The United Kingdom is a country with great beauties, both natural and man-made. Among the man-made ones, you can certainly include its cathedrals. When you look at the map, you’ll find them scattered everywhere, so it’s rather difficult to choose ten of my favorites. This is just a possible selection, mainly focused on the Norman and Gothic styles; ten suggestions for visitors to admire men’s efforts to excel in architecture.
Let’s start this journey from the north to the south of England and your first stop is Durham. As you get off the train, you start seeing signs pointing in the direction of the Cathedral and you can also see the building itself, because it’s on top of the hill, on the river Wear. As a matter of fact, that’s the best way to get there. Walk along the river and you’ll find yourself in a really beautiful place. Then just go upwards and you won’t miss it.
Durham Cathedral is quite impressive. When you go southwards in England, you’ll see several other buildings of this kind, but many of them (in particular, the Gothic ones) will have a lighter appearance. Over here you clearly see the previous Norman style, despite some later additions, which make the transition into the Early English period.
All cathedrals have their distinctive features. At Durham, there are massive spiral and zigzag decorated columns. No wonder it’s on the World Heritage Sites List.
Together with the Castle, which houses the University of Durham, you get the incredible sensation that you’re inside a machine and were sent back many centuries in time. By the way, while you’re in the city, walk down to the centre and visit a beautiful bookshop. It’s called People’s Bookshop and it’s decorated in a very personal style. It looks like you’re going into someone’s house.
The feeling of going back in time is something you often get in different parts of the United Kingdom and another such place is York. Remember, we’re going southwards in England.
Once again, if you take the train to the city, you almost just have to go forwards. There’s no way you’re going to miss the Cathedral. You just have to follow the people in front of you, in particular if they’re holding a camera.
York’s been a very important city for quite a long time. It was here that Constantine the Great was hailed, in AD 306. By then, the city was called Eboracum. The Romans had a bit of trouble strengthening the northern border of the empire, precisely on the British Isles.
York Cathedral is a very big building, one of the largest of its kind in northern Europe. Among its beautiful features, you have the wide nave and the Chapter House which were built in Decorated Gothic. It’s incredible how such delicate work can be made of stone. Particularly striking seems to be the West Window, but conservation work was taking place, so I couldn’t actually see the stained glass… It’s a good sign that this kind of work is undertaken regularly, but it’s a bit disappointing after you’ve travelled for so many miles…
York itself is also very beautiful and worth the visit, because it’s a very well-preserved medieval city, with narrow streets. One in particular is called The Shambles and it has great shops, cafés and restaurants.
It’s time to move on to Lincoln. In order to get to the cathedral from the train station, you have to go through the city, which is quite nice. So take your time and enjoy the lively atmosphere, as you witness the history of the place, going through gates and admiring the façades of the different buildings.
Then start heading to Castle Square, along Steep Hill, a street with nice shops and tea rooms that’s as steep as the name suggests. The Castle itself is on your left. As it’s on top of the hill, you have a great view from up there.
On the right, you have Lincoln Cathedral, surrounded by its closed precinct. The city had great influence in the Medieval Ages and you still see that. The present building is mostly Gothic due to a fire and an earthquake that took place in the 12th century and caused great damage.
The people involved in the construction of Gothic cathedrals liked to make experiments and test all possibilities, trying to create something new, bigger, taller… Due to these experiments, Lincoln Cathedral can boast to have been once the tallest building in the world, but then structural problems came.
The Cathedral is empty most of the times and that is how I remember it. Maybe because of that, as you come inside from the West Front, what you see is overwhelming. The arches that separate the north aisle, the nave and the south aisle are what impress visitors the most.
Before you leave, don’t forget to walk along the Cathedral on the outside. Have a look at some fascinating details of Gothic architecture, such as buttresses, and admire the nice Cathedral Quarter that surrounds the main building.
Your next stop is Norwich. This is clearly a cathedral of Norman influence and you can see that by the round-arched style. As you walk along the central nave and look at either side, you’ll notice the different levels that make it possible for the heavy structure of the building to stand. All around, you just see white stone.
The stone that we see at Norwich Cathedral reveals an important part of British history. In fact, it’s a specific limestone found in the northern part of the French territory, near the city of Caen. This was the hometown of William the Conqueror, the Norman King of England that allowed for the influence of continental Europe to cross the sea.
Norwich Cathedral was built for Benedictine monks. As a result, it has several unique features so that communal life could be possible. The large Cloisters are among those features and so is the length of the central nave for processions.
No visit to Norwich would be possible without a walk through the Cathedral Close, where you can not only see some of the buildings from the medieval priory, but also others of a more recent construction. As you’re going out, and if you haven’t done that yet, you must pay attention to the gates: Erpingham and Ethelbert.
And then, in another part of the city, you have Norwich Castle, a square-shaped fortification that tells us something about life in Norman times.
Let’s stop in Cambridge for a while. You aren’t going to read about a cathedral. It’s a chapel, this time. When you arrive in the city, don’t bother taking any means of transport. Just walk and you won’t regret it. You’ll see buildings of all kinds showing the history of the local university. It’s been there since the early 13th century, so variety in architecture will be waiting for you. Lord Byron and John Milton are just two examples of the many celebrated people that have walked these same streets.
When you get to King’s College, go inside the precinct and you’ll see the Chapel on your right. Just because this is called a chapel, don’t think you’ll be looking for a small building. As a matter of fact, once you go in, you’ll realise how tall it actually is. This is an example of late Gothic architecture, as it was started around the middle of the 15th century. From the crafting of the stone to the stained glass, the visual effect is guaranteed to impress any visitor.
Except for some details in dark brown wood, you’ll see light all over the building. You actually get the impression that you’re living a dream, because of the delicacy in the fan-vaulted ceiling and the colours coming in through the glass of the large windows.
After you’ve taken your while inside, don’t forget to have a look around. The river Cam runs nearby and it just adds beauty to the place.
One last recommendation, if you’re planning to visit King’s College: beware of the opening hours. The Chapel is used for daily service and other activities, such as choir rehearsals, and you might find it closed. You’ll probably think this is a good excuse to come back the next day. Cambridge is just 30 minutes away from London and it’s certainly worth the two-consecutive-day visit.
And now you go to Canterbury. As with Cambridge, you have trains all the time and it’s a very quick trip. The Cathedral is in the heart of the city. You have to cross the streets in order to get there, but first you must walk through Westgate. Once again, take your time: do a bit of browsing, visit a few bookshops, take some coffee and see the river… You’ll enjoy the atmosphere. You’re on a World Heritage Site…
Canterbury Cathedral has attracted people for centuries, and so Geoffrey Chaucer tells us in his “Canterbury Tales”: the stories of a group of pilgrims on their journey to the shrine of Saint Thomas Becket. Work at the present building started by the end of the 11th century. Let’s remember that this was very close to the Norman invasion, after the Battle of Hastings in 1066. The new king, William the Conqueror, brought a new rule and with it the influence of continental Europe. So Canterbury was rebuilt in the fashion of the Abbey of St. Etienne, in Caen. It was also from this city that the limestone came. It’s the same kind of stone that you’ve seen in Norwich.
By the end of the 12th century, a fire destroyed the choir and Master William of Sens was hired for the reconstruction. He was a Frenchman in charge of building the Sens Cathedral, where the Gothic style is believed to have taken its first steps, with its ribbed vaults and pointed arches. As a result, he’s seen as the one that took this new form of architecture to the British Isles, though there are some previous signs of it at places like Durham.
You’re in the south of England now and you don’t forget that Westminster Abbey, in London, deserves a reference on this list, but you know that most people have heard about it and so you choose a different one: Salisbury.
As with many others, to get to the Cathedral, you have to cross the Precinct, which is quite big (in fact, the biggest in England) and allows for the building to show all its beauty. You’ve seen this in Lincoln and Norwich and, as a foreigner, you find the idea new and very interesting. Coming from southern Europe, you think the green grass adds to the peace you’re supposed to feel in these places.
Salisbury Cathedral was built in the Early English style. Even though it’s not exactly in the same style, the spire is one of the features that distinguish the building, making it the tallest religious building in the country. The stonework inside is particularly overwhelming and you can’t help being impressed by the massive marble columns.
You’ve already mentioned peace as you were going through the Cathedral Close. It’s the same kind of feeling you get when you’re in the Cloisters. By the way, this is also home to an original copy of the Magna Carta. If you couldn’t see the one on display in Lincoln, grab this opportunity. Pay attention to the public viewing hours and, if you need to wait a bit, take a snack at the cathedral’s coffee shop: maybe some scones and tea. While you’re eating, get a view of the spire.
Keep travelling in the south of England, because you have a lot to see. Choose Wells as your next stop, but you’ll have to take a car or a bus to get there. You can get a connection in Bath. You’ll take your time on the bus, but you’ll also see some local villages on the way.
If the idea of the people behind the planning of medieval cathedrals was to impress the community and make them look up to the sky, they certainly achieved their goal in Wells. You could spend hours on end just having a look at the West Front and all the remarkable details, but you have to go around the building and can’t believe how it was even possible to build something like that so long ago. The construction of the present cathedral began in the 12th century.
As previously mentioned, medieval builders employed all their efforts in creating something no one had ever thought about. They were in a competition to build higher, larger, stronger and yet lighter to the eye, more beautiful, more creative… The most striking features of Wells Cathedral are the Scissor Arches. How can something like that be made of stone and hold such a heavy structure? As a matter of fact, how can something like that have been the solution to avoid total collapse?
You take a long while inside. You go up the stairs that take you to the Chapter House and once again you wonder at how delicate something made of stone can look. You take a 360º spin to grab the octagonal shape of the room. Are you sure that is not lace? This is another step in medieval architecture. This isn’t Early Gothic. This is the Decorated Style.
On going out you remember you still have to see Vicar’s Close. That’s true. You had a look at it while you were going around the Cathedral… This was something that was founded in the 14th century to house the singing men of the choir. It’s all still there with small changes; a miniature village, in fact the only entirely medieval street in the country.
Even further south, you’ll find Exeter. For someone who doesn’t know the area, getting there by train is a bit more difficult, because the main railway isn’t near the city centre. No problem, nothing that a bit of walking won’t solve.
Exeter has also been an important city for quite a long time. It was a fortified settlement in the Roman Era and has managed to keep a certain status throughout the centuries. You can see that by the façades of various kinds as you walk along the streets.
It is walking those streets that you find the Close, which is very big and has buildings of all sorts, including other churches, besides the Cathedral itself. On a summer day, it’s a nice place for you to spend some time at a street café, admiring the main building. For me, in what regards the West Front, it was just admiring a bit, because maintenance work was being done and all you could see was the scaffolding. My luck…
If you’re in the same luck, don’t worry, you’ll get your moment once you get inside. The cathedral was built in the Decorated Gothic style. The amount of detail (columns, arches, vaults and stained glass) is unbelievable. Once again you think: how could all this have been possible? And yet again, as with the places you’ve seen before, you thank God for your digital camera. You’ll take all these memories in a card.
Your final choice on this list of ten English cathedrals is Gloucester. For that, you’ll have to go north again. A big part of Gloucester Cathedral is of Norman influence with its massive columns and round arches, but you can also find the Gothic style in its various stages, because the construction of the present building lasted till the end of the 15th century. As a result, pay attention to how rich detail is, in particular when you get to the choir.
As you move to the Cloisters, you are sure to witness the most beautiful thing that architecture has produced. At least, that’s how I felt at the moment. The whiteness of the stone and the fan vaults together with the light coming in from the stained glass create an incredible atmosphere, and you believe that’s truly God’s work.
It’ll take you quite some time to leave the Cathedral and its Cloisters, but when you do, don’t forget Gloucester Docks. You’ll take another journey back in time to the harsher reality of a 19th century harbour and how difficult life was for those who worked there and on board the ships.
And this is how you come to the end of your list. Many other cathedrals and cities could be on it. England and the United Kingdom in general are great places to visit. So, if you want to make your list longer, go back there whenever you can. You’ll love it every time. At least, that’s how I feel.
About the Author:
My name’s Ana Galrinho. I come from Portugal. I took a degree in Modern Languages and Literatures (English and German) at Lisbon University. I’ve been an English teacher for 23 years. I’m a great admirer of the English language and all that’s related to British culture. I try to encourage my students in their interest not only for the language itself, but also for what’s behind it. I’ve had the good fortune of travelling to the United Kingdom several times and have been to various cities all over the British Isles. It’s always with great pleasure that I return to the country.