What is your favourite part of the cathedral?

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Created on Friday 15th April 2016 by:
Dr Tiina Sepp

I am a Postdoctoral Research Assistant at the University of York and Research Fellow at the University of Tartu.

My role on the ‘Pilgrimage and England’s Cathedrals’ project is to research... [Read more...]

‘Is there any one feature or area of the cathedral to which people/you personally feel especially drawn? Can you explain why?’ ‘What is your least favourite feature or area of the cathedral?’ These are some of the questions that we ask people who visit cathedrals or who work and volunteer there. We have noticed that when answering that question many people do not just specify a place but also a time to visit that place, so it seems to be a question of the intersection of the two.

Perhaps not surprisingly, several people say that they enjoy the cathedral most when it is empty – early in the morning, late at night. Below are quotes from two interviews conducted with the staff of York Minster.

‘So for me it’s when I’ve finished in the evening, and I’m doing all the final checks to make sure that there is nobody else in the building, and I have the whole place to myself, and I kind of feel like it is mine, it just kind of wraps itself around me. I just feel --- it keeps me safe. It’s completely uplifting I guess.’

‘Favourite area of the Minster? Not that I do it very often anymore, but walking in through the South Transept late evening in the summer, when the Five Sisters window goes almost orange. That’s quite a way of seeing the building. And I have to say that I miss the Great East Window. Early in the morning when the Minster is really quiet, and the light comes through the East Window, is quite something. So looking forward to seeing that again.’

The tomb of Venerable Bede (click to enlarge) This is what a Durham Cathedral worker said in reply to our question about particular spots that visitors seem to be attracted to: ‘I think Cuthbert's shrine is the biggie. And it always intrigues me that it’s Cuthbert, not Bede, and I've pondered whether that is just because of who Cuthbert is in the popular psyche or whether it's something to do with the architecture as well. The fact that it’s in an enclosed space, up steps, East End, as opposed to Bede being more public space, tucked in one corner of a more public space. And also Bede not being quite as well known, although perhaps ought to be. But I’m just wondering how much it's Cuthbert because it's Cuthbert and how much is architectural because of the space --- I think it is probably a bit of both’.

On the last weekend of January I went to the Holy Island of Lindisfarne – the place made famous by the Northern saints of St Aidan and St Cuthbert. I had heard many people praise the island for its beauty and spirituality and I was looking forward to enjoying the dramatic coast, ruins of St Mary’s Abbey and the Castle. I must admit that for some reason the island did not knock me out immediately. Of course I liked the place very much – it is breathtakingly beautiful – but it just did not seem to talk to me the way it does to so many other people.

Holy Island of Lindisfarne. In the background St Mary's Church and the Priory (click to enlarge) All this changed on my second day on the island which happened to be Sunday. I had not been inside St Mary’s Church yet, and when walking in the cemetery I decided to have a look. It was around 4 p.m. and it had just started to get dark. I walked to the church, opened the door and stepped in. There was no one in the semi dark building that was only lit by one candle burning next to the icon in the corner. I walked in, hesitantly at first, and started to explore. I was completely overwhelmed by the mysterious peace and beauty of the church. I stayed there for almost an hour – darkness had fallen when I left the church. In retrospect I am tempted to say that it was during that afternoon that I saw the soul of the island.

When I was doing fieldwork at Durham Cathedral during St Cuthbert Festival on 16-19 March, I talked about Holy Island with some visitors and volunteers. When I was chatting with a volunteer guide who has spent a lot of time in Lindisfarne, I asked her if she had a favourite place there. She thought a bit and said she did not. But then she said: ‘Hold on, I do have a favourite sound! Which is the sound of curlews and oystercatchers and the singing of the seals’.

I found her reply fascinating and thought it would be interesting to find out if people have a favourite sound of the cathedral. Do you think it could be the ringing of the bells, the practice of the choir for Evensong or perhaps even organ tuning? Or indeed silence.

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