Notes from West London

Cathedrals and Missions

Back in August we made a brief trip to Exeter Cathedral as we returned to London from our holiday in Devon. Last month I wrote about Westminster Abbey in this piece about Edward the Confessor. Such visits always prompt thoughts of other large churches (cathedrals, abbeys, minsters), the ones that I have visited and the ones that I haven’t.

Back in 2002, before we had children, my wife and I spent most of August in the US. We stopped in New York City for a few days then flew to California. We spent a few days in San Francisco, hired a car and drove all over the state: up to Sonoma for a wedding, then southwards, mainly on Route 1, a few days on the road before staying with friends near Venice Beach. We had a few days in Las Vegas before flying back to Heathrow. We took advice from some of the wedding guests about what to see on our long drive from Sonoma to LA. A few of them suggested visiting the Missions, California’s oldest buildings, built as religious outposts when the state was still part of the Spanish Empire. We had already seen the MIssion in Sonoma. We stopped off to see many more of them on our way: Carmel, San Juan Battista (which featured in Hitchcock’s “Vertigo”), San Luis Obispo (I contributed to the town’s wall of chewing-gum with a blob of my own), Solvang (with its windmill) and Santa Barbara (“the Queen of Missions”). We also stopped briefly at Ventura but we were running late and couldn’t find anywhere to park nearby. The Mission was covered with scaffolding, so we only saw it from the outside.

At that wedding in Sonoma another guest told us about his time in the UK, three years working for a large computing firm. The family were based just outside London and decided early on in their stay to travel around the country at weekends. They planned their trips around cathedral towns and in their three years travelled to all the major English cathedrals, minsters and abbeys. We discussed those that we had both seen (like York, Bath and St Albans) and many that I still haven’t (like Canterbury, Wells and Lincoln).

I make no apologies for being a list-maker and the rest of this piece lists the big churches that I have visited and those that I really should get around to one day. As I pointed out to my children in Exeter, and never tire of telling people, nearly all of these places of worship pre-date the Church of England. With the exception of St Paul’s (rebuilt after the Great Fire of London) they were all, originally, Catholic rather than Protestant churches.

The Abbeys, Cathedrals and Minsters that I have visited

St Paul’s Cathedral (London): a handful of times since childhood, including a couple of school services, but not since 2004.

Southwark Cathedral (London): I have visited this one more than any other Protestant cathedral, while working in London Bridge and the City, and sometimes just passing through. The tomb of John Gower (poet laureate to Richard II and Henry IV) is there. Gower died in 1400 and is the narrator in Shakespeare’s “Pericles”, written about 200 years later. One summer afternoon in 2005 I visited the tomb en route to a production of “Pericles” at Shakespeare’s Globe, a few hundred yards away.

St Alban’s Cathedral: a school trip in the 1970s, and a wedding in the late 1980s.

Bath Abbey: December 1983 while staying with a friend from university who lived a few miles away.

Salisbury Cathedral: Later in the 1980s, also visiting a friend from university whose parents had moved to Salisbury.

York Minster: early in 2000 my wife-to-be and I stopped over in York on the way back from Scotland. I was very taken by the life-size statue of Constantine the Great, the first Christian Emperor of Rome, who was acclaimed as Emperor in York (or Eboracum as it was known then) in 306. When we returned on a much larger family trip at the end of 2012 the statue was out of sight, under renovation, but we had a much more detailed tour of the Minster.

Ely Cathedral: the spring of 1989, my father and I looked in on the way back from a drive to Walsingham in Norfolk and were impressed: it is magnificent. We ate fish and chips sitting on a low wall just in front of the building.

Chichester Cathedral: we have popped in a few times over the years, starting with a visit to the city in the last days of 2000. A friend of my wife’s was appearing in a play at the Minerva Theatre and we had time to wander round the cathedral after the matinee. We also looked around it early in September 2003, after a performance of Shakespeare’s “The Merchant of Venice” at the Festival Theatre, en route to a wedding celebration in Brighton. Saint Richard of Chichester was buried here but his shrine, like nearly all of England’s ancient shrines, was destroyed during the Reformation. Richard of Chichester wrote this prayer, which was set to music in “Godspell”: Day by day / Dear Lord, of thee three things I pray / To see thee more clearly / Love thee more dearly / Follow thee more nearly / Day by Day.

Winchester Cathedral: in the spring of 2002, after staying with some friends overnight in Andover, my wife and I had a stroll around Winchester and a brief look inside the cathedral one Sunday morning.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral (Bury St Edmunds): on a cold, dark, wet December afternoon in 2002 my wife and I looked in for a few minutes on our return to London from a big birthday party the night before in Suffolk. The atmosphere in the Cathedral suited the weather, it seemed dark and forbidding, or maybe I was unduly influenced by the brute of a hangover that accompanied me all the way home. (My wife was obliged to do all the driving.)

Chester Cathedral: Summer 2014, driving back from Holyhead, the four of us had a quick look around one Saturday evening

Exeter Cathedral: a quick visit, noted in this piece, in August 2016.

The Abbeys, Cathedrals and Minsters that I have never visited










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