Freelance writer Cathie Bartlett recently spent a month in Europe, where she visited cathedrals in Germany, Sweden and England. This is the final article in her three-part series.
From the start Guildford Cathedral was a must-see on our trip to England last December.
For one thing, it was just 30 kilometres from where we were staying with friends Mary-Beth and Len, and for another, Mary-Beth had recently been ordained there into the clergy of the Church of England. And hearing it was consecrated a mere 50 years ago – compared to the six to eight century vintage-plus I was accustomed to for any other European cathedral I had toured – Guildford Cathedral definitely caught my interest.
On venturing there, what struck me most was its location, its Lady Chapel and Children’s Chapel, and the intriguing works of needlecraft that add so much to the décor.
Situated on the summit of Stag Hill, the cathedral offers the most commanding view of any I’ve seen. The city is spread all around, and the University of Surrey is below. The Earl of Onslow donated the land for the cathedral in 1931, a few years after the newly-created Diocese of Guildford decided the current cathedral church was too small and another should be built. That was also the year after the open architectural competition for the design of a new cathedral was held, with Edward Maufe’s design chosen from 183 entries.
In 1936 the Archbishop of Canterbury laid the foundation stone and a year later Queen Mary presided over the driving of the last concrete pile into the hill. Construction stopped with the outbreak of World War II and the structure was boarded up.
By the time the permit was issued in 1952 the original budget of £250,000 was skewed, spurring a highly successful ‘buy a brick’ fundraising drive. Princess Margaret visited in 1955 to inaugurate the building of the nave and the Queen and Prince Philip stopped in two years later, buying and signing bricks now on display in St. Ursula’s Porch, an entryway off the south door.
Finally the cathedral was consecrated in May 1961 with Her Majesty, the Duke of Edinburgh and the Archbishop of Canterbury in attendance. Even so, much remained to be done on this, the only Anglican church to be built on a new site in the southern Province of England since the Reformation. The Western Porches, the Sacristy, the Lady Chapel and the Chapter House had yet to be built, and the tower completed. It was 1966 before these projects were done.
More development continued over the years, including the exterior statues on the West Front, completed in 2005, and the surrounding gardens.
Over the years, the cathedral has become a beacon to residents and visitors alike, especially at night when it is beautifully floodlit, playing up the golden angel weather vane flying above the bell tower.
Stately and dignified throughout, the cathedral is lighter and airier than most, no doubt due to the Somerset sandstone pillars and white marble floors. On the first stone pier in the nave is a carving of the Madonna and Child by Scottish sculptor John Cobbett. A brass stag set in the floor toward the front of the nave marks the centre of the cathedral and the summit of Stag Hill. Above the South Gallery the Jubilee Window depicts six scenes from the life of Christ.
Being a keen stitcher I noticed the hand-worked kneelers as I walked down the Nave. The women of the diocese needlepointed more than 1,400 of them over seven years.
“We had to use the same colours but we could show whatever we wanted,” Brenda Ainsley, licensed lay minister, said.
The kneelers – no two the same – are rotated to prevent wear and tear.
“That’s one of the things I like most, finding kneelers I haven’t seen before.”
A modern looking figure of the Madonna and Child, carved in a rare South American hardwood, adorns the Lady Chapel, a serene space located to one side of the Nave. Off to the other side is the lovely Children’s Chapel, intended as a memorial space
and also to encourage youngsters to worship. This simple, intimate room includes angels and other celestial figures at the ceiling corners, candles clustered on the windowsills and a Book of Remembrance in one back corner. A wooden cross and racks bearing cards from relatives of departed children stands at the front of the chapel – one of a very few in the country.
En route to the Lady Chapel I came across a striking banner designed and worked by a professional embroideress named Irene Charleston in memory of her brother, Lieutenant Frederick Charleston, who died in action at Ypres in 1915.
This beautiful labour of love featuring a descending dove with rays, two praising angels – one with a golden harp and the other with a silver trumpet – took 25 years to complete.
The cathedral receives about 3,500 visitors a month from all over the world, volunteer guide Gordon Stuart said, rolling out a map dotted with pins from the visitors’ countries of origin.