If you are driving along the A14 coming west towards Cambridge, the tower of Bury St Edmunds cathedral suddenly pops up on the skyline at a bend in the road. I saw it this way in March, when the pinnacles, battlements and ogee windows first emerged from plastic sheeting and scaffolding. By June, the whole thing was stripped down to the golden stone.
If you didn’t know, you might imagine that this was an over-thorough conservation job on a late mediaeval building, rather than something constructed in the past six years. The new work at the cathedral, which includes much besides the tower, looks so natural and right that, once it has weathered, it will probably be mistaken for something 500 years older. This is the effect intended by the designer of the recent ‘Millennium Tower Project’, Warwick Pethers of the Gothic Design Practice, and by the designer of the post-1943 extensions to the late Gothic church of St James, Stephen Dykes Bower, whose substantial bequest enabled building work to resume after a 30-year gap (he died in 1994).
This has been one of the strangest building projects of our time, and many factors were stacked against its success. The result is a triumph of tenacity, for not only is the design impeccable, but the method of construction also represents a quiet conservative revolution, involving large masses of solid brick and stone high in the air, without the steel or reinforced concrete bracing that modern convention expects. All this is held together with lime mortars, which have rapidly been coming back into use but have not previously been asked to perform on so prominent a stage.
For a few people, the cathedral completion may simply pile one anachronism on top of another — Church of England, Gothic architecture, retro construction methods. There was some discussion early on about the design of the upper part of the tower, leading to the abandonment of Dykes Bower’s highly original concave spire, which was rejected by the Millennium Commission as ‘insufficiently distinctive’, a circumlocution meaning the opposite of what it says. The quieter alternative of Suffolk Perpendicular pinnacles won the day (and the Millennium millions), for what, compared to other projects, was actually a remarkably cheap building.
Although voices were raised in the 1950s for the completion of the cathedral in a modern style, Dykes Bower was of the generation that saw in modernism a needless disruption of the fertile continuity of stylistic tradition. He preferred his work not to be thought of as ‘Gothic Revival’ but simply as ‘Gothic’. His knowledge of the whole Gothic continuum, from the Middle Ages to the early 20th-century work of Temple Moore and F.C. Eden, architects he especially admired, was astonishing and fed an imaginative mind. Having worked with Dykes Bower during his six final years, Pethers was uniquely fitted to carry on the work, joining forces with Hugh Mathew who, as Dykes Bower’s partner, had a major role in the cathedral enlargement in the 1960s.
Others, acknowledging a valid contemporary role for the Anglican Church, have doubted the wisdom of spending so much on building work that brings relatively few material benefits. As it happened, most of the money spent was available for this purpose but not for any other. Apart from the training in skills that it has provided, and the proof that such a thing can be done, there is surely a message in building this way that the Church should heed.
In Suffolk churches, one is always aware of the depredations of the appalling William Dowsing, who ‘broke down superstitious images’ in the time of Cromwell, leaving scratched screen paintings, headless statues, and worse. Fear of beauty still cleaves to a certain kind of religious faith, and probably always will, but the Puritanism of most modern art and design have made any riposte difficult to achieve, except perhaps in the music of contemporary sacred minimalism. In the visual arts, the senses are starved or disarrayed, and the familiar symbolic forms, loaded with meaning beyond verbalisation, fail to resonate.
Even so, it is not easy to make historic styles work today, as the poet-painter David Jones admitted in the opening lines of The Anathemata in 1953: ‘Ossific, trussed with ferric rods, the failing numina of column and entablature, the genii of spire and triforium, like great rivals met when all is done, nod recognition across the cramped repeats of their dead selves.’ While this applies to most work of the current classical movement in Britain and America, the cathedral at Bury has life, and this matters for a religious building.
So far, attention has largely been given to the tower and the external views, but the transformation of the interior is central to the meaning of the work. The north transept follows Dykes Bower’s vision of a veiled and mysterious space, and the full proof will come some months hence when the Apostles’ Chapel, skilfully inserted between pre-existing parts of the east end, opens its colonnaded interior to public view. The inside of the tower awaits completion with a painted timber vault like a trumpet fanfare, after which the unfinished cloister beckons brave souls to start building again.