August 2019: Once more with feeling

Once more with feeling

I’m writing this blog with the sun shining and 2019’s Three Choirs Festival in full swing.

You may know that the Festival is the oldest music festival in the world.  It’s been around in one form or another for over 300 years, but having returned to Gloucester for the first time since 2016, the difference that we have made to the Cathedral over that period is both striking and impressive.

Most immediately (and this is the part of Pilgrim which everyone comments on) there is almost as much going on in the Cathedral grounds as there is in the Cathedral itself.  A wonderful and welcoming Festival Village has sprung up in our new landscaping – filled with life and music, with food and drink and with people rather than cars!  It’s intriguing and appealing and very different from the “tents on tarmac” of 2016.  The pain of construction as well as the change in mind-set needed to reduce our car parking in the first place have proved absolutely worth it.  We have undoubtedly achieved our ambitions of creating a welcoming, quality space in the heart of the city: a space which is for everyone.  Yes, it’s a fitting setting for our great Cathedral but it has a wonderful life of its own which genuinely makes the centre of Gloucester a better place to spend time.

With the dust settled on construction inside the Cathedral we are also in a much better position than we were in summer 2016.  The Cathedral’s 15th century Lady Chapel is conserved and useable for generations to come.  The entrance and first floor of the Cathedral are both accessible to all with grand scale automatic doors, ramps and lifts fit for a 21st century Cathedral.  The Tribune Gallery has been reclaimed as a place of wonder and delight where we can share our history, faith and tradition in ways which appeal to today’s visitors of all ages.  Throughout the Cathedral, we have discreetly added elements to improve the quality of our welcome so that we can make a visit to Gloucester Cathedral even more meaningful, whatever your reason for coming here.  And sitting stealthily on the Cathedral’s nave roof after nearly three years of quiet operation, the very first piece of the Pilgrim jigsaw – our solar PV array – has never seemed more important than in 2019, a year when the words Climate Emergency are becoming horribly real.

But Pilgrim was never really about building and it’s the other changes which have happened over the last three years which may prove most transformational.  By this I mean the work led by the rest of the Pilgrim Team:

  • our Community Engagement Manager has delivered events and activities which have attracted over 120,000 new visitors to the Cathedral and brought us into contact with countless new partner organisations
  • our Volunteer Officer has recruited over 120 new volunteers and offered training to nearly 500 individuals including Cathedral staff
  • our Heritage Engagement Assistant has been integral to the establishment of a new Visitor Services team which has helped raise our average visitor donation from 44p to just over £1.30
  • and our Apprentice Stonemason has not only helped with conservation of the Lady Chapel stonework, but has also spoken to hundreds of people about this extraordinary craft and still found time to graduate with distinction from the prestigious Cathedrals Workshop Fellowship. He has also just secured a new role as part of Canterbury Cathedral’s stonemason team

Impressive by any standards, but perhaps even more than that, the transformation is in the way in which other Cathedral staff and volunteers – as well as partners in the wider world – have responded to the opportunities Pilgrim has brought.

Last week I was reading through the final draft of our Phase One evaluation and it was wonderfully affirming.  It picks up the quality of all our work but it also talks about how the Cathedral appears to others, about the sense of confidence and purpose we now have.

It’s all very timely as within the next month or so, the ink will be dry on my final Pilgrim Phase One report to funders and we’ll have settled the very last of our accounts.  It’s time to look forward and to put in the development work needed to bring Phase Two of Pilgrim to life.

Which means that this is the last Pilgrim’s Progress for a while.  It’s hard to bring the rather detailed and often slow process of developing a new project to life – particularly in real time when nothing is fixed, when there’s lots of checking and consultation necessary before things begin to look possible – and when the last thing you want to do is provide incomplete or confusing information!

That doesn’t mean we don’t know what we’re hoping to achieve.  We’ve always described Phase One of Pilgrim as Connect & Engage, with Phase Two badged as Reveal & Sustain.  With the lessons from Phase One fresh in our minds – and the world facing different challenges than when we first started – we’ll be looking beyond the Cathedral and going back to our Abbey roots.  We’ll also be putting in time to make sure everyone is on board for the next stage of this pilgrimage.

By the end of the year I should have something concrete to tell you – and questions which I’d like you to help me find the right answers for.  So why not come back in December for the next instalment? It just might be better than the original!



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