A Day Out with Elspeth in Chichester

For 20 years, I’ve been visiting the cathedral cities of England. I’m nearly done; so I savour each new city, knowing the pleasure of first arrival, first sighting,  first walking up to the church – how will it appear? is not to be had many more times. In fact, I have been to all but 2 of the large medieval Anglican cathedrals as well as several smaller, Catholic, Celtic ones and those great churches without cathedral status.

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I didn’t see the cathedral from the train, and nor as I walked up the Southgate. As I stopped for coffee in a stone vaulted early medieval crypt, I was far nearer the cathedral than I realised – the Vicar’s Hall is built over the crypt and appears to be part of the Close. Sadly, there was no information in the café about its home and I could find no guidebook to Chichester, and little online either.

I decided to leave the cathedral til later and orientate myself generally first.

Rounding the corner into Westgate, I was suddenly confronted with the cathedral, who is naked and unarmed to the street on that side.

As I’ve written on my sister blog, I am passionate about free cathedrals. I explain my thoughts on £10 to get in the gate Canterbury on this one. And as I told staff at Chichester, I am more inclined to come in and open my purse for NOT being forced to pay to enter, and especially for Chichester’s warm statement of commitment to not doing so. I supported the shop and café, though the latter wasn’t very charming service.

Although I like unfettered vistas of the whole church, it means that Chichester’s secrets are given up easily. It – nor its city – felt how pictures expected me to feel. I wish the guidebook explained more about the modern art in the church, which was my chief pleasure. I was especially moved by the post war German-Anglo reconciliation tapestry behind the altar, and the work of the bishop who commissioned it, George Bell.

The Close isn’t one of the best, although the St Richard’s walk (what did he do to get canonised? Think the bishop above did more) is a pleasant way to explore the palace area. The grass in the cloisters is called Paradise, but one may not enter paradise (ironic for a church).

My disappointment at lack of guide to the city is perhaps because Chichester isn’t one of the most photogenic of England’s cathedral cities. It made me appreciate York, Norwich and Canterbury. It reminded me that many of our cathedral cities are small, and that perhaps I’m expecting too much of them in terms of facilities and liveliness.

At least it is devoid of a shopping centre, and I was able to avoid seeing the chain ridden entertainment park.

The most interesting and atmospheric part of Chichester is the Pallants, the mainly residential Georgian quarter around an expensive art gallery with a shocking boxy modern extension to a Queen Anne House. The extension upset me because, unlike buildings I will shortly come to, it’s surrounded by older ones with whom it clashes, with severe featureless lines. It’s £8.50 (without gift aid, don’t start me on that!!) to get in – unless you’re unwaged – then it’s free. It would feel awkward to plead poverty. As I often campaign: the people most needing concessions aren’t those with handy proof of status – and pensioners and students aren’t always poor (but pensioners don’t get in here for free, which I agree with – they need to come into another concessionary category.) It’s reduced on Tuesdays and Thursday evenings. Information from the gallery gives confusing info as to  what is free and who pays when.

Chichester’s churches are little and only noticeable when they’re a gallery (the Oxmarket), a Christian bookshop, or a bar; architecturally, they make little impact on the city scape.

There’s a few more modern buildings that Chichester boasts of: the new Novium free museum and tourist information centre, the round (1960s?) library next door, and the isolated, concrete Festival Theatre with its atmospheric café (not – when I was there) where I could overhear a staff meeting. I won’t repeat the figures, but I do know exactly what annual budget the theatre has and how much the surprisingly high water bill is. If you don’t want the public to hear (it did make my lunch go down much better for knowing) – have your meetings elsewhere. New Park Cinema and community centre had an extension to the little Victorian school core, and they’ve build a 13 seater mini picture palace – which I think is the world smallest cinema. (Nottingham’s Cinema 21 claimed to be the most diminutive globally, and this room beats it). The brochure does include some interesting films not on the usual supposed arts circuit, but the café was another experience. I will save further thoughts for a full visit and my cinema blog – suffice to say, they were alien to the notion of providing food in the café. “We sell cinema food,” they said patronisingly. I can think of towns a fraction of the size of theirs whose cinema has a full restaurant menu, all day and evening. Have they not heard of pretheatre?!

I was surprised that there is little else to comment on in Chichester. The four main streets were quite ordinary, and only Eade House and the Council House, Corn Exchange and Buttermarket stick out as anything like a landmark worth mentioning. The side streets felt like simply back thoroughfares rather than anything worth walking down for their own sake. I’m not sure I saw anything medieval outside the Close, save the Market Cross and city walls; and I shall now come to those.

Like other promenadable city walls, they are shorter and less fortified looking than when built, because the tall towers and battlements are shorn to create polite walkways. They’re almost complete here, but with few towers and no gates. A nice way to walk round and snoot on people’s gardens – especially the Bishop’s, which you can also do from ground level, but the walls are visually less interesting than other towns’.

Overall, I found a market town atmosphere and nothing to note that wasn’t in the rather short brochure. (The best guide was found at the Council House, which also sold Walls books). I thought I’d struggle to choose refreshment stops, but all were just OK and chosen out of need to eat/rest rather than being especially tempted – only the Buttery at the Crypt was anything unusual, and that was mostly down to the building.

So back to the scuzzy station earlier than expected… no visit to Sir Patrick Moore-ville (the planetarium) this time.

Things to note: Monday is gallerys are closed day (except the uni’s Otter Gallery); and the Guildhall/Greyfriars isn’t normally open at all.