Wednesday 28 February 2018

Unfinished Cities: Canterbury

It was a grey Saturday afternoon in September, and I was walking into Canterbury city centre. Heading to the public library in an attempt to get some work done, I took my usual route from Canterbury East train station: crossing the grassy oasis of the Mary de Castro Garden and zipping past the rows of terraced houses and shops on Castle Street, before crossing onto St Margaret’s Street by the Three Tuns pub. As I stepped up onto the pavement, an unfamiliar shape caught my eye. High up on a bastion of scaffolding surrounding the derelict, almost unrecognisable Slatters Hotel, a helmeted builder was perched precariously on a horizontal raft of poles. With the white sky beaming through angular gaps in the metalwork, it appeared almost as if he were floating above the street.

Struck by this anachronism, I grabbed my smartphone from my pocket so I could document the moment. I felt a little self-conscious in my act, being aware of the heightened Saturday foot traffic this close to the High Street, but I took the photo anyway. To my surprise, the subject of my photograph spotted me and shouted down jokily, as he balanced in the air, “I hope you’re not health and safety!”

Continuing on and looking ahead, Canterbury Cathedral emerged between the alignment of rooftops and frontages jutting out into the street, itself plastered with scaffolding. I thought that Canterbury at this time was a city of scaffolds, with swarms of fluorescent yellow workers tending busily to their unfinished projects, hanging above the pedestrian world like puppet masters. Each fragile, temporary nest of timber and metal a monument to the city’s (re)construction.


Further down St. Margaret’s Street, hiding between the Superdry store and Yorkshire Building Society, is a narrow alleyway that for years served as my lunchtime shortcut; a shorter, less cluttered route between the library and Whitefriars Shopping Centre where I’d go to buy a sandwich. Turning into the passage, the busy, small movements of the pedestrian crowds are replaced abruptly by stillness, and within seconds the words and melodies of the High Street fade into a distant murmur. It has the effect of creating a kind of micro-wilderness where space and time itself appear warped and refracted. In the cracks of the cobbles, clovers peer up toward the light like the treetops of a vast underground forest.

These in-between spaces are ripe for all kinds of anomalies. Odd, incongruous objects like chairs with legs missing and pieces of coloured cloth; graffiti in seemingly inaccessible locations. In the brick wall behind Superdry, where the commercial bins are stowed, is a plain white door with no handle, sign or identifying features, which has become over time a site of personal myth. It’s the mystery I’m drawn towards – an object that presents more questions than answers. What lies behind it? What is its purpose?

I’m starting to believe that some spaces are designed to be forgotten. Does anyone ever think about these enclosed pockets of land, behind rooftops and spiked fences, where shop goods get delivered and waste taken away? Iron Bar Lane, a link between the chain stores of St George’s Street and the cosy boutiques of Burgate, is one such space, taking up a surprisingly large area in the city centre yet remaining invisible in the mind’s-eye view of most inhabitants. It is quite remarkable that such an environment – perpetually unclean, unused pavements green with grime, caked in dirt, animal excrement and plastic packaging – lies only a stone’s throw from Canterbury Cathedral, the most prestigious landmark in this corner of the country. Yet without its potholed loading bays and dusty back entrances, so much of the everyday activity that takes place in the city wouldn’t be feasible.

Every city needs these spaces of transition; changing rooms for the urban uniform. The challenge for ‘stakeholders’ in the city is how effectively they can be obscured, folding in on themselves until nothing but the alluring, illusory facets of the city remain.


Since mid-October, I’ve been working for Canterbury Business Improvement District (BID) in the city centre as a Visitor Welcome Ambassador. One of the main responsibilities of my job each morning is to walk around each street in my designated area and report environment problems, including (but not limited to) broken glass, faulty street furniture, loose paving stones, and on-street waste. Although you’d think it rewarding to take on a role that can have a positive impact within the local environment, the task can feel crushingly futile. In many cases, my reports seem to achieve nothing – piles of vomit are left to dry and stick to the pavement; rain rinses off the residue; the urban fauna are left to peck and gnaw at bags crammed with waste, as residents and business staff alike put them out expecting them to be taken away, never to be seen or thought about again.

Never a single day with nothing new to report; always something remaining to be fixed.

Even long-term solutions are always temporary. Shortly after I started my position, I discovered that my favourite little alleyway in St Margaret’s Street had been swiftly and brutally closed off; truncated by tall metal gates that seem to stay permanently locked. These measures were taken to address concerns about the endless accretion of waste and graffiti that occurs there. Yet within days of the gates being fitted, great masses of limp, sodden cardboard piled up high against the metal bars, as if revolting against this new imposition. Spray-painted tags still plague any wall that can be claimed. Ultimately, all that has been achieved is the closure of a route reserved for those with insider knowledge of Canterbury, to momentarily bypass the obstacles of city life.

It is inevitable, in an urban ecosystem where diverse forces interact in such high concentration, that things get ignored and abandoned, things rot, mistakes are made, objects collide and break, or at least uncomfortably coexist. Cities aren’t orderly places; in many ways, disorder is their defining characteristic. Which makes our attempts to manage the chaos somehow artificial. In our urge to tame its wildness, what we are ultimately guided by is an imaginary version of the city, one that has never existed and never will.


As part of my job, I have visited Canterbury’s Roman Museum twice in recent months. There is a wealth of material to see there, leading you along a timeline of the city told through a comprehensive collection of artefacts, information boards and interactive tools which paint a detailed picture of the daily lives of our ancestors. But what tends to draw my eye are the artists’ impressions of what Canterbury looked like during different time periods. My personal favourite is from the era when the city was re-occupied by the Anglo-Saxons after the Romans had abandoned it. The image depicts dwellings of wood and straw settled between crumbling stone walls; the mossy remnants of the empire now acting as the foundations for new, living structures. I try picturing what it would be like to make a home amongst ruins, and contemplate that, ultimately, this is what ‘dwelling’ means; it is the necessary precondition for inhabiting a place. What varies is the visibility of the decay.
Towards the end of the museum walkway you find the main event: the Roman pavement, a stretch of decorative mosaics preserved exactly where they were excavated, alongside a dusty stone hypocaust (Roman central heating system) that served the Roman townhouse whose ruins the museum is built around. For all the site’s cultural significance – being a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the only remaining example of an in-situ Roman pavement mosaic in the UK – it was an act of destruction that brought about its discovery. The WWII Baedecker raids of 1942 razed the majority of the buildings from the pavement’s site on Butchery Lane to the modern-day ring road (including Iron Bar Lane) and with them a significant portion of the medieval street layouts and buildings that Canterbury is known for today, from those areas that survived the bombardment.

Consequently, it’s in this quarter of the city centre where you’ll find the greatest concentration of modernist architecture, as the post-war rebuilding effort took shape. Recently, I found out that the building where Superdrug is currently housed, which I’d never paid much attention to previously, won the 1957 RIBA Bronze Award for its unique serrated roof and columnar design. Previously, all I’d associated with it were the heaps of cigarette butts that collect in the colonnade, where taxi drivers and nearby shop workers alike go outside for breaks. The disparity in perspective makes me wonder how these newer spaces will be valued in the future. What will the criteria be, in the decades and centuries to come, that determine whether a landmark is preserved or ‘redeveloped’? What events will define its fate?

Like flies in amber, the Roman mosaics today are encased in glass; yet still the pavement is unexpectedly warped, sloping and buckling on the uneven ground upon which it is spread. Not even the extensive preservation efforts can prevent the slow shifts of the earth’s crust beneath it.


One of the characteristics that distinguishes Canterbury from many other cities is the ease with which you can discern evidence of different historical periods in the built environment. Nowhere is this starker, perhaps, than in St. Radigund’s Garden. Bordering the unkempt grass and paved area on one side are remnants of the city wall, which has marked the limits of the city centre in Canterbury since the Romans. In its irregular surface, you can recognise a wide variation in texture and shape, containing materials including flint, mortar, sandstone and even brickwork, having undergone successive acts of construction, damage and repair over the centuries. On the grass nearby is a fascinating signpost matching each section of the wall to the time period from which it originates.

We’re particularly prone to these patchwork surfaces here, retaining elements of the old as we claim spaces anew. On Stour Street towards St. Mildred’s Church, you’ll find an incongruous sight where the front of a three-storey brick edifice – just the front, the rest has been demolished – is coated in scaffold. This building was formerly a warehouse for the old Tannery, where animal skins were treated to produce leather, which operated in Canterbury for over 150 years. Now, the building is being converted into housing. However, the red-brick façade is being preserved due to its historic interest, creating the unusual situation where the new construction is concealed by the wall of its predecessor.

How do we decide when the cultural value of an object overrides its practical difficulties?
Mere metres away on Gas Street, the entrance to Canterbury Castle – a stone keep in situ since the 12th century – is closed off due to falling masonry. Surrounded crudely by metal barricades, piles of flint lay tiredly at the feet of the sagging walls. The site has been closed since the summer and shows no signs of re-opening any time soon.
That word we use to talk about the changing face of the city – urban ‘development’ – often appears to be a perpetual process of stemming the tide of chaos and destruction, like a leaking dam. Destruction is inevitable, but which surfaces we prolong and which we surrender is a choice; a slow current consisting of countless individual decisions, all adding up to something – or nothing.


When the weather allows, I eat my lunch in Solly’s Orchard Garden, a cosy riverside green space with planted trees and flowers, overlooked by the 13th century buildings of the Dominican Priory.

I often like to sit on a brick wall bordering the river in summer, watching the wildlife busying itself with innocent endeavours and listening to the boat tours as they paddle behind me.

From the number of times I’ve heard the tour guides speak, I now know their script for this part of the river almost off by heart. As they approach the garden, its former use by the Blackfriars as an orchard is explained. Due to the River Stour’s former status as an open sewer, cider was safer to drink than water in previous centuries, which they made using fruit grown where the garden is located today. The guides then stop a while by the black, wrought-iron floodgates, in place since 1829, to observe them in action as the water cascades downstream, before revealing that the properties in this area are some of the most expensive in the city, with house prices in the region of £1 million. Despite, in previous centuries, being one of the most squalid parts of the city due to the river’s stench and habit of flooding.

Resting on the wall with the Stour flowing by, no single droplet the same; an image of time passing continuously, inevitably, and without care. While it follows the course it has done for more generations than I can perceive, the judgements of worth that we humans make are as fickle and predictably changeable as the seasons. There can be no masterplan of the city, for there are always inconsistencies in resources, lifespan and interest.

Over the rooftops beyond the river, Canterbury Cathedral looms, half under a white blanket of covered scaffolding, camouflaged with the overcast sky. Sometimes, I wonder if, one day, even the city’s most famous landmark will be considered not worthy of repair; an eyesore, even. It’s funny, and perhaps a touch frightening, how a feature that seems so intrinsic to the identity of a place, object or person can seem so foreign, given time.


Back on St. Margaret’s Street on my way out of town, I pass the Slatters Hotel, where an excavation is underway. Archaeologists are attempting to discover and examine objects from the Roman and medieval levels, where they hope to find clues about life near the site of the Roman theatre (at the crossroads by the Three Tuns pub), and Roman baths on this same street.

The dig lies tantalisingly behind hoardings eight feet high, precluding participation. Meanwhile, the old hotel building rises above them, gutted and forlorn, hiding in plain sight. The receptacle of countless stories of lives gone by, now also consigned to history, waiting for the earth to envelop them. The past occupying the present in its most visible form.

I think you could call anyone an archaeologist if they observe what they find in the built environment and use it to form a narrative.

I amble back to the train station, another day done, ready to return home to my sleepy village and restore myself anew, turning my back on the glowing lights of the city as it does the same. Which artefacts of urban life will be unearthed tomorrow, and what stories will they communicate? Which will be lost and forgotten; which will remain buried?

Time will tell.