to pay the running costs of the interpretation centre which actually won’t be very great. If we can get to that stage we feel there’s a really solid long-term business plan there that will allow us to do what we want to do.
“(The circus) is 10-15 minutes outside the town centre but the council have this idea that they’re going to develop a ‘heritage arc’, which will start at the museum up to St. Botolph’s Priory, up to St John’s Abbey gate and then to the circus. It will tie the circus to the town centre and to the castle.”
It has been five years since archaeologists stumbled across the circus on an evaluation dig for property developers. The fight to save it is understandable: not only is it the only Roman chariot racetrack in Britain, it’s also the biggest known example outside Rome itself. Little wonder the trust is keen to make it one of Colchester’s premier heritage sites. “It’s a difficult project with lots of problems,” says Philip defiantly. “But the result will be fantastic, and we’re determined to make it work.”
Click here to see an extended interview with Philip Crummy, on plans for the circus.
Check out our Ancient World in London video below, when we took Jamie on a guided tour round Colchester, Britain’s oldest city. You can still help save the Roman circus by visiting the campaign homepage and making a donation. Heritage Key – Unlock the Wonders.