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The Cathedral IV

A Virtual Stroll Around the Walls of Chester

The Cathedral V

The Eastgate

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During 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".

st anselm chapelSpokesman Nicolas Fry commented, "the cathedral has been welcoming visitors for a thousand years, since the days of the Benedictine monastery. In recent years, numbers have declined.."

By as much as two thirds, it turned out- almost certainly during the years of compulsory admission charges.

The 'new' system- exactly as it was before the era of charges- would involve the visitor being asked for a suggested donation of £3, but each giving according to his or her means. The money would be put into a transparent collection box rather than being rung into a cash register. "Hopefully, this will result in more visitors and increased income overall".

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 1920, the newly-appointed Dean Bennett abolished the admission charges that were almost universal in English cathedrals and, by three years later, was happy to report that voluntary contributions amounted to six times the income derived from the old sixpenny fee. We see no reason that the same should not prevail in 2013.

In his book, The Nature of a Cathedral, he wrote that cathedrals had become regarded as "the special property of a small corporation" charging "those to whom the cathedral really belonged" sixpence to enter. How embarrassing to those manning the cash registers must have been the Dean's memorial, readable only to those who had parted with their money to get in:

Frank Selwyn Macaulay Bennett
Dean of Chester 1920-37
Who for love of God and his fellow men
Opened this cathedral without fence or fee
So that God's children
Should know and love their Father's House.
"I was glad when they said unto me
Let us go into the House of the Lord".

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.

kaleyard gateIt 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!

it's curtains for cars!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?

abbey square cottagesThe important Insall Report of 1968 recommended that derelict Abbey Green be redeveloped to provide new shops and maisonettes facing upon Northgate Street with larger town houses behind. However, the Dean and Chapter had their own ideas for the site, including a proposal to erect a five-storey office block immediately next to the Northgate, which was intended to fund both the housing scheme and the restoration of adjacent listed buildings. In preparation for the redevelopment, an archaeological investigation was conducted which led to the discovery of substantial portions of the Roman rampart and associated structures and this in turn led to much of the area being scheduled as an Ancient Monument. Consequently, severe restrictions were wisely placed upon any new building. So what has changed since?

• 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.

bonfire on deanery fieldChester 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.

The Cathedral needs money, we realise. We do. At the same time, they also own an awful lot of very classy property, much of it rapidly going to the dogs. Walk down Abbey Green to view the terrace of fine Georgian mansions there, with their unrivalled view over the Deanery Field and Phoenix Tower. Every one of them is a wreck- peeling paintwork, broken windows, ruined gutters spewing rainwater down the brickwork. The neighbouring contract car park, adjoining the City Walls and seen by all who walk them, is exceedingly scruffy. Walk into Abbey Square. On first inspection, a splendid 18th century residential development "in the London style". Look closer- the same decaying woodwork and dodgy guttering. The cobbled road surface is damaged by the vehicles that constantly drive over it. Even worse, the majority of the upper stories of these fine houses remain largely unoccupied. Why? These are fantastic locations. How much would people pay to occupy apartments in such places? Even the Cathedral should have the nous to find a suitable 'partner' to help fund their restoration and arrange for suitably affluent tenants.

These are listed buildings. The Dean & Chapter has a legal obligation to maintain them but has failed to do so in any meaningful way for many years. They have also failed in the seemingly elementary task of persuading people to want to live in them, a task that would have been much easier and cheaper had the task of restoration commenced years ago.

cathedral from hoole wayAnd where, again, is English Heritage in all this? Underfunded as they are, surely the time for them to step in and do their job is long overdue. They can compel the Cathedral to look after its historic properties- but they could also actually help them by, for example, finding grants. They are supposed to be the experts upon, and guardians of, all of Britain's historic buildings.

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".

Regarding the perceived 'threat' of pedestrianisation, CAS spokesman Dr Peter Carrington said, "we are not persuaded possible pedestrianisation of Northgate Street and Town Hall Square justifies this destruction of historical character. Ultimately, traffic management schemes are reversible, destruction of the historic environment is not.. The cathedral quarter contains some of the most precious groups of historical buildings, monuments and spaces in the city, and this is reflected in the level of recognition and statutory protection afforded to them. The need to minimise any damage inevitably makes development difficultx. Regrettably, the present proposals are far from showing an adequate understanding of this challenge, and accordingly we could only support a minority of them".

We told you earlier that entry to Chester Cathedral is now free. We like to visit whenever we can and have already noticed a pronounced increase in visitor numbers. So come and join them- let us repeat that this really is a very special place and its atmosphere, the result of at least a millennium of constant spiritual activity, is one that all visitors to Chester should experience. The Cathedral now declares that it "will be working hard to re-connect with the community and the city and to foster a sense of community involvement in its future. Making the cathedral a 'must see attraction' and encouraging visitors.. is the aim".

Hear hear to that.

cathedral choir
Spring sunshine illuminates the glorious choir of Chester Cathedral: April 2015. Photograph by the author ©

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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 Strictly © Steve Howe / B&W Picture Place