Bin there

Southwark Cathedral © Samuel Mather Photography

Southwark Cathedral © Samuel Mather Photography

The Attendant, Foley St, London © Samuel Mather PhotographyYou find me, reader, on a subterranean descent into a Victorian gentlemen’s pissoir. I’m in search of coffee. It doesn’t sound very busy as I make my way down. I enter to be greeted by a friendly Australian – have I gone that far under, I wonder? “Ah, you’re in!” I exclaim, playfully. She seems to stifle a groan. The coffee was excellent. It really was – no kidneying; I’ve drunk far bladder.

Dr Matt BarberToday will be my first accompanied knave. I’m in London to meet with my old secretarial buddy, Matt Barber. A decade ago I was Matt’s boss at Exeter University and could order him to photocopy for me at will. He’s now a Dr, though (of American Presidents on film…), and likes to remind me of it! In fact, he does just this as we enter Forbidden Planet in search of Dr Who literature (for Matt is a very big fan). I remind him that I’ve worked closely with PhD students for a number of years and suggest, a little Knavishly, that having a doctorate is as much a sign of obsession and insecurity as it is one of intelligence.

We walk through London (in Matt’s company a succession of Dr Who locations) from Shaftesbury Avenue, through Trafalgar Square, down Whitehall and over Westminster Bridge, to the Southbank, past the Tate Modern and Shakespeare’s Globe, bypassing the dungeons, to the raised train tracks connecting London Bridge with Blackfriars. Beneath them shelters bustling Borough Market, in which scents from across the globe commingle, hang and drift towards the dusty, litter strewn grounds of Southwark Cathedral but ten yards to the north.

In the words of the audaciously named Stanford Lehmberg, whose book English Cathedrals: A History (Hambledon & London, 2005) I had stumbled across in G. David Bookseller, Cambridge, earlier in the week (for but £5!), Southwark is

surely the least attractive cathedral site in England.

Southwark Cathedral from Borough Market © Samuel Mather PhotographyKind words. In fact, pretty much the only words that Stanford has for Southwark across 300 pages, aside from the mention that it was notable for continuing a ‘significant ministry as a parish church’. Aye, there’s the rub![1] Southwark Cathedral was not actually built as a cathedral at all.


Now, if you were to ask what the word ‘cathedral’ signifies for me, I would immediately suggest ‘grandeur’ then, probably, ‘age’[2]. On first impressions Southwark disappoints on both these scores. Yes, the oldest parts of the physical fabric date back to the early 13th century and the soul of the building (so legend says) back to the early 7th, but overall the space is dominated by evidence of Victorian restoration – my first and abiding impressions are of modesty and recency.

We come across it from the west, its grey-black bricks the same hue as the steel railway bridge towering above it – a kind of urban camouflage. There is no door in the west front. We enter via a modern annex at the northwest, past the toilets (50 pee!), into the nave.

Southwark interior © Samuel Mather Photography

(l) the nave from the choir; (r) Dr Barber admires the triforium © Samuel Mather Photography

It feels ‘new’ and indeed is. Although the first nave was built in the 13th century it was demolished in the early nineteenth (on health and safety grounds!) and rebuilt by George Gwilt Junior. Records suggest that Gwilt had previously tried to restore the choir and east end of Southwark to its 13th century appearance by guess work alone, substituting the 16th century windows at the east for designs entirely of his own invention. Imagine then what he did to the nave… The columns were of iron, the three-sided gallery of wood and the vault of plaster. What kind of shark was this George? I declare him Gwilty of crimes against architecture.[3]

Victorians excelled at many things, but History has proved them particularly skilled in the art of diminishing the fabric of English ecclesiastical buildings. Pevsner gave them short shrift:

The restorers have relentlessly removed  all those surface qualities which make a building lovable besides being respected.

Clifton-Taylor is positively fustigatory when describing Victorian restoration efforts variously as ‘detestable’, ‘inept’, ‘inferior’.


Southwark is a different cathedral – a cathedral in name not conception. A parish church that had cathedral status foisted upon it with the creation of the diocese of Southwark in 1905. It is a reluctant cathedral. Were it a dog, it would be a Daschund called Samson.

A daschund called Samson

A daschund called Samson

St Paul's Cathedral from the east © Samuel Mather PhotographyWe step outside and walk across London Bridge towards a building with none of Southwark’s reticence, St Paul’s (so cathedrally it doesn’t even need ‘Cathedral’ written after it!), from which Matt will take the tube to Paddington and from thither a train to Exeter. I ask Dr Barber for his thoughts before we part:

To me, Southwark is a simulacrum, a copy of a mythic sense of what a church should be – it has no character or sense of individuality; it has no soul.


It’s now early evening and I’m with old university friend, Matt Davis, and his lovely lady, Betsy. We’re drinking in The Anchor, itself a Baudrillardian simulacrum of an old English public house – a poor excuse for a pub packed to the rafters with tourists. I’m catching them up on Lincoln and happen to mention a fascinating and affable man I met on the train home, Father Philip North, Team Rector at St Michael’s, Camden. He and I had talked about Durham, where he was ordained; about 98-year-old educator, Morris; about Patrick Leigh Fermor and about our own pretensions to write books – his on parish priesthood, mine on cathedral (k)naves. Anyway, whaddaya know, Betsy has worked with him! I love this small world of ours.

And lastly…

London Bridge, dusk © Samuel Mather Photography

London Bridge, dusk © Samuel Mather Photography

[1] Note, reader, that William Shakespeare and his brother, Edmund, went to church here.

[2] Both of these significations are at odds, technically, with the dictionary definition, which simply defines a cathedral as ‘the principal church of a diocese, containing the bishop’s throne’.

[3] Thankfully Gwilt’s nave was demolished in 1890 and replaced with the nave that still stands today.

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