Some years ago, Sherds invented a dinner party game called ‘Dante’, in which participants nominate the place where they would choose to live if, like Dante in the 13th century, you were condemned to exile. As we have got older the game has morphed into ‘where will we live when we retire?’ More recently, the game has ceased to be theoretical. We have all been forced to ‘stay at home’, wherever home happens to be, with no escape possible until the coronavirus pandemic is brought under control.
The very positive result is that many of us have developed a stronger appreciation of the natural and cultural heritage in our own back yards. People are taking regular exercise as a break from the tedium of lockdown, and as they walk or jog around traffic-free streets they are making discoveries that they are sharing with friends and family. Social media posts have been dominated by tweets, images, and blogs extolling the beauty of buildings, urban landscapes, street trees, and the plants in public parks and private front gardens, not to mention butterflies, bees, birdsong, and bluebell woods.
Nottingham City Council’s Local List
Full marks then to Nottingham City Council who have seized on lockdown as an opportunity to promote the city’s heritage. On the assumption that more people will be out and about, the Council is inviting nominations for the buildings, green spaces, and archaeological sites that should be included in the next Local List. More than 100 nominations have already been received and it is striking how many of these are preceded by the word ‘former’, as in former school, library, chapel, graveyard, pub, cinema, tram shed, brewery, and so on (the latter has an intriguing cave system underneath, dug in the 18th century for storing 21,000 barrels of beer for Nottingham’s thirsty citizens and used as an air raid shelter in the Second World War).
These buildings have survived by finding new uses, and so their exteriors at least continue to make a contribution to the character of Nottingham’s streets. In an age when big bland buildings threaten to make our townscapes lifeless and dull, we must be very grateful to those architects and patrons who, in the past, have regarded it as a civic duty to make their buildings decorative and interesting, especially in the formerly derided Victorian and Edwardian periods.
There is one category of building, however, that, if preceded by the epithet ‘former’ would spell disaster, and that is places of worship. Even before coronavirus, historic places of worship were under threat, with some authorities predicting that 70 per cent of chapels and churches in England and Wales will close in the next two decades. It is feared that the current shutting of all places of worship during the pandemic is likely to speed up the rate of permanent closure, and that many buildings will never open their doors again.
Does it matter? When a place of worship closes, you lose the focus of community life, the place that serves for rites of passage (baptism, marriage, funerals, and memorial services), for national events and commemorations (Armistice, VE Day, Remembrance Day), and for syncretic celebrations (with pagan and Christian roots) such as Christmas and Easter, All Souls, Harvest Festival, and Plough Sunday. You lose bells, music, flower festivals, and a place for quiet prayer and contemplation. In many cases, conversion to other uses involves gutting the interior to create clear space, so you lose the pews, galleries, organ and organ loft, pulpit, reading desks, commandment boards, staircases, doors, and panelling – many of them good examples of local craftsmanship. Often the first to go into a skip or onto a bonfire are the chapel and church archives, including pictures and photographs.
The public is then denied access to the buildings that are repositories of art and architecture, reflecting the tastes and fortunes of patrons and local people over many centuries, not to mention the social history inherent in the memorials and furnishings, and the natural history of the churchyard with its memorials and wildlife. The most important resource for the study of sculpture and stained glass is made inaccessible and the area around the church becomes domesticated, losing its special character as a churchyard. The Ordnance Survey once considered removing closed churches from its maps, thus removing an important clue to settlement morphology.
These buildings are the most significant heritage asset in our communities, the embodiment of architectural, historical, evidential, associative, and community value. And many have yet to be studied and recorded: the Ancient Monument Society estimates that a comprehensive record exists for fewer than 50 per cent of listed places of worship. The detailed recording of non-conformist and dissenting places of worship has hardly begun.
What can be done? Several organisations were planning campaigns of advocacy to keep places of worship in community use before their plans were frozen or semi-frozen by the pandemic. This was (and indeed still is) the Year of Cathedrals and Pilgrimage, with many events planned, including the British Museum’s blockbuster exhibition to mark the 850th anniversary of the assassination of Thomas Becket in Canterbury Cathedral on 29 December 1170. The BM says the exhibition has been postponed, not cancelled, and the same goes for plans for a symposium in Wales on spiritual tourism (in the meantime, various examples of tourism initiatives can be seen on the Faith Tourism in Wales blog: https://faithtourismwales. wordpress.com/blog-2/). The Plunkett Foundation is planning a campaign to promote the use of places of worship for community-based enterprises, such as cafes and shops, and the National Churches Trust will continue to develop its Explore Churches website (https://www.explorechurches. org/), which is packed with inspiring examples of places of worship to visit in different parts of the UK.
The National Churches Trust is also attempting to gain a more accurate idea of how many people visit places of worship. In October 2019 it launched the Great Church Visitor Count, a research project in which digital counters were installed in 40 different buildings in England and Wales. At the moment the only data gathered is from the entries recorded in visitor books and of people who attend services. Now those counters will provide information on how quickly people return to making informal visits as restrictions are lifted.
Make Cathedrals Cool
In cathedrals, 2019 was a record year, thanks to efforts to ‘make cathedrals cool’. This included installing a helterskelter in Norwich cathedral’s nave and projecting a mooninspired light show onto the walls and vaults of several other cathedrals to mark the 50th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing. Criticised by some as ‘gimmicks’, these attractions were defended by the Reverend Canon Andy Bryant of Norwich who said that cathedrals were following the example of museums: ‘people used to think museums were all about being quiet, with everything kept behind a glass case. Museums are increasingly doing more to interest and engage visitors; that’s what’s made museums and galleries come alive. We’re part of that movement; we have lots of interesting things on, such as family fun days and science events.’
He went on to say that ‘English cathedrals are in very confident mode at the moment… they are being innovative, creative, imaginative in the things they’re doing.’ Let us hope that this tangible enthusiasm comes bubbling back as we enter a new era and begin to develop new ways to live with COVID-19. What is needed now, as the lockdown lifts by ‘baby steps’, is to invite everyone to get to know the building and realise what a gem it is and how much it should be treasured. Once indoor visits are permitted once more, let’s put banners outside every place of worship that say ‘Come on in’, and let’s ask visitors not just to sign the visitors’ book but to say how they think the building could be better used in future by and for the community. By such means, we might experience a Renaissance in the fortunes of our places of worship rather than suffering a loss comparable to that which occurred at the Dissolution.