Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of the Anglican Communion and one of Britain’s greatest architectural treasures, will hold “crisis talks” with the Heritage Lottery Fund on Tuesday in a last-ditch effort to stay open to visitors.
The cathedral, founded in AD597 by St Augustine, faces closing to the public after a £10.5m repair appeal to the Heritage Lottery Fund was rejected. Today its custodians are due to meet with proprietors for last-minute “crisis talks” and plans to lobby US philanthropists should the funding not be met. They are looking for a total of £17.8m to fund restoration work on the nave, two towers and Christchurch gate, and other parts of the building.
It is the latest in a back catalogue of urgent repair requests for what is one of the oldest institutions in the country and a World Heritage Site. In 2006 trustees warned of “disastrous consequences” unless urgent action was taken to renovate the building. Three years later it was alleged that the pillars were being held together with duct tape because of a shortage of money to carry out building work.
All of that was, of course, before the financial crisis – and staff at Heritage Lottery Fund last night could not hide the new realities of the financial burdens they faced. The fund, which distributes a share of income from the National Lottery to preserving the nation’s heritage, said it had £129m in requests with just £68m available.
Katie Owen of the Heritage Lottery Fund told The Independent: “Of course it’s disappointing. We’ve funded many cathedrals over the years – including Durham and Exeter – but unfortunately we simply do not have enough money. Our source of funding is drying up.” The cathedral repair application was one of 12 projects that were considered by funders – but is understood to have simply been too expensive to rubber-stamp.
Ms Owen stressed it was “not the end of the road” and that there were still opportunities for the cathedral to resubmit a funding application – albeit for a far smaller amount than originally requested. “We will be meeting them [today] to reassess and try and be constructive to their plight.”
Meanwhile, bosses at the Cathedral were keeping a brave face, disputing reports that if a piece of stonework fell down, it could be “closed for business”. Christopher Robinson, from the Canterbury Cathedral Trust, told The Independent that its custodians would consider appealing to wealthy American philanthropists should a deal not be reached in the UK.
That defiant tone chimed with the Cathedral’s Receiver, General John Meardon, who said: “The Luftwaffe could not close the Cathedral, despite the Baedeker bombing raids in 1942, and difficulties with the fabric will not do so now.”
The Canterbury tales: a brief history
The cathedral was founded in 597 by St Augustine, who was sent from Rome by Pope Gregory the Great to convert Anglo-Saxons.
In 1170 four knights, acting on the words of Henry II, “who will rid me of this turbulent priest”, murdered the then Archbishop Thomas Becket at the altar, because of his adherence to Rome.
Within three years, Becket had been made a saint and Canterbury a place of pilgrimage, as chronicled by Geoffrey Chaucer.