It’s odd how you can sometimes overlook the obvious. When I was working full-time I just didn’t have the time to look around me and appreciate my immediate surroundings, writes Toby Wood from Peterborough Civic Society.
And so was with the city centre. I remember Cathedral Square when it housed the market and I also remember the public toilets that were situated just to the north of the Guildhall, close to St John’s Church and what is now McDonald’s. However, unlike many other older Peterborians, I do not yearn for ‘the old days’. I certainly don’t want to go back to nearly being knocked over by cars competing with the market traders on Bridge Street and Long Causeway. Despite what the nostalgists might say, the 21st century city centre is much cleaner and better cared for than 50 years ago.
However one building that has remained largely unaltered is the Guildhall and it is a shame that it is starting to look scruffy and unused. When I passed by the other day, the Guildhall steps were occupied by what can best be described as casual drinkers attempting to create some sort of unofficial outdoor Wetherspoons. The Guildhall is, cathedral excepted, Peterborough city centre’s most important and distinctive building. So it’s a shame that little or nothing is being done to use it or preserve it in a productive way.
The Guildhall was built by John Lovin in 1670-71 in celebration of the restoration of Charles II. It stands on, or close to, the site of a covered “Butter Cross” which was the site of the dairy market. It is believed that the “Chamber over the Cross” replaced an earlier timber framed Moothall and Guildhall standing on the northern side of the square. It was restored in 1929.
Nearly 20 years ago the civic society came up with a proposal to enclose the Guildhall’s arches with glass and to use the created enclosed area as some sort of display space. This proposal could easily be achieved without any major alteration or damage to the building itself. At the time the council gave the proposal serious consideration but, as with many other potential projects, it was placed on the back burner due to cost. Now I’m realistic enough to know that, due to the state of local authority finances, little is likely to happen at the moment. But, as with most things, all it takes is someone with persistence, drive and the ability to persuade potential benefactors to turn a dream into reality.
The space could either have a specific focus or something of a more temporary pop-up nature. It could be a reinvigorated visitor centre or perhaps a display space containing exhibitions from local voluntary or creative groups. If this were to be the case I guarantee that here would be enough takers to fill it all the year round.
Surely the council could initiate another competition to design a creative use for the building?
I’m sure that local architects and university schools of architecture around the country would relish the chance to show off their innovative design skills. And of course they would have the chance to show how the upstairs space (along with its spiral staircase access) could be developed.
So come on Peterborough, let’s do something with the Guildhall. You never know, it might even soon warrant a blue plaque. Watch this space!