10 amazing (and unusual) things to see at Norwich Cathedral
20:00 25 February 2016
Copyright Archant Norfolk 2016
A recent survey has revealed that almost two-thirds of England’s Anglican cathedrals are concerned about their finances but both of Norwich’s two cathedrals have promised that they will not introduce entrance fees. Stacia Briggs enjoys an embarrassment of riches at Norwich Cathedral and the generosity of a free tour.
Its imposing spire has watched over Norwich for centuries, but most of us walk past this treasure on our doorstep without setting foot over the threshold from one decade to another.
Even if you have visited regularly, Norwich Cathedral is sure to have something new to offer even the most frequent flyer – I met tour guide David Berwick, who has been guiding tourists around our most famous landmark for eight years, to uncover some of the building’s best-kept secrets.
Many of us are aware of the incredible collection of roof bosses, of the incredible importance of the Despenser Retable in the south-east chapel, the vast majesty of the cloisters and the elegant spire, the second highest in the country.
My own children used to clamour to see the tomb of Thomas Gooding, buried vertically inside the cathedral in order that he could spring up and sprint into heaven on Judgement Day, his grave boasts a skeleton and a poem: “All you that do this place pass bye, remember death for you will dye. As you are now even so was I and as I am so shall you be. Thomas Gooding here do staye, waiting for God’s Judgement Day.”
But did you know about the secret Pegasus graffiti you can find gently etched on the wall? Or the tomb that boasts a cartoon speech bubble? Have you ever spotted the rotating star on top of the cathedral’s organ? Did you know the Cathedral’s official name is Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity?
There are host of incredible reasons to visit our magnificent cathedrals, and while entrance to both the Anglican and its Roman Catholic counterpart on Earlham Road in Norwich remains free, donations are hugely appreciated – of the 42 Anglican cathedrals in England, 38 are Grade I listed and some have daily running costs of up to £4,000.
Norwich Cathedral draws an income from its estate, its shop and café and through donations but its daily tours, led by a group of around 60 dedicated volunteers, are free and offer the chance to see the building in a whole new light thanks to expert guidance.
“I first came when I was around 10 years old and singing in the choir,” said David, “I think I’ve loved it here ever since. I am totally hooked on the place, all our guides are. We work around the rhythm of the cathedral and the worship that happens here – we have more than 40 services a week.
“I love the cloisters, the presbytery and the architectural details that make the cathedral so endlessly fascinating. Norwich Cathedral was founded on the Benedictine principle of being open, warm and generous to visitors and we try to continue that in everything that we do.
“It doesn’t matter how many times you visit, you’ll always see something new. And you’ll always feel uplifted.”
Tours depart from the rear of the Cathedral Nave on the hour between 11am and 3pm from Monday to Saturday and last roughly an hour. Specialist tours are also available for groups and can be tailored to suit specific interests, these tours carry a small charge per head, for further details visit www.cathedral.org.uk or call 01603 218300.
10 amazing (and unusual) things to see at Norwich Cathedral
1) A hint of pink: In 1463, lightning struck the Cathedral spire (it first hit the spire in 1169, then again in 1271) and the nave was severely damaged when fire swept through the wooden roofs. Evidence of this and other fires can be seen on the stonework in the walls which has turned pink through the heat of the fires (there is also a column which is a range of pastel colours close to Queen Elizabeth’s Seat which was constructed by the Victorians as a teaching aid to show where the 14th-century roof used to be).
2) A heavenly star: Norwich Cathedral has one of the largest pipe organs in the country and has housed an organ since the 14th century. In 1899, a new five manual organ was built by Norman and Beard which was badly damaged by fire during a particularly dramatic evensong on April 9, 1938. Repaired in 1942, today’s organ boasts pipes which are up to 32 feet long and less than an inch at their smallest and 105 speaking stops. It also has an unusual feature, the Cymbelstern, a set of six bells with a rotating star which is on the east organ case.
3) A chocolate font (not fountain): Norwich’s Rowntree Mackintosh factory closed in 1994 after decades of being one of the city’s largest employers and scenting the air with both chocolate and toffee. The Cathedral was gifted two huge burnished copper bowls previously used in the manufacture of toffee which had been transformed into a modern font.
4) A very literal interpretation of the crossing of the Red Sea by the Israelites: Easy to spot because it’s in the Nave and very red, this boss not only boasts a Norfolk craftsman’s interpretation of a Pharoah but also of a chariot: “It was pre-internet and pre-photographs so of course the craftsman used what he knew – that’s why we have a very English-looking king and a very Norfolk-looking wagon! It’s fascinating social history,” said David.
5) Look towards heaven in the treasury: The vault over the gallery in the north choir aisle is home to the treasury which once housed the entrance to the now-vanished Reliquary Chapel. While the treasure it guards – silver chalices and communion plate lent by Norfolk and Norwich parish churches - is magnificent, what is even more remarkable are the remains of 14th-century paintings which can be seen at very close quarters. The Biblical scenes are surprisingly easy to make out and there is a particularly charming angel on the reliquary arch.
6) A Norwich City Goalkeeper amongst medieval miserichords: To commemorate the Cathedral’s 900th birthday, a new misericord (a tip-up seat in the famous choir stalls which traditionally folded back to form rests or ‘mercy seats’ for aging monks to lean against while praying) was commissioned. It features former Norwich City goalkeeper Bryan Gunn making a save.
7) The little girl who was born in April 1736 but died on February 1736: It’s an unremarkable grave set into the Cathedral’s stone floor, but the story it tells is quite remarkable. Elizabeth Frank, daughter of the chapter steward and his wife, was born in April 1736 yet her date of death is given as February 1736: how? The British finally accepted the Gregorian calendar in 1752 but a gradual two-step change meant that any date before March 25 1752 does not necessarily corroborate a stated period of time. The anomalies in the calendar mean that the dates on the gravestone are correct, said David, depending on which calendar you’re using!
8) A flying horse watching over a treasure that survived the Reformation and Civil War: In the south-east chapel, opposite the Despenser Retable which was famously hidden from marauders, if you look very carefully, there is a medieval depiction of Pegasus the winged horse.
9) Sir Thomas Brown, Myles Spenser’s tomb and a cartoon speech bubble: Sir Thomas Browne, the famous 17th-century physician and writer, rented a meadow which led to Pull’s Ferry in the Cathedral precinct which he leased from the Cathedral Dean – his rent of 10 shillings a year was paid in the Cathedral “on Doctor Spenser’s tomb” every Michaelmas. During the Puritan backlash of the 1643, the Cathedral was ransacked – stained glass was smashed, wall paintings defaced, books and artifacts stolen and tombs and monuments were defaced. In his Repertorium, Browne lists as many of the lost inscriptions as possible, noting that Spenser’s tomb was “now broken, splitt and depressed by blowes”. Resting with his first and second wives, the depressions in the stone show where portraits of the three were once depicted. Close to what would have been Spenser’s head is a long, thin indentation: “It was a prayer scroll, a bit like the first speech bubbles that we now think of in cartoons,” said David, “Spenser would have been asking passers-by to pray for his soul to go to heaven.”
10) A misinterpretation or a literal interpretation? Above the Prior’s Door which leads from the south east corner of the nave to the cloisters is a finely carved arch which dates from around 1300 and contains statues of Biblical figures including Jesus, John the Baptist and Moses holding a scroll and bearing a pair of… horns. David believes the horns could have been a translation error in the Latin vulgate and that the instructions should have read ‘crown’ not ‘horns’ (the Latin word for horn is ‘cornibus’ while the word for crown is ‘coronam’). At the Church of Saint Peter in Chains in Rome, Michelangelo’s Moses is depicted with horns which art historians claim stem from an early version of Exodus in which it says that Moses “knew not that his face was horned” – this was later taken to mean that Moses’ face was lit up by God’s love. The Prior’s Door was cast in plaster in 1865 by Domenico Brucciani and is kept in the Sculpture Room 46a at the V&A Gallery in London.