In his foreword to SAVE’s publication Canterbury Take Care! (see ‘Further reading’), Griff Rhys Jones presents a vision of a city ‘so good, so inviting’ that ‘humans will want to live there and involve themselves in it’. This is a vision shared by many in the heritage profession who are asking what our historic towns and cities will be like in the post-COVID-19 era, when working from home has become the norm, when the retail expansion of the last three decades has collapsed in the face of online shopping, and when public transport is taking over from private cars, which have become too expensive to run. ‘It is antique thinking’, Griff writes, ‘to promote bigger buildings and plan for commercial growth… offices are going, shops are going, traffic should go’, in favour of a city that is ‘smaller, safer, quieter, attractive, loveable, pride-inducing, covetable, intimate, embracing, and aware of its own story’.
There are signs that this message is not being heeded and that city planners are about to repeat the mistakes of the past. It would be good to report that the bulldozing of historic buildings was no longer an issue as it was during the post-war rebuilding of the city after the bombing of 1942, but as recently as 2002 St Mildred’s Tannery (built in 1838) was swept away in favour of a development of 400 apartments, some of which caught fire in 2018, revealing construction faults and inadequate fire protection. The water-powered tannery specialised in the dressing, softening, and dyeing of hides, producing the leather for seating in the House of Lords and for Rolls-Royce cars, as well as for the Mastermind black chair.
The new threat identified by this report is that post-war buildings will be replaced by even bigger monoliths that pay no respect to the scale and character of Canterbury’s remaining historic assets. In his introduction to the report, Marcus Binney cites three examples, including the new and clumsily named ‘The Hampton by Hilton’ hotel, which rises two storeys above the city’s red-tiled rooftops, thrusting its featureless white walls and rooftop structures into the skyline of the city and blocking previous views of the cathedral.
Outline planning permission has been given to convert the empty Debenhams department store – which occupies three prominent city-centre blocks, with frontages to the High Street, Guildhall Street, and Sun Street – into 74 flats and 12 shops. This is no bad thing in itself, but the scheme will be two storeys higher than the existing block, so that penthouse dwellers can enjoy views that others will be denied. The proposed redevelopment of Nasons department store on the High Street, with 65 flats and a shopping arcade, will rise to five storeys, dwarfing the 14th-century tower of St Margaret’s church alongside.
A pilgrimage city
The contributors to the SAVE report argue for an approach that, in place of these excessively high developments, respects Canterbury’s unique character, which they go on to analyse in great detail. Paul Bennett, who retired in 2020 after 40 years as Director of Canterbury Archaeological Trust, writes about the remarkable religious heritage that makes Canterbury one of Europe’s great pilgrimage cities. Writing in the mid-8th century AD, Bede described the arrival in Canterbury of the Christian Princess Bertha, as the spouse of Æthelbert, Prince of Kent, and of Augustine’s mission of AD 597 to convert the people of eastern England to Christianity.
The archaeological evidence to support Bede’s claim is still legible in the city, principally in the form of the chancel of St Martin’s Church. Erected c.580 as an oratory for Bertha and her confessor Bishop Liudhard, the structure made use of Roman building materials as well as the skills of the Continental craftsmen who accompanied Bertha’s household. The nave of St Martin’s was built c.AD 597 as Augustine’s first church, and soon after this a chain of further churches was established, including what was to become the cathedral.
Along with St Augustine’s Abbey – begun c.AD 619 as a burial place for the kings of Kent and now in the care of English Heritage – the cathedral and St Martin’s Church now form the main elements of a World Heritage Site. Designated in 1988, it reflects Canterbury’s development as the focus of the Church of England, and the Mother Church of the international Anglican Communion (a more acceptable universal value than the one that was being claimed by the City Council in the 1930s, when Canterbury was described as ‘the mother city of the Anglo-Saxon race’).
The SAVE report credits the cathedral authorities with having looked after the cathedral and its precinct very well, but argues that the city’s offer to visitors cannot rely on these buildings alone. More must be done to encourage visitors to explore the rest of the city, which Clive Bowley, Director of the conservation practice Anthony Swaine Architecture, characterises as a place with a significant legacy of timber-framed buildings.
East Kent lacks building stone other than flint, and the cathedral was largely built of limestone from Normandy, but the abundance of oak made timber the natural choice for buildings from the 14th to the 16th centuries, which is when the bulk of Canterbury’s surviving timber-framed buildings were constructed. Many were exuberantly decorated, including several inns built on the profits of the booming medieval pilgrimage trade.
Lost and found
At the time of the Baedeker raids of 1942, Canterbury was still a largely complete late medieval city, though it does not do to be too nostalgic: the City Council had already embarked on a programme of ‘slum clearance’ that saw the removal of some truly ancient historic structures. When accepting the Freedom of the City in 1937, Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury from 1928 to 1942, pleaded with the city authorities ‘not to sacrifice the memorials of the past to the insatiable demands of a quick transit through the city’.
Clive Bowley’s own study, carried out in 1995, estimated that 57 per cent of the medieval buildings shown on the 1874 Ordnance Survey map had gone by 1974, many of them lost to commercial development in the late 19th century, or during the Blitz, or in the road-widening and -development schemes of the 1950s and 1960s. Thereafter, the loss of ancient timber-framed buildings came to a halt, and the only subsequent losses have been four buildings destroyed by fire.
The surviving buildings were studied during the 1980s and 1990s by the Canterbury Archaeological Trust in partnership with the City Council’s conservation officers, who insisted that all plans for alteration be accompanied by archaeological building surveys (a legal power not exercised frequently enough by many local authorities). Many ancient structures have been recorded as a result, and owners have been encouraged to reveal hidden fabric. Debenhams, for example, restored the framed interiors of an entire lost street found within their Sun Street premises, while ground-floor timbers at the Bull Inn were reconstructed on the basis of archaeological evidence. The old King’s School Shop on Palace Street (built in 1647 and known as ‘the crooked house’) was restored following its near collapse in 1987, and the four buildings damaged by fire since 1984 have all been fully restored thanks to the records made during earlier survey work.
That so many timber-framed buildings had survived was not previously realised because many of Canterbury’s late medieval buildings were hidden behind later façades with sash windows. These frontages appear to be made of brick, but are in fact made of ‘mathematical tiles’, whose widespread use in Canterbury is traced by Amicia de Moubray – editor of the SAVE report and an author specialising in architecture, heritage, and interiors.
Nobody knows why they have come to be known as ‘mathematical’ tiles. They are the same length and height as standard bricks, but are much thinner, and they are made with a hidden flange that enables the tiles to be hooked over timber battens. Popular history has it they were invented to avoid the Brick Tax of 1784. In fact, there are much earlier examples, including one found at Westcott, Surrey, inscribed with the date 1724. Besides, the tax on bricks also applied to tiles, albeit at a lower rate of 3/- per 1,000.
Cheaper than bricks and easier to lay, they were called ‘weather tyles’ in 18th-century accounts and were used to provide a weatherproof skin to poor-quality walls of wattle and daub or lathe and plaster, which partly explains their use in south-east England with its existing peg-tile industry and many timber buildings. Of the c.1,000 buildings that have been identified in England showing the use of these tiles, half are in Kent, predominantly in Canterbury and Faversham, and a further 350 are in the neighbouring counties of Sussex and Surrey.
These tiles had a further advantage in that they enabled a façade to be clad without encroaching too far into narrow lanes such as Sun Street, the best example in Canterbury of an entire thoroughfare of tiled buildings. An Act of 1787 decreed the removal of protuberances of more than 9 inches from the frontage of buildings as an impediment to traffic: brick facings could be up to 18 inches thick, whereas tiles measured 1½-2 inches. Owners also had a choice of colours: red was popular in the 18th century, but considered distastefully ‘fiery’ by the early 19th century, when grey and buff tiles were favoured, especially for buildings in the precinct, complementing the Caen stone of the cathedral.
A Protestant refuge
Another aspect of Canterbury’s past that the SAVE report highlights is its Walloon and Huguenot legacy. The city received an influx of Protestant refugees fleeing war and persecution in the Low Countries and France in the 16th and 17th centuries. Although many made their way to London (where they established the Spitalfields silk-weaving and clock-making industries), some families remained in Canterbury, encouraged by Elizabeth I, who granted them the right to live in the city and hold services in the cathedral crypt. As a result, writes Michael Peters, Secretary of the French Protestant Church of Canterbury, French-speaking Walloons from Flanders accounted for about a third of Canterbury’s late-16th-century population, when 800 looms were recorded in the city.
Structures from this time, recently discovered under later cladding, include a 16th-century building at 37 North Lane with an almost continuous run of gallery windows designed to light looms in the attics. Also dating to this period are buildings in the city with curvilinear or stepped gables, as well as tie-rods used to link the gable to the roof structure, typically terminating with the owner’s initials or the date of the building’s construction. A distinctive feature of the second wave of migration, from the 1680s, is a jettied out third-floor attic, used for weaving, set on top of an otherwise unjettied two-storey building. Dutch- and Flemish-style gables later inspired Victorian and Edwardian architects working in Canterbury, and the Huguenot legacy was also evident until the 1970s in the form of Lefevre’s department store, founded by one of Canterbury’s most prominent families and later absorbed into Debenhams.
Cathedral and precinct, medieval timber-framed buildings, no fewer than 23 parish churches (including one of the oldest in England: St Martin’s), mathematical tiles, and the Walloon and Huguenot legacy – these are some of the ingredients that make Canterbury such an attractive place, a fact that was slowly beginning to be recognised in the late 19th century. At first, it was the associative significance of particular individuals that was most appreciated: the city’s links with its first archbishop, St Augustine (celebrated in 1897 on the 1,300th anniversary of his arrival in England), with archbishop St Thomas Becket (murdered in the cathedral in 1170), and with Charles Dickens (two of Canterbury’s cottages have been claimed as the ’umble ’ome of David Copperfield’s Uriah Heep).
Visitors also come to see the building associated with the romantic story of the 45-year-old Elizabeth I’s meeting with the 23-year-old Duc d’Alençon in 1573, in the solar of the Crown Inn on Canterbury’s High Street. Affectionate letters were subsequently exchanged between the two, but popular rejection of the prospect of a French spouse for Elizabeth meant that she abandoned the idea of a proposed marriage in 1581, apparently with genuine regret. That building, at 44 and 45 High Street, is now a café called Queen Elizabeth’s Guest Chamber, and it was ‘restored’ in the 19th century to what was thought to be its original appearance, though the exuberant plaster panels on the façade – depicting crowns, roses, thistles, bunches of grapes, and cherubs drinking wine astride a barrel – date from 1697.
Clive Bowley argues, however, that it was not until 1923 that the city burghers began to value and conserve Canterbury’s built heritage. That was the year in which the City Council, at the prompting of the Canterbury Archaeological Society, set out ten policies for preserving the ‘extreme antiquity’ of the city, though this was also the period when some councillors were arguing for an energetic slum-clearance programme that threatened some ancient and rescuable structures.
At the same time, noteworthy architects were at work enhancing the city with new buildings. The 20th century started well, according to Timothy Brittain-Catlin, with the appointment of W D Caröe to build a new palace for Archbishop Frederick Temple adjacent to the remains of Lanfranc’s 11th-century predecessor. Caröe rejected Gothic Revival purism in favour of working imaginatively with the ancient fabric of the palace to produce a flint-walled building with an ‘artful mix of the symmetrical and asymmetrical’.
Caröe (see Sherds) was also responsible for rescuing from decay the Buttermarket’s Christ Church Gateway, built in 1502 for the marriage of Arthur, Prince of Wales, to Catherine of Aragon, and the subject of several paintings by J M W Turner. Seely & Paget, who transformed Eltham Palace, a Tudor building, into a stylish home for Stephen and Virginia Courtauld in the 1930s, were at work here too, creating a dining hall and residential block for the King’s School in 1937-1938, which incorporated parts of a medieval priory.
Canterbury was thus fortunate to attract architects who worked creatively with the city’s historic buildings, but a challenge on a much bigger scale was presented by the aerial bombing of the city on 1 June 1942, in revenge for the Allied assault on Cologne. This left much of the eastern side of the walled city in ruins. City officials were quick to pull down all the damaged buildings, a move described by conservation architect Anthony Swaine, who witnessed the destruction, as an ‘evil act of matricide’, but which was consistent with practice in many other bombed cities at the time. Plans for the city’s comprehensive redevelopment were drawn up in 1944, explicitly giving priority to ‘modern needs’ over ‘preservation of past glories’, including an inner ring road, shopping precincts, car parks, and service yards.
The plan for a city of the future rather than of the past did not find favour with residents. Debate raged in meetings and the pages of local newspapers, and the Canterbury Citizens Defence Association achieved an overwhelming victory in local elections in 1945. By that time, though, much damage had already been done, and the plan subsequently adopted – the Wilson Plan of 1949 – incorporated a great deal from the 1944 Holden Plan. As a consequence, Canterbury today has been described by one commentator as ‘a hybrid of partially implemented comprehensive plans and changing visions of what Canterbury should look like’.
Ptolemy Dean’s contribution to the SAVE report looks back on both sides of the argument for and against preservation. The Architects’ Journal of 1952 called on the local authority to ‘undertake some positive planning control over their city’, and this remains the clarion call of the SAVE report – though not in the terms envisaged in 1952, when the Architects’ Journal went on to describe Canterbury as a city of ‘crude fakes, sub-standard dwellings, dreary Victorian villas, and commercial banalities lying amongst medieval and cottage Georgian charms’. Ian Nairn, the trenchant author of successive editions of the Pevsner Architectural Guide, wrote off post-war development as ‘a disaster: good intentions defeated by inadequate technique’.
Some, though, have articulated a more positive vision: as long ago as 1970, Robert Paine, of the Canterbury School of Architecture, foresaw the opportunities presented by a growing student population: ‘the University is creeping in from behind bringing with it a zest for town life and urban living; [Canterbury] may become the first to show that a city by might, properly inhabited, need not be like a tomb’. Robert went on to say that: ‘Canterbury took shape in a non-materialistic age and now, when the materialistic society is being challenged, to preserve Canterbury as a symbol and inspiration must be the concern of everyone’.
More than half a century on, that remains the challenge, not just for Canterbury but for towns and cities across the UK and beyond. The final message of the SAVE report is that we must, as a society, stop taking a casual approach to planning, in effect leaving it to developers whose profits often depend on reducing their investment in quality. We need vision and social conscience, says Ptolemy Dean, if the opportunities of changes in working and commuting patterns, national shopping trends, and a national commitment to decarbonising the UK economy are to be realised.
Amicia de Moubray (ed.), Canterbury Take Care! (SAVE Britain’s Heritage, ISBN 978-0905978819, £14.99).