Divine Designs: Cathedrals of England

Visiting some of the world’s finest examples of ecclesiastical architecture can be a heavenly experience

Ever since taking a college course in Late Medieval Art and Architecture, I’ve been drawn to the magnificent cathedrals of Europe and make a beeline to them as soon as I arrive in town. Such was the case in York, which turned out to be my favorite city on a recent Christmastime trip to Northern England. Circled by ancient town walls and threaded with a cobweb of cozy lanes, York’s historic core abounds with attractions, including York Minster, the largest medieval Gothic church north of the Alps.

A masterpiece in stone and stained glass, York Minster is religious architecture on the grandest scale, dwarfing all that surrounds it. For almost three hours I marveled at its construction and toured its exhibits, capping my visit with an arduous climb to the rooftop.

People photographing the grand west front of Westminster Abbey

People photographing the grand west front of Westminster Abbey

But York Minster is not a museum—it is a working Anglican church—and I wanted to experience it as a worshiper. So, that night I returned to attend a carol service featuring the red-jacketed boys and girls of the Minster School’s choir. The children’s voices lifted in song and strains of the mighty pipe organ made it all come alive. Like others in the audience, I sat in the ornately carved choir stalls, the singers in front of the high altar. Afterwards, it was fun mingling with the locals over wine, juice and mini mince pies (a Christmas staple) just outside the “quire” (an archaic spelling used in Britain to denote the area occupied by the choristers).

Cathedrals, more than just places to worship, are at the very heart of British history. They also are prime tourist attractions, each with its own story to tell.

As monuments to the glory of God and power of the church, cathedrals in medieval times were the lifeblood of the city, towering over the houses huddled below. Many of England’s most famous cathedrals were built in the Gothic style, with soaring arches and windows emphasizing height and light. Piercing the heavens, their spires dominated the landscape and could be seen from miles away. The identities of certain English cities, like Canterbury and Salisbury, are inextricably tied to their cathedrals. (While the word “cathedral” usually refers to a church that serves as the seat of a bishop, we’re using it here to connote a large, important church.)

Christmas carols outside Bath Abbey

Christmas carols outside Bath Abbey

You have to stop and ponder that some of England’s massive ecclesiastical edifices are over 900 years old—and still standing. As scaffolding attests, these artistic and engineering miracles are constantly undergoing restoration and repair. Some have seen extensive design changes over the centuries; others have suffered fire damage or just the ravages of old age. A few were targets of German bombing in World War II.

Many of England’s popular cathedrals charge admission to walk around or take a guided tour, with a tower climb sometimes extra. Entering for worship services, however, is free.

On a guided tour you get a better understanding of the church’s history and artwork, but I also like to wander on my own, peeking into side chapels, reading inscriptions and just absorbing the reverent atmosphere from a seat in the endless nave. You can learn a lot from the church’s free leaflet or guidebook for sale.

For drama, though, there’s nothing like attending a service or concert. If you can’t make Sunday worship, consider evensong, a late-afternoon service with musical elements. Other options include organ and choir recitals. Besides carol services, Christmastime might bring special performances, such as Handel’s Messiah. In York I attended carol services on two nights, each with a different school choir; the second one attracted more people and was held in the 500-foot-long, 100-foot-wide nave, not the intimate quire.

View of the Minster from the Walls, York.

View of the Minster from the Walls, York.

York Minster (built between 1220 and 1472) is one of the most visited cathedrals in England and has plenty to see. Start with a guided tour that leaves on the hour between 10 a.m. and 3 p.m. Then explore the recently renovated Undercroft, where the subterranean Revealing York Minster exhibition, a high-tech affair with videos and touch-screens, reveals the Roman and Norman foundations on which the present Gothic church stands. Many of the archaeological discoveries on display were made during the 1960s engineering project that shored up the crumbling foundation and saved the central tower from collapse. Back upstairs, see interactive galleries spotlighting the current 10-year project that will clean and repair the Great East Window, one of the largest medieval stained-glass windows in the world (now behind scaffolding but with a few panels on display). York Minster’s 128 windows hold more than half of England’s medieval stained glass.

York Minster

York Minster

You can get an up-close look at the windows, buttresses, gargoyles and spiky pinnacles from the outdoor catwalk, part of the self-guided “Tower Tour” to the top of the central tower, the highest point in York. The panoramic views are worth the trek, an option not for the unfit or claustrophobic. The 10-minute ascent involves 275 steps, 197 of them on a narrow, spiraling staircase. I bumped my head only once.

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Unesco World Heritage Site, Durham City

Durham Castle and Cathedral, Unesco World Heritage Site, Durham City

The pleasant university city of Durham, 75 miles north of York and not far from the Scottish border, is home to Durham Cathedral, built from 1093 to 1133 in the heavy Norman, or Romanesque, style, with early Gothic elements. Considered Britain’s largest and best-preserved Norman church, William the Conqueror’s cathedral is noted for its strikingly decorated cylindrical columns surmounted by a ceiling with elegant rib vaulting. It began as a shrine to St. Cuthbert, patron saint of Northumbria, and still holds his tomb. Both the church and neighboring Durham Castle, situated picturesquely by the River Wear, are UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

A mature couple enjoying the view from the Observatory Tower at Lincoln Castle.

A mature couple enjoying the view from the Observatory Tower at Lincoln Castle.

Traveling between York and London, you might consider a stop in Lincoln, a rather remote town renowned for Lincoln Cathedral, which towers high above the medieval streets. For centuries this was the tallest building Europe.

In the great port city of Liverpool, two hours east of York by train, I climbed to the open-air rooftop of a huge Neo-Gothic church—108 steps after two elevator rides. The size of Liverpool Cathedral, officially named Cathedral Church of Christ Liverpool, is just staggering. A 20th century creation, the brown sandstone behemoth (started in 1904 and completed in 1978) is Britain’s biggest cathedral and the largest Anglican cathedral in Europe. As I trudged up the tower steps, I looked down into the bell chamber, which boasts the highest (219 feet) and heaviest (31 tons) ringing peal of church bells in the world. One of the world’s longest cathedrals, the “Great Space” boasts more superlatives: world’s highest and widest Gothic arches, world’s highest church tower (330 feet) and Britain’s largest organ (10,267 pipes).

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral

The architect of Liverpool Cathedral was Sir Giles Gilbert Scott, the same man who in the 1920s designed Britain’s red, cast-iron telephone box. A real-life example of the iconic kiosk, standing next to the first elevator to the tower, suggests the contrast between Scott’s largest and smallest structures.

Admission to the church is free, but an attractions ticket (about $7.60) includes tower entry, a 10-minute film, a gallery showcasing ecclesiastical embroidery, and the self-guided Great Space audio tour of the cavernous interior with all its paintings, stained glass and carvings. Groups can arrange a guided tour and a meal in the Welsford Restaurant or a function suite. Performance opportunities at lunchtime concerts are available for visiting choirs.

Less than a mile away, at the opposite end of Hope Street, looms another modern Liverpool landmark, the Roman Catholic Metropolitan Cathedral of Christ the King. The futuristic, cone-shaped building with a round central sanctuary is topped by a giant glass cylinder. Started in 1933 with a grand design by famed British architect Sir Edwin Luytens, the church had to halt construction as World War II approached and wasn’t finished until 1967. The scaled-back result gave it the nickname “Greatest Building Never Built.”

Manchester, like nearby Liverpool, is an old northern industrial city undergoing regeneration. German bombing decimated its medieval quarter, so little remains except for Manchester Cathedral and the neighboring Chetham’s Library, part of a complex where priests lived. (The atmospheric library, the oldest free library in the English-speaking world, is a page out of Harry Potter books.) The cathedral’s stained glass was installed between 1972 and 1995, earlier windows having been destroyed in the war; others were blown out by an IRA bomb that rocked central Manchester in 1996. Much of the cathedral’s stonework dates from Victorian times, but the tower arch is 800 years old and the choir stalls’ exquisite woodwork was done in the early 16th century. The church holds the distinction of having the widest medieval nave of any church in Britain.

Manchester Cathedral sustained the worst wartime damage of any UK cathedral aside from Coventry’s St. Michael’s Cathedral, which was burned to the ground in 1940 along with the city’s entire medieval center. The new St. Michael’s, completed in 1962, stands next to the ruins, making it a poignant site that represents death and resurrection. Various monuments are scattered around the ruins. The new church boasts colorful glass windows and the largest tapestry in the world.

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral

Canterbury Cathedral, the mother church of Anglicanism (the Church of England) and the seat of the archbishop of Canterbury, is a must-see for cathedral collectors. Formally called Cathedral Church of Christ Canterbury, the imposing church combines Norman and Gothic styles and dates from the 11th century. It is most famously associated with Thomas Becket, the archbishop who in 1170 was hacked to death in a side chapel by four knights of Henry II responding to the king’s question “Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?” For 400 years the saint’s tomb was an extravagant shrine that drew pilgrims from all over Europe. You can see the tomb near the high altar and stained-glass scenes from Becket’s life. Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales tells the stories of pilgrims journeying from London to Becket’s shrine during the Middle Ages. The classic literary work comes to life at The Canterbury Tales, a tourist-friendly museum inside St. Margaret’s Church. Canterbury, 56 miles southeast of London and not far from the English Channel, is a popular day trip from the capital.

The altar and stained glass windows of Salisbury Cathedral

The altar and stained glass windows of Salisbury Cathedral

Noteworthy cathedrals also await south and west of London. Salisbury Cathedral, perhaps England’s most graceful Gothic church, claims the country’s tallest spire (404 feet), a feat of medieval engineering that can be seen close up by those willing to climb 330 steps. Surrounded by an enormous grassy field, Salisbury’s is architecturally one of the most harmonious and homogenous of all England’s great cathedrals; after being built between 1220 and 1330, it saw no additions or alterations, unlike others that reflect a patchwork of styles. Make sure to see what is probably Europe’s oldest working clock (1386) and in the octagonal chapter house one of four surviving original copies of the Magna Carta.

A man points out the views from the top of Wells Cathedral

A man points out the views from the top of Wells Cathedral

In Winchester, east of Salisbury, Winchester Cathedral is the longest medieval cathedral in Britain, and its elaborately carved choir stalls are England’s oldest. In the north aisle a simple stone memorial marks the grave of novelist Jane Austen, who worked and lived in nearby Chawton. Wells Cathedral, in the quiet town of Wells, is one of Britain’s smaller cathedrals but impresses visitors with six tiers of 13th century statues of kings and saints adorning its monumental west front. A short drive northeast leads to the spa town of Bath and Bath Abbey, called the “Lantern of the West” for its expanses of stained glass. A symphony in golden stone dating from 1499, the abbey, with its fan-vaulted ceiling, is one of the last great medieval churches of England.

Communing with the past in Britain’s heavenly spaces—among the most jaw-dropping temples in Christendom—is a cultural and spiritual journey that shines a light on man’s creativity and his religious devotion. Some have called them hymns in stone.

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