Lesson from Canterbury by Dr. Hubert Pragnell

Canterbury has been under threat from those we may call conventional enemies; the Vikings in the 11thcentury, the German Luftwaffe in 1942, and potentially the French at various times and especially in 1805, but for Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Now we have another enemy, lack of care for our heritage and potential planning blunders. Canterbury’s present plight is the subject of a ten-page article by Chris Catling in in the August edition of Current Archaeology.

Chris cites in his opening the concern by figures in the heritage world about the scale and height of new buildings proposed for the centre of Canterbury, where the primacy of the cathedral as the focal point of views and the intimacy of the historic streets are under threat. The article is based on the splendid publication published in 2021, Canterbury Take Care, edited by Amicia de Moubray, and with an introduction by Marcus Binney, architectural historian and foremost conservationist, and founding Chairman of Heritage Link in 2002. It contains a number of chapters by local historians, architects, and Paul Bennet who was until recently, director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust.

Anyone just glancing at the article and noticing the photographs will, if they do not already know the city, exclaim ‘aren’t you lucky’. This is just the point and for too long we have taken it for granted. We got through the 1942 Blitz which mercifully was confined largely to the southeast of the centre, and we survived an even greater threat in the immediate post-war years when the City Council proposed a radical new plan for the city commissioned from Sir William Holden by the then City Architect, Hugh Wilson. This involved the demolition of scores of old buildings, the driving of new thoroughfares over the old medieval street pattern, and even an underpass between St Dunstan’s Street and the Westgate to carry the western arm of an inner ring road. Fortunately, the money was not there, but not before several major treasures had gone, and not least the mediaeval Guildhall in 1952.

The plan to completely encircle the city by an inner ring road was not dropped until the early 1970s; houses along North Lane and St Radigund’s had been demolished for the purpose, helped by the excuse that they were not fit for human habitation, a process which to be fair, had started in the 1930s. By the 1960s a so-called Comprehensive Development Area centred on the Whitefriars area was designated and new commercial premises including Riceman’s store ‘built like an ocean liner’ in the opinion of Clive Bowley was erected. The huge civic block beside the Dane John Gardens with a broad processional way down a broadened Rose Lane to the Cathedral fortunately did not happen, but a nearby Brutalist style multi-start car park did in 1969. This was the stimulus for the founding of the original Canterbury Society with Kenneth Pinnock who grew up in the city which he dearly loved.

As Clive Bowley points out in his chapter in Canterbury Take Care on conservation and planning in post war Canterbury, there were those who from the moment the bombs fell feared for the future of the city and not least architect, Anthony Swaine who saved the tower of St George’s church from demolition but was unsuccessful with the Guildhall in 1952. He was in practice in the city long enough to see the appointment of the first Conservation Officer, John Chater under the then City Architect, Percy Jackson.

As we see from walking round the City of London as I have done since childhood, post war buildings don’t seem to last long, and we are now into the second generation of rebuilding since the 1940-41 Blitz. The same in Canterbury, and Whitefriars has been totally redeveloped as well as the area between Butchery Lane and Upper Bridge Street, with some buildings in the local vernacular style whilst others rather blandly modern, or as Ian Nairn a trenchant author of Pevsner Architectural guides wrote of post war development as ‘a disaster: good intentions defeated by inadequate techniques.

Chris Catling cites a number of mistakes including what might be classed as shoddy building schemes such as 400 flats on the St Mildred’s Tannery site, some of which caught fire in 2018 revealing construction faults and inadequate fire protection. The article cites Griff Rhys Jones vision of a modern city as ‘so good, so inviting that humans will want to live there’ but saying we must face up to a post Covid 19 era where working from home becomes the norm and retail expansion of the past decades has collapsed leading, as we see in Canterbury, to numerous empty shops. Rather than thinking constantly bigger we must think in terms of a city which is ‘smaller, safer, quieter and more intimate’. As private cars become too expensive to run, so public transport must be there to take over, not run down.

Marcus Binney is one of those who feels Canterbury must be ever on guard and cites three examples of blight on our city, The excessive height of the Hampton Hotel in St Margaret Street, the increasing height proposed for the redevelopment of the former Debenhams store into flats, and the nearby development of the former Nason department store which will rise to five storeys. Paul Bennet in Canterbury Take Care contributes a chapter on Canterbury as a pilgrimage city at the heart of the Christian faith with St Martin’s church dating from the 6th century and the remains of St Augustine abbey begun in c.619 as the burial place for the kings of Kent. These two buildings along with Canterbury Cathedral constituting a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But these alone are not the whole of Canterbury and more should be done to encourage visitors to explore the rest of the city.

Elsewhere in Canterbury Take Care, Clive Bowley who is part of the architectural practice of the late Anthony Swaine contributes a though provoking chapter on the heritage of timber-framed buildings in the city and how since the 1874 when about 1200 historic timber framed houses existed, nearly 57 per cent  had been lost in the hundred years up to 1974, and not all by the fire bombs in 1942. 

The Current Archaeology article is an excellent summary of the larger publications and should alert readers to similar problems in other historic cities. However, it concentrates as you would expect on the architectural heritage and underlying archaeology of the city within the walls.  The preservation of this is essential, but Canterbury faces another threat which is mentioned Jan Pahl in her chapter on Canterbury in Maps. This is the proposed expansion over the next decade with thousands of new houses. Up to 17,000 has been a figure quoted which this city just cannot sustain. We do not have the infrastructure for this growth.

I urge all those who love our city and have concern to preserve what we have from mismanagement to read the article in Current Archaeology, and better still, to follow it up by reading the beautifully produced Canterbury Take Care, published by Save Britain’s Heritage, ISBN: 978-0-9059788-1-9

One Comment

  1. A monstrous solar farm has been proposed this week ref DDC 23/01363
    205 acres over agricultural land between Sandwich and Ash laying in front of Richborough Castle and threatening archeological interests, wildlife, and the environment.
    Please see the website Save Ash Level and object.

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