The cathedral precincts are one of the hidden gems of Canterbury. It’s like a secret garden set in the midst of this modern city. Much of the old city was destroyed in the Second World War: the reason the cathedral survived was because of the heroism of a small band of fire watchers who patrolled the roof and batted off any incendiary bombs that landed.
A friend and I often meet there. We usually sit in the herb garden behind the cathedral. Sometimes we will be sitting there when the bells will start to ring. It’s like being bathed in sound, the peal of the bells bouncing off the walls and filling the air. It’s like you are being massaged by the sound, immersed in it, awash in its joyful exuberance.
Crossing the City
One of the many delights of the precincts is being able to use them as a way of cutting across the city. If you are a local, you can walk through from the Buttermarket to Lower Bridge Street, and from Lower Bridge Street to the Borough in a safe and traffic-free environment. Or at least you used to be able to. Currently there is work being undertaken at both the Mint Yard entrance on the Borough, and the Queningate entrance on Lower Bridge Street. According to the cathedral authorities, once the work has been completed in December, the Mint Yard entrance will once again be open. The Queningate, however, will remain closed: it will be for the exclusive use of King’s School staff and pupils only. The work taking place inside the wall is the installation of metal gates, with an electronic pass system that will be issued by the school. The public will no longer have access.
The only information came in the form of notices posted at the various entrances in August. Entry to the Queningate, Mint Yard and Postern gates was restricted to King’s School students and staff, they said. Local residents and other precincts pass-holders could enter and leave only through Christ Church gate in the Buttermarket. Entry to Green Court was also limited to members of the King’s School and to people on guided tours organised by the school.
Naturally, people are upset. It feels like parts of our city are being commandeered by this exclusive private school to the detriment of the people who actually live here. King’s School students are only in the city for a part of the year and only for a short period in their lives. After they leave school, they move on, to places all over the world. We hope they take lovely memories of their time in our city with them, but it shouldn’t be to the exclusion of the residents. It’s our city too.
The cathedral and King’s School have given three reasons for these restrictions:
- They are needed to “safeguard” King’s School students, they said, and that “no school in the UK allows unmanaged public access to their site.” (Kentish Gazette, 17 September 2022).
- These new restrictions are needed for “security” reasons.
- “Access to the precincts via Queningate to local precinct pass holders … necessitated that a cathedral constable be stationed at the entrance … this is no longer something that the cathedral can financially justify.”
None of these are true.
- The precincts are not the premises of King’s School. King’s School has many other buildings throughout the city which students travel to and from without incident. What evidence is there that they are in any more danger in the precincts than they are elsewhere?
- Most other cathedrals in the country allow unrestricted public entry to their precincts. No other cathedral restricts access to the degree that Canterbury does.
- Access via Queningate has been customary for city residents for many centuries. Saving the cost of a guard is not a good reason for turning control of this gate over to a private organisation such as the King’s School and allowing it exclusive access.
An organisation has been set up to oppose this closure. It’s called the Canterbury Cathedral Precincts Access Group (CCPAG). You can join the group on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/groups/ccpag. You do not have to be a member of Facebook to join. Alternatively, you can email the group at email@example.com.
According to the Facebook page, the aims of the campaign are as follows:
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.
We recognise that maintenance costs for the cathedral are very high and it is reasonable to charge visitors for entry. However, this should be for entry only to the cathedral itself, with free entry to the cathedral for pass holders and those who wish to worship. There should be free and unrestricted access through all gates to the precincts and to Green Court for pass holders and the public. This would bring Canterbury into line with other cathedrals in England.
In an article in the Mail Online, a spokesman for the cathedral is quoted as saying: “We have received complaints from a local resident who believes he is entitled to use Queningate and the precincts as a shortcut from his house to the town centre. We have been in conversation with him to explain that this is not true.”
The local resident they are referring to is Sean Sayers, emeritus professor of philosophy at the University of Kent. Professor Sayers is one of the main spokesmen for the group.
Prof Sayers replies: “Since time immemorial local residents have been free to use the Queningate to enter the precincts and as a safe and traffic free way to walk into the centre of town. Now only King’s School members are being allowed through this gate. The cathedral and the school have received complaints not only from me but from literally hundreds of local residents. We want our traditional freedom to use this gate to be restored.”
In an article on the Canterbury Society website, Prof Sayers wrote: 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 Queningate 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 precincts take up probably a fifth of the city centre’s area. Being blocked from access to one of the entrances necessitates a considerable diversion around the space. The cathedral received £11.9 million from the Heritage Lottery Fund as a “catalyst for much wider community involvement”. According to one newspaper, “the money will be used as part of Canterbury Cathedral’s Journey project, which will aim to ‘radically transform’ the building’s accessibility as well as safeguarding its future.” It seems that the cathedral authorities have reinterpreted the term “radical transformation” to mean “reduction”, and the term “catalyst to wider community involvement” to mean “reduced access”.
Most other cathedrals in the country allow unrestricted access to their precincts, only charging for entry to the buildings themselves. When a charge was first levied for access to Canterbury’s precincts in the mid-90s, passes were issued to residents. The current system is due to come to an end in January 2023, however, after which a new pass system will be implemented.
Cathedral spokesman Nathan Crouch said that the price of the new permit has been kept low to cover the cost of the card, administration and help towards the sites running costs.
“The new permit will be valid for five years, at which point the pass holder can renew and the fee is £6, the equivalent of 10p per month,” he said.
But the charge has been branded unjustified by Prof Sayers. “I know £6 is not much, but I think charging for entry to the precincts is unjustified full stop – the precincts are an amenity for the whole community, they should be regarded like a park to which it is unthinkable to charge for admission.”
Those eligible to apply for the new pass include members of the congregation, volunteers, members of any church in the diocese and refugees. Students and university staff will be able get in with their ID cards. Meanwhile tourists and other visitors, including people from the nearby towns, will continue to pay the current £15.50 entry fee for adults.
A final word from Prof Sayers: “We don’t want a confrontation with the Cathedral or the Kings School. We have repeatedly asked for meetings with them to resolve this amicably but received no reply.”
What you can do
· Write letters of protest to the Dean and Chapter of the Cathedral (firstname.lastname@example.org), the Head of the King’s School (email@example.com), and send a copy to the Canterbury Cathedral Precincts Access Group (firstname.lastname@example.org).
· Write letters to others with influence in the local community: e.g., City Councillors, Rosie Duffield MP, University Vice Chancellors, your Church and other organisations to which you belong and send a copy to the Canterbury Cathedral Precincts Access Group (email@example.com).
· If you have written a letter and not received a reply, or been sent a reply that does not answer your concerns, write again.
· Spread the word. Tell your friends. Post this article to email lists to which you belong asking for support for the campaign.
· Join the CCPAG email list by sending them your name and email address to receive further bulletins with news of new developments and planned actions.
· Do you know people with contacts in the media? Do you have experience of getting stories into the local or national press or media? Please help us to increase our coverage in the media.
The Canterbury Cathedral Precincts Access Group
Sean Sayers, Linda Keen, Phil Poole, Janet Thomas, Barry Willcox
Sean Sayers on BBC Radio Kent
Discussion about church access from 10 mins in. Interview with Prof Sayers from 25 mins in: https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/p0d5xdtn
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