Campaign to save Colchester Roman Circus chariot course edges towards hard-fought victory
A last-gasp battle to save the site of the only known Roman chariot racing track found in the UK from being sold to developers has won vital backing.
Campaigners need to raise the final £200,000 by the end of February to buy the former Sergeants’ Mess at the starting gates of Colchester Roman Circus in an overall deal costing £750,000.
On Saturday a consortium, led by Destination Colchester and the Colchester Archaeological Trust, revealed Colchester Borough Council had agreed to provide the remaining £30,000 if their public appeal raised £170,000.
The announcement has sparked widespread media coverage for the project, including a visit from BBC 1’s primetime The One Show and in-depth features in The Independent and The Guardian.
“We’ve always believed that the Circus is a site of national and international significance,” said Howard Lake, of the Save Colchester’s Roman Circus group.
“We’re really pleased that our efforts to secure national media coverage have now proved successful.”
A cluster of celebrities have also given their backing to the bid, including best-selling author Caroline Lawrence, Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, broadcaster Peter Snow and outspoken former cabinet minister Tony Benn.
Lawrence will give an illustrated talk on the Circus at the town’s Arts Centre during half-term week in support of resurrecting the course.
“It is one aspect of Roman life we simply cannot replicate,” she argued. “Gladiatorial combats, a day at a Roman bath house and a Roman banquet all have modern equivalents, but not a day at the races.”
The quarter-of-a-mile long building was discovered during archaeological investigations for landowners Taylor Wimpey in 2004. Boasting a capacity of 15,000 people, the nearest example of its kind is thought to be in Southern France.
English Heritage designated the entire footprint of the site as a scheduled ancient monument, although the Borough Council’s application for a £950,000 Heritage Lottery Fund grant for the plans was turned down in April 2009.
Free public facilities will be built at the site if the bid succeeds, creating displays, a café and gardens.
The team have designated February 2010 as Love Roman Colchester month, featuring a range of events including a talk by TV presenter Don Cruickshank, a Roman Treasure Trail in the town centre and activities for families.
Library displays, advertising campaigns, a jazz night and a Roman Feast culinary event were successfully held by the group in January.
A Facebook page set up in support of the campaign has gained almost 2,000 followers.
Roman Circus ‘will be fantastic’
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 Colchester’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 recognises 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.”
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