Tourist overcrowding spoils enjoyment of historic venue: Chester approaches saturation point as tide of visitors grows. David Nicholson-Lord reports

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The Independent Online
SO MANY tourists are crowding into Chester, one of Britain's oldest and most beautiful cities, that they are spoiling it for each other, according to the first 'environmental capacity' study by a local authority.

The study, to be published next month, highlights the dilemma faced by many historic towns where visitor numbers are nearing saturation point. It examines pedestrian densities in the city using a test of psychological 'comfort' developed by an American academic. It was commissioned after the Government rejected plans for the city's expansion because of fears of overdevelopment.

According to the English Historic Towns Forum, centres such as Cambridge, York and Canterbury are struggling to cope with pollution, congestion and growing tensions between residents and visitors. Some towns are now trying to discourage visitors.

The Chester study, by the Building Design Partnership, the surveyors Donaldsons, and the transport consultants MVA, examined walking speeds, traffic flows and pedestrian numbers and found widespread evidence of tension caused by the 'competing demands for the limited street space in the heart of the. . . city'.

In much of the historic centre, pedestrian comfort was 'below acceptable levels', it said. 'In the most critical locations, (the) tension is strained beyond capacity.' The crowding was 'detracting from any pleasure of being in this historically rich environment'.

Chester, a city of 119,000, has an estimated 2-3 million visitors a year, most of whom crowd into a narrow centre inside the Roman walls. A spokesman for the city said pedestrian pressures were sometimes 'uncomfortable', adding: 'We are looking at what development Chester can sustain without further erosion of the fabric and the historic centre.' Pedestrianisation and new bus routes are being considered.

In a new guide for historic towns, the forum, and the English Tourist Board, urge them to adopt 'visitor management plans'. Stephen Mills, head of development at the board, said many places felt they had too many visitors 'but you can't stop people coming - therefore you need to manage them in order to survive'. In Cambridge, however, the council has refused to promote the town. One theme suggested - but not adopted - was the 'Great Cambridge stay away day', with the slogan: 'Cambridge is full . . . we don't want you.'

York, according to the forum, has reached a ceiling on visitors. Bourton-on-the-Water, the most visited village in the Cotswolds, also 'suffers intensely from congestion and other problems'.

Special offers by ferry operators have resulted in 160 coaches a day visiting Canterbury, which has parking space for only 40. Barbara Le Pelley, a senior planner with Canterbury council, said this was causing 'tremendous pressure'. Keith Laidler, chairman of the forum, said most northern towns welcomed tourism but in the South there were the beginnings of 'dynamic tension' between residents and visitors. In Bath, residents had turned hosepipes on open-top tourist buses. He said the Government should increase grant aid to tourist towns.

Getting It Right . . . a guide to visitor management in historic towns; English Historic Towns Forum, The Huntingdon Centre, The Vineyards, The Paragon, Bath, BA1 5NA; pounds 15.

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