William Cook

In praise of Britain’s unsung cathedrals

In praise of Britain's unsung cathedrals
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When a kindly vicar helped me get my life back on track, 20 years ago, I vowed to light a candle in every cathedral in the British Isles. Sadly, I don’t have the time or money to do them all in one go, but I’ve been ticking them off one by one and I’ve been to 44 so far. So long as I step up the pace a bit, I still hope I can get along to all of them before I cash in my chips.

How many cathedrals are there in the British Isles? Well, that depends on how you count them. There are 42 Anglican cathedrals in England, six in Wales, and one on the Isle of Man. The Church of Ireland is also Anglican, with 30 cathedrals, on both sides of the border. Scotland has eight Episcopalian cathedrals, and nine high kirks, including St Mungo’s in Glasgow and St Giles’ in Edinburgh – still cathedrals in all but name.

Yet as I embarked on this sporadic pilgrimage, I realised it’d be absurd not to include the Catholic cathedrals – 20 in England, eight in Scotland, three in Wales and 27 in Ireland, north and south. Quite apart from all my Catholic friends who worship there, any survey of ecclesiastical architecture would be incomplete without them: Westminster Cathedral is stunning (Spectator architecture critic John Betjeman called it ‘a masterpiece in striped brick and stone’) and Liverpool’s Metropolitan Cathedral (aka Paddy’s Wigwam) is the most beautiful place of worship built in Britain since the war. If my arithmetic is right, I reckon that makes 154 altogether. Yikes. I’d better get my skates on.

So if I had to pick my favourites, which ones would I chose? Durham, Lincoln, Norwich and Winchester are all spectacular, but the places I’ve found most thrilling have often been the least well-known. St Columb’s in Londonderry and St Macartan’s in Enniskillen are both full of history. Who knew Kilkenny had two cathedrals – not bad going for a place with only 26,000 souls? I had no idea Chelmsford had a cathedral until I chanced upon it, but it turned out to be charming. Birmingham’s cathedral boasts some exquisite stained-glass windows by Edward Byrne-Jones. Blackburn, Derby and Portsmouth were all just parish churches until the 1920s, but they’re just as atmospheric as the medieval cathedrals of Exeter, Lichfield, York and Wells. Guildford’s modernist cathedral looks rather austere from the outside, but inside it’s wonderful. All of them are holy places – ancient or modern, great or small.

The setting is a big part of what makes a cathedral special. I can’t think of Salisbury without thinking of the landscape paintings of John Constable. The best thing about Ely is its glorious isolation, an island in a sea of fens. Often it’s the journey there which leaves the strongest impression. Travelling to a cathedral (and having fun along the way) is really nothing new. A few years ago I retraced the route of Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales – by bicycle – setting off from Southwark straight after matins. I spent the night in Rochester and reached Canterbury in time for evensong. As I made my way back to London, I felt an extraordinary sense of peace. All of these cathedrals have given me so many fond memories. Here’s to the next 110, and the next 20 years.