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Image for Cherishing Canterbury's Cultural Jewels

Article by Neill Barston | 16th April 2019

Cherishing Canterbury's Cultural Jewels

Just over 30 years ago, Canterbury was bestowed with UNESCO World Heritage status for its key religious sites including the cathedral. Here, we examine its impact and why its international standing should remain highly prized, plus explore the city’s rich green heritage which, in fact, is older than the architectural one.

As one of Britain’s major cultural and spiritual landmarks, Canterbury’s cathedral has stood as a vitally significant element of the Church of England’s foundation. With a total of 7.8 million visitors welcomed to the city in 2017, the iconic building remains a major attraction for the area’s tourism sector valued at £491 million a year.

One of the main initial drivers of that success has undoubtedly been the decision by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation (UNESCO) in 1988 to honour the cathedral, combined with the equally historically significant St Martin’s Church and St Augustine’s Abbey, with World Heritage status. In doing so, it joined the ranks of more than 1,000 culturally revered sites considered of universal human value, which span both ecologically through to architecturally spectacular locations around the globe.

The UN first established a framework for these accolades from 1972 on the basis of preserving some of our most remarkable international sites that could potentially be under threat, either through physical decay or through threat from wider environmental pressures.

Consequently, today the illustrious heritage list includes everything from the Great Barrier Reef and Fraser Island in Australia (which is the world’s largest sand island), through to the Great Wall of China, the Vatican in Rome and the great pyramids of Giza in Egypt.

Within Britain, there are now more than 30 sites honoured with this status, including the Tower of London, the city of Bath and the Giant’s Causeway in Northern Ireland, and perhaps the most enigmatic of all, Stonehenge.

UNESCO’s World Heritage mission has focused on a number of key areas, including encouraging countries to sign the World Heritage Convention to ensure the protection of natural and cultural heritage, encouraging states to establish management plans for designated sites.

The organisation also provides emergency assistance for those locations considered to be in immediate danger, as well as actively engaging with local populations to take pride in their valuable surroundings.

Cultural charm

In Canterbury’s case, the cathedral, dating in its current Norman form from the 1070s, is under the present leadership of the city’s Archbishop Justin Welby.

The site remains a huge visitor attraction for international visitors to the UK, admired equally for its grand architecture as its spiritual significance. 

Its religious roots stem from the year 597, when the Benedictine monk Augustine was sent by Pope Gregory I in Rome to lay the country’s full conversion to Christianity, which would lead to him becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury.

Speaking previously to The Canterbury INDEX his 21st century successor, Archbishop Welby, who spends around a third of his year within the area, remarked on the locality’s special character: “As soon as we arrived here, we knew how much we had been missing – the Canterbury Diocese and the whole of Kent is a stunningly beautiful part of the UK. It is incredibly varied, and is also very friendly – it has so much history and culture and interest. It’s just the most fascinating place.”

While the cathedral has taken the limelight, the UNESCO heritage rating recognises the city’s role as a founding location for the English church.

Super status

Mike Butler, UNESCO coordinator at St Martin’s Church in Canterbury – noted as the oldest chapel in England having been used by Queen Bertha of Kent in the 6th century AD – believed the area’s internationally-celebrated special status remained of great value.

In particular, he added that along with improvements to visitor facilities at the cathedral, focus should be placed on creating a full-time, paid position dedicated to maximising its global status.

He explained the three sites of the cathedral, St Augustine’s Abbey and St Martin’s Church link to “together tell the story of English Christianity from the time of St Augustine”.

He said: “The benefits of having UNESCO status are that it can potentially bring in a controlled way significant numbers of new international visitors. This is key to the city’s commerce and many heritage initiatives.

“Also, if you add together all the cultural and performance venues within the overall UNESCO umbrella of sites, you potentially have over 20 varied and amazing spaces ranging from the Cathedral Nave and choir and Chapter House to Augustine Hall and Shirley Hall, St Gregory’s Centre for Music, several large lecture spaces, dance and drama studios, St Martin’s, the new Daphne Oram creative arts spaces and the huge outdoor grassland (Shakespeare in the park) of the abbey.” 

He added that to gain the most of its key status, local people needed to feel even more engaged, which could be achieved through a specific programme of regular events that could really make a difference and add even further to the city’s existing cultural vibrancy. 

Unearthing the city’s green heritage

The Canterbury Society has long been reflecting cultural developments in the city, and felt that the area’s green heritage should be celebrated in tandem 30 years on from its UNESCO heritage status. Committee member Bev Paton welcomed the renewed spotlight on its global heritage role, but warned that it must be maintained. 

“The long-term future of Canterbury’s status as one of the UK’s cultural World Heritage Sites depends just as much on the green part of that heritage as on the architectural,” she explained, adding: “Sites can lose their status if they get the balance wrong, a threat now facing Vienna. Or, as Venice knows, they can become impossible to manage. 

“Canterbury Cathedral’s monastic herb garden is part of the actual Heritage Site. However, other plots of land near the Heritage areas are equally important in purifying the air, extracting heat, maintaining the local ecology and providing oases for humans, animals, insects and fish. But while Dane John and the Westgate Gardens are well-known and cared for, we have many other small green plots which also need cherishing.”

Bev added that some of these areas are being nourished including Kingsmead Fields, which is blooming with 1,000 crocuses and 1,000 daffodils planted by its neighbourhood group. In addition, across the city residents are working together on small areas – from the planters by the Odeon cinema to the entrance to Bingley Island – but Bev felt the potential is far greater, stating that businesses could start sponsoring plants, trees and other strips of green around them. There could also be a series of green havens in little parks like the one by Patisserie Valerie. 

Bev added: “My own involvement has been in developing the Butterfly Garden, alongside the Hardy Plants Society and other volunteers. Planted with dahlias and wallflowers, this walled riverside area will be drawing in bees and butterflies as well as human visitors from spring. As stunning as our cathedral is, it is not as old as our green heritage. And nor can it perform the miracles of nature that butterflies do.”

• Visit canterburysociety.org.uk 

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