Saving the Beatles
On the eve of what would have been John Lennon’s 80th birthday on 9 October 2020, SAVE Britain’s Heritage called on Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to issue ‘a group listing protecting all significant Beatles landmarks in Liverpool’. SAVE’s press release went on to enumerate the threatened sites, including the city’s Cavern Club, which claims to be the cradle of British pop music, and which is currently closed and facing an uncertain future – like all live music venues across the UK. The TSB Bank branch on Penny Lane (whose manager famously, according to Sir Paul McCartney’s 1967 song lyrics, ‘never wears a mac in the pouring rain – very strange’) has just closed. Opposite the Penny Lane Bank stands the former tram ‘shelter in the middle of the roundabout’, where McCartney wrote about the ‘pretty nurse selling poppies from a tray’. It lies empty and forlorn, as does the art deco Abbey Cinema in Wavertree – one of the ‘places I remember’ in John Lennon’s song ‘In My Life’. Converted into a supermarket in 1979, it faces the threat of demolition – although the Cinema Theatre Association and the Twentieth Century Society have called for it to be listed, and a petition in support has gained 4,000 names.
SAVE has form when it comes to campaigning for Beatles-related heritage. For ten years, it fought an ultimately successful battle to prevent the demolition of Ringo Starr’s birthplace at 9 Madryn Street. The humble terraced row house in Toxteth was one of 400 homes that Liverpool council had emptied and condemned to the bulldozer in the Victorian ‘Welsh Streets’, but which are now enjoying a high-quality renovation. SAVE also campaigned for the listing of the birthplaces and childhood homes of all four Beatles. They were successful in the case of the houses of John Lennon and Paul McCartney at 251 Menlove Avenue and 20 Forthlin Road respectively, which are now in the care of the National Trust (see CA 328 and 347), but the then-Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt turned down SAVE’s application to list the birthplaces of Ringo Starr and George Harrison on the grounds that the houses ‘have no link with the Beatles’ success’.
Heritage significance has been defined as being located in ‘architectural, historical, evidential, associative, and community value’, and it is good that an organisation like SAVE places such a high value on the latter two in the case of the Beatles – even if one could debate their assertion that ‘the Beatles are probably the most powerful British cultural phenomenon of the 20th century’.
Heritage at risk
And on the subject of definitions, the most recent Historic England register of Heritage at Risk says that ‘decay, neglect, and inappropriate development’ are the main risk factors governing inclusion on the register – although clearly the COVID-19 pandemic now poses the biggest risk of all to whole swathes of the sector, from Windsor Castle and the Palace of Holyroodhouse to Hampton Court and hundreds of National Trust properties (just to pick out some of Britain’s most significant buildings). Large-scale redundancies at the Royal Collection Trust, Historic Royal Palaces, and the National Trust illustrate just how dependent heritage is on tourism and how vulnerable it is to a fall in visitor numbers.
The answer has to be to encourage local tourism – opening people’s eyes to the rich heritage on their doorstep. Sherds has recently overheard numerous comments along the lines of ‘we visited X last week; although it is just up the road from us, we had never been before – but we had a great time’. That is the attitude that has to change – the idea that travel only counts if you get in an aeroplane and head for somewhere halfway round the world. In one of his more lucid poetic outpourings, William Blake asked us ‘To see a World in a Grain of Sand/And a Heaven in a Wild Flower’, and both Gilbert White and Charles Darwin opined that one could learn more by studying one’s own backyard in comfort than by extensive, but superficial, travel. If we can learn that lesson, then there is hope for the many hundreds, if not thousands, of tourism-based enterprises in the UK now threatened with permanent closure – and that includes many historic places of worship that we all assumed would be there forever, but which are very much at risk without the income from visitors.
Fortunately, there are signs that people are discovering sites on their doorstep. In Wales, the National Lottery Heritage Fund (NLHF) launched an imaginative grants scheme in August 2020, called ‘15-Minute Heritage’, inviting applications for grants of up to £10,000 to support small-scale projects that ‘help to connect communities with the heritage in their local area’. Such was the response that the NHLF’s IT systems could barely cope and the application deadline had to be extended by 24 hours to enable everyone to file their applications. It is too soon to say which projects have been selected for funding, but Sherds will report back in due course.
Another excellent initiative that will surely help is the project called ‘Slow Ways’, which plans to create a network of walking routes connecting all of Britain’s towns and cities. According to the project’s website, ‘700 volunteers from across the country collaborated during lockdown to produce 7,500 routes that collectively stretch for over 110,000km’. Volunteers are now being asked to sign up to test the routes before they are published. Let us hope the project succeeds, and ditto the National Trust’s desire to create green corridors, linking town and city centres to their properties via walking and cycling routes that are selected for their natural and built heritage interest. These are all ‘big ideas’ of the kind that ministers and civil servants are always calling for to help with health and wellbeing targets, encourage community cohesion, and support rural economies – if they mean it, they now know where to put our money.
Related to all of this, the 2020 Heritage at Risk report highlights examples of buildings and monuments that have been repaired and conserved, thanks to community effort. Particularly inspiring is the example of the 800-year-old Kirby Bank Trod, a 13th-century flagstoned footpath in North Yorkshire, built by the Cistercian monks at Rievaulx Abbey to move goods (especially wool) by packhorse between their monasteries and granges. In later centuries, the path was also used to transport alum for the dyeing industry, quarried stone, and jet for making jewellery.
In 2010, members of the local history group adopted the Trod and campaigned successfully for the path and its supporting embankment to be designated as a scheduled monument. In 2017, they managed to secure a Traffic Regulation Order, limiting the Trod’s use to horse-riders and walkers. Then the group worked with the North York Moors National Park to repair the severe damage caused by off-road vehicles and trail bikes. They continue to maintain the Trod through twice-yearly working parties to clear encroaching grass and gorse.
Places of Worship
All told, 181 Grade I- and Grade II*-listed buildings and monuments have been removed from this year’s Heritage at Risk register because they are no longer threatened, but 216 have been added because of concerns about their condition. Of these, 90 are places of worship, and this is surely an early warning of what may yet be a deluge over the next 30 years. All the more reason, then, to heed the contents of a report published by the National Churches Trust (NCT) in October 2020. The report was launched by the NCT’s patron, Huw Edwards – journalist, newsreader, and passionate advocate for historic places of worship. Called House of Good, the report shows that the market value of the social work done by church communities in the UK is worth £12.4 billion a year at a very conservative estimate, roughly equal to total NHS spending on mental health in England in 2018. Every £10 given by central and local government, philanthropic trusts, and individuals to support church work in areas such as food banks, mental-health counselling, youth work, and addiction support buys services that would cost £181 on the open market.
In a letter published in The Times, eight directors of charities that support historic places of worship from all four nations of the UK said: ‘some of the most vulnerable and isolated people in our society rely on the services provided in church buildings for essential support’. Places of worship in deprived areas find it hardest to raise money to maintain their buildings, yet it is often these institutions that do the greatest amount of good. The report calls on the Government to establish a new Repair and Maintenance Fund. A very small amount of money in Government spending terms would make a huge difference to historic buildings and the lives of many needy people.