York Minster has finally decided to charge visitors. Chief Reporter Mike Laycock looks at the background to the controversial decision, which has saddened and disappointed the Archbishop of York, among others.

THEY had hoped this day might never come. Only five months ago, the Dean and Chapter were still holding out against the introduction of a compulsory entry charge to York Minster.

A voluntary donation system, encouraging visitors to hand over £3.50 towards the costs of maintenance, had been introduced for a six-month trial period last May in a bid to tackle an annual £500,000 budget deficit. And it appeared to be doing the trick.

"We have a long way to go, but certainly the signs are that we might have turned the corner," said the Dean, the Very Reverend Raymond Furnell, last November, as he announced that the voluntary system would remain in operation for the time being.

However, chapter steward Peter Lyddon hinted that problems remained, saying that while many visitors had been generous, the overall number of visitors was falling. Since then, the number of tourists coming to York from overseas, already hit by foot and mouth disease and security fears in the wake of the September 11 terrorist attacks on New York and Washington, has been knocked once again by the war in Iraq.

York's decision puts it in line with an increasing number of other cathedrals in Britain, including St Paul's in London, Canterbury and Lincoln, where charges were introduced in 2000 to help meet annual running costs of £2.25 million.

At Lincoln Cathedral, chief executive Roy Bentham said the Chapter there decided it would be more straightforward and honest to impose a charge than the previous "half-way house", under which visitors were encouraged to make a donation.

He says the decision was initially met by strong criticism and a drop in visitor numbers over the following year. But admissions rose again in the second year and the criticism died away.

Today's announcement has saddened the Archbishop of York, Dr David Hope, and it is certain to upset others.

When the possibility of a compulsory fee was first raised in January last year, readers wrote to the Evening Press to express their anger and sadness. One, Bev Dearnley, said the Church should sell one of its properties in York to meet the shortfall, saying: "The Minster isn't just a museum or tourist attraction. It is a spiritual sanctuary."

However, the Minster was always in a no-win situation, with the voluntary donation system itself coming under fierce fire from some visitors. One, Colin Burrows, from Cheshire, contacted the newspaper to complain about the "high pressure" tactics to persuade visitors to give money.

Updated: 08:49 Wednesday, April 23, 2003