Chester is one of England’s most historic cities, established as a Roman port on the Dee Estuary in the 1st century AD, and very prosperous in the Middle Ages. The Roman walls have been largely maintained over the centuries, providing a scenic walk around the central city and its modern shopping centre although the port silted up many years ago now. The large number of historic buildings makes for a fine High Street, photographed here from the central pedestrian bridge on the wall walk.
The 11C Chester cathedral has a chequered history as Saxon Minster and Benedictine Abbey. The sandstone used in its construction is characteristic of many religious buildings in the area.
It is Sunday and we again circle Ely to the south, this time to to the small village of Prickwillow and its Engine Museum. With a small group of visitors we learn more about the history the Fens and specifically the engines used to pump water, from an enthusiastic volunteer and video. It is remarkable that the whole area of he Fens would be inundated regularly by the sea without regular pumping. A marker at the museum shows that the high tide water level would be above our heads.
After the Fens were drained, the land gradually sank due to contraction of peat, so that the fields are now lower than the rivers that drain them – another incredible feature of this area.
The village of Prickwillow was established in 1830 as a tolling station on the River Lark. When steam power came along in 1860 a pumping station was established for drainage. The old pumping station has now become a museum, containing a number of old diesel pumps on display from around 1970s. Sadly there are no remaining steam pumps.
I note that several of the pumps on display are manufactured by the company WH Allen, for whom my father worked designing pumps. Maybe he had a hand in some of these!
After this education, we visit and savour the magnificent Ely cathedral, one of England’s great religious buildings. The medieval octagon tower is quite remarkable. Ely’s position as an island in the original Fens made it a natural focus for travel and trade.
Featured image shows Ely cathedral from nearby meadow.
After visiting Aix la Chapelle / Aachen, capital of the Holy Roman Empire around 800, it seemed appropriate to also visit Trèves / Trier around 100 miles to the south. Trèves was conquered by the Romans in the time of Emperor Augustus around 16BC, when it got its name Augusta Treverorum. Trèves became one of the leading cities of the Roman Empire, and eventually in the 4th century oversaw much of the Western part of that Empire – that Charlemagne re-established 400 years later.
The most impressive Roman remain here is the Porta Nigra, built in 170AD, the best preserved Roman City Gate north of the Alps. This is a massive structure, a clear demonstration of power, but hardly beautiful.
I understand that we owe the current restored state of the gate to another Emperor, Napoleon.
Nearby in the attractive city centre is the cathedral, said to have been originally commissioned by Emperor Constantine, but clearly most of it is much more recent. It’s a nice enough cathedral to explore, along with its cloisters and the neighbouring Liebfrauenkirche.
There are more Roman remains in Trier, but we didn’t tarry long. Traffic problems seemed even more intense than in the UK. We headed for France!
The first image of the gate is from Wikimedia Commons, thanks to Berthold Werner
I’ve previously mentioned how Aix la Chapelle, or Aachen, was the original capital of the holy Roman Empire founded by Charlemagne in 800. As befits an Emperor, the cathedral built for Charlemagne, completed around 805, is even today quite magnificent.
The interior is painted or marbled in magnificent fashion, which quite took my breath away on a recent visit. Of course, the original cathedrals were decorated both inside and outside. Here at least the interior decoration remains, giving a taste of just how impressive these buildings originally were. And just imagine the collective dedication and money that has gone into maintaining such an edifice over more than twelve centuries.
Here are just four photographs (as slideshow) to give a brief impression. You just have to go there for the experience.
To visit Europe is to travel through history, and in my case gradually build up a picture of Europe’s history that was neglected in my education. I first heard of Aix la Chapelle as the capital of the Holy Roman Empire of Charlemagne, which reunited Western Europe, effectively recreating the original Roman Empire (European Union is not a modern idea!). Charlemagne was crowned Emperor there in the year 800.
Eventually I realised that the romantic-sounding Aix la Chapelle is actually known as the much more dour sounding Aachen in German. The roman languages are so much more poetic! Aachen is today in Germany, close to the Belgian border.
According to Wikipedia, Aach, means river or stream, corresponding to the Latin aqua and the French Aix. Remains show that Aachen was indeed a Roman ‘spa’ town. ‘La Chapelle’ of course refers to Charlemagne’s cathedral, one of Europe’s great and most historic buildings, originally completed around 805.
I intend to say more about a recent visit to Aachen in a future post.
Featured image shows Aachen town hall and cathedral,
by Arne Hückelheim via Wikimedia Commons
It was great to be back in Lincoln the other day, despite the odd spell of rain. Sometimes a rainy street helps the effect in night shots, such as this one of The Strait/ Steep Hill, leading up to the cathedral.Read More »
Review of the book by David Fideler, subtitled: ‘Our Living Bond with Nature’s Intelligence’.
This is a story that cannot be told too often – our story from the beginnings to now, in the tradition of such a magnificent telling as Richard Tarnas’s The Passion of the Western Mind first published in 1991.
David Fideler’s great breadth of knowledge and understanding is on show in this tour de force, as he traces human development and our relationship with the natural world over millennia.Read More »
Approaching Bourges from the west, the city is overshadowed by the great bulk of this massive gothic building. It’s an old favourite that we have visited a number of times on our way through France. Friend Alf had introduced me to it when he was just ‘plus de soixante ans’ and got his first age-related reduction in climbing the tower.
The apparent thick walls and large number of flying buttresses visible externally are testimony to the massive engineering needed for a building of this scale.
As we entered the nave, I was immediately drawn upward by the sheer height of this soaring gothic space – 37m high by 15m wide. This, I believe, was the intention of these spaces, drawing you ever upward into the higher mental/ spiritual areas of the mind, away from the the concerns of the day-to-day ‘monkey mind’. Towards that ‘clerestory’ level of the top windows of clear light, symbolising the clear inner light of spirit.
There are two side aisles, the inner aisle having similar upward drawing qualities, being rather narrow but still 21m high. The overall effect of these two and the nave is for me the most special characteristic of this particular gothic masterpiece.
Around the ambulatory at the back of the choir are some magnificent stained glass windows, reminiscent of those at the roughly contemporary Chartres cathedral, but here more predominantly red than the blues of Chartres.
There is a combined ticket for a guided tour of the crypt and climbing the tower, but sadly no longer any reduction for ‘plus de soixante ans’. The large crypt contains stonework defaced and broken during the wars of religion and the revolution – in common with many religious buildings. Alf was always amused by the human buttocks that were carved into one of the pillars down here, opposite an image of a rather shocked face on the other side – unusual humour in one of these deeply religious buildings.
Despite its height of nearly 400 steps, the climb of the tower is relatively easy – even Alf made it with his damaged knees. The steps are wide compared to many, so there is not that tight enclosed feeling, with adequate space for passing anyone going the other way. Surprisingly, the view from the top, over rooftops and the surrounding countryside, is little changed over the past 27 years.
Yes, we’ll definitely visit again when we’re in the area.
Between the idea And the reality Between the motion And the act Falls the shadow.
TS Eliot, The Hollow Men
In a previous post I talked about some of the glories of Lincoln Cathedral. The angel choir is one of its many magnificent features – an architectural hymn to the glory of God. If you explore the nether reaches of the ambulatory region around the west end of the choir you can find, there high up on a pillar, what is now known as the Lincoln Imp. At first you look and see nothing, the small imp dwarfed by the glorious surroundings. But then you see it nestling there in the angle of two arches, hiding in plain sight.
The imp was the ultimate reminder of the dangers of complacency – there in those beautiful and peaceful surroundings was a symbol of the devil that is always lurking, even when most unexpected. Psychologically, the devil is similar to CG Jung’s concept of the shadow, the unknown dark side of the personality.
‘I have always held and am prepared against all evidence to maintain that the Cathedral of Lincoln is out and out the most precious piece of architecture in the British Isles and roughly speaking worth any two other cathedrals we have’.
I am the boy cycling around the countryside, always on the lookout for that sudden view across the flat Lincolnshire plain of the unmistakeable cathedral standing proud on the hill – from the south on my regular bike rides through Hykeham and Auburn – from the west near Saxilby by the Roman-built Fosse Dyke, along which pleasure boats ventured from Brayford Pool towards the River Trent – and from the east near Southrey, where we loved crossing the River Witham on the chain ferry.
I am the teenager on the bus going to secondary school in the centre of Lincoln, two miles from home – we always sat at the front upstairs and watched the cathedral getting closer and closer, often forced to wait as steam trains traversed the two level crossings on the High Street.
I am the student at that City School, the old technical college. Every Wednesday at lunchtime we would independently climb up the steep Greestone Steps, along by the girls’ High School. A friend and I often kicked a tennis ball along the way, defying it to get past us and roll down Lindum Hill into the lower city. There were a few scares, but it never did.
At the top the steps open out into the cathedral precinct and we walked in the shadow of its mighty walls, often pausing to inspect the statue of Lincolnshire poet Alfred, Lord Tennyson on the green, before walking on another mile to the school sports ground – to endure or enjoy as the case might be.
The annual school service was held in the nave of the cathedral, so we spent slightly bored minutes there as the service slowly progressed, but at the same time absorbed the experience of those magnificent gothic arches.
I am the football fan, regularly watching Lincoln City play at their Sincil Bank ground. City then frequented the lower reaches of the old Second Division. We shouted ‘come on the imps’ or ‘up the imps’, long before I knew they got that nickname from the stone imp in the cathedral.
I am the adult who made pilgrimages to that cathedral when I could fit them in – the view of the west front from the castle, the walk around the outside, the internal tour of nave, choir, the imp itself high up on a pillar, cloisters, library and the chapter house where parliament once sat. And sometimes a look at the cathedral’s copy of Magna Carta [now on display in Lincoln Castle], and possibly a climb up the 338 steps of the cathedral tower. This was always something special, picking out all those familiar places from this unfamiliar angle. On windy days the tower sways. On clear days you can see Boston Stump, nearly 30 miles away. You used to just turn up and climb on your own, but you now have to go with a tour.
Sometimes the tower was closed. I remember fairly regular reports in the Lincolnshire Echo that someone had jumped to his or her death from the great tower, but I believe this is now much more difficult.
In more recent years, an evening walk has seen the cathedral floodlit into an achingly clear etching in the night sky.
No trip to Lincoln was complete without also visiting the Usher Art Gallery [now simply the Usher Gallery]. What always attracted me the most was a number of excellent paintings of the cathedral by the English landscape painter Peter de Wint, whose wife was from Lincoln.
According to Wikipedia, for 238 years, from 1311-1549, Lincoln Cathedral was the highest building in the world at 524 feet. That is a far longer period of dominance than any other building since 1300. It only lost its preeminence in 1549 because the spire on the central tower collapsed and was never rebuilt – Lincoln was never again as rich as in that early medieval period. It seems that, had this spire remained, Lincoln Cathedral would have retained top spot until Ulm Minster was completed in 1890, at 530ft – that’s 579 years! [Add to that the fact Lincoln Cathedral sits on top of a steep hill!]
The spires on the western towers were removed in 1807; even without spires the building remains beautiful and dominates the city.
Lincoln Cathedral also has the third largest by floor space in England, after St Paul’s in London and York Minster.
It was probably the childhood inspiration that came from frequent contact with this great building that led to my lifelong interest in cathedrals and great religious buildings. Having visited many of the great European gothic cathedrals, I can report that, for me, none surpasses Lincoln for its overall effect – probably because of its magnificent hilltop location. I recall only Laon in France as being similarly dominant over its surroundings. Certainly Chartres is more mystical and has superior stained glass windows, as does the Sainte Chapelle in Paris, Amiens and Cologne are more massive, St Denis and Reims are perhaps more historic, and so on. They each have their own special features. But overall Lincoln is, for me as for John Ruskin, simply the best.
Some images courtesy of Wikimedia Commons:
view from castle by Jungpionier
the imp by Dave Hitchborne
spire model by Aidan McRae Thomson