New moves to restore the jewel in city crown
TAKE a walk down Westgate Street and the history hits you almost everywhere you look. A medieval hotel, a former theatre, the reputed family home of Dick Whittington, and a museum where visitors can find a Tudor merchant’s house.
It is talked of by many as a jewel in Gloucester’s crown, but even civic chiefs admit that one of the original streets of Gloucester is looking a little tired.
For many visitors it is the first of the city’s primary streets they see after visiting the Cathedral, Gloucester’s most famous landmark.
But many of them probably would not know there is a former theatre or a 15th century resting place for pilgrims travelling to Gloucester.
Getting the historic street looking like it used to has become part of Gloucester City Council’s plans.
Recently, the authority was awarded £1.9 million to give the street some TLC. It is one of 68 high streets across England that will get a share of a £95 million pot known as the High Street Heritage Action Zone, but civic chiefs are aware they need to give it a catchier title.
Some of this will go towards rejuvenating the fire-hit grade I-listed Fleece Hotel, which could receive the same treatment as some of the buildings in Cheltenham. But businesses in the historic street and visitors to the city stand to gain from this pot of cash, too.
The grant will help bring about improvements on the street itself, from The Cross all the way down to the Folk of Gloucester, formerly known as the Gloucester Life Museum.
One hope is for an increase in interest in the street through archaeology and education.
At the end of it all, civic chiefs want to replicate the success of what has happened in parts of Southgate Street, which have seen sympathetic restoration works carried out on several shop fronts and landmarks following pedestrianisation.
For the past four years, Southgate Street has been given a facelift as part of a £1.2 million project.
Economic decline had left the area greatly needing some investment and the street looking unloved.
This project was designed to arrest that decline by supporting businesses and landlords to invest in their properties, encouraging wider investment and economic activity.
That led to civic chiefs restoring architectural details such as windows, doors and shop fronts and enhancing properties where ‘insensitive alterations’ had taken place.
One of the biggest changes has been at St Mary de Crypt church, which has come back into public use.
Hugh Worsnip, of Gloucester Civic Trust, said work in Southgate Street had “very successfully” made the area between the docks and the city centre more attractive.
“If there’s a lot of old junk it means that people don’t find it very attractive,” he added. “It’s our primary street. All the shops are changing hands and we want to make them as attractive as possible.”
What both the Gloucester Civic Trust and the city council want to see happen through the cash is “to give more reasons for more people to spend more time here”.
Ian Edwards, head of place for Gloucester City Council, said: “It’s about re-purposing our empty and under-utilised buildings and re-populating the city with businesses and residents, after raising the quality in keeping with the ambition of the Fleece and the quality at the Cathedral.”
One of the ways the cash will be spent is by helping businesses do up shop fronts.
Mr Edwards added: “It will be the sort of scheme where we will put cash in, you put cash in, and we get a better job done.
“There will be match-funding. Whether it’s 50/50 is yet to be decided.”
Getting people into the empty spaces above the shops is something both Mr Edwards and Mr Worsnip want.
“We’re very keen that redundant spaces above shops should be used as accommodation so that the street is lively, so that the city isn’t deserted at night,” Mr Worsnip said.
While getting more people to move into the flats above will help the housing crisis, one businessman is not so sure it could work.
Mick Cant, of Gloucester Antiques Centre, believes that grade I-listed buildings, like the one his business occupies, should be rate-exempt.
He said: “It costs us far more to heat this building than a modern office building.
“We can either let these buildings go or use them, but to use them and maintain is so very expensive. The work that’s required is phenomenal.”
He is also not convinced that converting the top floors of a building into flats is so easy.
“The restrictions placed on us are extremely stringent and all that costs money,” he said.
Asked what he thought about Westgate Street, Mr Cant said: “It looks rundown because you’ve got so many empty businesses.
“Fortunately, not too many people look upwards. You can see some quite serious decline down this street,” citing the former charity shop next to The Sword Inn.
Paul James (C, Longlevens), leader of the city council, said Westgate Street was “our most complete historic street”.
“It does need some help to make it the jewel we know that it can be and I’m delighted we have been awarded this grant funding to help it reach its full potential,” he said.
“The award also includes funding for The Fleece, which will boost the efforts we are already making to regenerate this important site.”
The grade I-listed Fleece Hotel, and inset left, looks a sorry sight today but is set to be rejuvenated
Mick Cant, of Gloucester Antiques Centre