Development in the Close

On Tuesday 28th April our guest speaker, Peter Brownhill, gave us a brief history of the evolution of the Close from the 17th century to the present, including such gems as the fact that one building actually has its old roof underneath the present one and that in medieval times land allocation was strictly hierarchical - 250 ft for a bishop, 120 ft for a dean and a mere 60 ft for a cannon!

The Close has seen many hectic changes during its long history - from a magnificent 100 ft x 56 ft hall for the bishop's palace, to people carrying on humble trades in the 17th century, to the present with a bookshop, a cafe and a St John's Hospital. The latest addition was the Cathedral Study Centre in Bishop Hackett's stable, performing the necessary task of teaching young and old, clerical and secular, with an element of refreshment. This had been an enormous success but was now beyond further development. A hall for larger meetings (as well as for concerts and as a 'parish hall') and better student and visitor refreshment facilities was an imperative.

A major problem soon emerged - the ruins of a wall were identified as medieval with a 'loo' passage in its thickness. This was an irremovable constraint on the design; but one that was to lead to an imaginative solution - for the wall will be a spine in the project, serve as an exhibition space and lead down into the restaurant and up to the hall. The resultant scheme will harmonise with existing buildings by using traditional materials wedded with more modern concepts in metal and glass. All the national bodies have given the scheme and its design an enthusiastic welcome. [the Civic Society was equally welcoming and certainly hopes that it will attract national awards once it is built]. The project could be complete in two years time with the cost possibly in the range of 700,000 to 1,000,000 mainly funded by the European Community.

In the question time that followed some reservations were expressed regarding the 'commercialisation of the Close', especially concerning the restaurant. But this was defended by others who cited the ancient precedents of ecclesiastical hospitality to pilgrims.

The rather more fraught matter of traffic management in the Close provoked a wide response. Parking provision in the moat had been forever ruled out by the national bodies controlling Ancient Monuments. The use of the Close was complex; residents, scholars, worshippers, visitors, workers - all had to be considered in a very sensitive site under great pressure. Nevertheless the aim was to continue the search for another site for parking and to explore a more imaginative use of the moat.

Peter Brownhill is to be congratulated on a very well thought through scheme and for the way in which he fielded the vigorous questioning from the floor.

Alan Thompson
April 1992