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The Cathedral IV
The Cathedral V
uring December 2012 and January 2013, the cathedral declared a Christmas truce on admission charges and in early January, the local press reported that "Chester Cathedral is aiming to 'go back to the future' by offering free admission this month with a view to making this permanent if the trial is successful".
Right: A hidden gem of Chester Cathedral visited by few: the 12th century St. Anselm Chapel, once the private chapel of the Abbot of the Benedictine monastery. To find it, go the the north west corner of the nave, pass the font and go up the narrow spiral staircase. This was long roped off and inaccessible to visitors but happily no longer.
A few months later, the free admissions policy was made permanent and, by July 2013, the Cathedral was quoted in the local press as saying income from visitors was "balancing out" due to a 500% increase in their numbers. A conservative estimate, judging by what we've observed during recent visits.
In the same month, we heard about a whole raft of controversial new proposals, designed to boost the Cathedral's income and, at last, start to do something to rescue its crumbling estate. The Dean & Chapter are quoted as being "very nervous" about what they, rather uncharitably, refer to as the "clamour" to pedestrianise Northgate Street. Should this come about, they say they would find themselves "landlocked"- cut off from vehicular access.
It should be said that very many residents and businesses have been working hard to ensure that Northgate Street does indeed at long last join the rest of the city centre in becoming traffic-free and, throughout July, organised a series of 'Northgate Quarter Festivals' when the street was closed to cars, seating appeared outside the eateries and pubs, all manner of music was performed on stages and people got the welcome opportunity to stroll through this historic, cultural and beautiful area, free- at least for a short time- from the danger of being mown down.
It seems only reasonable that those fine shops, restaurants, pubs and galleries of the rapidly-rising Northgate Quarter should be able to trade and attract visitors on an equal footing with the rest of the city centre and no longer be merely part of a rat run for speeding cars, buses and delivery lorries. All too often, gridlock prevails, the street being filled with stalled vehicles and the air quality plummeting as a result. All of the 'artist's impressions' of the new theatre at the Odeon show people strolling around in some manner of plaza, with not a heavy vehicle in sight. This is what most people clearly want and the Cathedral should prepare for the inevitable and 'go with the flow'.
The Cathedral's chief concerns, of course, are financial. Having given the lovely 18th century Abbey Square- one of the gems of Chester- over to the role of a mere contract car park, they wonder how these customers will gain access should Northgate Street be closed to them. They have also launched plans for a 'Free School' in a couple of the square's old houses and are anxious that parents should not be impeded from clogging up the entire area with their vehicles during the morning and evening 'school run'.
Thus their new proposals to tackle the problem. Most controversial by far- and the one that's got everyone talking- is to "widen" (more likely destroy and replace) the 13th century Kaleyard Gate in the City Walls, photographed here by the author in June 2013, and construct a new road through the gap to allow access to their car park and school! Even they say the idea is "crazy" but that it could be their only option.
We should remind you that the two-mile circuit of Chester's City Walls, including the gates, are a Scheduled Ancient Monument and Grade-I listed. They attract huge numbers of visitors from all over the world have have done for centuries. The great fortified main gates were replaced with the present elegant arches in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, as they were deemed to be an obstruction to traffic, and only two of the ancient gateways were permitted to survive- the Peppergate and this, the Kaleyard Gate.
The last time substantial breaches were made in the City Walls was during the terrible destuction inherent in the coming of the Inner Ringroad in the 1960s. Today, it seems inconceivable that English Heritage would allow such vandalism, especially merely to allow a small number of people access to a private car park!
But who knows? If no alternatives can be found and the choice is keeping the old postern or at last achieving a car-free Northgate Street? What do you think?
Alternatives always exist, however. Consider a better use of the Kaleyards car parking area for example. Perhaps even the removal of the unremarkable buildings that currently house Iceland, the Slow Boat restaurant etc to allow extra car parking reserved for contract holders and Cathedral visitors? It would allow for an easy and dignified access to the Cathedral precincts via the Kaleyard Gate. In addition, Abbey Square could be freed from its unsatisfactory role as commercial car park.
The Kaleyard Gate plan is by no means the only money-making scheme proposed by the Dean & Chapter. Not at all...
• A third of the Deanery Field, the last surviving ancient green open space within the City Walls, is proposed to be covered by a housing estate- whether posh town houses or some manner of 'assisted living' development is as yet undeclared. The remaining portion of the currently-private (but nontheless popular) field would be turned into a "public park", albeit shared with the new Free School.
• Demolishing the Bishop's House in Abbey Square, but retaining the facade, building a hotel on its site and on the garden behind and making the Bishop a smart new residence on the south side of the square.
• Rufus Court may be extended onto the beer garden behind Alexander's Bar and host the usual formula of shops, cafes and restaurants with apartments above. Interestingly, the excellent Rufus Court was built twenty years ago by a local private developer, Thompson Cox, on land long sorely neglected by the Cathedral authorities. The Cathedral owns the land but not the properties and businesses which continue to be ably administered by the original developers. Would the Dean & Chapter, then, be setting up in competition?
• We quite like this one. Develop the currently-scruffy Quarry car park off Northgate Street to provide new homes and businesses in addition to parking.
• Also this. Demolish the modern, third-rate Gateway House, next door to the Little Abbey Gateway, which currently houses a number of food outlets, offices and the Job Centre. (It is also soon to be the unglamorous temporary home of the new Cathedral Free School, no progress having been yet made upon preparing the school's Abbey Square premises). Replace the building with a new development of more cafes, restaurants and apartments and provide a new entrance into Abbey Square. Whether pedestrian or vehicular is currently unclear.
• A number of additional minor improvements were suggested, involving such as access to the Cathedral and other matters.
Chester Cathedral is yet to be forgiven by many for their lunatic plot to pave over the churchyard but, judging by the comments in the street and in the local press, some of the new plans have once again succeeded in upsetting many people. It is a pity that the clamour over the more outrageous proposals, such as the Kaleyard Gate and Deanery Field, have led to few taking much notice of the better ones.
In late July 2013, the well-respected Chester Archaeological Society were so reticent in their opinions. "The society is disappointed and concerned the current proposals show little understanding of, or regard for, the historical character of the built environment of the quarter, which they would seriously erode... We cannot believe these proposls are based on a proper heritage assessment of the quarter. Such an assessment is essential and should underpin all thinking about the revitalisation of the area".
Hear hear to that.
Now it is time for us to leave the Cathedral behind us and move on to the environs of the Eastgate....
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