COULD it be that the Roman god Apollo, who is said to drive the chariot of the sun across the sky, has an eye on Colchester?

For several years, the town’s mortals have pondered how to make the most of the sensational discovery of Britain’s only known Roman chariot racing circus.

Now, developer Taylor Wimpey has offered a consortium the chance to buy the Victorian Army building where the ancient arena’s starting gates are buried.

At the same time, Colchester Archaeological Trust is being asked to move from its base in Lexden Road, as landlord Essex County Council wants to sell up.

It can get a relocation grant, and hopefully a mortgage, to buy part of the former Sergeants’ Mess as its headquarters.

Provided funding can be topped up with lottery money, and a buyer can be found for the other half of the building, the stage is set for the creation of a visitor centre alongside the proposed trust base.

Wendy Bailey, of Destination Colchester, which has formed the consortium along with the trust, said: “It is a golden opportunity to capitalise on our Roman past.”

The difficulty of cashing in on Colchester’s Roman connections has for years been a spoke in the chariot wheels for Colchester politicians and tourism chiefs.

The town was Britain’s first Roman capital and has the substantial remains of a Roman theatre on display in Maidenburgh Street.

The foundations of a Roman temple lie buried beneath Colchester Castle and the town centre is surrounded by a largely intact Roman wall.

Despite all this, it has been difficult to bill the town as a historical must-see on a par with Bath, Chester or York.

The trouble with archaeological remains is they aren’t always much to look at. The castle is packed with unique artefacts and displays and a trip there is a great day out. But many feel an additional attraction is needed to pull in families seeking educational fun.

The proposed visitor centre could be just that. Tourists would be able to look at photographs of the circus’ discovery, and watch information films about chariot racing, or find out facts via computers with touch-screen technology. There is also scope to create a cafe or gift shop, and allow visitors to walk across the circus site.

Another idea is to create an exhibition at the Sergeants’ Mess on Colchester’s history as a military town, to celebrate the town’s ancient and modern past under the same roof. Colchester Archaeological Trust’s Philip Crummy said: “It is crucial we get hold of the starting gates because it is such an important landmark and something which would provide a focus for visitors.”

What is proposed is nothing like as ambitious as the Jorvik Viking Centre in York, held up as a blueprint for how Colchester could bring its past to life. There, entire streets from the Viking era have been reconstructed on their actual sites, complete with mechanical dummies.

However, Kaye Hyde, public relations manager for Visit York, says the visitor centre plan does have one crucial attribute in common with Jorvik.

“The success of Jorvik is partly due to its authenticity,” she said.

“People want to be entertained, but it is also important to them the centre is on the land where the Viking town was discovered.

“That is something for Colchester to build on. If you have something authentic, it gives it extra credibility.”

As things stand, the visitor centre remains a pipedream, as the consortium needs to find a benefactor with £400,000 to spend on turning half of the Sergeants’ Mess into housing.

Substantial further funds would then be needed to create a display with wow-factor.

But Colchester MP Bob Russell, who will discuss the proposal with Culture, Media and Sport Minister Ben Bradshaw, said: “If this Roman circus had been discovered in Chester or York, a lot would have happened already.

“If the council puts in a fraction of the effort, money and time it invested in the ill-fated Visual Arts Facility, we could end up with a real success story.”

Lyn Barton, councillor responsible for planning, regeneration and sustainability, said she had arranged for the cabinet to take a tour of the circus site.

She said: “It’s not one of our key priorities, but we want to make sure our heritage is preserved.”

Several laps of the circuit lie ahead before the visitor centre dream can become a reality, but at least the town’s leaders appear united in wanting it to happen.

Let’s hope the gods are smiling.