A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Travel broadens the mind – is that a good thing?

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford gets in a car for a trip – and likes what he sees.
Oh dear, I seem to have come out with another rant this week – perhaps I should have seen a doctor about getting my angst removed for Lent. However, until then you’ll just have to put up with me as I am.
I start with a shameful confession – terribly embarrassing and all that, but I have to admit it. T’other week I travelled ‘doon south’ (or however that should be written). I freely admit to being one of those softie southerners, so beloved of old-fashioned Yorkshire comics, so the trip shouldn’t have been much of a culture shock to me. But it was.
I won’t bore you with the details but, for no particularly good reason I found myself in Banbury with a few hours to spare. I knew the silly nursery rhyme: “Ride a white horse to Banbury Cross,” (although I suspect younger generations are more familiar with: “Ride a white swan like the people of the Beltane,” by Marc Bolan than the aforementioned whimsy) but nothing more. In any case it wasn’t poetry that called me, but simple curiosity.
There’s a very strange church, St Mary’s, right by the latest version of the Banbury Cross and that was fun to visit with my virger’s eyes open. Maybe I’m being subjective but when the only people in a church are well-meaning ‘watchers’ who sit there reading books it feels more like a ‘dusty museum’ experience than something more profound.  At least with the Minster we have ‘welcomers’ who actually like to answer questions, people available in the shop and, last-but by-no-means-least, the chance of seeing a real life virger cleaning the floor or moving chairs. In other words, a quality tourist experience. But this wasn’t the shock.
The eye-opener came as I walked back to the car park through the shopping streets. Now, it’s not always safe to generalise but Banbury isn’t too different from Beverley: it is a market town in a predominantly rural district. Until fairly recently it had a cattle market in the centre. Like Beverley its local railway network was cut back in the 1960s and it has also lost a lot of its traditional industry in the last 30 years. Unlike Beverley, however, there is already a massive modern retail development of the type that is blamed for sounding the death of small shopkeepers  – and yet the High Street was bustling, chock full with independent retailers.
So we don’t need to worry about the new Flemingate development hurting our existing shops, do we? Well, actually, I think we do, and here’s why.
Banbury put the huge (100+ retail unit) shopping centre slap bang next to the older, smaller shops, and people use both of them. Pedestrians park in the multi-storeys, walk to the big stores and then, almost seamlessly, they are in the old town centre. 
Compare that with Beverley’s nearest equivalent – Tesco – and extrapolate (oooh, cheeky). Currently, if a visitor comes to the former cattle market site and car park, what will they find? That their approach has been alongside high walls that hide the old town and give no hint of the riches therein. If one does decide to search for old Beverley what confronts them? They have to navigate four ugly lanes of New Walkergate traffic towards an especially boring section of The Beverley Wall; then an uninteresting walk to Dyer Street, which seems to be facing away from them. There are a few shops there, to be sure, but Dyer Lane itself has little to recommend it, architecturally speaking, and is often dark and unwelcoming. Doubly unwelcoming is the ornate Dyer Lane sign that has its back towards the putative visitor, giving the impression they’re leaving through a private drive. It’s as if the town hasn’t realised that not all shoppers start off in Saturday Market– many actually need to be directed (even enticed or invited) in from external car parks.
So what about the Flemingate proposals? Will they encourage shoppers into the old town? Will they heck!
How many visitors to that site are likely to cross the railway line at all – even to come to the Minster which, let’s be fair, is fairly obvious from the site and quite close? Perhaps a few. But even the most adventurous are unlikely to tramp further if all they can see is a railway station and then an old, tall residential street with narrow pavements that merely lead to yet another bit of Blank Beverley Wall.
Banbury demonstrates that, if the transition from new to old shops is seamless then everyone benefits, but this may be impossible to achieve here without knocking down Railway Street or the newer buildings in Eastgate – and some people may object to that.
My own more modest proposals involve railway lines, trams and an extension to the Beck – possibly also an all-year-round skating rink. I’d be delighted to sketch them out on a convenient beer mat or, better still, show the scene of my vision during one of my regular tours in the roof of the Minster (11.15am and 2.15pm most days, £5 per adult) if anyone’s interested.
I was hoping to end this piece with a clever allusion to ‘Having our (Banbury) cake’ or ‘Banbury Cross’ but I couldn’t think of anything that made people laugh – sorry. Maybe some jokes just don’t travel well – but good ideas should.
First published March 2011

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