Some weeks ago the leader of Canterbury Council issued his bold vision for making Canterbury more attractive by boosting its historical and cultural assets. Few would have any issue with this, but rather how it is to be done. First, he claimed Canterbury was in some way deprived and may be eligible for a levelling-up grant given by Central Government. This I’m afraid is not likely since Canterbury cannot be classed as deprived in the way some northern communities are. Of course, we have social deprivation in our area, but this laudable intention is to help communities, especially in the Midland and northeast like Sunderland and Hartlepool, whose citizens have felt left behind in the modernisation of the country over many decades
We are one of the most well know cities in the world and certainly in Britain, along with Oxford and Stratford on Avon, and in normal times attracting millions of visitors each year. Besides our historical heritage, we have three universities, excellent state and independent schools, three theatre, two museums, several parks including one with a beautiful riverside walk, a county cricket ground, thriving autumn festival. And of course we have a world famous cathedral, ruins of an ancient abbey and two friaries. On the outskirts of the city we have extensive woodlands around Blean and on the nearby Downs designated as an area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. We are close to main lines of communication including the A2 and M20 as well as three railway links to London including HS1.
As for our historical heritage it is of course here thanks to the Roman’s, Archbishop Becket and Geoffrey Chaucer. But unfortunately the City Council and its leader must bear some responsibility for present its status. True no present councillors can be blamed for the destruction of the Guildhall in 1951, but some bear responsibility for the closure of the Poor Priests Hospital and the opportunity to display our medieval heritage against considerable opposition including from prominent academics. It is a medieval building of a kind hardly matched elsewhere. Perhaps to compensate for this Mr Fitter-Harding wants to put a museum on the top deck of the Castle Street car park, an extraordinary idea. He even hints at a Blitz experience under St George’s Tower; do we really want this kind of thing?
Does he realise there is nowhere in the city for art societies to exhibit since the closure of the Sidney Cooper Centre originally founded for the teaching and exhibiting of art. Surely this should be at least made available for local art societies such as the East Kent to exhibit as was the case in times gone by and a highlight of Cricket Week.
Among Mr Fitter- Harding’s other extraordinary ideas he proposes cutting down valuable ancient trees in Holy Cross churchyard to provide space for a visitors’ centre. This would not only face opposition from many who love Canterbury but excavating a churchyard would need a faculty from Historic England and the Home Office. I agree we need a visitors centre but the churchyard is not the place. Other extraordinary ideas include building an open-air theatre in the grounds of the Castle, a site in the guardianship of Historic England. Can anyone imagine wanting to attend an open-air theatrical performance within a few yards of a heavily congested road? He also wants to divert traffic from the Westgate but where to; perhaps along Rheims Way, London Road, St Dunstan’s and Forty Acres Road. We would I’m sure wish the traffic away from Westgate and St Dunstan’s but we are living in the 21st century. I think his proposals reach the height of imagination with the intention to acquire a copy of Magna Carta; where from I ask, and what relevance to Canterbury? Our burnt copy, one of four is in the British Library.
On several points I do agree, we need an improved Visitors Centre; the Beaney facilities are totally inadequate and not easy to find for visitors, especially those from overseas. It should be relocated to the vacant premises in the Butter Market opposite Christ Church Gate to be seen by visitors passing into the Cathedral. It also need to be comparable to those in York, Chester, Chichester, Ely and other historic cities, and with staff competent to help or advise visitors en-route to other destinations along with relevant information.
I also support the opening of former Holy Cross Church which serving now for council meetings would allow for the display and explanation of our civic history. The preservation of our medieval city wall is important but I am not so sure it would be visually improved by the draping of plants over the parapet. The planting of more trees round the outer perimeter along Broad Street would be a visual asset. I also support the restoration of the Dane John Garden to its Edwardian appearance and provision made to close the adjacent city wall at night to prevent vandalism and anti-social behaviour. Residents could have gate keys.
Seriously if Mr Fitter-Harding wishes to reboot Canterbury’s heritage he can do no better than publicise our existing assets. For a start there should be improved signposting- how well for instance is the Roman Museum signposted? Streets, both major and minor could be made more interesting with panels framed and glazed displaying the history of a particular spot with photographs and prints showing how a viewpoint has changed. Oxford has them, so also Berlin. I am sure that many of the visual reconstructions produced over the years by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust would make excellent display panels. Unlike those which exist already on a metal base such as outside the Westgate they must be weather and vandal-proof.
Much more could be done to introduce blue plaques on buildings in an around the city associated with famous people. Mozart should be recorded on the building standing on the site of the original Guildhall where he may have given a concert in 1764. Other building across the city could have plaques recording dates and features of architectural interest.
All this you may say costs money! Of course, but the City Council has voted £125.000 devising a bid to create his crackpot ideas. I venture to say good signposting, visitor information and appropriate plaques will be money better spent producing better value.
We have the history here already, all we need to do is to protect and promote it.