Local pilgrimage: A tour of Norwich Cathedral

Norwich Cathedral spire is 315 feet high.

The Norwich Cathedral spire is 315 feet high. - Credit: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

In anticipation of Dippy the Dinosaur’s visit this July, Charles Bliss went on a pilgrimage to Norwich Cathedral with the Dean of Norwich, the Very Reverend Jane Hedges, to rediscover the historic structure at the centre of our community.

The very reverend Jane Hedges, Dean of Norwich. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

The Very Reverend Jane Hedges, Dean of Norwich. - Credit: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

Rising from the heart of our fine city, the Norwich Cathedral spire scrapes the sky. With its gilded cockerel weathervane defying the Norfolk winds, the soaring spire represents a point of convergence – a sacred space, a place of peace and prayer, the centre of the community.

But it is also Norfolk’s star attraction. Founded by Herbert de Losinga, Norwich Cathedral is a glorious example of Romanesque architecture that dates back to 1096. It was originally a Benedictine monastery run by a prior and a community of monks whose lives followed the rhythm of daily worship and physical labour. The monks would greet their guests at the Hostry, where I am welcomed by the Dean of Norwich, the Very Reverend Jane Hedges.

“The monastery provided the social services of the day,” the Dean says. “It is where people would come if they were sick or poor. Benedictine spirituality is about being charitable and hospitable and we still try to live by these principles with everything we do.”

True to this ideal, I am offered a steaming pot of green tea in the Refectory Café – a beautiful building harmonising modern design with ancient masonry that looks out on the Cathedral Close. “In the past the Cathedral Close would have featured a brewery, bakery and infirmary,” the Dean explains. “Our herb garden dates back to the cathedral’s monastic roots when herbs were grown for medicinal purposes, as well as food.”

Norwich Cathedral cloister. Photo: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

Norwich Cathedral cloisters - Credit: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

Following in the footsteps of the monks, the Dean and I tread along the ambulatory that winds around the cathedral and through the Cloisters’ vaulted walkways, which lead up to a green square with a labyrinth at the centre. From here, it is possible to see the famous peregrine falcons. The majestic birds have roosted in a nesting platform on the spire since 2011, recorded by a live webcam overseen by the Hawk and Owl Trust.


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Inside, the Nave is built like a forest of stone, sunlight pouring through stained glass as if filtered through leaves. We pass by the flickering candles of the peace globe and study the medieval graffiti carved into the stonework before stopping in front of the Despenser Retable. Dating back to 1380, the painted English altarpiece is one of the cathedral’s greatest treasures – and one with an incredible story.

The Despenser Retable or Reredos c1380 in St Luke's Chapel. Photograph: Norwich Cathedral/Bill Smith

The Despenser Retable in St Luke’s Chapel, a painted English altarpiece which was disguised as the underside of the table to save it from defacement after the Great Reformation - Credit: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

The cathedral managed to survive Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s after his break with Rome, but the Despenser Retable was flipped and disguised as the underside of the table, thus saving it from defacement suffered by much ecclesiastical art after the upheaval.

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“At the time of the Great Reformation, very little damage was done to the cathedral,” the Dean explains. “But during the English Civil War and Commonwealth period, much more damage was done.”

The altarpiece remained in use as a table in a workshop until 1847 when, so the story goes, someone rediscovered the retable after retrieving a dropped object that rolled underneath. It is considered one of the finest surviving examples of 14th century religious art in Europe. “It’s in fantastic condition and is absolutely priceless.”

Norwich Cathedral is adorned with more than 1,000 medieval roof bosses that colour the ceiling overhead with symbolic expressions of biblical stories. The collection is the largest of its kind in the world with 225 carved bosses on the roof of the Nave, starting at the east end of the cathedral and progressing from creation to the last judgment.

In 2019, Norwich Cathedral attracted international attention for its Seeing It Differently campaign, which saw a 55-foot helter-skelter erected inside the Nave to help visitors appreciate the roof bosses. The idea for the unique exhibit came to the Revd Canon Andy Bryant as he was looking up at the Sistine Chapel ceiling.

NA01+NA04 The creation – one of the roof bosses telling the bible story above the nave of Norwich Ca

One of the roof bosses telling the bible story above the Nave of Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Norwich Cathedral

“When Andy came back from the Vatican, he suggested we install a Ferris wheel so that visitors could see the roof bosses up close,” the Dean explains. “But after we learned that a Ferris wheel would be impossible, we found the lighthouse-style helter-skelter.”

The fairground ride generated great fanfare, attracting 40,000 visitors in 11 days. And the Dean is expecting a similar spotlight shining on the cathedral when the Natural History Museum’s iconic diplodocus cast, Dippy the Dinosaur, takes up residence in the Nave this summer.

Dippy on Tour: A Natural History Adventure will run from Tuesday, July 13 until Saturday, October 30. The much-anticipated exhibition, which was postponed due to the pandemic, aims to inspire people of all ages to engage with nature and explore the natural world on their doorsteps.

“We are incredibly honoured to be the final stop on Dippy’s national tour and also the only cathedral, and our team is working closely with the Natural History Museum to ensure that we really make the most of this amazing opportunity for Norwich, Norfolk and the wider region.

The Natural History Museum's Dippy the Diplodocus

The Natural History Museum's Dippy the Diplodocus will be in Norwich Cathedral from 13 July to 30 October 2021 - Credit: Trustees of the Natural History Museum

“As with the helter-skelter, there will inevitably be people who’ll say: ‘Why have you got a dinosaur in a cathedral?’” the Dean says. “There’s often conflict between people with scientific knowledge and people that believe in God. Actually, the two things enhance one another.

“Dippy’s visit presents a really good opportunity for us to engage with science and think about the environment,” the Dean adds. “For example, why did dinosaurs become extinct and what can that teach us? Might we become extinct if we carry on doing what we’re doing to our planet?”

The cathedral recently received the bronze Eco Church Award and the Bishop of Norwich, the Rt Revd Graham Usher, is lead for the Church of England’s Environment Programme. Norwich Cathedral also hosts Talking Tuesdays and Science in the Café, a series of lectures and discussions whereby scientists and theologians explore issues of faith and science, in addition to those raised by the Covid-19 pandemic. An upcoming event is scheduled for June 14.

“What we believe in doesn’t change, but the way that we may express it and respond to what’s going on in the world around us is constantly changing.”

The Dean reminds us that it is free to visit Norwich Cathedral and entry donations are voluntary. “I hope that people will always feel relaxed about coming in and enjoying the space. We welcome everybody here – people of all faiths and none.

“Norwich Cathedral is your cathedral.”

For more information, please visit www.cathedral.org.uk

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