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.
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.
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:
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.
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.