Our local heritage and iconic national buildings face permanent closure
Imagine your local museum shut forever, writes Lord Cormack. | PA Images
We would be immeasurably the poorer without these historic places. Funding must be forthcoming to cover ongoing costs and support restart activity
My book Heritage in Danger, published in 1976, dealt with the problems facing those responsible for our built and natural heritage. I could hardly have imagined that some half a century later the danger to our churches and cathedrals, our country houses great and small, and our museums would be even greater. Today many of our parish churches, country houses, and provincial museums may face permanent closure as a result of the pandemic.
As I write this, I look at Lincoln Cathedral. It costs over £50,000 a week just to keep open – and that does not include any repair or restoration. We have received a large grant from the emergency fund established by the secretary of state in the summer. But I have on my desk a letter from a dean of another cathedral which has not received a penny.
Other letters arrived in the same post. One was from a great museum of which I am a patron, telling me that they do not know when it will reopen. Another is from a military museum appealing for a donation towards emergency funding. And I have just spoken to the owner of a large country house whose income derives almost entirely from weddings and events. There has not been a single one since February.
And yet imagine our countryside without its churches or country houses. Imagine your local museum shut forever. We would be immeasurably the poorer without these places. And, as Christmas approaches – and it will be a very scaled-down and different Christmas this year – imagine how impoverished our cultural life would be on another level without the amazing contribution made by church music and the choirs and organists who provide it.
More will be needed if we are to see the survival of places we all take for granted
I write this lament not to castigate the government. The money which the secretary of state for culture, media and sport, Oliver Dowden, announced in the summer has indeed been a lifeline to many. But not a lot of that fund is left and much more will be needed if we are to see the survival of places we all take for granted.
It is not just future infrastructure that the chancellor, quite rightly, has to consider. It is the infrastructure of our own lives, the buildings that tell our nation’s story and give us a sense of security and belonging that must be saved for generations for whom the pandemic will be a distant memory.
Another disturbing development on the heritage front during this troubled year began with the toppling of a statue in Bristol. In Lincoln Cathedral we have a number of chantry chapels. One is dedicated to Bishop Fleming who, in the early 15th century, founded Lincoln College, Oxford. Before the Reformation, prayers were said and the mass celebrated every day to ease his soul through purgatory. His frail mortality is revealed in the figure of his worm-eaten corpse beneath the effigy of the bishop in all his medieval finery.
Prayers were offered not just to give thanks for the bishop’s achievements but to ask forgiveness of his sins. How absurd it would be if those sins were now so visited upon him that the chapel was closed, or that the nearby tomb of Katherine Swynford, mistress, and then wife, of John of Gaunt were removed.
I am confident that will not happen in Lincoln but there are serious suggestions that our nation’s history should be ‘revisited’ (horrible phrase) and the continued existence of such monuments discussed. How short-sighted it would be to rewrite our history in this way, and all because few of our ancestors were saints – and even they were not perfect.
Lord Cormack is a Conservative peer and life president of The House.