PROPOSALS to finally open up the medieval ‘hidden gem’ St Mary’s Guildhall much more by ‘day and night’ to visitors are being examined, a leading councillor has told the Observer.
It comes amid a furore we first reported a fortnight ago over Coventry council plans to “whitewash” with paint its stone-carved undercroft ceiling to enhance restricted light – which has now provoked an online petition with more than 1000 names.
As our Editor’s Comment last week pointed out, the wider issue is the preservation and public accessibility of the often closed cultural asset.
The Grade 1-listed fourteenth-century St Mary’s Guildhall in Bayley Lane near the cathedral has long been considered by heritage watchdogs including TV personality Dr Jonathan Foyle as the country’s best surviving medieval guildhall.
It is rich in history and artefacts. Yet it’s often closed to tourists and the public, is marked with graffiti and the stench of chip fat from its walls pervades.
Money-spinning banquets and weddings have seemingly taken precedence over conservation, in a bid to make the sometimes ‘working building’ pay for itself.
The latest plan – granted Listed Building Consent by unelected council officers under delegated powers – is to paint over a beautifully carved stone ceiling in its undercroft cafe, despite Historic England objections.
We argued last week the Coventry Society and others are right to say City of Culture 2021 offers an opportunity for Coventry to finally put these wrongs right.
Labour councillor Jim O’Boyle, cabinet member for jobs and regeneration, told us this week that objectors needed to consider that Historic England’s proposed alternative of modern lighting could cause problems with access to electricity, unsightly wires and “drilling holes in the stone walls they want to protect.”
He did not deny costs (modern lighting would cost up to £30,000) could also have been a factor for the cash-strapped council in the decision taken by officers.
But he added: “The wider issue is how we provide access to the public and make the building profitable. At the moment, it is a cost burden for the local authority and that is not in the interests of Coventry council taxpayers.
“Yes, we have to protect it but, if people want access to it, it has to be open more often and run on a professional basis, and run at a profit.
“I have been calling for more to be done with the Guildhall for a long time. I have asked council officers to come up with proposals. We are working on a plan for that.
“I am asking how people can come into the Guildhall and undercroft. I want it to be part of the daytime and nighttime economy.
“It’s not just a niche place that only the elite know about. We want to make sure this building is kept up to standard and is accessible to the public.”
Among the petitioners is Carole Donnelly at the re-opened Priory Visitor Centre nearby. Formerly council owned, it is now run by a social enterprise and community volunteers.
She told us: “I am overwhelmed with the online support to ask Coventry City Council to not paint our medieval undercroft in St Mary’s Hall.
“It shows that when consultation is open and transparent the community do participate.
“It was unfair to compare the Priory Visitor Centre undercroft (as one officer did) as this was a recently excavated undercroft that lay hidden for centuries.
“Hopefully the council will reconsider their decision and look at alternatives including lighting to highlight the beautiful building.”
The council responded to us this week with the following statement by Chris Patrick, conservation officer. It reads: “The council are undertaking a small-scale refurbishment scheme in the undercroft at St Mary’s Guildhall, Stage one has included changes to the modern bar and stair area to improve the access into and the appearance of the café area.
“A second phase will include the whitening of the ceiling panels between the ribs of the vaulting, while the walls, columns and ribs will remain untouched.
“The paint used will be breathable and reversible so that it can be removed if needed in the future, all of the work has listed building consent.”