Chapter 4: Culture and heritage (Hubert Pragnell)
SDG Target11.4: Strengthen efforts to protect and safeguard the world’s cultural and natural heritage
In many ways Canterbury is one of the most fortunate cities in Great Britain, and its situation has forged its culture and heritage almost by accident. Situated in east Kent on the River Stour and some ten miles from the coast, the city is within one hour of London by fast train. It has much to offer both the casual visitor as well as serious tourists who may be in search of rich historical cultural heritage from the Roman period to the present day, or whose taste is exploring the adjacent unspoilt countryside.
Canterbury fortunately missed the main effects of the industrial revolution and it therefore remained a small and compact city of narrow streets dominated by the Cathedral. In spite of partial destruction during the second world war, many buildings from the medieval period remain. Substantial rebuilding did not get underway until the 1950s, but fortunately, although there were developments which were out of character with the surviving buildings, a constant watch by amenity societies and environmentally conscious citizens has preserved it from substantial visual damage. As well as a city which many consider to be one of the most beautiful in Britain, and with much evidence of its past, we are also fortunate in having varied countryside on our doorstep ranging from extensive woodlands plus the North Downs AONB, the Stour Valley and marshes and wetlands towards Thanet. Whilst we must be grateful for this we must be ever vigilant and seek ways to preserve and exploit our heritage.
The task before us
With so much history and visual reminders of its past, do we capitalise or exploit this; are we complacent or could we do more to make Canterbury an even more important cultural centre? According to a list current from 2010, in or near the City of Canterbury there are about 34 grade one listed buildings, 49 grade 2* and about 1596 listed buildings in total. There are also two World Heritage Sites, along with a curtain or shadow area extending over about half of the area within the city wall. This needs both good publicity, as well as a well organised tourist information office or bureau with permanent well-trained staff; this we feel is inadequate at present it being hidden in the Beaney Institute. As it did some years ago, a city with the status of Canterbury should have a large and well-staffed information centre preferably located in a prominent central position. Tour guides should be trained to inform accurately on the history of the City and architectural style of buildings, and less on entertaining stories.
Our main museum is the Beaney Institute, very much a Victorian ‘house of knowledge’ and this has an impressive frontage to the High Street. Although the interior was modernised between 2009-12, there is insufficient room to display adequately our treasures. As one can see, it is rich in pictures but the display is cramped. More use should have been made of the space above the entrance stair with an extension of a mezzanine floor. It is sad that the Slater Gallery within the Museum is no longer available for local art exhibition is it was for many years.
The Roman Museum is a wonderful asset to the City both as a tourist attraction and educational asset. Only a few other cities such as Chester, St Alban’s and London, have museums devoted purely to a single period of their history. Unfortunately it is not well advertised and so does not receive the number of visitors it deserves. It is however used and appreciated by school and university groups for on-the-spot teaching. It also needs wider publicity, perhaps at a national scale. We remain unhappy that an opportunity was lost to promote the Poor Priests Hospital as a branch of an integrated complex of museums each displaying periods of our history. This plan was supported by a number of bodies, not least the Canterbury Archaeological Trust. The nature of the 13th century building made it ideal for the display of medieval artifacts and the story of Canterbury’s medieval history from early dark ages up to the 16th century.
For a City with such cultural importance in the nation’s history our provision of museum facilities is totally inadequate.
The Eastbridge Hospital is another major medieval building with an impressive 12th. century crypt. It should be open on a more permanent basis, and not as at present, confined to the summer months. The crypt could provide an additional venue for art exhibitions. Beyond the City wall we have the remains of St Augustine’s Abbey administered by English Heritage. In recent years they have done much to explain the site by state-of-the-art display techniques. It does however suffer from being at a distance which some visitors are unwilling to walk. It also needs to get greater publicity exposure, not only from English Heritage, but also Canterbury City Council.
While not a museum the Sidney Cooper Centre was until summer 2019 an exhibition centre leased to Canterbury Christ Church University. It is the remaining building of the original Canterbury College of Art which trained many distinguished artists and architects in the past. For many years it hosted an annual art exhibition founded in 1902, and social occasions during Canterbury Cricket Week. In the summer of 2019 Canterbury Christ Church relinquished their lease handing it back to Canterbury City Council, who are now to lease it to the Marlowe Theatre for additional rehearsal and scenery storage space. We would wish however that exhibition space, or perhaps rooms within the centre could be hired out to external bodies, such as the East Kent Art Society, and Canterbury Art Society. This would be a great opportunity to rectify the deficit of exhibition space thus further enhancing the public appeal of the City.
Although their obvious priority is to provide teaching at specific levels of secondary and tertiary education, academic institutions also open their doors to the public by way of lectures, exhibitions, films and concerts. Our three main universities have brought additional wealth and a large community of young people to the City. We welcome the fact both the University of Kent and Canterbury Christ Church University provide members of the public rights to use the university libraries for reference, and for a payment to have readers tickets allowing borrowing of books. As mentioned above Canterbury Christ Church had a lease on the Sidney Cooper Centre and arranges a number of public exhibitions throughout the year.
The City has a number of excellent schools both state and independent, the latter extending out to the public by way of loaning their facilities. Kings School offers an excellent sports centre and the Shirley Hall, large enough to accommodate a symphony orchestra playing to an audience of up to 800. It also opens itself to the public with an annual festival of the arts during King’s Week in the early summer. Certain events of the annual Canterbury Festival are held in the hall. Kings has also recently completed the restoration of the former early 20th century Maltings off North Lane which has an auditorium able to seat some hundreds of persons. Its facilities are of West End standards and we hope there will be every attempt to share its facilities with the general public. St Edmunds School is also developing its summer arts festival. We would like to encourage more of this exchange with City folk. Kent Collegehas just completed a new hall to be used for cultural purposes which we hope will be extended to the City. It has the advantage of parking away from the City centre. The Simon Langton Grammar School for boys encourages lay people to use its observatory for periodic star-gazing sessions.
Canterbury has a flourishing U3A circle helped no doubt by the number of retired academics who wish to share their skills and interests with a larger audience. We feel this to be a great selling point to those with lively minds wishing to retire to the area. There is also the East Kent branch of the National Trust which meets monthly for lectures at the United Reformed church. There are two branches of the Arts Society which meet monthly in the City and there are classes put on by the local branch of the WEA. These take place usually in the Quaker Meeting House in the Friars.
Whilst not a place of entertainment in the normally accepted sense Canterbury Cathedral is the venue for a number of symphony and choral concerts throughout the year. Also visiting choirs, especially from abroad, are invited to give lunch time concerts. The Cathedral choristers occasionally give public concerts in the Cathedral and also in neighbouring villages.
Many cities envy us for our theatre, the Marlowe, recently rebuilt to modern entertainment demands. The Marlowe is sufficiently large to attract West End plays as well as touring musical and operatic groups including Glyndebourne Opera which is greatly appreciated. Some may question the price of admission and whether this bars some of the less well-off citizens of the Canterbury from attending. The other drawback is that with its large seating capacity it poses a strain on nearby car parks. However we are fortunate in also have another, the Gulbenkian on the University of Kent campus. This theatre has a smaller capacity, but is ideal for more intimate or experimental drama, and it operates in combination with a cinema, the latter showing films not necessary in the main stream. Adjoining the Gulbenkian is the Collier-Ferguson Concert Hall which is attracting top entertainers and productions. Adjoining the Westgate Hall the Curzon which has three screens and shows a mixture of major film releases as well as those of more limited appeal. A seven-screen cinema is planned for the impending Kingsmead development although it must be questioned in this age of growing downloads and streaming, whether this will exceed demand.
St Peter’s Methodist Church, and the former St Gregory’s church in Military Road, are often used for concerts both mid-week and at weekends and especially the former. Canterbury Christ Church University is doing its best to foster an interest in Canterbury’s local history as recorded on film with periodic public showing of old films from their growing archive.
The Canterbury Festival takes place during late October and early November and has been a great success although debate continues as to whether it should run for two or three weeks. It is advertised in the national as well as local press, and with the HS1 rail service, audiences can come from London, even for evening performances as long as they do not end too late for the last train! The festival aims to combine participation by professional artists as well as local participants including pupils from local schools. It provides a nice balance between musical and literary events, walks and public lectures. There is also a Fringe.
It is most important that the City is seen as a centre for all and not just middle-class adults and professionals but also an appeal for children and young families. Especially with the latter in mind the University of Kent stages the magnificent boOing Festival over two days on August bank Holiday weekend. Many entertainment groups come from afar including France and Belgium, and over 10,000 visitors come for unforgettable days-out. Another colourful event is the Medieval Pageant and Family Trail held each July, in which large colourful floats made by Canterbury College process led by ‘Henry 11 and Queen Eleanor’ re-enacting the Kings procession in penance for the murder of Becket. Academics give short talks and there is a medieval village in the Franciscan gardens. Another ‘medieval occasion’, held on the nearest Saturday to December 6th, is the St Nicholas Festival which has its origins in many medieval cathedral cities. It starts with a procession of children, parents and students led by ‘St Nicholas’ from the Westgate to the Cathedral for a service attended by the Archbishop in the Cathedral.
In recent years there have also been food festivals held in the Dane John Gardens. Although naturally dependent on good weather, these have been well attended and help to emphasise Canterbury as a regional centre. One occasion which we feel has gone into a shadow is Cricket Week in late July. It barely receives any publicity and we would welcome it to be brought back more into public prominence. The Old Stagers still perform their monologue at the Gulbenkian Theatre at the close of the week.
This is seen as vital for the commercial success of Canterbury. A Christmas Market with wooden stalls is set up in Whitefriars and St George’s Street with the idea of emulation a traditional German market. How far this is successful is open to question, and it may in fact take away trade from established shops and stores? An ice rink was set up in the Dane John Gardens which attracted families, however it has since run into problems of cost. It would be nice if this could find a permanent place as a family attraction to enjoy on the dark nights.
Green heritage and leisure
Canterbury is fortunate in being a small city with beautiful countryside within walking distance. The North Downs to the west and south are designated as an area of outstanding natural beauty and this must be honoured in spite of the pressure for housing in the vicinity. Within the City there are the Westgate Gardens, Dane John Garden, Solly’s Orchard, the Causeway, and small Butterfly Garden in Pound Lane, plus the Franciscan Greyfriars Garden (open during summer months). It is essential that these are properly supervised or policed which sadly is not always the case. To the north and west of the City are Blean Woods, an area of many thousand acres extending from the edge of the A2 at Upper Harbledown eastwards towards Herne. This is a magnificent asset for walks as well as an attraction for rare plants including orchids, plus butterflies and birds.
The Blean Woods are traversed by National Cycle Route 1, which stretches from Dover to John O’ Groats, and which occupies part of the original track bed of the 1830 Canterbury and Whitstable Railway and known as the Crab and Winkle Way. It is hoped that in the future the latter may be extended towards the centre of Canterbury by reopening the tunnel under Tylers Hill. The University of Kent has a wooded campus with many paths open to walkers, and we hope that although private land, it will remain in the public domain. Since we have National Cycle Route 1 passing around the City it would be nice to see a diversion through the City centre from east to west perhaps with a dedicated surface along the High Street as is often the case in Dutch towns. At present all routes through the centre are barred at some point to cyclists.
Much work has been done over the past decade to open the bank of the River Stour to walkers. On the east side of the city a walk has been opened passing Kingsmead’s Barton Mill, whilst on the west there is a continuous path from the Westgate Gardens to Chartham village and continuing on to Ashford as part of the Stour Valley Walk, but away from the river. The Stour Way continues east to the south of the City from the vicinity of Military Road to Fordwich and on to Sandwich.
The Westbere Lakes, formerly gravel pits excavated by Messrs Brett’s have been adapted for rowing and sailing activities by local clubs. We applaud this and would encourage further expansion. We are also pleased to see the Canterbury Model Engineering Club allowed to have a permanent miniature railway track on the land and which is a popular attraction during summer months. We hope this will continue.
Although dealt with elsewhere the facilities for football and rugby are not really adequate and the idea of creating a sports complex at Highland Court, on the outskirts of Bridge is not really viable and has received stiff opposition from local residents. We feel the University of Kent should go into partnership with Canterbury Football and Rugby clubs to possibly share some of their fields for the public to use. The crowds are not likely to be large and there is adequate parking space.
- That Canterbury City Council to retain a Heritage Champion, a position held by an elected councillor.
- The City Council also to prioritise a permanent Conservation officer plus assistants to oversee conservation and restoration of buildings within the city.
- Canterbury to have a permanent and clearly located tourist office with qualified staff to assist visitors. The present situation in the Beaney Institute is inadequate.
- That greater provision be made for advertising the city’s heritage, both historical and natural, across Britain by attractive posters, plus articles in travel journals and newspapers.
- Specific tourist trails be devised inviting visitors to explore the city away from the immediate proximity of the Cathedral.
- Greater effort is made to supervise or police green spaces within the City walls.
- The riverside walk and national cycle trail be exploited as part of encouraging a healthier society, including the designation of better cycle routes through the City centre.
- When opportunity arises, the relocation of the library to provide more room in the Beaney for the exhibition of finds and possessions in the Council’s care.
- The Canterbury Festival to be retained as a two-week event that endeavours to attract as many national or international artists and performers as possible.
- Better signposting throughout the City on iron posts and indicator boards.
- The Beaney Institute and Roman Museum collections to be more widely advertised, and the Poor Priests Hospital to be returned to museum use, perhaps for medieval artefacts.
- More sense of occasion to be restored to Canterbury Cricket week and enhanced publicity for other city festivals or themed occasions.
- The Christmas Market to be supported and provision of an Ice Skating rink for family enjoyment in the Dane John Garden.
- That serious consideration be given to expanding the sports facilities at the University of Kent to accommodate Canterbury Football and Rugby clubs.
- That the City Council provide better supervision for parks, gardens and open spaces within the City walls including Dane John Garden, Greyfriars Garden, Westgate Garden, Solly’s Orchard and the Pound Lane Butterfly Garden and to include Todlers Cove beyond the ring road bridge.