English Cathedrals, January 2004

Here is a write up of a very unusual sabbatical that I took during the final stages of my police career. If I don’t seem to have been particularly happy at the time, well at least I can be proud of the fact that I was making excellent use of the opportunities that presented themselves. Things did improve for my final two years but the truth is that I had outlived my usefulness and was probably mentally preparing myself for “Life after the Met”, something that far too few of my colleagues really seem to learn to enjoy.

I don’t know why I didn’t take a camera with me, probably I just wasn’t in the mood. I have some gorgeous pictures of many of these buildings taken on more recent visits but few of them will properly evoke the atmosphere of cold, deserted railway stations and haunting Gothic spires lit by wintery rays of sunlight.

After twenty-nine years with the Metropolitan Police Service, the 31st December 2003 arrived to find me without a posting, a role, a desk or even a locker.

My anticipated and much desired posting to the department responsible for the recruitment and progression of people from minority backgrounds had been suddenly withdrawn and I had declined to take on yet another short-term project. After all, if I’d been promoted each time someone else had been given the credit for my work during the past few years, I’d outrank the Commissioner.

I already had plans in place to begin the year by visiting some of the most important non-Christian places of worship in London and, quite separately, had also contemplated a trip to each of the cathedrals in my free travel concession area. An idea of combining these two ventures began to take shape as I spent a rather unusual New Year’s Eve studying my largely empty diary, a detailed rail map and some web-sites on Christian architecture. With the help of a glass or two, the serious challenge of visiting a cathedral on each day of the month of January was starting to look answerable.

Since there are in fact only twenty cathedrals in the designated area, and two of those are as far away as Birmingham, I would also need to visit a fair number that were even further away, not forgetting my interest in other faiths. It was also going to be necessary to fit these visits around a number of work related appointments; I may not have had a proper job for the time being but I was not entirely my own mistress. Family commitments had to be considered, as well as the vicissitudes of the English rail network and the likelihood of at least one bout of bad weather.

The next morning, New Year’s Day, I set off for Winchester hoping to visit at least one cathedral a day for the remainder of the month.

The great medieval cathedrals like Wells and Norwich are such treasure houses that I could not hope to appreciate them in one brief encounter but I’ve visited many of them before and expect to do so again. Rather than attempt to see and understand everything, I contented myself by wandering around and picking out a couple of the most beautiful or fascinating sights and discovering the stories behind them. Everywhere I went I tried to find somewhere to light a candle and to buy a souvenir – usually a fridge magnet. Most of the people I met were incredibly friendly and I learned never to underestimate the power of the words “tell me what is your favourite thing in the whole building”.

The much newer Metropolitan cathedrals such as Birmingham and Portsmouth and those of the Roman Catholic faith have far less tourist appeal and are certainly no match for the jaw-dropping splendour associated with fourteen hundred years of ecclesiastical and architectural supremacy. However, these places that I might otherwise never have visited were often both restful and welcoming. They may not have had half a dozen varieties of cakes in the refectory or teddy bears dressed as bishops in the gift shop but there were lovely artworks and delightful stories to be discovered nonetheless.

Keeping several London venues in reserve in case of extreme weather, I battled on as far as Hereford and Nottingham. Travelling light and travelling alone, I often found myself stuck for long periods far from home and in places where I had never been before. I got cold, I got wet, I got tired and I got hungry and, on a couple of memorable occasions, all four at once. But I began to lose myself in the journey and experience a kinship with the countless generations of pilgrims that I imagined going before me.

Undertaking a pilgrimage of my own, I had intended to experience both the magnificence of the Middle Ages and the wonders of the Victorian Gothic revival but, in truth, there was probably another type of middle age at work. The acts of departure became almost as important to me as reaching the destinations themselves. At each stage of my journey I littered the main railway termini with little piles of my anxieties and the further I got from my workplace, in both time and distance, the less I liked what it had become. I realized that if it was ever going to regain some of its’ former purpose one of us was going to have to change.

I recorded details of my travel arrangements, including delays, detours and tickets (bought for the parts of my journeys outside of the free travel area). I chatted to railway guards, fellow travellers, vergers and sacristans. I signed visitors’ books, picked up newsletters and noted down the sort of points of interest not accessible via literature or Internet. As well as giving me a decent set of notes, this carefully constructed tracery across both map and calendar would serve to provide my employer with robust evidence of my whereabouts. The fact that there seemed to be no meaningful role for me did not make me any less accountable.

In the event, no one asked where I was or what I was doing.

It would not be possible to undertake such a venture without gaining some understanding of ecclesiastical art and architecture, of stone masonry and stained glass. I learned to tell my apse from my ogee, I discovered the meaning of the words clerestory and misericord but instead of inducting me into a secret brethren, this knowledge proved to be of only limited importance. Cathedrals were built to shock and awe; to remind men and women how small we are in the presence of our higher power and the only criteria which all that craftsmanship need match up to is the ability to do just that.

I felt humbled in this way many times but if I were to chose just two from them all it would have to be Canterbury, for the interior, and Salisbury, for the exterior. I visited the former by candlelight and the latter by moonlight, both were almost deserted and accompanied by organ music and, if it were not a sacrilege, I would have to describe these experiences as magical. I was moved to tears on three occasions: by the simple dignity of the Stations of the Cross at Lincoln, by the brutal destruction of the reformation in the Lady Chapel at Ely and by the exquisitely decorated interior of the Buddhist Temple in my home town of Wimbledon.

So far, I have not said much about the houses of God built by people of other faiths but the selection available was spectacular. In London alone I was able to visit the largest Mandir (Hindu Temple) outside of India, the largest Mosque in Western Europe, the largest Gurdwara (Sikh Temple) outside of India and the oldest Synagogue to be used for continuous worship in the whole of Europe. Apart from the warmth of the welcome and the loveliness of the buildings, I felt enormous pride in a tolerant society that allows so much diversity to co-exist in peace.

Another thing I have not mentioned is my own faith. I certainly often experienced the presence of a higher power and felt as if some guiding hand was helping me to complete my journey, something powerful enough to take on Network Rail anyway. I understood the unity of purpose and the desire to illustrate a better alternative that had created these buildings but did I meet my God? I’d like to think so but I, in truth, I am still not sure. However, after witnessing some twenty centuries of human attempts to build her a house on earth I can at least be certain that she has wonderful taste.

Hiding from a swarm of tourists in St Faith’s Chapel, Westminster Abbey, a building that was a cathedral at one stage even if it has more recently become a Royal Peculiar, I completed my pilgrimage on the 31st of January. The final tally was thirty-seven cathedrals (of which ten were Roman Catholic) and five important non-Christian places of worship. The sights and the stories, the people and the paintings, all of this will stay with me for the remainder of my life and, if I wasn’t changed by it, well, at least I learned how much I enjoy my own company.

I’d like to be able to say that all those candles brought about a happy resolution to my situation at work but I have had to learn caution in that respect. I have a proper job now: one that will probably keep me too busy to join the Friends of the City of London Churches for a few years, but more than that I cannot tell.

Postscript: Later the same year while I was working on the embroidery (not usually my sort of thing) I discovered that I had completely overlooked the Greek Orthodox Cathedral of St Sophia which is situated just a stones throw from Gloucester Road Underground Station. To add to my embarrassment, mention was made of it in a society wedding announcement in one of the glossies. I think that it looks rather fetching, pitched into the North Sea as it is, after all, I had already planned the layout and couldn’t think what else to do. In order to illustrate this post I have selected a few photographs of my own and borrowed from the web where I could find suitable images. Thanks to all the people concerned and of course should anyone object I will gladly remove the relevant picture.         

3 Comments

  • Chris says:

    Perhaps you should consider going around them all again now that you have such a RELIABLE camera.

  • Actually, what I am trying to do is to get as many pictures contributed by family and friends as I can. If you remember I visited quite a few more cathedrals between 2004 and my retirement a couple of years later and I didn’t take a camera to those either. Have you got any cathedral photographs hidden away?

  • Chris says:

    when you went off on Twelfth Night to get new pictures of the two Southwark cathedrals I expected better than number 16

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