A SMALL knot of visitors has gathered around an ancient medieval bell in the grounds of the Merchant Adventurers' Hall.

One member of the group reaches over to give the bell a gentle tap with the mallet provided. A deep, resonant chime reverberates around the garden.

It is a wonderfully peaceful and relaxing sound: as well it should be. This bell, which was forged in York in the 1440s and which once hung in Holy Trinity Church in King's Square, was placed here last summer as part of York's First World War commemorations.

The idea is that you ring the bell and think of peace, says the Rev Jane Nattrass, priest in charge of York's city centre churches. To underline the point, a sign placed above the bells says 'ring for peace'.

"And do people do that?" asks Peter Brown, who is leading a party of architects around York to judge entries for this year's York Design Awards.

"Yes, all the time!" says Jane.

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York Design Awards judges with the Peace Bell at the Merchant Adventurers' Hall

The bell is one of three medieval bells, all originally from Holy Trinity, which have been placed at strategic points around the centre of York as part of the City Centre Churches' York Peace Bells project. Another is just across Fossgate inside St Paul's bookshop, while a third, appropriately, is in the grounds of Holy Trinity Church in Goodramgate.

Between them, the three bells make up one of 34 entries in this year's York Design Awards. And they have in spades one quality that the Awards require above all others - the ability to delight.

"Bells are usually hidden from view at the top of towers, so this is a wonderful opportunity for ordinary people to see and experience their beauty at ground level," says Jane.

People seem to have been taking every opportunity to do that - and to follow the instruction 'ring for peace'. The trick is to hit the bell low down, to get the truest and clearest chime. "It has been a real bonus for the bookshop," says Rodney Troubridge of the St Paul's bookshop. "It has been a real talking point - and people do love to ring it."

A team of four architects - head judge Julian Bicknell, and fellow judges David Heath, Geoff Rich and Nicola Rutt - spent two and a half days earlier this week visiting every one of the 34 entries for this year's Design Awards.

Tuesday, the last day of site visits, began with a visit to the Friends Meeting House in Friargate, to see Phase 2 of a project to extend the building and create four new counselling rooms upstairs.

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Extended upwards: the Friends Meeting House

It had proved quite a challenge, admitted architect Michael Druery. The new upper floor was built on top of a single story brick building. A temporary roof was built over the whole thing to keep the inside dry, the permanent roof was removed and a new timber-framed upper floor built, all while the temporary roof was still in place.

The builders liked the approach, admitted Mr Druery. "They were working under cover!"

From Friargate it was a short walk to Fossgate to see the Peace Bells, and then the four judges headed for the Theatre Royal and a chance to view the much-vaunted £6.1m million refurbishment.

They went backstage, before emerging blinking onto the spotlit darkness of new-look stage, which has been raised and had the rake taken out. They were then led beneath the stage, to the new underground 'crossover' linking one side of the theatre to the other. In the middle of it is an odd obstruction: a medieval well, which has been carefully preserved and walled in.

It isn't the perfect location, admitted the theatre's chief executive Liz Wilson. "But not many theatres can boast a medieval well!"

The judges were shown the new coffee shop in the glassed in colonnade facing onto St Leonard's Place, and the wonderful view up through the body of the theatre's 1960s extension to the restored rooflights above.

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The Design Awards judges on the stairs at the York Theatre Royal

They didn't, however, get to see for themselves one of the most important and complex elements of the restoration - the repairs to the leaking roof. Instead, they were shown a series of aerial photographs.

Repairing the roof was an enormously complex project, admitted Guy Bowyer of the York Conservation Trust which owns the building. In all, there were 33 different roof slopes that had to be tackled. "It's a landscape of roofs."

Tour of the Theatre Royal over, there was just chance for a quick coffee before the judges headed off to see the final few sites on their itinerary.

They weren't about to spill the beans on which of the entries they had so far seen over the past few days had impressed them most.

But one thing which had struck them was the sheer variety of projects, admitted head judge Julian Bicknell, from the big to the very small.

"We've seen two flower beds at one end of the scale, and a housing este of 150 houses (Derwenthorpe Phase 2) at the other," he said. One thing united hem all, however. "Everybody clearly feels as though they're a part of York." That's one of the advantages of being in a smaller city rather than a sprawling metropolis, he said - the sense of pride and involvement.

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Roman basement: The Rattle Owl

The other thing that struck the judges was the story behind some of the developments.

Take The Rattle Owl, the restaurant in the renovated building that used to be the BlakeHead bookshop in Micklegate. "She (the owner) didn't know she had bought a Roman basement, too!" Mr Bicknell said.

How very York.


EACH year the York Design Awards seek to celebrate the very best of design in new buildings, restoration projects and newly-created public open spaces in York.

Awards are given in eight categories:

  • Small commercial project 
  • Large commercial project
  • Small community project
  • Large community project
  • Small residential development (including extensions)
  • Large residential development
  • Conservation and/or Restoration
  • Open Space

Entries for this year's Awards range from Janette Ireland's geological map mosaic in Museum Gardens to the 150-house Derwenthorpe phase 2; from the Terry's Chocolate Works development (both the new housing scheme and the redevelopment of the old factory with its clocktower) to the new Lord Deramore's Primary School, the restored Rigg Monument in the grounds of St Lawrence's Church and the refurbished St Leonard's Place.

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The Chocolate Works

The project judged best overall will be presented with the Lord Mayor's Award. And as usual there will be a special award voted for by readers of The Press: The Press People's Award. Details of how to vote will be announced in The Press in due course.

Winners will be announced at an awards evening at York Racecourse on Monday June 26.