November 2018: Regeneration


I’ve written in a previous Pilgrim’s Progress that for many people Project Pilgrim is synonymous with the transformation of our old car park.  That’s understandable, since it’s such a visible part of the project.  Whether you’re talking about look, feel or function, with a “before” and an “after” which are so dramatically different, Cathedral Green has definitely caught people’s imagination. 

This summer has seen the space take on a life of its own, used formally and informally by the Cathedral, Close residents, our visitors and those living and working in and around Gloucester.  As the colourful planting - herbaceous drift if you’re interested - becomes established, photographs of it are finding their way onto social media.  That’s equally true of our limestone interpretation blocks and brand new robot auto-mower (called Moses, of course) and this digital footprint takes news of Gloucester across the globe.  Closer to home, within the next six weeks we’ll be sending Cathedral representatives to some rather formal dinners to hear whether our hard work over the past few years will be rewarded with a prestigious award or two …

But this blog (bi-monthly now that the building works have quietened down) isn’t meant to be about the outside of the Cathedral.  After a busy summer filled with new activity alongside a familiarisation (even a coming to terms) with our new facilities, we’re starting to see a change both in how we use the building and how our visitors respond to it.

I’m particularly struck by the difference in the 15th century Lady Chapel.  Before we started work, this was an almost unusable space.  Although we’d programme occasional worship in there during the summer (when it was warm), being in there for more than a few minutes during the winter meant that all you could focus on was how cold your nose had become – or how terrible the smell of damp was.  Even if you could concentrate on something other than how chilly and unwelcoming it felt, the dirt covering every surface and shockingly poor light levels meant you weren’t really able to see the stonework or stained glass.  And although they weren’t covered in grime, the uncomfortable (and occasionally unsafe) chairs throughout the space did an equally effective job of blocking your view of the medieval tiles and more recent ledger stones which made up the floor.

Of course, being able to experience such “disappointment” was actually dependent on your being able to get into the Chapel in the first place – an impossibility for those using wheelchairs or mobility scooters. I can feel myself getting cross and disappointed as I write this!

But the joy of having Pilgrim Phase One nearly completed is that I don’t need to be frustrated any more.  The space is glorious: a generous, level entrance is welcoming to everyone; the stone and glass are clean and in good condition; new radiators mean you can stay as long as you like; our sound system is state of the art; and we have enough lighting options to stage a West End musical!  We’re also awaiting delivery of 125 stackable chairs which will sit neatly out of the way unless specifically required for a larger scale event.  They’ll be here in time for the first Sunday in Advent and I’m not the only one who’s looking forward to a very different, construction free Christmas at Gloucester this year.

What all of that means in practice is that the inside space is being used just as imaginatively as Cathedral Green.  Visitors are staying longer – whether that’s because they’re taking extra time appreciating the architecture, using the new Information Hub to find out more about the space and the Cathedral’s past and purpose or because it’s warm enough to stay still, to contemplate or to pray.  As I write, the Lady Chapel is also hosting GCHQ’s Poppyfall as part of the Cathedral’s World War One events.  It’s drawing thousands of visitors to the building and the clever addition of leafless trees with luggage tags to record and display visitors’ responses (to the events of a hundred years ago and to the piece itself) feels absolutely “right” in this renewed space. 

Discussions at the weekly Cathedral “diary” meeting prove that we’ve helped re-shape the role of the Lady Chapel in the life of the Cathedral and the city.  We have always been, and will always be, a place of worship.  But as time goes on we can respond more holistically to the needs of our visitors – whoever they are, wherever they are from and whatever the purpose of their visit.  Equally, our well-established civic role is growing and we are much better able to use our extraordinary building to play a role in the life of Gloucester.

Pilgrim has never “just” been about doing things to the Cathedral building.  We might not win either of the awards we’re shortlisted for, but the fact that both are for our contribution to Regeneration means we’re getting something right.



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