Historians claim monument will 'destroy UK's last Roman chariot track'

Battle lines are drawn as Historic England claims new Army barracks monument will ‘destroy Britain’s last Roman-era chariot track’ that has stood for 2,000 years

  • A row is emerging over the former Roman barracks at Colchester Garrison
  • Plans have been submitted to carve up the site for a monument to the Royal Artillery barracks next door
  • Dissenters have said it will destroy Britain’s last surviving Roman chariot track

Historic England says that plans to honour the British Army’s Royal Artillery Barracks at Colchester will destroy the only ‘Ben Hur’ chariot track in Britain.

Plans have been submitted by Sergeants Mess Ltd to carve up the site to make way for a commemorative monument and two blue plaques at the former Colchester Garrison.

The monument would honour the historic barracks at the garrison, which was sold to developers in 2000.

Historic England says the building works associated with the monument would irreparably harm 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 building works associated with the monument would irreparably harm the ancient remains of the chariot track, which was the Grand Prix race circuit for Roman Britain.

Built in the early 2nd Century AD, and called a Roman Circus, it’s the only one ever to be found in Britain, and one of only six discovered in the north west provinces of the Roman Empire.

Bizarrely, the row is shaping up to be a war involving two armies separated by almost 2,000 years in time.

The Roman chariot track was built after Julius Caesar invaded Britain, whereas the British Army garrison only dates back 159 years.

In the 1959 Hollywood epic Ben Hur starring Charlton Heston, the thundering, nine-minute chariot race became an all-time classic film sequence.

Historic England has objected to a planning application for a commemorative monument and two blue plaques at the Colchester Garrison


AD 44 – Roman fortress built at Colchester

AD 49 – The fortress was decommissioned and the Roman town was built

AD 61 – the Roman town at Colchester destroyed by fire during native British (Boudican) revolt

From AD 61 – The Roman town at Colchester rebuilt

Early 2nd century AD – the Roman Circus built, outside the town wall

End of the 3rd century AD – circus went out of use and deteriorated. During the following centuries, the circus was demolished and people removed its materials for re-use in other buildings

1860 – the War Office acquired the land and in 1862 built Army barracks 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 fieldwork across the whole area

2005 – Trenches in the garden of the former Sergeants’ Mess revealed parts of the western end of the circus

2007 – circus given Scheduled Ancient Monument status

2009 – Trust launched a public appeal to save the site of the circus as a public open space

Ironically, the British Army garrison at Colchester was founded a few years before the war against the Zulus, which inspired the 1964 classic starring Michael Caine and Stanley Baker.

Today the chariot track is buried under roads, gardens and old army buildings, but ‘virtual’ models have been made to show what it looked like when crowds linked the arena to cheer on the chariots.

There would have been eight stone enclosures, with double wooden doors like giant greyhound racing traps.

Each would have held a nervous driver standing in a chariot, reins wrapped around his waist so if he crashed he would probably be dragged to his death.

His four horses would be waiting for the race marshal on the open balcony above to start the race, as crowds on banked seats right round the circuit excitedly prepared to watch the spectacle…a bit like seeing Lewis Hamilton.

Digs suggest the circus was built in the early 2nd century, and lasted about 150 years before falling out of use, possibly because local grandees could no longer afford the high cost of day-long races, with not only free admission but the crowd expecting gifts.

Colchester Archaeological Trust began excavating after the Ministry of Defence sold most of the barracks for housing in 2000.

They traced the circuit, with banked seats holding up to 15,000 people. In the centre they found the start and finish posts, and water pipes proving the circus was grand enough to have the elaborate fountain lap markers shown in Roman mosaics.

They even found scraps of beautifully decorated carriage harness right up against the wall – evidence of an F1 style crash when a driver lost control of his team and spun off into the barrier.

All the fragile remains were buried again for protection, and the site was declared a scheduled ancient monument, with backing from TV’s Time Team presenter Tony Robinson, who as Baldrick in the last Blackadder Goes Forth, trained yards away on the Colchester parade ground.

Tony called the circus a fantastic find ‘I hope local people, politicians and businesses will all play their part in ensuring as much of it as possible, including the starting stalls, is made secure and accessible for future generations.’

Sergeants Mess Ltd says it is ‘surprised’ by the objection to the monument and that Historic England provided no evidence or rationale.

The circus is by law protected from developments that ‘lead to less than substantial harm’, according to the objection.

Historic England argues that the setting of the Roman Circus within the garrison contributes to its significance and how it is experienced, which the commemorative monument and blue plaques so close would ‘interrupt’.

‘In our view, the proposed erection of a commemorative monument would have a negative impact upon the setting of the scheduled monument and would result in less than substantial harm to the significance of the monument.

‘We are not convinced that the proposed development would deliver public benefit that is sufficient to outweigh the harm that we have identified to the scheduled monument, and we therefore object to this planning application.’

Historic England is recommending a new location for the monument is found, away from the circus.

Sergeants Mess Ltd says that erecting the monument commemorating the historic Royal Artillery Barracks would celebrate ‘a very important part of Colchester’s military history’.

‘We would submit that there is no demonstrable harm caused by these proposals to the significance of the Roman Circus Ancient Monument and request the planning authority to approve both the construction of the Le Cateau Artillery Barracks Monument and the two Commemorative Blue Plaques.’

They also point to a block of modern flats being allowed to go up near the site, saying it is ‘difficult to justify why their construction was deemed acceptable, but not that of the monument’. 

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