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Pilgrim's Progress

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Welcome to Gloucester Cathedral

One of Gloucester Cathedral’s overriding ambitions is to be a place where everyone is welcome – and where everyone feels welcome. 

The Cathedral is of course a Christian place of worship, although that isn’t the only reason why people are drawn here.  Nevertheless, it’s a constant source of frustration - and even shame - that as late as 2017 it is still not possible for someone in a wheelchair to worship in the cathedral quire (the most sacred place within this sacred building) without asking for assistance both on the way in and in entering the quire itself.

You’d be forgiven for thinking that Cathedrals are exempt from the requirements of Equalities legislation given how frequently maintaining the “integrity of the fabric” is mentioned as a reason why parts of the building are only open to the able bodied amongst us.  I take slim comfort from the fact that Gloucester isn’t the only cathedral which has struggled to make the case for putting people first.  It has taken an extraordinary amount of time and effort to get to the point where we have the necessary permissions to install automatic doors, user-operated platform lifts, permanent alterations to floor levels and to widen door widths by removing non-structural pillars.  Access for all via our tightly spiralled staircases at this point remains a challenge too far.

It’s also been quite a journey (particularly in designing the space outside the cathedral) to balance the requirements of different user groups. In 2015, the cathedral established an Access Forum, made up of people actively involved in identifying ways to make places and organisations more accessible to all and (in most cases) speaking from personal experience.  After a heartfelt discussion, Forum members agreed that tactile paving was inconvenient and sometimes uncomfortable for wheelchair users.  But as it was essential for those who are blind or have other visual impairment, it was endorsed by the Forum as a non-negotiable part of the scheme.  We’ll therefore be using different kinds of tactile finish in key areas throughout Cathedral Green to help identify steps, trip hazards such as cycle hoops and to assist in navigation across the site.

Finding ways to provide level access into and throughout the building has been another key challenge but the removal last month of the pillar blocking access into the 15th century Lady Chapel has moved us significantly closer to providing equal access for all.  The regular presence on-site of staff and students from the National Star College is a further reminder to us not to take access (in its broadest sense) for granted: we’ve re-thought our half-term gargoyle trail and will soon be working through more detailed checks on our new Interpretation Scheme to ensure that it is truly “physically, spiritually, intellectually and emotionally accessible.”  This means things will take a little longer as we work through options and ideas with a dedicated focus group.  We’re not pretending that we will end up with a scheme which addresses every issue of every single individual but we are committed to making informed decisions so that our stories are as accessible as possible.

And it’s this requirement for an informed point of view which I think is the key lesson we have learned on our journey and the reason why we are now looking past physical solutions to a comprehensive accessibility familiarisation and training process for cathedral staff and volunteers.  If we are truly committed to making the cathedral a place where everyone feels welcome, the ability to understand and empathise with the experience of others is a great place to start.


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