Lichfield's Buildings: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

Lichfield U3A drew our season of talks to a close in July when three speakers explored Lichfield's buildings. Full marks to the U3A Architecture Group for their exploration of the City's built environment and their boldness in expressing views - both supportive and critical of our urban area. So often, residents go about their daily tasks seemingly oblivious of their surroundings; so it was rewarding to see that there are others in Lichfield, apart from members of the Civic Society, who prize our city's unique character and do notice their surroundings.

Predictably, a number of old "chestnuts" appeared in the visual presentation: the dilapidated state of the former Regal cinema, the inordinate amount of highway signage clutter, the poor approach to the City from City Railway Station, the neglected planting bed at the Birmingham Road traffic lights, the poor state of some tourist information signs. All, predictably, cropped up; as did the Premier Inn (a standard design without any sympathy for Lichfield's built heritage), Andrew's House (totally out of scale) and the Community Fire Station (a welcome new community facility, but another "off the peg" design which has attempted no architectural reference to Lichfield). On the positive side, U3A members liked the new additions to St John's Hospital, the Police Mutual Building and the conversion of St Michael's School at Greenhill for residential use. The initial Victorian design and modern refurbishment sit very comfortably. Incidentally, this building was awarded a Civic Society plaque in 2014 for the high standard of restoration.

Also predictably, the Garrick Theatre appeared in the presentation. Perhaps it should be called the Marmite Theatre, for you either love it or hate it. There appears to be no half measures! Street furniture generally was subject to criticism. Photographs of highway clutter, scruffy signage and inappropriate planters were produced in evidence, but nice brightly painted red letterboxes were shown as an example of how the street scene could be brightened up. (Members may recall that all letterboxes in Lichfield District have been repainted by Royal Mail at the instigation of the Civic Society). They dwelt for some time on the issue of street lighting, pointing out that metallic lamp-posts may be cheap and demand low maintenance, but wouldn't it be better if they were painted, or better still removed and lighting affixed to buildings as now occurs in the City Centre? "Easier said than done" said some members of the audience.

U3A members had also astutely identified some fine Victorian buildings which had been spoilt by insensitive 1960s extensions, including Sandfields Pumping Station and the former Free Library on Beacon St. Although these errors of judgement are unlikely to re-occur, there is a need for eternal vigilance if we are not to allow "creeping standardisation" of our buildings, eradicating local vernacular. Significantly, a straw poll of U3A members had revealed that their preference was for Lichfield's older buildings and not the modern ones. Darwin House, Stowe Pool, the Cathedral and the Close predictably rated highly; whereas, unsurprisingly, the multi-storey car parks, the derelict Regal Cinema, the bus station and the boarded up former Kennings site were listed as city eyesores.

So ended our July meeting and we now pause until September. It was good to host our U3A guests and find that their concerns about the quality of buildings and open spaces, especially in the centre of the City, chimed in with those of the Society.

Roger Hockney
July, 2018