Two English Cathedrals

Exeter Cathedral, Devon, England

On a recent visit to the UK, I was delighted to check off two items from my substantial bucket list—both medieval cathedrals and each unique in their own way. The first was Exeter Cathedral in Devon. Somewhat squat and cramped at first view, Exeter, when approached from the west, betrays a seeming over familiarity with the bustling commercial streets surrounding it, with only a low stone wall as a barrier.

Exeter Cathedral, West Front

The west front, though resplendent with many fine carvings, lacks both the solid grandeur of flanking towers, as at Lincoln, or the splendid focal point of a soaring central spire, as at Salisbury.

Instead, further back, the current building incorporates two rather simple towers from an earlier structure on the site (see photo below). The result is practical but underwhelming.

Exeter Cathedral from the NW. Note the earlier tower at left.

But it this very economy on the exterior which creates an opportunity for astonishment on the interior. You see, most gothic cathedrals, being built in the shape of a cross, have a central tower rising from the crossing—the point where the two bars of the cross intersect. This tower, usually hollow at its base, while creating a soaring interior space, also interrupts the line of the nave, often making it appear shorter than it really is. But at Exeter, without a central tower, the nave runs in one uninterrupted line all the way from front to back. The effect is stunning.

The ribbed vaulting with its enormous and brightly colored roof bosses at each intersection, accentuate the effect. These roof bosses, when viewed from ground level, appear much smaller than they actually are. See the photo above for scale.

To all of this, add the presence of one of the oldest surviving sets of medieval misericords and, for me at least, you have the makings of a great afternoon out.

Wells Cathedral, Somerset, England

Later in the week, I had the privilege of visiting Wells Cathedral in Somerset. I had wanted to visit Wells for as long as I can remember, and it didn’t disappoint. Set amid extensive walled grounds, Wells gave the opposite impression of Exeter. Though open to the public, visitors to the cathedral precincts are required to pass through a set of massive arched stone gateways to enter, as though leaving the clamor and avarice of the secular world and entering another world altogether. The beautiful west front, looking out over a broad, manicured lawn and graced by two large flanking towers was all that a medieval cathedral should be. And set back astride the crossing and yet soaring over all, was the great central tower, visible from miles around—the very tower which was the cause of the cathedral’s crowning glory, its unique scissor arches. In the early 14th century, it was decided to add another story to the tower, bringing it to its present height. The added weight created excessive strain on the walls below and cracks began to appear. The interior arches were thickened but to no avail. The tower began to lean. Faced with imminent disaster, the master mason, William Joy, proposed a solution—the beautiful yet functional scissor arches.

Nothing else like them survives from the period, although it is thought that Glastonbury Abbey, now a ruin, may have had something similar. As I circled the crossing, looking at this architectural curiosity from every angle, an analogy began to form. William Joy had taken an awful situation, filled with danger, fear, and disappointment and had turned it into a thing of beauty and utility. How often does God do the same in our own lives when we lean into Him even when He feels furthest away? When we trust Him just as things appear at their most hopeless.

Less serious contemplation came in the form of the whimsical yet fascinating medieval clock with its colorful jousting knights. Doing battle on the quarter hour for over 600 years, the red knight has now unseated the long-suffering buff knight over 60,000 times.

But the highlight of the visit had to be a private tour of the cathedral’s extensive chained library. Before the advent of the printing press, books were so valuable that they were literally chained to the shelves upon which they were stored. Although very few of the surviving books are actually from the period, it was still quite a fascinating experience.