Thursday, December 17, 2009

A city centre walk through with a difference

One of the Focus Groups formed to prepare the city centre for the opening of the new St David's shopping complex continues in pursuit of its remit, and that's the Disability Access Group. As the Faith Focus Group also addressed itself to access issues questioning the impact of pedestrianisation on congregational access to places of worship in the city centre, I was also invited to join a walk around city centre this morning, to inspect changes in the public realm and assess their impact on disabled people. Two blind people came with guide dogs, another two were on wheels, and there were several access specialists among the dozen of us that made the walk.

We met in sunshine for a change, and air more seasonable than it has been for many months, outside Santa's Grotto on Queen Street. We then inspected the re-vamped disabled parking bays nearby on Churchill Way. Several are snagged by Telecoms junction boxes and lamp posts, positioned on pavement's edge. There are no big signs to identify the existence of special bays from a distance. The biggest snag remaining, however, is other road users, queuing around the block to get into the Capital Centre car park, or stopping to drop off or pick up passengers without parking properly. These can obstruct if not occupy the special bays. Traffic can only be kept moving if a traffic warden is permanently present. It's the kind of headache that's constantly there for those trying to keep the centre free moving and accessible for all.

We walked Queen Street, observing the number of sunken or broken paving stones It's only four years since that whole surface was re-laid. Four cyclists rode through the crowds during the five minute walk, despite the return of the cycling ban during pedestrian precinct hours. There are 'no cycling' signs up, but words to that effect in plain language beneath them are absent. Underneath a coat of silver paint, the panel is still visible which was erected in the experimental period when cycling through the area in commuter hours was tolerated. Beneath that, no doubt is the original legend 'no cycling'. Since when was application of a screwdriver cheaper than a coat of paint?

We then inspected the new Kingsway pedestrian crossing, a wide and unobstructed brick path on an elevated 'table' set in the road tarmac. We were told that the lights were set to permit the maximum time of 30 seconds for pedestrians to cross. Fine if you can walk at fifty feet a minute but some disabled people find that a bit of a struggle. It's not so easy if your vision is restricted either, and you rely on there being tactile surfaces or kerbs to alert you to boundaries between pavements and roads. There's not meant to be a refuge in the middle of the road, although in the middle oddly enough there are lights and pedestrian buttons, but no tactile surface to let someone poorly sighted and slow on their feet know that they can stop there safely if they've run out of time crossing the road. Good to have had this insight into the complex problems involved in making the city totally user-friendly.

We then went into the Castle, to receive a presentation about the pedestrianisation of High Street, opposite the Castle front entrance. There was plenty of discussion about this as the Disability Access Group is a key consultation partner in finalising appropriate plans. We were also given an insight into the problems the Castle management had encountered, at great cost to the public purse, by the rejection by CADW of proposals and plans to install a lift to allow access to all three levels of the main building by disabled people.

CADW has a rigorous policy of conserving listed buildings at some theoretical point in their history without much reference to their present use and evolution. The intention is not to let what's left of our historic heritage be eroded by degrees, but it risks ending up disregarding that old buildings still a current life, and need adaptation to changing circumstances. Buildings are for people, not people for buildings, after all. Well, except in Wales.

Worse still, CADW is accountable to the WAG. It's not an independent body like English Heritage, whose decisions can more easily be challenged. Having CADW as an arm of devolved government is a peculiar political decision, as it gives a bureaucratic institution effective power of veto against the continued development of an old building and its use. This affects churches every bit as much as castles and stately homes. This symbiosis is not good for the health and credibility of regional governance.

By way of contrast, this evening Clare took me to a carol party with friends and supporters of the Steiner School. It was a very traditional affair, quiet and reflective, around a tall Christmas tree with real lit candles. Several people read poems or spoke. One woman showed and talked about two icons she'd painted. With another woman, I discovered a common acquaintance with Father Nicholas Behr, priest of the Russian Orthodox Church, whom Clare and I got to know 45 years ago as students in Bristol. Our first ecumenical encounters were with Orthodoxy, both Russian and Greek. It was in dialogue with Father Nicholas, curious about Anglicanism as I was about Orthodoxy, that I realised how much teaching I'd absorbed unconsciously as a teenager, singing in the choir and ringing bells, from my own Vicar, Alun Davies. Father Nicholas, I learned, died seven years ago, after a time in which he had withdrawn from public ministry and become a hermit.

I'd love to know more about his life since our paths diverged in the seventies. I tried googling his name, but found very little. Nothing I didn't already know. As befits a man who ended his days as a hermit.

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