Fishbourne Roman Palace under threat of permanent closure - Urgent fundraising appeal launched to save historic building

Fishbourne Roman Palace, Britain’s largest Roman villa, is one of a number of historic properties at risk of permanent closure due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204449001
Fishbourne Roman Palace. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204449001

The Sussex Archaeological Society, one of the oldest archaeological societies in the UK, has seen its income fall ‘dramatically’ after being ‘hit hard’ by lockdown restrictions. 

The society is now appealing for urgent, financial help from the public, to raise £1m worth of lost income, and secure the future of its prised assets, which also include Lewes Castle, an 11th-century Norman fortification, and Michelham Priory, a historic house and garden near Hailsham.

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Melanie Marsh, property manager at Fishbourne Roman Palace, said it is ‘one of the most important’ Roman buildings in the country, adding: “If we couldn’t open our doors, it would be such a loss to the local area and to Britain.

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Property Manager Melanie Marsh. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204603001

“The reason we call it a palace and not just a villa is because it is one of the most important Roman buildings in Britain.

“It shows that link and partnership working with the Romans. It really illustrates a key moment in our history when the Romans came into Britain and started settling.

“It was an invasion but we also show that relationship with the local population working alongside the Romans.”

Founded in 1846, Sussex Archaeological Society is due to celebrate its 175th anniversary in 2021. 

Fishbourne Roman Palace. Property Manager Melanie Marsh. Pic Steve Robards SR2006111 SUS-201106-204514001

To ensure its survival until that special occasion, the society has today (June 16) launched an urgent fundraising appeal as part of its Celebrating 175 campaign.

The launch has been planned to coincide with Sussex Day, ‘in more normal times’, a day of celebration around the two counties. Best-selling author and historian Tom Holland has been named as the appeal’s patron.

Ms Marsh said: “We are a self-funding charity which hugely relies on the community.

“We are a wonderful site and we need our community’s support right now. It’s difficult financial times for so many different organisations but we incredibly special to this area.

“Fishbourne is such a wonderful place and the Roman Palace is such a key part of that.”

Sussex Archaeological Society also looks after significant archaeological and historical collections and provides employment and volunteering opportunities across Sussex, as well as drawing tourists to the area.

Without sufficient funding, the properties, closed since the lockdown was imposed in March, may never reopen and collections have to be dispersed or disposed of, the society warned.

CEO Catherine Cavanagh said more than 160,000 paying visitors a year were normally welcomed at its properties.

Ms Cavanagh said lockdown was announced just at the beginning of the ‘important summer season’ for the society, which received no core Government funding and ‘relied heavily’ on money from the sale of admission tickets.

Other income streams had also been affected, with gift shops shut and all planned
events and educational workshops cancelled.

Only one of its cafes, at Fishbourne, had been able to reopen recently, in accordance with government guidelines.

Ms Cavanagh said: “We are due to celebrate our 175th anniversary in a year’s time. Sadly, our plans to build up to this date with some special events have been severely curtailed and we are concerned that we may not even survive until then.

“Today is Sussex Day and many Sussex residents will have visited our properties as adults and also as school children on educational trips. Their closure will be a loss to future generations.

“We hope they will hear our call for help and support our work by donating to our Celebrating 175 Fund.”

Melanie Marsh said around 25,000 of Fishbourne Roman Palace’s 60,000 average annual visitors are schoolchildren.

“The school support is huge for us,” she said. “We would love for schools to come back and feel safe.

“They are such a key part of our audience. We do wonderful workshops and the Romans are such a huge part of the curriculum.

“It’s so nice to be able to show them the site so they can learn exactly what it would have been like. It’s a really immersive experience.”

Ms Marsh encouraged members of the community to be ‘creative’ with their fundraising ideas.

She said: “We are encouraging people to do playful things to celebrate [the] 175[th anniversary] like a school class reading 175 books within the year and getting sponsored.

“We might do a scheme where we plant 175 flowers across the site to be able to return in the spring next year.

“Maybe people could do a 175 mile sponsored cycle ride or walk for us. 

“We would love to survive another 175 years doing the work that we do, supporting, celebrating and sharing the heritage all across Sussex.”

A digital campaign to kick off the countdown to the 175th anniversary will be launched on Thursday (July 18).

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