English Cathedrals (Part 2)

The concessionary rail travel continued for another two and a half years after my peregrinations of January 2004 and I took as much advantage of it as time and inclination permitted. Fortunately, I did keep a few notes of the places that I visited and, although there are no photographs from that period, I seem to have ended up with an awful lot of guide books and picture postcards.

There are about ninety cathedrals in England and it is that slight vagueness around numbers that makes it impossible to produce the all important Definitive List. Does one include Orthodox cathedrals like St Sophia in West London and what about the ancient buildings such as Bath Abbey that no longer hold cathedral status? Some Anglican cathedrals are architecturally undistinguished church buildings that didn’t actually obtain cathedral status until the 1920’s, a number of the later built Roman Catholic cathedrals are singularly lacking in charm and to focus on ecclesiastical status alone is to overlook some of the greatest treasures that Christianity has produced in this country.

So I can look back at the notes and mementoes of my travels during that period and see how quickly I learned that the “train spotter” approach was simply not going to work for me. Well, all right, there was always a slight tendency to collect general knowledge quiz snippets: did you know that there are three cities in England so small that, despite having ancient cathedrals, they don’t actually have railway stations? Ripon, Wells and Southwell: actually Ripon did have a railway station until 1969 and the great twelfth century minster at Southwell didn’t become cathedral of Nottinghamshire until 1884. And it’s no use even telling me to get out more – that is precisely what I was doing.

Yes, it does all get a bit silly but the Gothic Greats were as good a starting point as any and I made sure that I finished off my pilgrimage by visiting Durham, Carlisle, York Minster and Exeter even if I preferred to overlook the less significant Newcastle, Wakefield, Bradford and Truro. For the time being, at least. Far, far more important were the wonderful surprises awaiting in the me at places like Sherborne Abbey: burial place of at least two Saxon Kings and much loved location of some of Thomas Hardy’s Wessex novels. Cirencester Parish church is far more beautiful and historically significant than many of the lesser cathedrals and as for Beverley Minster – well.

After one particularly bad week of pre-retirement blues I got on a train, braved the East Riding of Yorkshire and saw the Humber Bridge for the first time in my life. Rain was lashing against the train window and Kingston-upon-Hull turned out to be everything that neighbourly Kingston-upon-Thames isn’t. First impressions were so dismal as to be be similar to those I more recently experienced in Belgrade but it is hardly fair to judge a city by its railway terminus. The thirteenth century Minster is to be found a couple of stations outside of the centre where it rises in all its perpendicular splendour to rival the greatest cathedrals in the land. Its status may have been hotly disputed down throughout the ages but, despite anything the Beverley Minster’s website might try to imply, it does not have a Bishop and is therefore not a cathedral.

Learning as I went, I experimented by throwing the various mantles of history over the geography of a country that I found I scarcely knew: the Roman Shore Forts, the Saxon Burial Sites, the Norman Castles, the Tudor Palaces and anything else that took my fancy when I turned up at one of the London Railway Stations early in the morning with a small picnic and a good book. I’ve already tried to write about the mixture of feelings that were driving me on these lonely adventures but riding the railways seemed to give me a kind of solace.

Of course, the train staff occasionally asked for my professional assistance but I was far too experienced to try anything foolhardy, often insisting that the local police be summoned before I stepped in and identified myself to the miscreants. I’ve included a picture of Exeter Central Station to illustrate that when one of the local crazies got down onto the tracks it wasn’t as dangerous a situation as it sounds. The representatives of Devon & Cornwall’s finest did wonder what an Inspector from the Met happened to be doing there but mercifully did not require my re-attendance for a later court appearance.

Naturally there was a type of camaraderie with most of the rail staff ensuring that I got plenty of early morning tea and the occasional upgrade. No, I never asked to ride “up front” with the driver, I’m not quite that sad, you know. The issue of whether I paid for the parts of journeys which took me outside of the generous free travel radius had to be carefully handled. I only travelled these sections for free if I had an invitation to do so (Durham, York, Lancaster) but few rail staff knew or cared where the boundaries fell. One or two moustachioed meanies took great pleasure in making me pay up at the highest rate so things probably balanced out in the end.

A very important part of my personal travel philosophy is to continue to show a proper level of interest in and respect for my own country so there are some wonderful things still to be written about between trips to the travel agent. As I try to fill out my travel blog with some important British locations I find myself wanting to re-visit quite a number of them, camera in hand. So I shall.

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