Curse of St.Swithun foils climate adaptation

Adaptation to climate change in Winchester is a piece of cake. You just buy a stock of those tubular steel chairs and eject your customers on to the pavement. The city business development team calls it the “cafe culture concept”.

Imagining themselves to be on a Mediterranean terrazza, our citizens take tea apparently at ease with the noise and fumes of passing traffic. In St George’s Street, they can admire the City Council’s air quality monitoring equipment which regularly delivers toxic headlines about nitrogen dioxide.

This new business model for our warming city claimed its ultimate triumph earlier this summer. The premises of the much loved Blue Dolphin fish and chip shop were transformed into the “authentic French boulangerie” of Maison Blanc. The old street bench where we could pause to shake up the vinegar and salt has been replaced with dinky furniture for posh ladies.

However, since the arrival of Maison Blanc, the pavement adaptation model has suffered a setback or two. In its latest national census of Conservation Areas at Risk, English Heritage deplored “street clutter”, naming Winchester as a serial offender.

The City Council lashed out by clamping down on “A-boards”, those illegal advertising signs disported by frustrated retailers whose cafés slumber in hidden side streets. Then the Council refused an application by a pub and restaurant to put out tables in Winchester’s prime pavement location, smack outside the avenue leading to the cathedral.

In opposing the application, the diocese claimed that the view of the cathedral from The Square would be blocked. But I also wonder whether the cathedral authorities are defending their own visitor café culture which, true to Winchester standards, offers customers a view of a fifteen foot wall.

Whilst this muddle has unravelled, the weather has delivered a timely reminder that climate change is not just about warming. In particular, Monsieur Blanc will need to acquaint himself with the story of a 9th century bishop of Winchester.

A humble man and champion of the poor, Swithun gave orders that he should be buried outside the cathedral to allow rain to fall on his grave. But when the new Norman cathedral was built, the citizens couldn’t resist moving the bones inside to a shrine of honour.

Outraged, the spirit of St.Swithun condemned the city to 40 days of torrential rain. To this day, if rain falls on the anniversary of the misdemeanour, July 15th, we’re in for a rain-drenched summer holidays. 2009 has followed the rule, overturning the tables, chairs and cafe culture concept alike.

The problem with a medieval curse is that it remains fixed for eternity. Perhaps the bones of the saint should be rattled again to provoke his verdict on climate change.

We’re certainly in need of a modern St.Swithun to stand up for the world’s poor in adapting to climate uncertainty. Whilst wealthy Winchester will muddle through, countries such as Tanzania face a very different task.

Expect no quaint stories of provincial life; only the hard yards of bewildered subsistence farmers sliding further into poverty for reasons they cannot fathom.


this article was first published by OneWorld UK