The Noble Art Of Not Getting Conservation Quite Right

August 2, 2006

by Martin ‘HStorm’ Odoni

Going to York, especially the first time, can be a powerful experience for just about anyone. There can be no doubt that, for the most part, it is very beautiful, a wonderful fusion of ancient, antiquity, and (largely) unobtrusive modernity. From the preserved ruins, to the restored Tudor houses, to the great Hanoverian artifices, to its rolling green parks, to the winding river, to the marvellously preserved city walls, to above all, the truly-awesome spectacle of York Minster Cathedral, for anyone to behold it is a wonder for the eyes. If, like me, you are also a keen student of British History, and most of it is therefore intelligible to you as well, it becomes not just a vision, but also an enticing journey. You can find yourself working your way, piece-by-piece, through the ages and into the distant past. You can see parts of the Civil Wars, the Wars Of The Roses, the Norman Invasion, practically picture them happening before your eyes; there are bits of everything, standing side-by-side, almost seamlessly. It is an inspiring experience, one that can only be appreciated by actually being there, not just by looking at photos of it.

Having made my first-ever excursion to York, I enjoyed it so hugely that I decided immediately that I wanted another such outing, but this time not have to travel quite so far just to get started. Living in Manchester, the obvious choice seemed to be nearby Chester, proudly proclaimed on many occasions to be one of the most beautifully-preserved cities in Northern England, with relics surviving from all periods in its history, from Roman times to the Tudor era, to the architectural heyday of Hanoverian Britain. I’d seen a few pictures of the occasional street in Chester, and it did look very distinctive and easy on the eye, so I decided to give it a go.

It must be said that, if travelling by train as I did, Chester does not start very promisingly at all. The station is located in the grubbiest district of the town, and sadly I had to walk through just about all of it to get to the city-proper. It may be this that coloured my ideas for the rest of the time I was there, but I had to walk an awful long way through a lot of rather stubborn tattiness that left me a long way from thinking of terms like ‘beautifully-preserved’.

Once you get over the canal into the town centre, things do improve immensely. The narrow streets, most of them cobbled, are lined almost from corner-to-corner with picturesque half-timber buildings, so many that at first glance you almost have to remind yourself that this is the era of Elizabeth II, not Elizabeth I. It is very distinctive, and undeniably very pretty. So when you get to this point, your hopes will likely be rekindled.

But even when you get there, another problem soon becomes very apparent with Chester, and it’s a big problem. As you venture through the town, you very quickly notice a pointlessness to it. All of these Tudor buildings look very lovely and striking, but they’re just there. The modern purpose for them is so completely mundane and everyday that you feel like you’ve been lied to. You see, almost all of them have been converted into modern shops, many of them chain stores, and it becomes very jarring the more you see it; you find your senses more and more affronted as you venture up Foregate Street and see lines of ‘beautifully-preserved’ traditional Tudor houses, with plastic signs nailed to the front of them proclaiming a branch of WH Smith, Next, or Jessops Photography. Go inside them and instead of lovely black-and-white half-timbers, you find the walls lined with plastic framework and uniform colour designs that these stores use all over the country.

To me, it just felt wrong looking at it. There’s no doubt that Chester would be a terrific place for a shopping trip, with the scenery making a nice change from what you’d get on a shopping trip anywhere else. But the thing is, I didn’t want to go to Chester just to find a load of shops I could’ve found at the Trafford Centre, about a half-hour on foot from my front door. In fact, I hadn’t wanted to go on a shopping trip at all. The enticement for the place has always been pitched by the tourist board as its traditionalism, its glorious keeping with the city’s past. But what it largely offers you in practise is shops. And very few of them are shops you wouldn’t find in Surbiton, Nuneaton, Clydebank or Totnes. All it really offers in that respect appears to be shopping among Tudor scenery, which has novelty value but very little else. Novelty value isn’t really a quality you’d normally associate with conservation, nor one you’d look for in it.

And this was the problem. I began to find that there wasn’t a great deal else to the place. I whiled away a pleasing enough hour walking the walls, which gave me access to one or two rather nice parks, and the chance to take some decent photos. But even the walls lacked depth or authenticity. The walls in York had felt real as I hiked them, as the stones were, insofar as is possible, the original stones the wall had been built from in the past. Not so in Chester. There, the tops of the walls had been completely paved over with comparatively-modern slabs. At many points, the walls even have the front doors of houses opening onto them, making it feel like you’re just walking down any residential side-street. At another point, the walls are barricaded by a modern brick wall that clashes horribly, and beyond that there’s an ugly multi-storey car park built out of concrete. At no point did I feel like I was in touch with the past, and I certainly didn’t feel like I was experiencing a surviving medieval military base.

I quite enjoyed the Roman-style gardens, and I also got to see the famous architectural dig of what appears to be a pre-Roman settlement. The largest architectural dig in the British Isles, it was very compellng to get to see it. There were several nice tavern-style pubs that I stopped off at for a Coke and an Irn-Bru. But I just didn’t feel like it was worth travelling all the way from Manchester for a place whose real assets (read: shops) were essentially the same as everywhere else’s.

At one point I stopped off in the square outside the Cathedral (the Cathedral was excruciatingly dull to look at by the way, but we can’t blame the conservationists for that), and overheard a family of Irish tourists talking to each other with frustrated looks on their faces. “Well, it looks very nice, but there’s nothing to do here except go shopping,” was the gist of what they were saying. Which summed up my frustrations rather totally.

It doesn’t help that the modern buildings in Chester, including several churches built out of bricks, are mostly eyesores, and don’t rest easily alongside the older buildings at all. It’s as though Chester is conscious of its pre-modern history as one of the great cities of England, and wants to find a way of becoming a great city of the future. To this end, it seems to be trying to turn itself into a new version of Liverpool. It fails on that score, partly because much of the modern architecture in Liverpool is a lot nicer, but also because the atmosphere on Merseyside is so much more vibrant, and impossible for a small place to duplicate.

Where York feels like an inspiration, Chester ultimately comes across as a mere curiosity. Where York has a genuine sense of place, Chester simply has a sense of being a place with a lot of nice old buildings converted into High Street chain stores. I’m sorry but that is not conservation. It’s all very well and good preserving the outer shell of a building more or less intact, and yes, I’d much rather more shops were created that way than built in the modern ‘concrete-and-stainless-steel-monstrosity’ style that businesses and civil servants today seem so fond of. But conservation isn’t just about making shops, and certainly not new branches of chain stores. And almost everything in Chester seems to have been turned into a shop, most of them chain stores.

In keeping the basic shape of much of ‘old’ Chester, it’s as though the town planners thought, “Right, we’ve done our bit for conservation, now let’s make shameless amounts of cash. And we’ll start by dumping a nice, ugly multi-storey car park slap-bang in the middle of it!”

The modern and the old don’t clash in York, they rest side-by-side in a manner that is striking but usually at ease. The modern and the old do clash in Chester, sometimes glaringly. More importantly though, in York, they preserved not only the appearance of the old, they also preserved its soul, its heart, its meaning, while still allowing it all a purpose in the modern world. In Chester, they preserved the appearance of the old, and turned its soul into Marks And Spencer. It’s like keeping the shape of Stirling Castle while converting the insides into a car showroom.

I’m not saying I dislike Chester. It would be a wonderfully novel place for a shopping spree, and it would also be a very pretty place in which to live. In some ways it reminds me of my hometown of Exeter. But Chester is not what it claims, or to an extent appears, to be. That regard is actually what separates it from Exeter; the latter was heavily-bombed during the Second World War, and couldn’t be rebuilt as it was, and so much of it was reconstructed in the modern concrete-style. It’s therefore not as pretty as it was (still a lot prettier than Manchester or Glasgow though, I can tell you that), but it still serves very nicely as a place to live. And at least Exeter’s honest about what it has lost and about what it now is. By contrast, Chester is largely a facade, the beauty only skin-deep. Beneath it is the omni-present menace of Corporate dominance.

Conservation is not about giving Corporations an old-fashioned environment in which to trade. It’s about retaining the spirit of what was there before and giving it a place in the modern world. For me, Chester doesn’t offer enough tribute to its own long and eminent history; too much of that was expressed in the outward appearance of the buildings themselves. While that’s not a bad place to start, it’s not enough. Not enough by far.

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