Tag Archives: England

City of Churches I: Norwich vs Bristol

Is Norwich the best city in England for parish churches?

Norwich often boasts of having  “more prereformation churches than anywhere else north of the alps.” ! You can see from the chart in my last post that Norwich and London each have many more churches in their old centre than the British cities with the next most; but I have squashed Norwich’s claim put about for 40+ years from that John Betjeman documentary about having more than York, London and Bristol together. My chart in the previous post explains.

An old video on Norwich named “City of Distinction” called the collection “an embarrassment of riches”. The fact that Norwich’s are nearly all perpendicular (late gothic) and made of dark flint is both something that makes it special, and potentially boring.

ALL PICTURES ARE MINE, PLEASE DON’T USE WITHOUT PERMISSION

MY PICTURES ARE BEING NAUGHTY AND NOT DISPLAYING AS PLANNED

In my editing screen, they are beautifully lined up with their captions. Please imagine this if they are not

Think it doesn’t help, Word press makers, that what we edit in is not the same width as the published page!

St George and Bacon House NorwichSt Laurence Norwich

St George’s Colegate (right) and St Laurence’s in St Benedict’s St, both Norwich

I even had a little mental exercise with distilling the overall number to a tiny proportion of the best, keeping them as varied as possible. I do it to Norwich and various other cities and areas, especially the ones featuring in these 5 posts on cities of churches. It’s usually easy to pick a few really good ones – though none are perfect. What would be missing is their place on the townscape. St Benedict’s Street in Norwich is characterised by its churches; much of the street is churchyard. The towers welcome on corners and end vistas. I also realised these offer functions which are important to the life and character of the city: not only would some  mean a loss of a particular kind of congregation, but that there’d be no puppet theatre or artist run exhibition centre or community spaces. Separate buildings mean that not only can congregations diversify, but so can other uses – all artists don’t have to vie over the same space under the same management. But I’m not suggesting we actually pull any churches down, just analyse where the really good ones are.

I thought that Bristol’s bunch might beat Norwich because Bristol’s so varied. Norwich has no Georgian churches – I can think of only 2 in the whole of Norfolk (plus a private chapel). But Bristol has one whole one, two part ones and three in suburbs, including a Gothick one. Bristol can claim to have important church buildings from 1160 -1960 (1140 actually but 1160 has more of a ring about it). To be fair, in that statement, I am creaming from the entire city. In walled Norwich, there are no modern churches or major furnishings (save the new Cathedral windows and two in St Margaret’s) and nothing of interest in the suburbs – not in my opinion. The only church within the whole extra mural conurbation of Norwich that I’d single out is at Eaton for having a thatched roof next to a modern extension.

Inside Christchurch Bristol Bristol churches10

Christ Church, Bristol in and out; and with tower of All Saints (right)

It’s not true that Bristol has a wider selection of gothic than Norwich; it too focusses on the last period, including St Nicholas which was rebuilt in pastiche by Georgians (and again after being bombed). Neither city has anything seriously Early English, both having their best examples in Victorian neo Gothic churches (Christchurch Clifton and St John’s Catholic cathedral in Norwich).

But actually, several of Bristol’s churches are not of interest. I’m not missing any of the ones destroyed by bombs, only the leaning tower of Temple – I’d have preferred the earlier round church for its main body.

Bristol bombed churches Bristol abbey gate

St James Bristol Temple church Bristol

All Bristol c-wise: St Peter’s, Cathedral gateway, St James, Temple 

The Norman of Bristol other than the cathedral’s chapter house and arch of its gatehouse is quite mediocre (St James and a few bays of All Saints) and if we’re bringing cathedrals in, Bristol has nothing on Norwich cathedral which is one of the very great Norman churches of Europe and thus the world (a statement sure to please Norwich organisation HEART).

Bristol has Britain’s very greatest gothic non cathedral, in my opinion and in old Queen Bess’s – St Mary Redcliffe. It’s supremely satisfying and apart from adding a little more colour, there’s nothing I’d change or add, unlike almost any other church – including cathedrals and abbeys – that I an think of. Best of all is the gilded stone ribbed vault – only one other British parish church has one, to my knowledge (St Mary Otterly in Devon).

Redcliffe porch St Mary Redcliffe with graffiti

St Mary Redcliffe Bristol – porch (left) and with some contrasting local specialism – graffiti

Inside St Stephen's BristolSt Werburgh's Bristol by meBristol churches3

St Stephen’s (inside and out) and St Werburgh’s (with corner turret), Bristol

Also late gothic, St Stephen’s isn’t in the same league but it is consistent and satisfying. It  could be merged with the Lord Mayor’s Chapel (not counted with parish churches) for its similar long box shape and gilded flat wooden roof, adding the Lord Mayor’s fan vaulted chapel; but tall, pinnacled, traceried, Somerset-like St Stephen’s tower is far more striking than the Lord Mayor’s hidden one. Displaced St Werburgh’s also has a good tower – once at the crossroads of the old town, it’s now a climbing centre in a eco conscious suburb.

I like the idea of a church on the town gate, but the church of St John’s itself does little for me.

Bristol churches6 St John's Bristol

Crypts of St Nicholas (top) and John; St John on the Wall, Bristol

The interior of St Thomas has something that Norwich hasn’t and I quite like the Classical/gothic mix and match idea, it’s just not successful here. St Michael’s and Pip ‘n’ Jay are not architecturally interesting, I think.

St George's Bristol Inside St George's Bristol Although Anglican: it resembles a Baptist chapel

City wide, if I were to choose my favourites for outstanding or varied examples of churches in Bristol, I’d pick Regency St George’s (the concert hall) and the glass from the two 1960s Pembroke Rd offerings in Clifton; Georgian Redland Chapel and possibly the displaced medieval St Werburgh’s, now of the hippy suburb of allotments.

I’d keep Christchurch (old city) as the all Georgian church, possibly swapping the spire for neighbouring All Saints’ cupola.

St Paul's Portland Sq BristolSo Bristol perhaps isn’t richer in some ways than Norwich, but it does have that superlative medieval church, the only one in the country that completely satisfies me, and it also has Georgian and modern. Although Norwich has more medieval undercrofts than any other British city, I don’t know of any crypts under its churches (only the Canary Chapel in the Close), but Bristol has at least the two pictured. There’s no tower as good as St Stephen’s Bristol in Norwich and no ceiling there like Bristol’s St Stephens’ and the Lord Mayor’s Chapel have. Bristol’s red and light stone give a warmth not found in Norwich, although the grey stone is duller than Norwich’s ubiquitous flint.

Left: St Paul’s in Portland Square. Unnerving eh?

I would like to borrow some of its churches for Norwich – as I’ll summarise in the last part.

I’m fond of Bristol, as a city, and its church collection. I may well do a post with pictures of all Bristol’s central churches and chapels, on my new blog.

Next time, we go to three other cities of churches….

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Get the accent right in films!

I’ve just seen a film which brought out this ongoing bugbear. Would we put up with Irish being confused with Scots in a drama?! Accents are part of a region’s identity, as much as a nation’s. It is insulting that for every rural English location, film characters have the same generic poor West Country accent. It’s usually small supporting roles of people who are workers – the farmers, the lady in the shop, the guesthouse owner, the servants. And it serves to make idiots out of all rural people – a bit like American south often comes across. Whereas other parts of Britain have reclaimed their accent with pride, it still seems that those of us with a country voice are considered rustic and thick and a little bit amusing. Dialect coaches are employed by film companies and yet they get this so badly wrong -how do they get work?! I had been in Bristol a few weeks and I could hear the difference between North (Gloucs) and South (Somerset) and that people in Devon spoke differently again. So how can a dialect expert not hear that East Anglians have quite a distinctive accent, and that Norfolk and Suffolk do not sound the same as each other, let alone the whole of south and middle England! I also am surprised the actors can’t pick up on accents more, especially when they even film in the area – can’t they hear how people around them are talking? Can’t they consult someone who can? It spoiled the film. And it’s not just an accuracy issue, but a ruralist one, and about not seeing the East as a real region worth respecting.

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Princess Dianas

When I changed my viewing and research from the British Royals to Wonder Woman, I was expecting a complete change. But Wonder Woman is also a Princess Diana, and politics as well as changing roles for women are key to both subjects.

Although one is blonde, one is dark; one is real, one is fiction; one is immortal, one died young, these women do have certain qualities in common:

Compassion

empathy

immediate and genuine rapport

beauty – from within as much as pleasantly aligned features –  but not an object

respect

tall – about 6ft (though Lynda Carter needed 3 inch heels to be that height)

national representative

an outsider

One was an English born aristocrat who became the wife and mother of heirs to the throne of the same country, and one was born on a secret island and took on America as her adopted country. But both had to get to learn the ways of a new world.

But Diana, Princess of Wales was more complicated and with conflicting qualities. Even those who were fond of her don’t deny a darker side. She said that her own suffering enabled and fuelled her to reach out to others.

In the TV series, Diana Prince has no emotional breakdowns and her problems do not seem very menacing or last long; but contractions have existed in all manifestations of Wonder Woman since her invention 70 years ago, and these are used more in comic story lines. But Lynda Carter said that she played Wonder Woman with a vulnerability, and that’s what made her  – and the other Diana – so appealing.

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Elspeth on Elections – Council 2013

My analysis (yes I’ve had an extra day) is quite different from any local and national paper I’ve read – and it’s not all about a leader whose name recalls a Count Duckula Episode*

The English county election results this week have been exaggerated by the press. They all focus on UKIP, blurring the overall picture. A letter to the Independent said that the press’s coverage of the Purple Party caused their profile to be raised and helped them win votes – why couldn’t they have focussed on other parties, particularly the Green one? And what might our outcome have been then?

The i helpfully published a nifty before and after map of all the counties going to the vote, with statistics about changes (which didn’t add up and some misprints). It was clear that UKIP actually lost seats and its entire presence in places where it once held them – Bristol, Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire. Leics is not +2 for UKIP – it’s merely maintained its 2 seats; Staffs lost one seat.

 UKIP won no overall control of any council and in all cases was considerably under the minimum seats needed to do so, even where they came second (eg Norfolk, Lincs, Kent – were a third of the requirement, c15 to 40+). Mostly UKIP came 3rd-5th place winning only 2-4 seats, and did not feature everywhere – there’s none in the North save North Yorks, or in Bristol, or Essex, where other parties grew (see below). 

I suspect that disaffected Tory voters would feel uncomfortable choosing a left wing party and there is, save the BNP (who lost its council seat) but one for them to pick; and nor would they want to choose the other half of the coalition, the Yellows.

I picked a couple of counties to analyse in detail (from their own council interactive websites), and found that only a few actual UKIP seats had been won, and that these had been Purple previously. I also noted that it happened in areas where only red, blue and purple stood – I don’t remember any Greens or independents or small parties candidates in anywhere UKIP were most successful.

The Greens have long been in my view the 4th party (which reminds me of the AA advert that called themselves the 4th emergency service). They held on to their presence in all of their councils bar Cambs, doubled their number in Bristol and Worcestershire, and introduced themselves in Essex, Warwickshire, Cornwall. They lost a couple from their hotbed in Norwich, but gained back the seat held on to by defecting local leader. But the Greens put up only a small proportion of seats – whereas UKIP were widely represented.

I also see a welcome rise in independent candidates; already the majority in Cornwall and Anglesey (the only non English election); they are now top on the Isle of Wight, 2nd in County Durham still by a large margin (though smaller than it was), North Yorkshire; and sizable in Lincolnshire above the Lib Dems, although coming 4th overall. 

I note a huge loss for the two parties in government, both in seats and county favourites which I’d like to think shows disillusion with them. I am glad that the colour of the political map has changed – there are three red counties instead of one, 10 less blue and 12 (not 4) not being under no overall control – which is how I would like to see politics done. 

I am concerned that UKIP has been chosen (note I do not spell it the annoying Guardian way) by several as its protest vote, I’d like to think, hoping it took seats from Tories and Lib Dems whilst not swapping them for a recent government which frustrated even its own supporters. As I said above, there was not always anyone else to tick beside. And I think that’s why 70+% once again did not vote. Do they feel all parties are bad, none are different, that their voice won’t be heard, whoever’s in power? 

I’ve seen little focus on the silent majority in news reports. I feel that having to pick this or that and not being able to say none of the above or suggest anything else makes voting very limited, especially with first past the post voting system that favours the two original parties. 

I am dismayed by the presumption (which I do not fully believe) that all these purple crosses mean that the public want more severely right wing policies. When it’s already so right wing it’s farcical, if it weren’t so dangerous and frightening; when you wouldn’t believe it if you put it in fiction – some are asking or harder welfare rules (how could there be?!), and tougher stances on immigration. 

I read UKIP’s policies as I am a fair minded person – as I did for 9 parties, not keen that they should plant cookies and think I am in any way a supporter. The “milder BNP” epithet still stands. Some of their tax ideas were interesting, but badly put with poor sentences (now I feel I’ve set myself up!). I definitely detected a Thatcherite “everyone pays the same” over income tax – something which lost her even staunch Blue sympathisers. And as for Trident… I wondered if I were reading an anti Green party parody instead of a serious manifesto. 

What I do hear is that racism should not be linked to national pride or wanting a sense of identity. It is true that we have lost our sense and right of being a distinct nation apart from our Celtic neighbours, who have gathered more strength in that. I have heard the comment that it’s racist to be an area where there’s no other nationalities and ethnicities – but that seems to be reverse racism, attributing judgement and narrowness, as if positive discrimination is to be applied to where people live. We should never feel awkward, discriminatory or lesser for having more indigenous people than not.   

But UKIP and its cousins (BNP,  English Democrats) are linking multiculturalism to our problems, making outsiders causes to be repatriated rather than seeing them as potentially enriching, although this is crude and unrepresentative to say that the above sentence encapsulates their policies. Remember the freedom we’d like to move abroad, especially if we needed refuge. 

The work ethic that the right wing wants clashes with what they say about foreigners. They want us to get any job and work hard, but they’re cross when immigrants do it instead of original peoples; and don’t see that the very work ethic they wish to promote to benefit claimants creates a culture of poor working conditions, even kinds of slavery. No, getting round minimum wage and working an unhealthy amount of hours is not acceptable, and if one person accepts a bully’s terms, so will the next… And life is not about toil and the taxable income you generate, or submission to hierarchy…

 

I am glad the ruling parties have a message that people are turning from them. I am glad there is more shared power and co-operation (what I’d hoped from the 2010 general elections) in the county councils. I am glad more independents are gaining voices.

I’m alarmed that several have chosen to vote for a further right wing party, and that (looking at comments online) that some do support harsher regimes (which don’t affect them, of course).

But I am sorry that we have a system where so many don’t feel it’s worth their while going to the booths – and that’s the statistic that should speak the most. It’s what can’t be said in a ballot box that really counts.

 

* a 1990s cartoon:  episode No Sax Please, We’re Egyptian  “I am the One they call Nigel”

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Why is Chelmsford a Jubilee city?

I’m revising my views on Chelmsford and I shall write my updated thoughts on my other blog: Elspeth’s Naughty Guides: Travel and Heritage with wickedness.

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I do not wish to denigrate Chelmsford and the other places mentioned; rather, I just want fair praise and description and for the appropriate places to win the prize.

It seems a rather random way to get city status – to wait for a queenly anniversary. Cities used to be defined by having a cathedral. New cities in the 1800s were substantial in some way – the ones with weedy upgraded cathedrals had grown large with grand civic buildings and an obvious hub. But not later in the next century.

Grimy markety Lancaster got city status ahead of much larger towns in the titular county in the 1970s. Then Sunderland, who did not have a cinema till 2005, was appointed one – a poor shadow of nearby Newcastle who has righty been one since the 1880s and would have been reasonably called so since medieval times.

Much of the would be city list vying for the Diamond Jubilee honour are largely similar grubby towns (Milton Keynes, Corby, Middlesbrough, Reading) trying to perk themselves up and get attention. I noted Ipswich didn’t go for it this time. Although I have said in the past that Ipswich lacked the necessary dignity and distinction, I would gladly have seen it endowed with city status over those who did win.

Yes, neighbouring Essex too has always been without a city, even though it and Suffolk are old and historically among the most populous counties. Essex put in three bids for the Jubilee competition – Regency pleasure ground Southend with its new cultural pierhead attraction; Colchester, who has always been capital of Essex to me; and Chelmsford. I do not understand why Chelmsford ever got county town status: the drab market town turned City commuterville whose claim to long history was that the Romans passed by and dropped a few pots, whose cathedral is significant as a parish church, but who has little else is of interest save the Marconi radio factory and Shirehall.

I visited Colchester again this week and Chelmsford this time a year ago. I have only been to Chelmsford because of need, never pleasure. Each time, I walked by the river to fill time and because of nowhere else to go. It just feels like a suburb of London, perhaps having the attraction of greenery around it. The only thing over Colchester that Chelmsford has is that a theatre shows art house films sometimes. Yes I walked thoroughly; I went to to the far flung Museum along older Moulsham street (an attempt at independent shopping) and found the stone bridge, and I noted the regency Quaker Meeting House. And I still struggled to fill my day.

But Colchester was not a camp stop or staging post for the Romans; it was a large town, whose walls are still existing. It has several churches and two ruined priories. It has the largest castle the Normans built. It was home to Dutch refugees (these settlers had good taste in where they chose) whose homes still grace the town, in timber and bright colours.

In East magazine, a local shop manager was asked what he likes to do in Chelmsford. I noted that several answers were outside of the town – including his own home. I looked up Chelmsford and Colchester in the latest Pevsner guide. The late Sir Nik begins the Chelmsford entry with a derogatory sarcastic quote. He starts Colchester’s by saying it’s rightly the focal town of the shire. I’ve listed its assets in other articles. But I think that Firstsite gives a clear message: Colchester is not an ickle backwater. We are not part of London. We have a significant cultural venue; we take architectural risks and make sure all our treasures are not just in the past. Chelmsford has no new significant buildings, no castle, no Dutch quarter equivalent, and no vast proud town hall; no arts centre, no producing theatre, no Jumbo watertower (though it does have a viaduct), no town centre museums (Colchester has five, plus other galleries). Even if Colchester does not fully fill my criteria as a city, it is way above its neighbour which merely has the county council offices in them.

It seems that the title of city now actually gives little – no extra benefits or funding for the borough. I continue to see Chelmsford as a town and Colchester as Essex’s leading conurbation – a word which sums up its rival: just a clump of houses with a river through them and a mediocre shopping centre.

I must end with the MP of Milton Keynes’ words on hearing they had been unsuccessful. He claims they are a city anyway, no matter what Westminster says:

“…there’s a saying that if it looks like a duck and sounds like a duck it probably is a duck.”

True, you should hear my definition of a duck. It isn’t flattering!

See my next article sticking up for the 2nd Marconi factory

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Colchester

I have lived in every county of East Anglia, bar one. I have never had enthusiasm to live in Essex – but not because there’s nothing appealing about it. I enjoy it for a day visit and would be happy to take a holiday there. But as a home…

I have criteria for my ideal city. Although the actual status of some urban places may have changed recently, Essex has no real cities. Colchester, not Chelmsford ought to be the county town, and is closer to being a city in my definition.

Essex has many large towns, many of whom are London overspill and commuter towns, often having grown rapidly since the wars from little market towns or less. Colchester is further up the county away from London and has retained an air of independence and own county rather than home county. It feels like Suffolk in places, to whose borders it is close; the 16th C belt of Wool Towns extends into Essex. And so unsurprisedly, Colchester has quite a Suffolk feel. I once commented that I thought it felt more like the county town of Suffolk, or at least South Suffolk, than Ipswich, the actual capital. For me, the Wool Towns are Suffolk.

The buildings that make South Suffolk’s wool towns beautiful and distinct – the timbered, coloured houses of the 1500-1600s – are abundant in Colchester too. There are a couple of areas – the Dutch Quarter, North and East Hills – where the town feels akin to Lavenham and Sudbury. The Dutch Quarter, away from traffic and almost purely residential, evokes a village. East Hill and Street tumble away from the Walls into one of the longest extra mural suburbs I have seen. It really is remarkable to have unbroken chunks of timbered buildings, more so that they are found in a town of 170,000+ rather than the villages which ceased their industrial importance and thus were able to retain so much of their earlier buildings. It is also special that so many of these buildings are in the heart of Colchester; all three clusters I mentioned run directly from the High Street.

The middle of the town is a mishmash, and looked heavily bombed or re-planned. A recent book helped me note the buildings more: that there are banks of imported stone and several former cinema and theatres. But there’s a slightly jaded feel to many of the buildings. Some of the shopping areas are quite thoughtful: Scandinavian cheap clothes chain H & M is currently in a nice Georgian house, and the centre piece of Culver Square is a giant Venetian type window, housing Debenhams’s department store. A large multistorey carpark built at a similar time – the early 1990s – makes what could be a mass of eyesore into a kind of feature. Sir Isaac’s Walk continues the olde lane so well I didn’t even notice it is modern.

Yet other parts are less successful. As is the current whim, the 1960s-80s mistakes are being tarted up in what will surely be looked on as 2010s errors. Culver Street got cut in the middle and is now oddly handlebar shaped. Central library and much of the high street shopping date from this era, though thankfully Colchester has resisted the indoor mall (having possibly done away with the first Lion Centre) except for a huddle of cheaper shops off St John’s.

The ringroad here feels particularly divisive, mostly as I went trailing along its length to find an alternative to a subway to be able to cross it. Noting old streets that had been riven in two, I felt the chasm that ringroads bring to those on the wrong side of them, worse than the stone of town walls ever did.

Colchester’s walls are its special point. No other British or Irish town has near complete Roman walls. They are not often original height or condition, and much of the time they are hiding behind backs of shops. Other cities may have Roman patches or a Roman base, but with the addition of a couple of medieval towers, these walls are all Roman and don’t seem to be messed with by subsequent centuries (such as York’s and Chester’s, Britain’s most celebrated longest sets of walls).

The walls remind that this was the capital of the country in the era they were built and this is Britain’s oldest recorded town. Thus the Romans rightly feature specially in the town’s consciousness and marketing. However, it does not retain a Roman street pattern and perhaps this is partly why much of the Roman buildings are hard to excavate and not available to see – the best of these are outside the centre.

Colchester has another distinctive link with the Romans – that their bricks were recycled in medieval buildings. This led an 18th C owner of the Castle to believe it was Roman and restored it accordingly with red Italianate tiles. The building is actually Europe’s largest 11th C Keep, similar in plan to London’s White Tower. But Colchester has lost the top – it is not known how many storeys more there would have been. My guess is that early stone keeps were low cuboids (cf London, Norwich and Castle Rising, also in Norfolk). Therefore, Colchester’s would not have been much taller – it was not like later Rochester and nearby Hedingham in being considerably higher than the base is square. It’s an interesting museum with much about the Romans and the town, but there is not much in the way of unaltered Norman fortress inside. The best place for that is Castle Hedingham, in West Essex, where each floor is still a recognisable room and the principal chamber has a huge arch running across the whole width.

The park around the castle is one of the town’s best features. As gardens, it runs for some acres, then becomes riverside walks, meadows and cricket grounds. I discovered that it is possible to walk from the much pictured cottages at the foot of North Hill right round to the mill on East Hill. There is also a country park in the rough vicinity of the station (which I have not tried to find yet). For river and greenness, Colchester does well, as well as being quickly accessible to lovely coast and countryside.

Prettiness, antiquity and greenery are all features of my ideal city and which Colchester supplies, but there is a kind of building central to my and the traditional definition of a city which Colchester (and all of Essex) lacks.

St Botolph’s Priory would not be on par with the great cathedrals. St John’s abbey was perhaps twice its length at 295ft, but that’s small compared with its East of England cousins, and only a gate remains. So the ecclesiastical offerings left today are Colchester’s low point. I barely register the cluster of parish churches, though author of several local books says Colcestrians are proud of that central collection of 8 (plus St Leonard at Hythe in the outkirts). Having lived in Norwich with its superlative portfolio (31) and being acquainted with Cambridge (13), Ipswich (12), York (19), London (39) and Bristol (15 including ruins), Colchester’s churches seem diminutive in number and size. Coventry and Hull have few but what they do have are impressive in both senses – large, and they enter your mind as an emblem of the city. I didn’t always notice I’d passed a church in Colchester, and none really come to mind as an iconic image.

Trinity is the one on most people’s radar, because of its rare Saxon tower, and because it is prominently located, and used to be a museum. Now it houses vintage fairs, a lively Charismatic congregation and a not so lively (in terms of service) cafe, with music matching what I assume one would hear in the church worship. When I visited, staff were foreign with poor grasp of English. One didn’t know how to use the word ‘please’ and the other gave me the wrong order then brought the right one with such poor pronunciation that I thought a further mistake had been made. They asked for money then walked out of the room and asked for it again. For the churchy charity cafe this surely was, the prices were not as low as the food quality or ambience, and I wondered why I’d chosen this for lunch over the more professional looking cafe down the road. I also encountered poor service at the Minories cafe (it’s the Low Bistro in more ways than one). Ignoring me for several minutes in an empty room, I asked staff if I ordered at the counter or if they came to me. The woman looked up from her conversation, said to order here, and then turned and carried on cleaning. I left.

This is one of those moments where my spider diagram mind does not know whether to carry on with churches, or start on food offerings of Colchester, or Georgian heritage. I could conclude the paucity of churches by mentioning 18th C St Peter’s, and All Saints, an Ipswich style flint and flushwork church which is a Natural History Museum, but which I was unable to go in. Monday is a bad day to visit; the castle and new art gallery firstsite are open, but nowhere else. Other places were between exhibitions and plays. Nearby pretty wool town Coggleshall’s National Trust properties and Arboretum are also closed.

Georgian heritage was what most struck me on this visit; there is far more of it than had stayed in my imagination. I was aware of the Hollytrees museum, but there are finer houses of the period; the said Minories, the Greyfriars opposite; and a pair on Culver Street East, another gallery and restaurant. I also learned of a former octagonal Independent chapel, known as the Round Church, which is echoed in the modern URC above shops on Lion Walk.

Colchester’s little streets and alternative shops are better than I thought. I’ve not tried to actually  shop for anything (that is always telling of the real facilities) but I did find some interesting places. Red Lion isn’t quite what I had hoped for in an independent bookshop, and the Waterstone’s is quite a small one. The media offerings are a big part of my warming to a place, and it is here that Colchester again seems to lack; I saw no independent little record shops, only the usual paltry HMV, and nowhere else for DVDs.

Film is no better to watch in public. Like Chelmsford, this consists only of an old style, central Odeon, curiously in a former post office with an abandoned purpose built cinema of the same chain round the corner. It must has only 8 screens to solely serve the whole town. Is that why it (in 2012) charged London prices? – but now it is the same as other branches in the region. There’s not even the Director’s Chair strand of supposedly artier programmers. In 2016, futuristic banana Firstsite (now with a capital letter, hurrah) has a regular film programme – but why doesn’t it haven any pictures in the brochure?

There is an Arts centre, in St Mary’s At The Walls. I have not gained access to the little church with its red tower. Its programme seems not dissimilar to the unrelated Norwich Arts Centre – an alternative mix of music, comedy and fairs. It does not appear to have a daytime café or access.

Also between the water tower and the walls, the Mercury is a well thought of touring, producing and new writing dramatic theatre, but again appears its facilities are not open to non patrons. I as disappointed to see its website’s directions tell Londoners how easy it is to get there, but no encouragement or comment for rural visitors of the region – it’s equally only an hour from Norwich or Bury St Edmunds.

A third, less known venue is the ten year old amateur Headgate Theatre, who is not on Headgate Street at all, but hiding behind a former playhouse (now pub) in a nonconformist chapel on Chapel St North.

The University, a good 3 miles east out of town, has the Lakeside Arts centre; and there is an exhibition centre for sport, exhibitions and concerts called the Charter Hall on Cowdray avenue, the northern ring road. This isn’t easy to learn about though brochures etc.

It’s hard to get a real feel for Colchester as the Tourist Information Centre is full of tacky Jubilee gifts rather than much on the town and surrounds, and the local booklets were all behind the counter like age related and illicit goods. Most leaflets I found anywhere were the standard ones around the region, and featured little on Essex.

Often I make discoveries via finding quirky cafes or arts venues whose posters and flyers suggest other avenues to explore. I could find nor get in none of these. I did note two possible music places, one on Queen St facing Culver St East; and on North Hill, a record club, which is hot on Vinyl, and Creative Arts Live, which is still mysterious to me.

Food is dominated by chain restaurants and most of the pubs I passed did not entice me in. On a previous visit, I left early, having not found anywhere appealing and electing to eat at home. I note that I commented on lack of eateries on all my visits, over 17 years.

The only demographic I noticed was the amount of people in military uniform, but glancing at a map shows a large area of barracks. The other aspect suggested by a map would be lots of late teens due to the vocational Institute and Sixth form college. I did see many people enjoying the sun, some of those would have been students though many were young families. Enjoying the sun was one thing I was not really doing. I concurred with the woman on her phone in her Cockney/Essex tones: “Tell her it’s 30 degrees and your mother’s not happy!”

Colchester’s charm is beginning to seep through. I noticed lots of thoughtful new old style buildings around the town, alongside the challenging architecture of Firstsite, and that there are plans for further improvements. I feel quite an affection and an appetite to explore Essex’s other small towns. My rue is that there are not publications to explain and celebrate what is here.

There’s a day out with Elspeth guide on my other blog at

https://elspethsnaughtyguides.wordpress.com/2014/05/20/a-day-out-with-elspeth-in-colchester/

 

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Keep Cathedrals Free

I’m writing a travel book on my cathedral experiences and have just submitted a poem on them, so they are in my mind this week. This caused me to research entry prices which has led to a gripe I’d like to share.

I realise they are expensive to run, but worship and houses of God should be free.

No, cathedrals are not the same as castles and stately homes, though some who visit them may see them in the same ilk. Whatever your faith, it is a sacred space, even if you just like the quiet and are uplifted by the music and architecture – which no castle is or does.

Thirteen British cathedrals and abbeys have a compulsory admission charge, starting from £6. The only parish churches that I’ve found who charge are St Bartholomew and Temple, both in the City of London, both £4. None of these who charge are Catholic or parish church cathedrals, and none are in Scotland or Wales.

I only know of one non Christian place of worship which charges – that’s also in London, the Bevis Marks Synagogue, and despite some of the huge and lavish buildings, such as Leicester’s Mandir, also not publically funded.

The admission fees are too high and so they put many people off – even people who love cathedrals as much as I do. The cathedral administrators don’t seem to have worked out that they lose out on income that way. If I’ve paid £6-16 to get in, I’m unlikely to buy anything at the shop or cafe, let alone donate more. And I’m quite possibly going to not bother going in. When faced with a choice of two nearby equidistant cathedrals for a day out, I’m inclined to pick the one without an enforced charge.

Ely says that before it made people pay to come in, the average donation was 34p per person. I quibble that. I note they’ve had a fee since at least 1998, when 34p was worth more. And how did they work out the number of visitors? If it’s by a foot counter by the door, these can be misleading as these often get set off more than once by the same person. Perhaps too some of those visitors were fairly regular who didn’t qualify for a free pass – ie those who didn’t live, work or worship in the right place, but who nevertheless felt the cathedral as a spiritual home. I’ve fallen into that category in several cities and resent the notion of paying to enter what I see as both my heritage and mother church by right.

However, I might drop in some money and choose to support them by buying things from their shop that I could get elsewhere – that guidebook that’s all round the city, a greetings card of gift; or by having lunch in their refectory.

Westminster Abbey claimed that it too had a tiny donation per visitor. But it gets about 3 million of these a year and currently charges £16 to enter – more than any other British great church, the same price as a major stately home with multiacre grounds. Even with group visitor rates bringing the head price down to £13, one can quickly see that they gain about £50 million a year from visitors, which is huge. Why do they need so much to run? The church is shorter than Ely, who asks for £8 (but with a tower tour and entry to the stained glass museum, it’s the same amount as Westminster). Lincoln’s about the same size, and their current price is around £6. What does Westminster require that these other cathedrals don’t? And why does the even bigger St Albans not ask for a fee, who gets less visitors?

And why does modern lump Coventry ask for £8?! They’re hardly in the same need of conservation!

Especially as the experience inside Westminster Abbey is not a pleasant one. I’ve only paid to go in once, when I queued for longer than it look to go round. You’re limited with how long you can tarry. You’re herded about and everything’s roped off. I have twice been to a service, not something I wish to repeat. I often find High church services cold and dull, but this is worse than anything else I’ve experienced. After again queuing for an hour on a Sunday morning, an American verger barked at the would be worshippers to get in line and not take photos. Not once did we get a welcome. When I tried to leave through the wrong door, I was barked at again. I felt the service was at us not for us,  I did not feel part of the service which just felt like going through motions rather than anything about feeling a divine presence or an act of worship – would that be for the choir and ministers, or to God?!

Paris’ Notre Dame did not charge when I visited, and managed its large amount of visitors better than London’s national church.

One does wonder what these fees are going on. No website breaks that down. Some make the vague suggestion that it’s on salaries. I wonder if the staff and stone masons are being paid too much? And yet they rely heavily on volunteers and I’ve seen cathedral job adverts – not everyone is well paid. A 1994 book on Canterbury Cathedral says that 549 staff are in its employ, including 30 Holy dusters!, and 250 guides, assistants and chaplains (aren’t many of those volunteers?) So we are paying for staff, not even just the building, and some visitors may not endorse the cathedrals’ beliefs and policies.

Many churches quote a four figure sum for their daily running costs, but I know something of how the C of E works, and it has much red tape and wastes on procedure. I know that a simple change in a modern building was made 3x the amount by C of E dictates, which meant that it was no longer affordable.

I’ll be posting more on this later, but utilities and professional services are over charged, and perhaps churches are victims of this.

The Church is still a large landowner and landlord.

Another points against these fees is that they preclude 10 minute pop in visitors.

Cathedrals offer a free tour; but perhaps we don’t want one and would be happy to pay just for that if we did, rather than paying to enter the building – though some of these are now a staggering £9 for just an hour. And so cathedrals miss out on donations of the poppers-in. Why not ask for £2-3 entry which we’d all pay, rather than so much, and perhaps we’d add a little more?

Some cathedrals say it’s free to pray – but how do you know who’s doing that? I once went in on the free pray plea – I sat with my eyes squished shut, and peeked and then moved to another quiet corner. Well, it was my birthday after all! And not paying to get in meant I had a bag laden from the gift shop, which makes quite a profit – guide books sell at 70-80% more than cost.

Happily, the majority of great churches are officially free, though some are pretty heavy about making you pass a desk and expecting a donation – which angers me as it shouldn’t be that a voluntary donation is coerced or assumed – it should be freely given. There’s about 16 other cathedrals and abbeys who do not force a charge – and hurrah for Chichester who says in big letters on the home page of their website that they are committed to keeping entry free. And so am I.

You might also like my thoughts on Canterbury here:

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