When the white handkerchief dropped, the Ben Hurs of Colchester would have set off down Circular Road North, past the banked tiers of seats, turning left at Napier Road, their iron tyres gouging a deep rut in the track,and back up past St John’s gatehouse towards the water-spouting dolphin marking the end of the first lap.
Colchester, it seems, was the Formula One track of Roman Britain, with the only chariot racing circus ever found on the island, and the first found in northern Europe for 20 years. Now modern residents have less than a month to raise the money to save a unique monument and create a visitor centre to reveal the site’s history.
Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of Destination Colchester, said a campaign had received a boost with a £30,000 council contribution. “This has really caught the imagination of ordinary local people,” she said.
“We’re doing a fund raiser at the local football ground, where one man said ‘this was like their football to the people of those days’. We’re extraordinarily grateful to the council – but I still don’t think the authorities charged with protecting it really get how important this heritage is to local people..”
The racetrack is still buried under roads, gardens and old army buildings, but campaigners want to buy a large Victorian garden covering the key part of the circuit. Under the grass lies eight stone enclosures, originally with double wooden doors like giant greyhound racing traps. Each would have held a nervous driver standing in a chariot as fragile as a bentwood chair, reins wrapped around his waist so if he crashed he would probably be dragged to his death, and his four horses waiting for the race marshal on the open balcony above to start the race.
The land is the garden of a listed but derelict sergeants mess, which will become an exhibition, and home to community groups, if the campaign succeeds. If it fails the building will become apartments, the garden private land again.
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.
Nothing remains above ground except stones taken for later building, but for almost 2,000 years the 350m outline has remained remarkably intact, under fields and 19th-century army land. The stable blocks that held up to 2,500 horses for a day’s racing may lie under derelict Victorian cavalry stables and barracks.
All memory of the circus was long lost, when Colchester Archaeological Trust began excavating after the Ministry of Defence sold most of the barracks for housing. They first hit foundations of a straightbuttressed wall, then an identical wall 75m away – baffling because it was ludicrously wide for either a road or a building.Philip Crummy, director of Colchester Archaeological Trust, had his eureka moment when a visitor said flippantly it would be more fun if he found a chariot. “It’s a circus!” Crummy roared. “It’s not a road, it’s a Roman circus!”
Since then CAT has traced long stretches of the perimeter, which had banked seats holding up to 15,000 people. In the central reservation they found bases of 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 also 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, but the site is now a scheduled ancient monument. The campaign is backed by historians, archaeologists and celebrities including Tony Benn, Dan Cruickshank, and Tony Robinson, who as Baldrick in the last Blackadder Goes Forth, trained yards away on the Colchester parade ground.
Robinson, presenter of the archaeology series Time Team, 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.”
The campaigners need £200,000 by the end of February to buy the garden and have the site taken off the market. The building, which they hope will be bought by the archaeology trust and a consortium of community groups and businesses, will cost a further £550,000. Even before the council rowed in, more than £120,000 was raised in a few weeks, almost entirely in small donations from the public. Money came from a couple who asked family and friends to give instead of buying them 60th wedding anniversary presents, and from relatives of a man whose last outing was to the excavation site.
Colchester United flashed up the campaign poster on their giant screens during a recent match. Taylor Wimpey, the house builders, have already changed the layout of the development to protect the underground remains, knocked £10,000 off the asking price – and named the closest development “Quadriga” after the four horse racers.
“This is only the start,” warned Wendy Bailey, chairwoman of the campaign group Destination Colchester. “The fabulous Roman walls of Colchester are falling down. The circus is only the beginning of saving our whole fantastic Roman heritage.”