Moderator’s Note: this article represents the opinions of the author and not those of the committee of the Canterbury Society or the editor of Canterbury News
Canterbury Cathedral’s Precincts occupy a large area in the middle of the old city. They are one of its greatest treasures. They are designated as a World Heritage Site in their own right. Since time immemorial local residents have been able enjoy their beauty and tranquillity and to walk through them on their way across town. Imagine their frustration and anger when they got to Quenin Gate last month to discover they were now barred from going through and into the Precincts. Without any prior notice or explanation they were confronted with a peremptory notice stating that entry was now allowed only to King’s School students and staff. Similar notices have appeared at other gates too, and at the entry to Green Court. Local residents are up in arms.
The Quenin Gate in the City wall opposite Lady Wooton’s Green was first opened in 1486. For centuries, members of the public were free to use it for access to the Precincts and as a peaceful and safe way through to the centre of the city. It was open from 7.00 am until the sounding of ancient Curfew Bell at 9.00 pm.
When the Cathedral started to charge visitors for admission in the mid-1990s, a system of Precincts Passes was introduced. Local residents, people who work locally and some other groups were eligible for these Passes which allowed them free access to the Precincts through all the gates, 7.00 am – 9.00 pm.
For a short period at the height of the Covid pandemic, entry was restricted to the main gate, but we were assured (on 13 August 2021) that full access for local residents and other Pass holders 7.00 am – 9.00 pm would be restored as soon as staff were available.
However, we are now told that Pass holders may enter and leave only through the main, Christ Church gate in the Buttermarket. Access through the other gates is allowed only to the staff and the wealthy, fee-paying students of King’s School who are here only temporarily and for part of the year. Entry to Green Court, a large and beautiful area within the Precincts lined with listed buildings and previously open to local residents and other Pass holders, is also now restricted to members of the King’s School and to people on guided tours. The public is ordered to “KEEP OFF THE GRASS” in Green Court, it is “for the use of King’s School ONLY”.
This has caused a tidal wave of anger. Local residents have started a campaign to have these divisive changes reversed, and this has gained large and rapidly growing support. The campaign has been reported in the (London) Times, MailOnline, and even a US news website, as well as in the Kentish Gazette.
We question the Cathedral’s right to restrict the access of local residents and reserve it for members of the King’s School in this way. We believe that long standing access to the Precincts and passage across them has established a customary right to access the Precincts through all its gates and of passage through them, including Green Court.
The Cathedral and King’s School have responded by arguing that these restrictions are needed to “safeguard” King’s School students and that “No school in the UK allows unmanaged public access to their site.” (Kentish Gazette, 15 September 2022, p. 7). King’s School owns some buildings within the Precincts, and there is no suggestion that the public should have access to these, but the Precincts are not premises of King’s School. King’s School has many other buildings throughout the town, to and from which King’s School students come and go without problems – what evidence is there that this is not true of those in the Precincts as well?
The Cathedral maintains that these new restrictions are necessary for “security” reasons. These are spurious. No other Cathedral in the country that we are aware of restricts public entry to their precincts in the way that Canterbury does. Salisbury, Norwich, Winchester, Chichester, Wells, Worcester, Ely, Gloucester, and Durham Cathedrals all allow the public free access to their precincts. There are schools within the Precincts of Worcester, Gloucester, Ely, Durham, Salisbury and Norwich Cathedrals.
Nathan Crouch, the Cathedral’s Head of Marketing and Communications, has written “Access to The Precincts via Quenin Gate to local Precinct Pass-holders … necessitated that a Cathedral Constable be stationed at the entrance for between 12-14 hours per day. Post-Covid, this is no longer something that the Cathedral can financially justify, nor is it the best use of our staff resource.”
Access via the Quenin Gate has been possible for local residents for centuries. Saving the cost of a guard is not a good reason to turn control of this gate over to the King’s School and allow them to restrict access to its members.
The imposition of these restrictions is causing immense damage to relations between the local community and the Cathedral and King’s School.
The Cathedral has received £11.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund as a “catalyst for much wider community involvement”. The King’s School is a Registered Charity with obligations to the local community. Both the Cathedral and the King’s School are failing in their responsibilities towards the town and its residents. The Cathedral and its Precincts are a World Heritage site. This designation is being put in jeopardy, with potentially serious consequences for the town.
We recognise that maintenance costs for the Cathedral are very high and it is reasonable to charge visitors for entry. However, we agree with Hubert Pagnell, writing on behalf of the Canterbury Society, that this charge should be for entry to the Cathedral itself rather than for entry to Precincts, with free entry for Pass holders. Free access through all gates to the Precincts and to Green Court should be restored, not only to Pass holders but to the general public as well.
The Canterbury Cathedral Precincts Access Group (CCPAG) has been formed to urge the Cathedral authorities and the King’s School to recognise their responsibilities to the community and reconsider these divisive and damaging restrictions.
Emeritus Professor of Philosophy, University of Kent
04 October 2022