Any number of people, not necessarily religious, find in visits to cathedrals a source of deep spiritual refreshment; and no wonder for they are in contact with some of the greatest works of artistic genius that England has ever produced.
Alec Clifton Taylor, The Cathedrals of England
“I don’t know about you but I’m bricking myself”, said the Italian immigrant to his travelling companion, Laurence.
It’s 597. They are bearing down on the Isle of Thanet on the Kent coast. A welcoming party of cloak-clad, sword-wielding Anglo-Saxons awaits them.
“I told the Pope I wasn’t keen on this gig”, the Italian continues, knees knocking beneath his habit, “these barbarians could eat us alive, if they even let us in.”
“I tell you what”, says Laurence, “let’s just sing a really holy hymn as we approach them – you know, to lend us a kind of gravitas – and hope they like it.”
Sing they did and the rest is history…
The Italian immigrant is St Augustine, the first of the now 105 archbishops to have sat on the famous cathedra at Canterbury.
(Incidentally, Laurence was to become the second.)
1400 years later, in the same neck of the woods as St Augustine landed in England, a certain Nigel Farage stood for election, his views on immigration considerably less enlightened than that bunch of burly Kentish illiterates.
I left from Cambridge at 6:30 with the aim of seeing the sun rising over London from the Dartford Crossing.
Call me perverse, but I have a bit of a thing for that bridge, the bane of many a motorist. Since writing my last Knave piece over a year ago, I’ve actually done some reading that wasn’t about cathedrals. (I know!) Who would have thought, for instance, that there was so much to appreciate in the concrete brutalism of post-war high rises? There can be as much beauty in a building’s context as in its fabric.
The same goes for the Dartford Crossing. It’s a work of structural genius in a similar way to a nave vault. An understanding and harnessing of forces is key to the building of both. Both bridge voids. The science and engineering that gave birth to the bridge had its roots in the architecture of the medieval era.
I missed the sunrise as it happens but did catch it over the M2.
My first view of the Cathedral as I approach from the south up Butchery Lane is of its elegant central tower. Slender, linear, Perpendicular, it hints at the largesse that Canterbury has enjoyed over the years. ‘Perp’ represents the final refinement of the gothic style of medieval cathedral building – the end of a development that started with the considerably more earth-bound bulk of our old friend Norman in the 11th century.
In the late 15th century, its coffers fat (for now) with pilgrim gold, Canterbury could afford to appoint the best architects of the day. Thus they chose Thomas Wastell, the Norman Foster of the late-medieval era, to design their Gherkin-equivalent, the ‘Bell Harry’ tower.
In design it is markedly original…the supreme masterpiece of Perpendicular tower building
Alec Clifton Taylor, The Cathedrals of England
Although faced with stone and finished with intricate finials (pointy bits) at each corner, the tower is lined with 480,000 bricks. Just another remarkable medieval undertaking.
Upon entering the precinct, the cathedral is still 100 feet away, yet lines of paving stones draw the eye to a pair of smaller towers at its west end and along the length of its incessantly vertical nave buttressing to the climax of the Bell Harry.
The overwhelming impressions are of symmetry and perpetual upward motion.
Hidden behind this tour de force lingers some charming but rather more modest building work from Norman and co. which I take in as I stroll towards the east.
Here is the little Norman southeast transept tower, long since outshone by the Bell Harry. No longer bathing the M2, the sun has climbed high enough now to pick out typically understated decorations, characteristic of the Romanesque style.
This entire eastern half of the building was gutted by fire in 1174, just four years after another calamity, the murder of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Only the nave survived the lick of the flames; only Becket’s bones survived the swords of Henry II’s zealous knights.
Never ones to turn down an opportunity to boost revenue, the monks chose to speculate to accumulate. That same year they appointed starry young Frenchman, William of Sens, to rebuild and significantly extend the east end.
William was an innovator and key player in the rise of the new, ‘more pointy’ gothic style in the late 12th century.
The monks were content to meet his wage demands as they were confident about the future income-generating potential of their new idea, The Thomas Becket Visitor Experience! for which a significant portion of their new eastern extension had been earmarked.
The Visitor Experience, known more commonly as the Shrine of Thomas a Becket, opened c. 1220 and attracted hundreds of thousands of pilgrims.
Pilgrims who (I was told later) were permitted, for an additional charge, to crawl into his tomb through holes in its side to be closer to the potent healing powers of the saint’s holy casket. Two monks were stationed at the tomb during opening hours to note down the steady stream of miracles which Becket’s lifeless body was said to have inspired.
With things still relatively quiet for the time being, I make my way towards the door. Volunteers stationed there greet me with a smile. The first thing I see is a sign on the floor:
Remember the Fire Watchers who saved this building from destruction during the war
I shall! It would have been a tragedy to have lost an artwork as significant as Canterbury Cathedral to another fire. Throughout the Second World War volunteers were stationed along the roof of the cathedral, risking life and limb to ensure incendiary devices never ignited. The cathedral volunteers of today are motivated to perform their rather less risky roles by the same pride and enthusiasm possessed by the Fire Watchers.
I take a seat at the back of the nave and quickly sink into that familiar state of (architectural) reverence that cathedral naves are apt to inspire in me.
It’s early yet and there is little activity in the body of the church, just ambient silence. A few hushed voices. Irregular gentle footfall. I enjoy this form of calm as much as the architecture and as I know it won’t last for long. I enjoy it whilst I can.
With the exception of Ely, whose nave retains the ability to surprise me as if for the first time on every occasion I see it,
this is undoubtedly the finest cathedral nave I’ve seen.
There is none of Ely’s dark muscularity here. Height and light are Canterbury’s prevalent factors. The nave rises to 79ft, resolved at its climax by a simple lierne vault. The clusters of fine vertical shafts comprising each of its piers make it seem double that. The ribs of the vault were even deliberately thinned to make them appear further away.
The nave of Canterbury Cathedral, says John Harvey, is the supreme triumph of English architecture, which is to say English art.
It was designed by the third of Canterbury’s superstar architects, Henry Yevele, in the 1390s, and overseen by a certain Geoffrey Chaucer, Clerk of the Royal Works, by appointment of Richard II. Whilst Chaucer strolled in the cloister, thinking about the Wife of Bath, and the embattled Richard lived out a life so dramatic it would later become a hit drama, 70-year-old Henry got on with things. He took down the old nave stone-by-stone, successfully united the elegant, uniquely tall side aisles with the rest of the gig, and set down plans for the redesign of the two towers at the west end. Then he died, his legacy left in stone.
The atmosphere has changed now. Traffic swells the doors.
Group after group of school children appear, audio guides pressed to their ears.
I head off for a wander.
Canterbury is built on a number of levels. Essentially, it steps up from the end of the nave to the choir, at which point you can drop down again to the cloisters, and then again to crypt, before ascending back to the choir and then again to perambulate around the choir to the very east end of the cathedral – or any variation of these. Walking around it is a bit like playing a game of Snakes and Ladders. Or maybe just Ladders and Ladders. I didn’t see any snakes.
I set out down the nave and up my first flight of stairs to the threshold of the choir, beneath the Bell Harry Tower. Its stunning fan faults are a beauty to behold. They too were built by Wastell, precursors to the rather more famous fans he threw up in King’s College Chapel a few years later (1508-1515).
“Do you know you’re standing beneath the Bell Harry?”
A volunteer has crept up on me as I take a picture of the nave from the raised platform below the tower.
Before I can answer affirmatively, he continues, “it was built by John Wastell, you know. Those bits on the ceiling at the top are called ‘fan vaults’.
Imagine them as ladies’ fans, if you will”, he offers helpfully.
“480,000 bricks were used for the main construction. Of course, it’s faced with stone. It’s considered the finest tower of its kind…”
“It really is qui..”, I attempt to chip in, before he resumes, “and the nave was built by Henry Yevele in the late 14th century in the Perpendicular Gothic style. Geoffrey Chaucer was the chief of works.”
“Gosh, you really seem to know your stuff”, I say to the guide, Roland Tulpott. He smiles proudly. I’ve struck a chord, for these volunteers are rigorously trained before they are allowed to unleash their knowledge upon visitors. I know, for I enquired about becoming one at Ely, only to be deterred by the 250 hours of compulsory training, along with the need to surrender 49 weekends a year. Roland is a dedicated servant who’s evidently been associated with Canterbury for some time.
Before we part, he tells me about “the treadmill” that Wastell used to haul each of the 480,000 bricks up into the sky to build his tower. “We used to play with it when I was a boy. It sits behind that painted crest at the centre of the vault there.
“Health and Safety doesn’t allow its operation much anymore but they did use it for winching down a load of pigeon poo a few years back.”
There was much more that Roland revealed to me – about the sanitation of medieval Canterbury; the monks’ water supply; the loss of three Archbishops in 18 months to the Black Death – but it was for this final nugget that I was most grateful. I thanked him and continued on my way.
The steps up to the ambulatory, running around the choir, are so well worn by centuries of pilgrims’ feet that the aforementioned Health and Safety has had to warn visitors to watch their step, lest litigious Americans should trip and bounce back down them. I pick my careful way up.
It felt enough now to simply stroll around the rest of the place and try to take it all in.
There was the massive stone cathedra, sitting at the top of the building, affording a perfect view back down all its levels. It was this same stone throne that Rowan Williams once spoke of the “spiritual and physical impossibility” of occupying. I can empathise with dear Row, if only on the grounds of the sheer weight of history abounding in this place (history of which we’ve ‘studied’ only a small cross-section). And that’s before we even consider the pressures of heading up the Anglican Communion (which we will certainly not consider here!).
Who wouldn’t feel a certain pressure following in the footsteps of figures like St Augustine and St Thomas Becket?
The Visitor Experience of the latter since disbanded by Henry VIII, a candle now burns eternally for St Tom, directly behind the cathedra Rowan was so overwrought by, whilst the stories of his many miracles are recounted in the stained glass on either side of the throne, with the very spot of his gruesome death marked by an almost equally macabre sculpture of four intersecting swords – one for each of the knights who slew him – two connecting to form a cross and holding each of the others in poised, perpetual readiness.
It’s around midday and the still unclouded sun is bursting through the windows of the south aisles as I make my way back towards the nave.
The light piercing through the leading of the windows casts thousands of diamond shapes on the nave piers.
The chairs, some in shade, others suffused by rays, appear in dramatic chiaroscuro. I take it all in one more time from beneath the Bell Harry.
“Where’s Augustine, then?” I ask a volunteer as I leave. Her hysterical laughter changes to worried concern as I continue, “I could only find St Tom.
Do you reckon Augustine will be at his Abbey today?”
She appears to consider calling for help, so I leave.
Let’s finish where we started, with he who sowed the seeds of, yes, Christianity, but subsequently the explosion of Norman and medieval architecture in England. Rowan told me later, as we strolled around the ruined grounds of St Augustine’s Abbey – he trapped within an audio guide at my ear; me bitten by bitter cold – that Augustine might be considered to have brought the Anglo-Saxon settlers into Europe for the first time; into the conversation of historic civilisation.
It’s a good job Nigel wasn’t there to turn him back then.