Blackburn Cathedral undergoes multi-million pound redevelopment

Computer graphics of the new development

Computer graphics of the new development - Credit: Archant

Blackburn will have Britain’s first new cathedral courtyard and cloisters for 500 years, reports Martin Pilkington

Canon, Andrew Hindley, with Dean, Christopher Armstrong, and Canon Andrea Titterington

Canon, Andrew Hindley, with Dean, Christopher Armstrong, and Canon Andrea Titterington - Credit: Archant

Difficult though it is to imagine, by late summer 2015 the first new cathedral courtyard and cloister in this country for half a millennium will have risen above what is now just a big hole in the ground.

Most cathedrals evolve over the years, work on their fabric always underway somewhere. Blackburn’s Cathedral Church of Saint Mary the Virgin with St Paul is no exception, its origins stretching back – some believe – to the 6th century. What’s being done there now is, however, truly exceptional.

‘This is the first project of its kind for more than 500 years for any English cathedral,’ explains Canon Andrew Hindley. ‘It will complete the vision the then Archbishop of York William Temple had in 1933, which was to provide a living community alongside Lancashire’s cathedral.’

Beyond the west door, civil engineers in hard hats and hi-vis jackets - something of a contrast to the clerics going about their own duties – consult plans as noisy excavators dig deep into the muddy earth: ‘We just have to work through it,’ says Andrew. ‘At £1,000 an hour we can’t afford to stop them!’

Blackburn Cathedral development

Blackburn Cathedral development - Credit: Archant

Andrea Titterington, a lay-canon whose previous career was on major development projects such as this, adds: ‘It’s a complex building, with 11 residences for Cathedral staff, offices, accommodation for choral scholars and an organ scholar, a 50-space underground car park, and a link to the cathedral and lift that will make wheelchair access far easier.’

Cathedrals are required by law to use their own architect, appointed after a rigorous process. Blackburn’s is James Anderson of architectural partnership Purcell which numbers Westminster Abbey and Ely Cathedral among its clients. His design for the additions uses lime render and stone echoing the existing Georgian gothic revival structure. ‘But we are not trying to blend it in, but make it work with the current building. It’s a modern building not a pastiche,’ says Canon Hindley.

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Much of the cathedral’s work is in the evenings, so on-site accommodation will improve family life for staff members. It’s hoped that the Cathedral Quarter will aid the town economically, its two office blocks attracting new employers. And the cathedral garth, its enclosed garden, will be open to the public during the day as a peaceful haven in a frantic world.

The complexity of such a project is on many levels: architectural, operational, and not least financial. Andrea stresses that neither the diocese nor the Church of England has been able to provide funds. Regeneration grants have helped the Cathedral Quarter to include not just the ecclesiastical extension and office buildings, but shops, cafes and a 65-bed hotel. Indeed, the cathedral’s part is ‘only’ £7 million within a £33 million scheme. This project, which is a partnership between Blackburn with Darwin Borough Council, Blackburn Cathedral, the Homes and Communities Agency and developer Maple Grove, will transform the town centre and could create up to 350 jobs.

Blackburn Cathedral development

Blackburn Cathedral development - Credit: Archant

For the Cathedral, private giving has been vital, the largest amount received as an anonymous donation, and the sale of staff houses will cover another tranche on completion. But they still need to raise a further £500,000. The spiritual body also has important temporal friends. Andrea praises the cooperation Blackburn with Darwen council has given, and local MP Jack Straw has helped hugely. ‘Andrew and I looked over the original plan and decided what might fly in the 21st century,’ says Dean Christopher Armstrong. ‘We built up the model, quickly saw we couldn’t afford it, so went to see Jack who brought some very significant players to the table. He’s a very supportive person.’

The project weathered both the 2008 recession and the hugely disruptive reorganisation of official bodies when the government changed. Now work proceeds apace. ‘Modern buildings go up quite quickly, unlike ancient cathedrals that took several centuries,’ says Canon Hindley.

‘But you still have to have lots of patience with things like this – it took us 14 years just to get on site,’ adds Andrea. Another year and all that patience will be rewarded.

Caught in time

A time-lapse camera accessible through gives regularly updated pictures of the work, and the website has details of how to donate to the project.

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