Historic England says plans to honor the British Army’s Royal Artillery Barracks at Colchester will destroy Britain’s only ‘Ben Hur’ tank track.
Plans have been submitted by Sergeants Mess Ltd to carve out the site to make way for a memorial and two blue plaques to the former Colchester Garrison.
The monument would honor the historic garrison barracks, which were sold to developers in 2000.
Historic England says construction work associated with the monument would irreparably damage the ancient remains of the chariot track
The disputed site is opposite the Royal Artillery Barracks in Colchester which is still in use
But Historic England says the construction work associated with the monument would irreparably damage the ancient remains of the chariot track, which was the racing circuit for the Roman Grand Prix of Britain.
Built in the early 2nd century AD and called the Roman Circus, it is the only one found in Britain and one of six discovered in the northwestern provinces of the Roman Empire.
Bizarrely, the dispute takes the form of a war involving two armies separated by nearly 2,000 years in time.
The Roman chariot track was built after Julius Caesar invaded Britain, while the British army garrison is only 159 years old.
In the 1959 Hollywood epic Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston, the thunderous nine-minute chariot race became an all-time classic cinematic sequence.
Historic England opposed a planning request for a memorial and two blue plaques at Colchester Garrison
NOVEL COLCHESTER TIMELINE
AD 44 – Roman fortress built at Colchester
AD 49 – The fortress was decommissioned and the Roman city was built
AD 61 – the Roman town of Colchester destroyed by fire during a British revolt (Boudican)
From AD 61 – The Roman town of Colchester rebuilt
Early 2nd century AD – the Roman circus built, outside the city walls
End of the 3rd century AD – the circus fell into disuse and deteriorated. Over the following centuries, the circus was demolished and people removed its materials for reuse in other buildings.
1860 – the War Office acquired the land and built army barracks in 1862 which damaged the foundations of the circus but, conversely, the remains were protected by being part of the garrison
2000 – Colchester Garrison was sold for redevelopment and a trust was awarded the contract to undertake archaeological field work throughout the area
2005 – Trenches in the garden of the former Sergeants’ Mess revealed parts of the western end of the circus
2007 – the circus receives the status of a classified ancient monument
2009 – Trust launches a public appeal to save the circus site as an open public space
Ironically, the British Army Garrison at Colchester was founded a few years before the Zulu War, which inspired the 1964 classic starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.
Today the tank track is buried under roads, gardens and old army buildings, but ‘virtual’ models have been created to show what it looked like when crowds joined the arena to encourage the tanks.
There would have been eight stone enclosures, with wooden double doors like giant greyhound racing traps.
Each would have held a nervous driver upright in a chariot, the reins wrapped around his waist, so if he crashed, he would likely be dragged to his death.
His four horses would wait for the race steward on the open balcony above to start the race, as crowds on reclined seats all around the circuit eagerly prepared to watch the spectacle…much like seeing Lewis Hamilton.
Excavations suggest the circus was built in the early 2nd century and lasted around 150 years before falling out of use, possibly because the large locals could no longer afford the high cost of one-day races , with not only free entry but the crowd waiting for freebies. .
The Colchester Archaeological Trust began digging after the Ministry of Defense sold most of the barracks for housing in 2000.
They laid out the circuit, with banked seating for up to 15,000 people. In the center they found the start and finish posts, and water pipes proving that the circus was large enough to have the elaborate fountain tower markers shown in Roman mosaics.
They even found pieces of beautifully decorated car harnesses against the wall – evidence of an F1-style crash when a driver lost control of his team and crashed into the barrier.
All of the fragile remains were reburied for protection, and the site was declared a scheduled ancient monument, with the backing of television’s Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who as Baldrick in the latest Blackadder Goes Forth, practiced a few yards away at Colchester Parade Ground.
Tony called the circus a fantastic discovery “I hope local residents, politicians and businesses will all play their part to ensure that as much as possible, including the starter stands, is safe and accessible for future generations.”
Sergeants Mess Ltd say they are “surprised” by the objection to the monument and that Historic England has provided no evidence or justification.
According to the objection, the circus is protected by law against developments which “lead to less than substantial damage”.
Historic England argues that the setting of the Roman circus within the garrison contributes to its significance and the way it is experienced, which the memorial and blue plaques so close to would ‘interrupt’.
“In our view, the proposed erection of a memorial would adversely impact the setting of the planned monument and cause less than substantial harm to the significance of the monument.
“We are not convinced that the proposed development would provide sufficient public benefit to outweigh the harm we have identified to the planned monument, and we therefore oppose this planning application.”
Historic England recommends finding a new location for the monument, away from the circus.
Sergeants Mess Ltd say the erection of the monument to the historic Royal Artillery Barracks would celebrate ‘a very important part of Colchester’s military history’.
“We submit that there is no demonstrable harm caused by these proposals to the significance of the ancient Roman circus monument and ask the planning authority to approve both the construction of the barracks monument Le Cateau artillery and two commemorative blue plaques.”
They also point out that a block of modern flats is permitted to rise near the site, saying it is “difficult to justify why their construction has been deemed acceptable, but not that of the monument”.