Last weekend, I visited Richmond Castle in North Yorkshire. It’s an imposing medieval structure that dominates the market town beneath it. As a castle, it’s of no real practical use any more but it’s an attractive part of our heritage. Within the walls, English Heritage has created a beautiful and modern garden that complements the whole. It’s not a pastiche or something that should have ‘ye olde’ stuck in front of the name. The garden is of our time and is evidence that old and new can work alongside each other – indeed they always have.
A couple of hundred of miles south, we have anther fine medieval structure that is no longer required to perform its original function – St Mary’s Church in Devizes. Like it or not, church attendances are not what they were and St Mary’s is surplus to requirements. So we need to find a new use for it.
And lo and behold, a new use has been found – as a community focused venue for arts and entertainment. Most local people and their elected representatives want it to happen. Canon Paul Richardson, Rector of St John’s and St Mary’s, has spoken in favour of the project. The Diocesan Advisory Committee for the Care of Churches is behind the scheme, as is the Archdeacon of Wiltshire, the Venerable Ruth Worsley. Yet when the plans came before the planning committee last they were thrown out.
As I understand it, the committee members were mainly concerned about damage to the building and the impact on a tree. Fair enough, but in my opinion – and I’m by no means alone in this – the benefits far outweigh any harm. And change is good.
It’s not as if this is some harebrained scheme that has never been tried before. Salisbury Arts Centre is located in the old St Edmund’s Church. St Peter’s in Marlborough has been made redundant and provides a similar facility for the good people of that town. They’re both doing pretty well. Hackney, Paisley, Colchester, Bath, Norwich and Sandwich provide similar examples. Giving a fine old building a new lease of life, albeit with a few tweaks, works.
Some people are, quite rightly, worried about what could be lost. But, without throwing the baby out with the bathwater, I prefer to look more at what we could gain.
Going to see a show can be an expensive business, especially if you have to travel to do so. This puts it out of the reach of many. But a few weeks ago, The Invitation Theatre Company put on a production of Jesus Christ Superstar at St Mary’s.
It was an excellent production, showing just what could be achieved in the space and most people could afford to go.
Live arts are often seen as an elitist pastime but local arts centres prove that this does not need to be the case. Jemma Brown, the director of Jesus Christ Superstar put it well when she said: “As the town grows, there is a need for more public space … to further public engagement with arts and heritage.”
There are plenty of examples of fine old buildings becoming dilapidated because no-one can quite decide what to do with them.
The Mechanics’ Institute in Swindon and the Assize Courts in Devizes spring to mind. Let’s not allow this to happen to St Mary’s.
As the scheme’s proponents say: “When completed, the church will go from a closed building with occasional services into a much visited, dynamic environment that will encourage participation in a wide variety of activities … an asset to the town instead of merely an interesting background view.”
Who wouldn’t want that?