Inside Much Wenlock’s Council Chamber: can the past cost too much?

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This is not the sort of chap you expect to find at a town council meeting (lion or devil, I’m not sure which) but then Much Wenlock’s council chamber is no ordinary place. It was built in 1577 as an extension on the 1540 civil courtroom. The two chambers on the upper floor of the Guildhall thus became the judicial and administrative centre for the 70 square miles that had once been ruled by the Prior of Wenlock. Underneath was the town lock-up, and an open space for a corn market.  Behind is the churchyard, and next door, Holy Trinity parish church. The hub of the town then.

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But perhaps the most surprising thing about the council chamber is that it is still in use today, although anyone sitting through a council meeting may well be left with distinctly unfavourable impressions of the past, and physically too: the seating is a torture on both knees and nether regions. I guess it was designed to keep everyone awake.

I’m afraid these upcoming interior shots look a bit woolly because of the spotlighting. On the other hand, they perhaps convey some sense of the antique residue that pervades the place.

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The panelling around the walls is 17th century, and was bought from elsewhere and installed in Victorian times by the town’s doctor and benefactor, William Penny Brookes, he who invented the modern Olympic Games (a fact I may have mentioned a few times.). The mayoral and officers’ chairs are especially awe-striking, and the said august personages truly do need to have on all their robes , wigs and paraphernalia if not to get lost inside them. These days this usually only happens on Mayor Making Day, once every four years.

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Here’s a closer view of the panelling behind the officers’ chairs. (There’s another scary entity up in the top right hand corner). Then coming up is the panel above the fireplace. Something to do with the Garden of Eden perhaps:

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And now for a glimpse of the Church Green, along with the grave of William Penny Brookes. The blue painted surround is comprised of Olympian victors’ garlands. The Green is the venue for all the town’s fairs.

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This next shot is taken from the Green. It’s hard to capture both the Guildhall and the church at one go:

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Of course the question that has doubtless surfaced in many of your minds is does the antiquated setting of the council chamber affect the quality of the thinking that goes on in there, and likewise the kind of decisions arrived at?

A few years ago I would have said that it certainly did. Some of the councillors back then had served for fifty years. These days, though, we have some very hardworking representatives. They are not paid either, since the once impressive Borough of Wenlock with its two members of parliament is no more, and the current town council has no more status than a parish council. But paid or not, our councillors still have some pretty big headaches to wrestle with, one of them being the continued upkeep of the Guildhall, including the roof over their own chamber.

It is perhaps a good example of the past becoming a public burden. Doubtless it is an amazing relic, and full of history, but it is no longer functional in modern terms. For one thing, there is no access for anyone with disabilities, or for the elderly who simply might have difficulty mounting the handrail-less stairs. As a listed building, the cost of installing some kind of lift would be astronomical, even if it were actually feasible. This situation immediately excludes quite a segment of the town from the democratic process. The uncomfortable seats probably do for the rest.

As to who foots the bill for running costs, then it is ultimately us, the council tax payers of Much Wenlock. If we did not pay to keep it going,  it’s hard to know what anyone else would do with such a building. So here we have it – listed, listing, leaking energy, and generally not fit for purpose.

Attempts to raise some revenue by charging a  modest fee to visit the old court room and council  chamber did not work. Few people wanted to pay to go in. Now the court room is a small museum and art gallery, and entrance is free.

All of which leaves us with an impossible, but fascinating building, and one that probably no one in Wenlock would wish to be without. It gives the town its identity, and so maybe, at the end of the day, it’s only right that its citizens continue to support it, whatever way they can. At least the old corn market is still well used, and much for the purpose it was originally intended.

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copyright 2015 Tish Farrell

 

This week at Thursday’s Special, Paula is inviting us to post traces of the past. Please visit her blog to find out what she and others have come up with.

19 thoughts on “Inside Much Wenlock’s Council Chamber: can the past cost too much?

  1. Past that is no longer functional and has become a public burden. Shame that the entrance fee scheme did not work. If I were a citizen of Wenlock I would do my bit to keep it running. You are right, it is an amazing relic, Tish. Thank you for this.

  2. Conservation is expensive. In most places, people would just want to bring the old houses down and build bigger and ugly buildings where they can make more money.
    I think an allowance should be made for maintaining these buildings charged to Exchequer

  3. Can identify with this scenario – it’s an increasingly common scenario these days, particularly out in traditional rural settings. Thorny problem & good post!

  4. Keep expecting one of those spiders from your earlier post this week to appear in the corner of these pictures. Thought about that as I watched one climb the wall in my mom’s house, tonight. I’m interested in the stories of what’s imbedded in the paneling and pictures, and the mystery of what was meant by those figures (possibly, Garden of Eden reference?) now lost, yet still there, awaiting an archaeologist.

    1. …Or indeed an anthropologist. ‘The past’ as novelist L P Hartley says ‘ is a foreign country; they do things differently there’ (The Go-Between.) I am struck by the visual extravagance of the carving coming from an English age so recently torn between Catholics and Protestants, and involving many human bonfires. The workmanship suggests a more pre-dogma belief system/mother goddess age…intriguing, as you say.

  5. As for me , the relics of the past should always be brought with us into the present……but on second thoughts , i don’t believe that they would remain preserved for the future , then!

  6. Another fascinating glimpse into Much Wenlock’s past and present. To an Australian eye, it’s an amazingly rich council chamber – the one in Moruya, near where I’m sitting now, is less than 40 years old, and certainly lacks the splendour you’ve shown here. It probably matches most of the councillors, however – not much splendour there.

  7. The workmanship on those intricately engraved walls could never be repeated, think of the man hours and cost today!!! It should definitely be preserved. But, as you say, to put in any sort of up grade ie lifts, safety railings would be almost impossible so it is quite a quandary. As always a thought provoking post Tish.

  8. I continue to be fascinated by the history of your town! What a treasure this building is. I hope the price to maintain it and make it more user-friendly will not be too much…

    1. I can’t imagine it being threatened just yet anyway, but then things are changing so weirdly in the UK, with the dismantling of local authorities. Nor can we trust in the preservation of heritage as was once the case. But you are right. That building still has a host of stories to tell.

  9. interesting question that you raise. I loved a few years in US, where I could not feel at home because of the lack of historic buildings (and probably other reasons, too). Having just left Azerbaijan, where I could experience identify building of a young nation, I learned that landmarks from the past as well as from today are very important to define who we are. Having just moved to Rennes with lots of past, though much was destroyed Ina fire in the 18th century, I perceive it certainly as an asset. your question is probably a very modern one and tells us a lot about the mental state in which we live. We are willing to spend money for worthless cheap chunk rather than cherish what made who we are.

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