Plans for the circus interpretation are taking shape with the completion of a masterplan for the layout of the west end of the Colchester’s unique Roman circus. This blueprint forms the basis of a planning application which will enable the Colchester Archaeological Trust to set about turning its scheme into reality.
Three main elements make up the plan: a reconstruction of the base of starting gates, an indoor interpretation area where visitors can find out about Roman circuses in some depth, and an outdoor arena for re-enactments and other events.
The circus arena
The interpretation centre will not be a museum. It will, as its name implies, offer an interpretation of the remains of the circus. Since these remains lie safely buried, they are invisible and will remain so apart from some foundations in the garden of the Sergeants’ Mess. The challenge of the centre is therefore to bring the circus to life by whatever means possible. An outdoor arena close to the interpretation centre where re-enactments and special events can take place will play a crucial role in meeting this challenge.
Fortunately the open space to the south of the interpretation centre owned by Bovis Homes offers the ideal place for such an arena. This is the piece of land where, courtesy of Bovis Homes, CAT has been able to put the modern circus mosaic on public display. Not only is this land well suited for an arena by virtue of its relationship to the centre but, much more than that, it overlies part of the circus racetrack and the seating area making a perfect place for circus related re-enactments.
The proposal is to enclose about half of this land to create an arena where horse-drawn chariots in the Roman style can be exhibited. The area is large enough for the horses to trot but not race. The area will be stoutly fenced so that spectators will not be at risk from any of horses and chariots on the move.
The arrangement of fence and spectators along the south side of the arena will create a feel for how the circus was once used. The inner wall of the stand (for the seating) protected the spectators from the racing chariots because the spectators sat or stood on the tiered seating behind it. The modern fence along the south side of the arena will be in the same position as that protective wall and will do the same job. Moreover, the low banking (at 600 mm in height) just behind it will provide the modern-day spectators with somewhere to sit or stand just as the Roman seating had done in exactly the same spot about eighteen hundred years earlier.
The reconstruction of the starting gates is to be in the garden of the former Sergeants’ Mess. The bases of the original starting gates will be recreated in stone and brick in their original positions and two large glass viewing screens will help visitors visually what the gates would have looked like had they still been standing. Two of the bases will be hollow so that visitors will be able to the circus remains through glass covers.
Taylor Wimpey, owners of the garden, has been working hard with Colchester Borough Council and CAT to draw up and agree along-term management plan for the garden so as to provide free access for the public to view the remains.
Main interpretation space
The main interpretation area will be on the ground floor of the former army education centre. Funds for this part of the project have yet to be secured since it will include as well as the displays themselves, some rebuilding of part of the old education centre to create a tearoom, toilets, a shop, and an enlarged display area. Planning consent for this part of the project was granted in September.