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Saturday, 24 January 2015

Colchester's Heritage & the State of Butt Road Roman Church

We live in Britain's oldest recorded town which has a rich heritage from its past as Camulodunum. It should be a "must visit" destination for tourists and investment should be flowing into a town which makes the most of its historical sites and cultural capital. However unfortunately the best is not currently being made of Colchester's heritage and there needs to be a fresh approach by those in power locally.
An example of how not to promote Colchester's heritage is the current state of Butt Road Roman Church. It is an absolute disgrace how this site has been neglected. Situated near the Maldon Road roundabout, this was discovered in the 1980s during excavations for a new police station. The building has been interpreted on strong circumstantial evidence as an early Christian Church. It was probably built around AD 320-340 which would make it the earliest known Christian Church in Britain. Think about the implications of this. As such this should be a major attraction both on a tourist level and a spiritual level. However rather than stopping work on the police station they simply unearthed the cemetery and 371 Roman graves and built a huge modern building on the site. Having preserved the remains of the church itself they left it with just a sad looking little plaque which has been left to degenerate until it has become almost unreadable, covered in green mould (see pictures below):

What could be Britain's oldest Christian Church left unmarked with a mouldy old plaque which you can't read and an ugly police station built on what was its cemetery. Nice.

Another example of how not to do it is the architectural design chosen for Firstsite. Clearly they went for an ultra-modern design because the Arts Council wanted a gallery purely for modern art which was always far too narrow a stipulation in the first place. There is simply not the demand in Colchester for a large art gallery devoted only to contemporary art, however a large gallery devoted to contemporary and all other art is a very different matter. This could have been a real asset to Colchester, a chance to compliment Colchester Castle with a dual function art gallery and museum which made the best of Colchester's heritage and art through the ages. As such it could have been housed in a building which reflected this heritage, such as a design based on the Temple of Claudius (see below):

Sadly this was not to be.

Contrast this with how Leicester has dealt with its heritage in recent years and you see a marked difference. When in 2012 the remains of King Richard III were discovered under social service's car park, Leicester City Council could have removed the bones, covered up the site and carried on as normal. The old grammar school building nearby was about to be redeveloped into shops. Instead the Council closed the car park, bought the grammar school building and spent £4 million turning it into the Richard III Visitor Centre with the area around it re-landscaped. Firstsite cost £28 million, the Richard III Visitor Centre cost £4 million. Yet the latter has already brought into Leicester millions of tourists and £48 million worth of investment. 

The point is not whether like me you value Colchester's history and heritage for its own sake or whether you see it as a source of tourism and money. The point is that valued in the right way it can be both. In Colchester we need to up our game and stop neglecting the town's rich historical heritage.

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