Tuesday, August 21, 2012

Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist

If you know me, you know I'm a fool for Gothic architecture. In our current social and political climate, fears about the future inspire hatred, ignorance, and bigotry. A thousand years ago, while these negative emotions were not absent, fear that the end of the first millennium would bring the end of the world inspired jaw-dropping architecture. The intention behind all those Gothic pointed arch windows and fan vaulting was to reach toward heaven and to God and the divine. What can be bad about that?

The Roman Catholic Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist was donated by the 15th Duke of Norfolk in 1894, and is a wonderful demonstration of 19th Century Gothic. This cathedral is the second largest Roman Catholic Cathedral in the United Kingdom. St John the Baptist Cathedral Church, along with the Anglican Norwich Cathedral, makes Norwich one of the few cities in the UK to have two cathedrals. And I'm telling you, this city is lousy with amazing churches, too. Prepare yourself to see a lot of them in the coming months.

A populated place in the UK earned the designation of "city" by one of two means: either it was granted city status by royal charter, or it had a cathedral. This tradition of tying the idea of a "city" with a cathedral originated, ironically enough, with Henry VIII in the early 1540s, when he founded six diocese and granted them city status at the same time.

When Graham and I arrived in Norwich last week, we found our hotel by following the signs to the "RC Cathedral." Our hotel, The Beeches, was just two doors away, and we enjoyed looking for the cathedral each time we returned to the hotel from a day of exploring. Seeing that large square tower looming over the city let us know we were headed toward Earlham Road, and kept us from getting too lost too often.

Our hotel, on the other hand, offered anything but sanctuary and peace. We gained access to the hotel and to our room by means of a keypad at each door. This meant there is no staff on hand. Which means that every teenager in Norwich knows if they want to party with all the comforts of home and none of those pesky parents, then the thing to do is to rent a room for the night from the MJB Group, who will put them up at one of their several hotels--The Beeches among them. What follows is a nightly parade of drunken teenagers, young girls dressed like hookers, and screaming, shouting, loud music and obscenity. I'm sure it's fun for the teenagers. It is absolutely no fun at all for any adults staying in the hotel. Complaints to the management didn't seem to have any effect other than to annoy the teenagers, and make us feel as if we were under siege. We deliberately chose a cheap hotel, not expecting luxury. But we really hadn't expected to be living over the slamming front door of Party Central, either.

So to keep our sanity, we made a point of taking day trips or walks as often as possible. Our first walk was next door, to the cathedral. And this is what we found.

It is amazing, and I took more pictures than you really want to know about. You'll be pleased that I weeded through my millions of photos and got the number down to ninety-eight, which you can view here. If you decide to open a Dropbox.com account of your own (which you really should have, anyway, it is incredibly handy and roomy storage for files and photos, in case your computer ever dies, as mine recently did), could you mention me? I get more storage space, which I'm going to need at the rate I'm throwing photos in here.

We spent about an hour wandering around the cathedral itself, and then the cathedral gift store--I love a good gift store--and the cafe, and the back garden. What awed me especially were the fan vaulting, the stained glass and leaded glass windows, and the detailed stone work. When I first came to the UK about fifteen years ago and saw the wood and stone carving in the various cathedrals and palaces I visited, it seemed impossible to me that any human could carve those materials to look like leaves and flowers and birds, and make them so life-like. I will always remember a garland of oak leaves and acorns at Hampton Court Palace, carved by Grinling Gibbons, that was exquisite. This particular cathedral appeared to have a theme of lilies and doves, the former forming the capitals of the columns--which are made of dark, fossilized marble--and the latter ornamenting the bases of the columns.

So grab a cup of tea, sit down, and take a tour through the Cathedral Church of St John the Baptist, in Norwich. I hope it thrills you as much as it did Graham and me.

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