Philip Cooke offers a view from England’s conference cloister
Cathedral cities have been at the heartbeat of human affairs since the dawn of recorded history. They form a select and distinguished group. There are about 20 such cities in the UK, the strength of their names alone makes them instantly recognisable. The list includes Canterbury, Chester, Durham, Gloucester, Lincoln, Oxford, Salisbury, Worcester and York.
Organisers should know these cathedral cities are surrounded by beautiful English countryside, are dominated by the soaring towers of their Norman or medieval cathedrals and have a historic core full of interesting hotels, restaurants, shops, theatres, museums and marketplaces.
Cathedral cities in England typically contain between 100,000 and 150,000 fairly prosperous, well-educated and welcoming residents and, as they are the administrative centres of rural counties, they also house an array of sporting, cultural, commercial, governmental and financial institutions. All are accessible because the national rail and road systems were designed to serve their commercial needs. Before that, ancient roads and trackways brought medieval pilgrims and travellers, to their gates and before that the Roman Legions.
Many planners and delegates will be familiar with these places through the pens of Chaucer, Dickens, Hardy and Shakespeare and from contemporary film. You simply can’t buy this kind of brand understanding and status.
Something special happens when people meet in historic buildings, especially those that have been used for worship and for human congress for hundreds of years.
The acoustics might be lousy, the floor uneven and the heating inefficient, but conferences held in places like Oxford’s 13th century colleges, York’s 15th century Mansion House and Salisbury’s 18th century Guildhall (complete with ghost) will have a special atmosphere that somehow reminds us of the transient nature of things – and of our lives – and this sense of perspective can be very helpful when meeting others and trying to resolve disputes and complex issues.
This is really what makes our historic cathedral cities different and special. The Historic Cathedral Cities Alliance (HCCA) was formed last year with the aim of protecting and enhancing them and helping resolve the economic, cultural and social pressures that threaten them.
The conflict between economic growth and environmental and sustainable development grows ever more challenging, but cathedral cities’ popularity as MICE destinations must be regarded as a good thing, as is the time-honoured tradition of hospitality within them.