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Dee House and Chester Amphitheatre

Cheshire West and Chester Council’s (CWAC) proposal to lease Dee House, which stands over part of Chester’s Roman amphitheatre, to enable its conservation, has led to a local campaign to demolish it and reveal the section of amphitheatre beneath it.

View of Chester Amphitheatre with Dee House in the background
View of Chester Amphitheatre with Dee House in the background. © Historic England

Why is the site important?

Built around 1730, and extended in the 1860s by the Liverpool architect Edmund Kirby, Dee House is rightly listed Grade II as a building of national importance. It is important because it was one of a number of large houses built by wealthy Cestrians and one of few now surviving. It is also important for its links with the Roman Catholic Church in mid-1800s.

Together with the excavated and displayed half of the amphitheatre (managed by CWAC and in the guardianship of English Heritage) it is the layering of history that is so fascinating. A city like Chester has valuable remains from many centuries and all periods of development are important in their own way.

What did the archaeological excavations tell us?

The exposed remains of part of the amphitheatre are undoubtedly a valuable asset to Chester. Archaeological excavations in 2004-6 were important in telling us more about the design of the amphitheatre.

However, it is unlikely that further excavation would tell us more or expose anything which could be displayed without a high level of reconstruction: the excavations showed that only fragments of the amphitheatre survive as most of the stonework was removed.

The earlier archaeological work had also not fully considered archaeological deposits above the Roman remains, which are even rarer. The remains of a Saxon settlement, which occupied the site of the largely demolished amphitheatre after the end of Roman rule, are important in helping us to understand Chester’s development after the Roman’s left.

This important evidence was removed by earlier archaeologists in their eagerness to get to the amphitheatre beneath – an example of how technical approaches to archaeology are always evolving.

What is Historic England’s view of the proposals for Dee House?

The Council’s aspiration is to ensure that all of these historic assets are protected for present and future generations, while bringing new uses to this part of the city.

We support the Council in taking the lead to retain a nationally important listed building and seeking its long term future whilst protecting any archaeology beneath.

Dee House from the front.
Dee House photographed from the front in 1991 © Historic England

St Anne’s Well uncovered in Rainhill, Merseyside

Part of our role at Historic England is to speak up for and champion heritage. 'Archaeology is just a load of lumps and bumps in a field' is an oft-defended accusation. But in the case of St Anne's Well, we had to concede the description was fairly apt!

St Anne's is a medieval holy well that was associated with healing. Situated in a large field, it had become completely filled with earth due to years of arable ploughing. Just a patch of barren grass and a couple of stones marked its location. It had been on the Heritage at Risk Register since 2010, and was clearly in need of help.

Well covered by earth and grass
St Anne’s Well at Risk in 2015

A local legend suggests St Anne's Well was associated with a nearby priory, lost during the Dissolution of the Monasteries. Holy wells were an important part of Christianity in the Middle Ages. St Anne's Well continued to be revered even after the Dissolution, and by the 19th century it was even thought to cure eye diseases.

A photograph from 1983 showed the well was still visible, and the official scheduling description on the National Heritage List for England spoke of a large sandstone well with steps down to the water.

Our Heritage at Risk team commissioned an archaeological investigation to discover what remained. After two days of careful excavation, Oxford Archaeology North uncovered the well. At almost 2m x 2m it's a substantial size. Three steps lead down to a pool of water where medieval pilgrims submerged themselves, hoping to benefit from its healing properties.

St Anne’s Well following excavation in February 2016
St Anne’s Well following excavation in February 2016

Having uncovered the well, the next step was to protect it for the future. We funded repairs to replace stones which had fallen in to the well. We set up a Section 17 Management Agreement with the farmer to ensure weeds don't encroach. New wooden edging to the perimeter of the excavation will prevent soil falling in, and provide a buffer to protect the well from damage by farm machinery. It can now come off the Heritage at Risk Register.

St Anne's Well is on private land, but the farmer kindly allowed members of Rainhill Civic Society and Merseyside Archaeological Society to visit the newly repaired well with Historic England. The Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Heritage at Risk Projects Officer led a lively group visit of about 20 members and one dog! One member had come to see the well as a boy in the 1950s and hadn't seen it since. Everyone must have been feeling healthy and sin-free, as nobody tried to take a sneaky healing dip!

People gathered around the newly repaired well
Members of Rainhill Civic Society and Merseyside Archaeological Society viewing the newly repaired well

Repairs and improvements to the Proylaeum, Castle Square, Chester

For many centuries Chester Castle was the seat of power in the north west of England. But by the Georgian period, the castle was in a very poor state. To reassert its prestige, Chester Castle was extensively rebuilt in the fashionable neoclassical style by influential architect Thomas Harrison. Today the castle remains a seat of justice in its role as a Crown Court.

Nikolaus Pevsner, the famous scholarly authority on the history of architecture, describes Chester Castle complex as 'one of the most powerful monuments of the Greek revival in the whole of England'.

The massive gateway to the castle is known as the Propylaeum. It is built in the Greek Doric style, which was considered to be the most 'masculine' of the classical orders of architecture. Harrison wanted the Propylaeum to present a robust and 'manly' entrance. He had been producing designs for this gateway since at least 1808. His final design was based on the Propylaeum at the Acropolis in Athens. Another theory is that Harrison may have been inspired by Berlin's Brandenburg Gate.

The Propylaeum's central entrance block has a double colonnade of four Doric columns, 18 feet high, and carved from single blocks of stone. They carry a triglyph frieze, topped with a taller central panel, originally intended to carry an inscription commemorating British victories. The central block projects some 10 feet in front of two side pavilions which served originally as guardhouses.

Greek Doric style gateway partially covered by scaffolding
Propylaeum at risk in 2015

The first stone for the Propylaeum was laid in 1811. It took four years to build.

Two hundred years later, the Propylaeum is still an impressive part of Chester's architecture. However, for some time there were concerns over movement to the north pavilion and the deterioration of the stone soffit to the central gateway. Extensive investigations, archaeological excavation and surveys were commissioned by Cheshire West and Chester Council before repair proposals were designed and agreed with Historic England.

Historic England offered a grant of £404,000 from its Repair Grants for Heritage at Risk scheme to tackle urgent repairs. This was matched by £75,000 from WREN's Landfill Communities Fund and £200,000 from Cheshire West and Chester Council.
Repairs were finished in October, and comprised:

  • Underpinning part of the building which has suffered from subsidence
  • Waterproofing the roof structure to prevent further ingress of water penetration
  • Extensive repairs to the soffit of the central gateway
  • Repairs, removal of vegetation and gentle cleaning of the stonework generally
  • Improvements to the drainage system
  • Replacement of the existing light fittings and removal of redundant cabling
  • Cleaning, repair and repainting of gates and railings
  • More sympathetic surfacing around the building
  • Pigeon deterrent measures
  • Interpretation signage

We hope that the Propylaeum is now fit for the next 200 years. We're delighted that its presentation has been improved so Cestrians and visitors can appreciate the might and muscle of Harrison's Grade I listed building.

Greek Doric style gateway partially covered by scaffolding
Propylaeum during repairs in March 2016

Gaisgill Packhorse Bridge, Orton, Cumbria

The winter storms of 2015/16 brought repeated flooding to the North West. Record-breaking rainfall caused major damage and disruption. In the aftermath of the floods, we worked across the region to support local communities where heritage had been affected.

One of the flood damaged sites we have helped is Gaisgill packhorse bridge, a stunning 18th century structure in an idyllic rural setting near Orton in Cumbria.

Stone bridge over river
View of the repaired bridge © Historic England DP169857

Packhorse bridges were a common feature of trade routes crossing small rivers and becks from the medieval period up until transport improvements in the 18th century, and the coming of turnpike roads. Built in c1700, the Gaisgill bridge is a relatively late example of a single arched packhorse bridge. Its importance is recognised by its status as a scheduled monument.

As a result of the violent storms, supports of the historic structure were undermined, leaving it vulnerable to further damage or even collapse. Historic England acted quickly to ensure the bridge wasn't lost. Our Inspector of Ancient Monuments and Heritage at Risk Projects Officer visited and assessed its condition. The bridge was immediately added to the Heritage at Risk Register in January 2016.

The focus of our Heritage at Risk programme is not just on identifying what's under threat, but on working with partners to find solutions, offering our support and expertise. We put together a Section 17 Management Agreement with the local land occupier. This set out a schedule of necessary repairs, which were funded by a Historic England grant. We also provided advice to the owners on appointing a stone mason. It was important to ensure that the necessary repairs were in keeping with the original dry-stone construction, for technical as well as aesthetic reasons. The charismatic soft-turf and grass capping plays an important role in protecting the top of the arch from water penetration, as well as contributing to the fairy-tale appearance of the bridge. Our involvement helped to ensure that these details were not lost.

By May 2016 the bridge was fully repaired, and ready to be taken off the Heritage at Risk Register. The interventions are barely visible due to the reuse of original stone that had fallen into the river and the skill of the traditional stone mason. Not only is this beautiful feature of the landscape preserved for future generations to enjoy, but it is better prepared for any future flooding. Part of the repairs involved reducing the height of a nearby stone wall to enable any future flood water to flow over the river bank and away from the packhorse bridge. We're delighted that Gaisgill bridge will continue to be a picturesque reminder of a bygone era of packhorse trade routes across Cumbria.

Damaged bridge over river
Following the 2015 winter storms and flooding in Cumbria, the supports of the bridge were badly damaged threatening a structure which had stood there for over 300 years.

Training opportunities coming up in the North West

The Historic Environment Local Management (HELM) Training courses are free to attend for Local Authority, regional and national organisation's staff.

Listed below are the latest training opportunities in the North West.

  • Stopping The Rot
    Specialist training for Local Authority staff working in planning, conservation, development control and legal departments who are working to reduce their Heritage at Risk.
    Wednesday 12 January 2017

For more information on any of the above courses contact the training delivery team on

Find out more about HELM opportunities across the country.

Follow us on Twitter @HE NorthWest to keep up to date with all the latest training opportunities, news and pictures from the region.

Delegates at a recent HELM training event in Kendal
Delegates at a recent HELM training event in Kendal © Historic England
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