St Asaph: The proud little town that became a city for just £300

For years, St Asaph thought it was a city, but was not. Now, for 10p a head, it's a big shot after all

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The Independent Online

Third time lucky, so they say. This weekend the good citizens of St Asaph bask in the knowledge that, after two previously unsuccessful tries, they live, at last, in a city.

The Queen, on the advice of a committee, has chosen St Asaph to mark her Diamond Jubilee, along with Chelmsford and Perth, which becomes Scotland's seventh city. Her Majesty also granted Armagh, in Northern Ireland, the right to use the title Lord Mayor.

While to most of the UK last week's award to a Welsh backwater is more than a little baffling, closer to home the accolade has provoked shock, awakening neighbourhood rivalries and fomenting small civic wars that will bubble for decades.

Who cares, you shrug? Well, neighbouring Wrexham, for a start. St Asaph's neighbour has a population of 135,000 and spent about £20,000 burnishing its bid for jubilee city status. St Asaph spent £300.

There are also more than a few English crying discrimination, which is always pleasing for the Welsh, even as they bask in the glow of rugby Grand Slam triumph. Similarly chuffed are the Scots, who saw their only nomination for city status succeed. England's 22 failed applicants, including Gateshead, Bolton, Middlesbrough, Milton Keynes, Reading and Medway, now suffer the indignity of remaining mere towns for years to come. They will almost certainly have to wait until a new monarch takes the throne.

Anyway, the mood is bright at St Asaph's Cathedral – which claims to be Britain's smallest and is home to the William Morgan bible, credited with keeping the Welsh language alive – where Andrew Thomas, the mayor of St Asaph is positively beaming.

"It has been amazing," he says. "We always thought we were a city – we even taught our schoolchildren that – but now we have it officially."

This is a sore point: in its own mind, St Asaph has been a city for as long as anyone can remember. The 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica refers to it as such. But in the 1970s came the bitter discovery that it had no city deeds or a charter, despite numerous references, including a plaque on the cathedral wall trumpeting the erection of the street lamps "of this city", in 1887, marking Queen Victoria's Golden Jubilee.

With local councillor Denise Hodgkinson, Mr Thomas has set matters right after 12 years of trying – the first of three applications coming at the millennium. The second came at the Queen's Golden Jubilee in 2002.

"We have gone from door to door for years, getting all the groups on side," he says. "It was a real David and Goliath. We don't have anyone paid to do this; it was all our own work." He adds with some pride that the new city had already ordered a new banner.

The city does not lack claims to fame. It hosts the North Wales International Music Festival and Woodfest Wales; it gave the world the footballer Ian Rush and singer Lisa Scott-Lee. Despite these treasures, it's hard to dismiss the argument that once you look past the cathedral, which sits atop the narrow high street overlooking the river Elwy below, a bank and five pubs, it doesn't have a huge amount to say for itself.

"People talk about our size but we have history, culture and community spirits, and that obviously counted," Mr Thomas says, a tad defensively. "The Cabinet Office also praised us for our presentation."

Nevertheless, on the high street the new accolade is greeted with a crouching ovation. "On the whole it is good but I'm not sure it will change anything. I hope it means we get a new bypass," says Daniel Owen, 72. He has more pressing concerns. "With the lorries coming up the main road here, it is a wonder no one is killed."

Huw Jones's sons Sion, nine, and Ellis, eight, do not understand the fuss. "You know we're a city?" Huw asks Sion. The reply is a blunt "No."

But Zowie Ferguson at the City Glam hair salon believes the news has given the area a lift. "I think it is great, especially in a jubilee year." It's not clear, however, that she has understood the change. "We are now officially a town!"

She can be forgiven the confusion. There are no hard rules for being a city. Historically, cities had to have a cathedral, but there are exceptions, such as Cambridge, which has been a city for many years. To muddy things still further, there are 18 towns with cathedrals that are not cities, including Rochester.

Sir Bob Russell, the Liberal Democrat MP for Colchester, which lost to nearby Chelmsford in its attempt to become a city, is not happy. "It is difficult to understand how any committee could conclude that a community of 3,400 people had a greater claim to become a city than Wrexham, with a population of 135,000," he says. "We need to know who these officials were, how many there were, and what the criteria were that drew them to conclude that St Asaph was worthy of city status.

"On a population basis, England, with 53 million people, gets one city, and has had four in 12 years. Yet in the same time, seven towns in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland have been granted city status. "It is not unreasonable in an era of transparency [to ask] for the methodology, criteria and personnel."