The nave, Manchester Cathedral

The (K)nave and boots to boot, Manchester Cathedral (© Samuel Mather Photography)

So, England has Cathedrals and cathedrals.

This, at least, appears to be Alec Clifton-Taylor’s view for his Cathedrals of England has room only for the country’s ‘‘vintage’ set’. Of those cathedrals that the Knave has visited to date, Ely, Norwich and Lincoln would be labelled the Châteauneuf-du-Papes of Clifton-Taylor’s Sceptered Vineyard, whilst Southwark and Manchester – cathedrals from 1905 and 1847, respectively – would, it seems, have been marked up ‘Beaujolais nouveau’; plonk for the kitchen cupboard; cooking wines with no hope of improvement.

On purely architectural grounds, the Knave admits to holding a similar view – one that he expected would be reinforced on this excursion north for, according to Alec:

Manchester, with its near rectangular plan, looks un-cathedral-like

But, Reader, he found no such reinforcement!


Manchester, at first sight, does seem rather similar to Southwark – another ‘cathedral’?

Manchester exterior

Manchester Cathedral exterior under grey northern skies; the ‘pop-up cathedral’ can be seen at the bottom left (used by the congregation whilst the floor of the main cathedral was being replaced in 2013) (© Samuel Mather Photography)

From without both appear to be a similar size; both have spiritual roots in the 7th century; both were initially built on their current sites as parish churches in the 13th century. Manchester, however, was rebuilt in 1421, when King Harry (he of Shakespeare fame) granted Rector Thomas de la Warre permission to found a new collegiate church (i.e. one with a body of priests and a choir) in the city. Like Southwark, Manchester has been subject to significant reparation, restoration and rebuilding in the intervening years. One could say, it has been in the warres…


Crossing the threshold, through a porch at the south, I do my best to enter open-minded and … aisle be damned! Have I walked into the TARDIS? Stretching out in front of me is the widest nave in England. No nave and side aisles here – more like five naves joined up from one side to t’other! I almost have to squint to see the north wall.

The Threshold

On crossing the threshold, from the south (© Samuel Mather Photography)

At the same time as calibrating the width of the space, my eyes must also accustom themselves to the relative lack of light. None of Caen’s creamy yellows or Barnack’s light browns here. The interior is a dusky, matte, red-brown, from stone quarried at nearby Collyhurst, and whilst the strikingly modern stained glass windows draw my gaze, it is to the light they capture rather than the light they transmit.

Anthony Holloway stained glass

Bold and arresting – two of the five Anthony Holloway stained glass windows in the cathedral (© Samuel Mather Photography)

Taking a seat at the back of the nave, I am struck by just how different this place feels.


Walking now, taking a clockwise turn, I am drawn to another stained glass window at the northeast end of the church. It is markedly alternative and glows a dark, warm orange, casting its reflection in the polished limestone floor.

The Fire Window

The Fire Window (Margaret Traherne) in the Cathedral’s Regiment Chapel, dedicated to the Duke of Lancaster’s Regiment. (© Samuel Mather Photography)

I learn that it was designed by Margaret Traherne to commemorate the rebuilding of the cathedral after the blitz and installed in 1966. I learn, too, that of all England’s cathedrals, only Coventry was more badly damaged than Manchester during the Second World War. Traherne oversaw the replacement of the window in 1996 after an IRA bombing in the city destroyed it. How in-tune with the Christian principles of forgiveness and regeneration that the second iteration of the Fire Window was repaired using glass from Germany. The Fire Window is just one of a number of examples of Manchester’s modern fabric and open-minded mission.

But what’s that sound? Alarm bells are ringing!

Is the Knave not supposed to blog punningly and light-heartedly about the architecture, history and stories of the 44 cathedrals of the Anglican communion – each post sprinkled with a few reflections – but talk of mission?! Christian principles?! Can he go there? He’s not even a churchgoer. A ‘secular Christian’ at best. Sometimes he feels more like a Brianist to be honest.


“I’m Brian?”

Of course he can. And he is grateful to Manchester as both a city and a cathedral for urging him to do so, despite his above-mentioned religio-secular status. Both of these places moved him. The city for its hefty confidence, its red brick majesty, its history writ large all about it.

In George Orwell’s words it is ‘the belly and guts of the nation’

The cathedral for being so aware of its past, so warm, interested and welcoming of its visitors and so proud to be Mancunian. For it manages to celebrate both Manchester’s industrial heritage and the city’s more latter day cult cool – remember that members of (in no particular order) The Stone Roses, The Smiths, The Happy Mondays, Joy Division, New Order, Oasis, Take That, The Chemical Brothers and Elbow all hail from Manchester.

Take the magnificently unusual Fraser Chapel altarpiece, for example.

Cazalet altarpiece

Striking – the Mark Cazalet altarpiece in the Cathedral’s Fraser Chapel (© Mark Cazalet)

Painted by Mark Cazalet and installed in 2001, it is a modern work, the spirit of which is inspired by the Cathedral’s medieval misericords (which I haven’t even had a chance to mention yet, despite their being amongst the best examples in Europe!). To quote the literature available to visitors of the chapel, the painting aims to express ‘something of the [misericords’] cheerful spirit’. The style of the altarpiece is deliberately stylised – it encourages reaction; engagement. To take one example, the blighted neighbourhood of Broughton, depicted at the left of the painting, harks back to the area as it would have been before Manchester’s major regeneration over the last twenty or so years. It also brings to mind, a little more obliquely, but no less appropriately, the working people of Manchester who powered the city during the industrial revolution and their relationship with this parish… In 1834 the church performed 3,157 marriages, in 1837, 7,285 baptisms, folk were literally queueing at the altar rail! By extension, then, this depiction of Broughton links to the very inauguration of this former parish church as the central church (Cathedral) in the new diocese of Manchester in 1847, the rationale for which was largely due to the huge population boom in the city brought about by industrialization. There is so much more to say about this surprising piece – not least the symbolism of the ketchup and chips… – but I’ll stop here, for now.

The Cathedra

Another reason to visit… – the Cathedra (1906), its carved kangaroos playfully remembering the Australian former bishop, James Moorhouse. In the background, the medieval wood carving in the choir (including the misericords) is some of the finest in Europe.

As I begin to think about leaving, I catch Barbara out of the corner of my eye – a beaming, diminutive volunteer (and, therefore, a former teacher, I suspect). We had spoken briefly earlier and she bubbled enthusiastically of the cathedral

“It’s luvverly, int it!”

Barbara has come to introduce me to Dympna Gould, Visitor Services Manager. To say Dympna is a dynamic, devotee of Manchester is to make an art of understatement – her enthusiasm and energy is captivating and further fuels my positive response to the place. We speak of the cathedral floor’s recent re-heeling in Barrow-in-Furness limestone (at a cool cost of £1m); of legal suits with Sony (the naughty things shot footage for a Playstation war game in the cathedral without permission!); of free lunchtime classical music concerts; of a top notch choir for whom she is zealously committed to building a larger audience and, by contrast, of a gig in the nave by the aforementioned locals, Elbow, screened live on BBC Two in 2011 (bring-your-own-beer permitted!). The Fall are already lined up for May.


So, it seems Knaving may now be changing, attempting to see cathedrals with a broader perspective, for obviously Manchester, Southwark and newer cathedrals in newer dioceses  will struggle to stand up to a Lincoln or a Durham on purely architectural grounds. On future visits, The Knave will attempt to consider, as appropriate, the mission of a cathedral, too. How are missions changing in the 21st century,  over 900 years since some of the first cathedrals were built, and how are they gauged?

I’m on my way now, thoroughly buoyed by a wonderful visit and thinking as I head for the door what a beautiful and sensitively restored church this is, with such a varied outlook. Attentive to its past and alive to its present; fond of fun but committed to formality; dedicated to the faithful and welcoming of the secular… “How does the Dean and Chapter reconcile the two strands of this broad-minded mission?”, I had asked. As alert to her city’s identity as is the cathedral itself, Dympna’s response still resonates with me. To her the last word…

“Think of it as the warp and the weft; the core and the patterning. Both perform different roles in a fabric, yet both are integral”, she says.

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