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Image for Canterbury: Flying the Flag for our Cultural Heritage

Article by Neill Barston | 26th June 2018

Canterbury: Flying the Flag for our Cultural Heritage

Having missed out last year to Hull in becoming the UK’s City of Culture, Canterbury is weighing up a bid for the next available contest due for 2025. Here, we ask what makes our area worthy of contention?

After Liverpool was named the European City of Culture for 2008, the immense benefits to the economy including greater tourism prospects were widely acknowledged. According to estimates, the area effectively gained £750 million from £170 million of spending surrounding the momentous occasion, which placed a global spotlight on its heritage, arts and entertainment scene.

The initiative’s success in the north inspired a solely British-based contest – which Canterbury, along with Ashford, bid for to become the UK’s City of Culture last year. But after losing out to Hull, a new East Kent proposal is now being considered to launch a fresh drive for the next available culture title, which falls in 2025. Though this may seem some distance off, a renewed attempt would
need to be put together within the next 18 months.

Certainly on paper, Canterbury is far from lacking in terms of its architectural assets, which are crowned by its cathedral designated as a Unesco World Heritage site that continues to draw visitors from all corners of the globe. It has staged a host of highly memorable performances from the choirs and music groups associated with it, as well as witnessing performances from some of the world’s most renowned singers and musicians who have universally praised its grand architecture, atmosphere and exquisite acoustics.

Among the events that have featured prominently in its annual calendar is the Canterbury Festival, which has grown over the past two decades to attract music, art and visual performance acts from across the world who have been treated to some fine East Kent hospitality.

As the festival’s director, Rosie Turner, previously explained to The Canterbury INDEX, the event’s core mission has now grown significantly from its classical and folk music, to embrace a far broader array of entertainment that has placed it on the international arts map. Its ability to attract audiences from around the world would place this as a key element in any future bid for capital of culture status.

“We have such an incredibly dedicated team who have spent so much time in putting the programme together, as well as our volunteers. One of our main aims remains that we are welcoming to everyone who comes to see something at the festival,” explained Rosie of the event that is set to return once again to the city this October.

Standing the test of time

As for the city’s historical contributions to the arts, these date back to the Roman period. Notably, the city is known to have its own sizeable theatre buried near St Margaret’s Street, which would have been a jewel in the area’s public entertainment and symbol of the Empire’s prestige and dominance.

Fast-forward 2,000 years, and the city’s Marlowe Theatre has proved one of the major entertainment attractions within the region.

The venue is named after Canterbury’s celebrated playwright, Christopher Marlowe – whom recent studies from Oxford University Academics have concluded had been a co-author of several works by his contemporary, William Shakespeare, including Henry VI.

With a cost of more than £20 million, the revived Marlowe Theatre in the Friars has been widely hailed for its bold design and eclectic series of events that have included drama premiers, music, poetry and dance events, as well as playing its part within the Canterbury Festival.

The area’s contribution to the arts is well documented within the city’s Roman Museum, as well as the Beaney House of Art and Knowledge, which has hosted a fine series of exhibitions from nationally renowned painters, sculptors and poets, further cementing its standing as a place of cultural and artistic merit.

In addition to a number of private facilities around the city, the Sidney Cooper Gallery has also proved an ideal space for prospective and established artists to showcase their work – some of which has hailed from the city’s three universities (the University of Kent, Canterbury Christ Church University, and the University for the Creative Arts), which have all played their part in the area’s cultural vibrancy.

There are plenty of other fascinating arts events during the year that have delivered a rich cultural offering for the area, including the annual Sound City Project, which has for the past few years offered an impressive line-up of established and emerging musical talent, with an air of secrecy with its headliners remaining unannounced.

Over the past few years, there has also been plenty of interest in Canterbury’s Wise Words Festival, which celebrates a vibrant mix of contemporary literature, music, performance art and poetry that underlines the rich vein of cultural talent the area possesses.

From culture to cuisine…and more

Beyond the arts scene, the region’s culinary offerings – which are well and truly part of its overall cultural mix – are set to be celebrated with Canterbury’s Food Festival taking place this September, featuring Kentish specialties such as cobnuts, traditional preserves, fudges and brittles.

In addition, the city’s renowned cafe culture and highly-rated independent stores and boutiques, including the recently revamped King’s Mile area, have also helped lift the area as it moves forward with ambitious development plans for the future with new cinema and retail plans on the horizon. 

For his part, Canterbury City Council Leader Simon Cook believed the area would do well to formally campaign again for the accolade of City of Culture. He felt its varied attractions, entertainment and educational provisions made it a worthy contender that should be recognised.

“We all know how much heritage Canterbury has, but we often forget just how much the cultural life of our district has grown in the last few years,” said Mr Cook, adding: “The council has played a part in this with the huge success of the new Marlowe Theatre and the renovation of the Beaney museum, but there’s so much more than this. The universities are huge supporters of cultural activities with venues like the Gulbenkian and the Sidney Cooper Gallery. And we have an extraordinary array of local organisations like Whitstable Biennale, People United, Canterbury Festival and the City Sound Project developing and presenting art and culture for all tastes. But it is never going to be just about Canterbury. Previous bids have rightly been together with our East Kent partners, and we will need this partnership to take this forward. Our neighbours have been on the same journey of cultural growth including Turner Contemporary and Folkestone’s Creative Quarter.”

Mr Cook added that previous bids had been ambitious but lacked a record of delivery and he felt that a renewed partnership with the rest of East Kent “could really make things happen”.

His optimism on the issue was shared by the Canterbury Society, which has remained a strong champion for the area’s cultural assets. Chairman Jan Pahl, who has campaigned on a number of key issues regarding preserving the area’s history and unique character, also rated its chances.

“Canterbury would make a great City of Culture since it has a cultural heritage which goes back to the Romans and forwards into the future, with three thriving universities and students from over 100 countries. The cultural offer includes a glamorous theatre, a range of cinemas and art galleries, a brilliant festival of music and drama, and quirky events such as Wise Words and bOing!,” explained the chairman, who believed the city should be high on the list of contenders for the rich diversity of its culture, which shows no sign of ebbing away any time soon.

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