A Heritage Walk, by Stewart Ross

Last Tuesday I became a tourist. I didn’t pack bags and fly off in defiance of Covid regulations, but paid a visit to my own city, Canterbury, as a putative outsider. I wanted to find out what the place looked and felt like to someone arriving for the first time.

I was pleasantly surprised.

When one lives somewhere for several years, familiarity breeds neglect and small changes are easily overlooked. To my shame, I had failed to take in the extent of the improvements made by the City Council’s Planning Policy and Heritage Team over the past few years. There was a helpful map outside Canterbury West, various (albeit rather small) signposts indicating the city centre and key features such as the Cathedral and St Augustine’s. In the spring sunshine, even the controversial new car park outside the station looked quite attractive with its wooden façade and adjacent tree-lined walkway.

Ambling down towards the Westgate, I was impressed by the clean streets, the widened pavements and the range of fascinating architecture. Yes, said my tourist self, this is a good place to visit. The feeling grew after I had strolled around the immaculately maintained Westgate Gardens. What I now needed was information.

Off I went to the Tourist Office. Disappointingly, though the surrounding shops were all open, it was shut. Maybe this was required by Covid regulations, but it would have been nice to have an outside stall, similar to those nearby selling trinkets and peanuts. Even if the Office had been open, I would have found it only by venturing deep into the bowels of the Beaney. In most historic towns and cities I’ve visited, the Tourist Information Office is a prominent central feature – positioned rather like the Cathedral Visitor Centre in the Buttermarket.

Heritage, we are told in the impressive Heritage Strategy for Canterbury District (2019), is the main driver of tourism, and tourism is a crucial element of the local economy, responsible for 9,378 jobs. A major feature of our local heritage is the history enshrined in listed buildings (1,880 in the Canterbury area) and monuments. A delight to the eye, they are still more attractive when accompanied by information.

Of course, when the Tourist Office is open (shuts at 4.30, by the way – why?), its excellent staff, maps and leaflets will help many. Nevertheless, take-away info is generally only for the dedicated visitor. It’s of no use to the casual tourist strolling about the streets who, if they can find the Beaney, almost certainly won’t burrow inside. More in-situ info would help visitors of this ilk and enhance the feel of Canterbury as an Aladdin’s cave of historical riches.  

How might this be done? More explanatory displays, obviously, and more QR codes. The proposed Blue Plaque Scheme endorsed by the Canterbury Society would be an excellent addition, too. And what about talking statues, suggested by one of the Commemoration Society’s trustees?

After failing to get into the Beaney, I looked about me. Oh dear! Is there no way we can have a main street more in keeping with our splendid heritage? I am fully aware of financial pressures and the need to cater for our very varied constituency, but surely a string of nail bars, rowdy pubs, junk food outlets and garish shops is not really appropriate for what purports to be one of the world’s great heritage attractions? Can’t planners help? Rigorously implementing their excellent Shopfront Design Supplementary Planning Document (2020) would be a good to start: ‘Colour schemes should harmonise with the building and with other buildings in the street. Strident or garish colours should be avoided …’

One last thought. The City Council should be warmly congratulated on its efforts to make our city a more attractive centre for heritage tourism; at the same time, there are many societies and interest groups keen to see the process taken further. Perhaps we might convene an annual Canterbury Heritage Forum at which they and the Council could pool ideas to take make our city still more attractive? It’s good to talk.

Stewart Ross, Vice-Chair of the Canterbury Commemoration Society, is a freelance writer and lecturer: www.stewartross.com

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