Sophie Campbell investigates our enduring affair with great church buildings
Half-past seven on a winter’s morning at Lincoln Cathedral and I was worried. First, I had turned up for Mattins and was not entirely sure what it was. Second, I was brought up Catholic; was that allowed? Third, and easily the most upsetting, why two ‘t’s? I would spell it ‘Matins’. Was that Catholic? Was an extra ‘t’ added at the Reformation?
In the event, Mattins was beautiful and excruciating. Beautiful because we read the psalms aloud, up by the altar in that vast medieval building, empty but for the odd swish of a robe or the tinkerings of morning maintenance. Excruciating because there were only 12 of us, in two facing double rows, and I was clearly the only incomer.
On the other hand, I have never forgotten it; the courteous puzzlement of my fellow-worshippers, their utterly English reticence about trying to find out who I was later, the lovely cadence of the psalms and the sense of using the building as it should be used.
It’s the same feeling visitors have when you take them to Evensong at Westminster Abbey or St Paul’s or no doubt any of our great churches, the experience is a world away from the day visit with its milling worshippers, tourists and incessant murmur of audio guides. Participants come out moved, pensive and usually entranced by the music and singing. There’s a reason that Evensong causes large queues to form – they’re packed.
There are few things we take more for granted than our cathedrals. Unless it’s our abbeys and minsters. Even in the 21st century they tower over our cities like stone dinosaurs — and I mean that in a good way. Relics of a lost world of masons and wall paintings and stained glass and belief. The one continuous thread is worship, and in an age of dwindling congregations that can feel shouldered aside by secular demands.
In tourism terms, the 42 Anglican and 22 Catholic cathedrals of England and Wales play a huge role in attracting visitors. While church attendance dwindles, cathedral visitor figures are going up: 11.3 million people (more than a quarter of England’s adult population) say they have visited a Church of England cathedral in the past year for reasons other than worship – quite aside from foreign visitors.
Hence, the Chancellor assigning £20 million to cathedrals in the 2016 budget, and hence Westminster Abbey embarking on one of the most exciting church projects London has seen for years – the new £18.9 million Queen’s Diamond Jubilee Galleries in the triforium – at last revealing its priceless treasures in a worthy setting.
My favourite cathedrals change all the time. I love Lincoln for its west front carved with wyverns, adulterers and the Harrowing of Hell, and inside its cheeky imp peeking down from on high; Durham, for its thumping columns and Norman vigour; tiny St David’s, low on the Pembrokeshire coast, originally to avoid the keen eyes of the Vikings; Decorated Gothic Exeter, wide as a tent with its 50 misericords; and Sir Edward Maufe’s Guildford, unprepossessing without, pale and glorious within. And Ely and Southwark and Wells and Winchester and Salisbury and Canterbury and St Paul’s.
There are so many more to visit. Coventry, Ripon, Liverpool’s two cathedrals; one Catholic, one Anglican. I’m ashamed to say I hadn’t even heard of Bristol Cathedral until I read about it in a book on misericords and now I’m desperate to go.
But my all-time favourite is St Alban’s; uncompromising Norman power on a vast scale. This is England’s oldest extant cathedral building, consecrated in 1089 (although Canterbury was technically founded five centuries earlier). It’s a shrine to St Alban, the Roman ‘protomartyr’, who can claim to be Britain’s oldest saint. It has the longest nave, the oldest crossing tower and, miraculously, surviving medieval wall paintings.
You will all have your own favourites and your hit list of those you want to see. Here’s a selection, with some secret treasures for you to hunt out on your visit.
BEST ‘BACKSTAGE’ TOURS
Hidden Minster Tour, York
Thrice weekly, includes the Chapter House roof but, almost more fascinating, the Masons’ Loft, where you can touch 1,000 year-old timbers and see a medieval tracery floor.
Winchester Crypt Tour, Hampshire
This explores one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, the Norman crypt with its fine, wide vaults, pale stone and Anthony Gormley’s aural installation, Sound II.
Ely Cathedral Towers, Cambridgeshire
Daily tours of either the medieval Octagon Tower or the higher West Tower (or both), the latter gives you a cathedral’s-eye view of the surrounding countryside.
St Paul’s Triforium Tour, City of London
A one-hour spectacle that includes the elegant Geometric Staircase, Wren’s ‘Great Model’ and, perhaps best of all, the magnificent library.
Explore one of the oldest parts of the cathedral, the Norman crypt with its fine, wide vaults.
The Mappa Mundi, Hereford
England’s largest surviving medieval map is drawn on vellum, dates back to around 1300 and shows the history, geography and world view of contemporary Christendom.
Richard III Tomb, Leicester
The contemporary sarcophagus of the (in)famous Yorkist king, whose body was discovered under a nearby council car park, formerly a friary, in 2012.
Magna Carta, Salisbury
The best of four surviving copies of the first edition of the 1215 Great Charter, sealed by a reluctant King John at Runnymede and written by scribes for general dissemination.
Wells Cathedral Clock, Somerset
This 1390s clock face is the most charming to survive in Britain. It still works and has two faces, one interior, one exterior. The sun and moon revolve around the earth and jousting knights mark the quarter hours.
Tudor misericords, Bristol
28 wonderfully-carved 16th-century scenes survive beneath the stalls in the choir, despite nineteenth-century reconstruction, and are famous for their animals and saucy vignettes.
Bishop Langton’s Legs, Canterbury
Langton was Archbishop of Canterbury and enemy of King John in the early 1200s. A cathedral rebuild left his entombed feet protruding from an exterior wall.
Diver Memorial, Winchester
Look for the small bronze memorial to the deep-sea diver William Walker, who spent six years in the early 1900s underpinning the flooded cathedral foundations.
Blue Peter bosses, York
68 medieval bosses were lost in the 1984 South Transept fire. Six of the replacements were designed by young Blue Peter viewers to mark 20thcentury achievements, such as saving the whale and space travel.
LEGO Cathedral, Durham
The three-year construction of this 12 foot long scale model was completed in July 2016 and each brick raised £1 for the Open Treasure exhibition space. See it in the Undercroft foyer.
Southwark Cathedral cat
Look out for self-possessed Doorkins Magnificat, resident tabby cat since 2008 and possessor of more chairs than the Bishop – as well as her own twitter feed @DoorkinsM.
Blue Badge Guides take tours to most of the cathedrals mentioned here. In many of the buildings they are the only outside guides allowed to escort visitors.