Suppose the main political parties fell out of love with the 3Bs – Birmingham, Blackpool and Brighton – as locations for their annual conferences. Or suppose, with its eye on middle England’s swivel-eyed closet racists, Nigel Farage’s UKIP decided to hold its next annual conference in Hereford. Where would all the speakers and press and delegates – not to mention its countless fruitcake camp followers – stay?
Between them, the city’s three principal hotels (Green Dragon, Castle House and Three Counties) can just about cope with 300 visitors. Add to that sundry travel lodges, mini-hotels and outlying B&Bs and Hereford would probably be hard-pressed to accommodate 1,000 people. And though Worcester currently only has just over 300 city centre bedspaces, a major tourism hotel is under construction on New Road, which will boast views of both the county cricket ground and the Severn. Worcester has always excelled in exploiting its river; whereas Hereford somehow manages such mishaps as the monstrous Asda superstore (like an airport terminal in Ceau?escu’s Romania) or the scandal of leaving the elegant Left Bank building deserted for almost three years. The quaint old Campions riverside guesthouse remained derelict for more than a decade, before being demolished earlier this year, destined for yet more luxury apartments.
So with tourism invariably named as our second industry after farming, why do we continue to take such a blinkered attitude towards visitors? The last time a new hotel opened in the city? Probably the Three Counties on Belmont Road, 34 years ago. We are told that the glitzy new Skylon Park (formerly Rotherwas) will include a giant conference centre, so the prospect of large numbers of business people descending on Hereford isn’t pie-in-the-sky. Sir Ben Gill, the council’s tourism czar, is known to favour a five-star hotel being built on the Edgar Street Grid. And what will become of the Odeon cinema in Commercial Road once the grid’s new multiplex opens its doors next Easter? This solidly-built 1950s cinema is within five minutes walk of Hereford train station, yet has anyone thought to offer this eminently-convertable building to one of the big European budget hotel operators like Ibis? Of course not.
But the city’s prime potential hotel site, shortly to be vacated by the Rt Revd Anthony Priddis (aka The Invisible Bishop), is the magnificent listed Bishop’s Palace. Flanked by the cathedral and the Mappa Mundi Museum, with manicured gardens running down to the Wye, it’s been a grace-and-favour residence occupied by just two people for nearly a decade. But it is now likely to remain empty for at least a year, due to a ‘backlog of bishops’!
Although the Church of England provides all its 44 diocesan bishops with rent-free accommodation, only seven (along with Hereford) still enjoy the medieval privilege of living in ‘palaces’. The other lucky ones are Chichester, Derby, Guildford, Gloucester, Liverpool, London and Wakefield. According to the CoE’s own accounts, some £7.3m was spent on the upkeep of all the residences in 2008.
In Spain, the government runs a not-for-profit chain of over 90 tourist hotels called paradores, many located in historic buildings. Former religious buildings feature high on its list, with the parador in Granada’s Alhambra (formerly a convent) sometimes booked up a year in advance. Portugal has followed its neighbour’s example with a range of 40 magnificent pousadas, while the French tend to hand over their redundant historic buildings to specialist private hotel operators.
So when Rev and Mrs Priddis quit Hereford, the CofE might like to consider rehousing their eventual successors at The Oval (in an area officially ranked as the county’s most deprived) and put the Bishop’s Palace out to tender for conversion into a tourist hotel. And there’s a very good precedent for such a radical move. Last year the CofE sold the 17th century Auckland Castle (formerly the residence of the Bishop of Durham), which is now being converted into a museum and interpretation centre.