The All-England Family Cathedral Tour

As I warned in a previous post, my family arrived from Texas on May 22 and stuck around until June 4, during which time we spent a few days in London between two big road trips across England. The Family Road Trip is one of our more glorious traditions, and so, in the spirit of past itineraries like Natchez Trace, Gettysburg, All Four Corners of the Southwest, and Is There Anything Cool in Central Missouri?, we decided to see as much as possible of England.

Resulting life lesson: England has a lot of cathedrals. And abbeys. And minsters.

And ruins thereof, suitable for oddball family photos. This is Jervaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, dissolved by Henry VIII, who was even nastier to monasteries than he was to wives. (As always, click photos to expand them.)

So, with little else in way of an itinerary, we simply drifted from religious monument to religious monument. We began in Canterbury, whose cathedral is very, very Gothic and very, very tall, an intimidating combination which only serves to remind the awestruck visitor that the place has a fairly bloody, disturbing history (see: Becket, Thomas). We proceeded to a ruined church in the tiny seaside village of Winchelsea, where the village itself is a half-abandoned clutch of homes with a “Little Shop,” a pub, and the church, part of which still functions even though a majority of the original structure has collapsed.

Salisbury Cathedral was a world apart: light, airy, somehow reassuring in its much more human sort of beauty. After fifteen minutes in this approximation of heaven, however, we were asked to leave: a concert was about to begin which would be broadcast live on BBC Radio 3.

Parting shot

So it was on to the abbey in Bath, which we (perhaps thankfully) only got to see from outside, and then back to London. The next cathedral on our list was Lincoln’s, a wide edifice which looks absolutely huge from the outside, set as it is in quite a modest town, but which used to be even bigger: for three hundred years, it was the tallest building in the world. Then we moved on to York Minster, possibly the most glorious building of its class in England. I mean, look:

The ceiling of the Chapter House, York Minster

From there we drove to the previously-pictured Jervaulx Abbey in Yorkshire, yet another scene of religious violence (oh, did I mention that Bath had sponsored a massacre of Jews at some point in the Middle Ages? Or was that York?), and finally to Stratford-upon-Avon, where we avoided the local church because we couldn’t take it anymore.

Of course, this is a skewed presentation of the family road trip. There was more on our itinerary: the villages of Rye, Lacock, and Hawes; the Yorkshire Dales; a Royal Shakespeare Company performance; a restored Georgian home in Bath; a gloriously teenage wish to take pictures of places with vulgar names.

And the winner is... UPPER DICKER

But, for four non-Anglicans weaving their way through the English countryside, the fixation with cathedrals, abbeys and minsters might need a little explaining. The history of this nation is in many ways a religious history: what money there was in the medieval period went to fund the construction of all these places. Depending on how you view things, this can be either inspiring or depressing.

A friend of mine who just paid a visit, and with whom I went to St Paul’s Cathedral, finds it inspiring. After leaving the cathedral, she remarked on what a glorious building it is and said, “We just don’t care what our churches look like any more.”

My family took the opposite view. As awe-inspiring as the sights are–and they are indeed stupendous–it is more than a little painful to remember that a huge amount of manual labor and economic output was expended on the structures, out of all proportion to their usefulness. Medieval England spent more of its budget on churches than America spends on defense today. Think about that for a minute. No doubt the ingenious artists–architects, sculptors, painters, carpenters, musicians, sermon writers–employed by the cathedrals have left an invaluable legacy, and the buildings themselves are glorious monuments to human artistry, but is any such thing worth sapping the energy of a country, a continent, for centuries?

At least through a camera lens, the answer can occasionally be “yes.” As for my family, I suspect that, our personalities being what they are, we were just as happy to debate the sights as we were to see them.

Art critic John Ruskin once called Lincoln Cathedral "the most precious building in the British Isles." In 1255, the Cathedral made an unofficial saint of an 8-year-old named Hugh, whose murder was pinned on the Jews in one of the first-ever instances of the "blood libel." Eighteen of Lincoln's Jews were hanged for the crime. Our challenge, perhaps, is to accept both these things to be true at the same time.

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3 Comments

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3 responses to “The All-England Family Cathedral Tour

  1. Michelle

    On the other hand, a huge portion of the population was employed in constructing and maintaining churches, including a great many artists who would be jobless today. The buildings themselves served a wide variety of functions, including shelters and community centers, and many were attached to monasteries that led to the creation of fabulous beer. Let me repeat: GOOD BEER EXISTS BECAUSE OF PRETTY CHURCHES. Who needs the Industrial Revolution when you can enjoy getting drunk?

  2. Tim in the US

    “Out of all proportion to their usefullness” – OK, defend NASCAR, professional US basketball, baseball (if it was any slower, it would be farming), or football.

    The English cathedral, far from being a drain on society, was central to the life of its community, both religiously and socially. It comforted the poor, educated the people, fed the hungry, nursed the sick, just for starters.

    Heck, you could argue today – who needs public schools, hospitals, and the Red Cross.

    And I’m a Yank, not a Brit.

  3. Tim in the US,I wished I’d have said that.

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