Cathedral cities – A tour made in heaven?

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The west front of Wells Cathedral. ALAN PAYLING

Alan Payling suggests a tour that takes in some of England’s finest and most historic buildings could be a blessing in disguise

CBW is not a magazine in which the editorial team publishes very much about religion – and some may be truly thankful for that. But there’s always a first time for everything. I raise this subject, not because I’ll be knocking on your garage door one day soon offering you leaflets to save your soul or asking you to pray with me – and some of you may thank heaven for that as well. Rather, it’s because I’m a bit of a Christmas Christian which has given me ideas for the coach trade. Let me explain what’s on my mind which I will try to do without making it sound like I’m preaching.

Christmas spirit?

When it comes to Christmas, I like to remember what it’s supposed to be all about. This involves me heading off to a place of Christian worship for a carol service, not on a shopping trip. However, I do like to do it in some style. Not for me the local parish church. Oh dear me no. To my mind, if you’re going to have a word in His ear and a bit of a sing song with God, then only one of our marvellous cathedrals will fit the bill.

So over the last few years I have been heard serenading the Almighty, his son and mankind during the season of goodwill at carol services in majestic and holy places like the cathedrals at Ely, Bury St Edmunds, Exeter and Bristol. I have also delighted the gathered flocks with my magnificent baritone during visits to Bath Abbey and St Mary Redcliffe in Bristol, which must really be considered a cathedral in all but name. But the daddy, or the Holy Father, of the ones I have visited was Gloucester Cathedral. Overall, my cathedral carol service experiences have invariably been a bit magical. I suppose it’s a combination of being in an awesome building, great carols rather than the usual Sunday dirge, everybody singing along together with some seasonal gusto and absolutely superb choirs that appeals to me. It’s a bit like TV’s Songs of Praise but with a lot of sherry – known in posh circles as the holy spirit – thrown in. And such occasions are very popular, I would point out, because these cathedral carol services, if you haven’t attended one, are rammed full, sometimes, standing room only jobs.

That’s why, when I’m ding donging merrily on high, my mind turns towards the coach trade. I know, I know, I should be having heavenly thoughts, but when I look round the congregation at the gathered throng, while I should be thinking about holy virgins, the immaculate conception and wise men, I can’t help but see coach passengers and think about what great places cathedrals are for groups to visit. So while I don’t think much about frankincense and myrrh, I do think there might be some gold here for the canny coach tour operator. I know, I’ve sinned. But only a little bit. I hope. But if it ends up with operators taking more people along to these magnificent houses of God, then I trust that forgiveness and salvation will follow. The Lord does work in mysterious ways you know, particularly if he’s relying on me to fill his contribution boxes.


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Bath Abbey, seen from High Street, is in the heart of beautiful Bath. TRISTEN SURTEL via WIKIMEDIA COMMONS

Coaching opportunities

So how is this all relevant to the coach trade then, you ask? And would people want to visit what is in effect, a church as part of a coach holiday? Well, while the congregations I sang along with were a mixed bunch, the age range did veer noticeably towards the older and wealthier female members of the community. You know, the ideal coach holiday passengers. Also, while the inspiration for this article has its roots in what I saw during the carol services I attended, I have also visited such places at other times.

Take Gloucester Cathedral for example. Because I now have family in the city, we have visited the cathedral on quite a few occasions throughout the year to look around this truly stupendous building or to attend an event or an exhibition there. And it’s a very busy place and always has lots and lots of people milling about. So that’s the market research over with. But, suffice to say, cathedrals are popular. And the older you are, the more popular they seem to become…

What have I got in mind? Well, I was thinking of a five day tour of a few cathedrals. But how would this fit into a tour? Aren’t cathedrals ten a penny in this country? Well, yes. Hasn’t everyone got one on their doorstep?  Maybe not. And even if they have, to be able to see a handful of other cathedrals in another part of the country given how much such places are part of the rich historical fabric of our country would have some appeal.

What I was thinking about was a tour based in Bristol say. This would mean Bristol Cathedral and St Mary Radcliffe would be right on the doorstep and both are well worth a visit. A second day could be spent visiting Bath Abbey and Wells Cathedral. The latter, given its location and the adjacent pocket city of Wells itself is a must see. Top tip – go there in the afternoon when the sun is shining on the cathedral’s west face: the stone just glows. To the north of Bristol, and a quick spin up the M5, you have the cathedrals of Gloucester and Worcester, and at a push Hereford Cathedral and another icon of the Middle Ages, the Mappa Mundi. Take your pick.

The awesome high altar and stained glass of Gloucester Cathedral. DAVID ILIFF CC BY-SA 3.0.


Going back to Gloucester for a bit, you can’t miss the cathedral, even from the M5. It still – apart from that citadel to public health, Gloucester Royal Hospital – dominates the city’s skyline, as it has done for centuries from many vantage points, acting as a majestic beacon for pilgrims. Places like St Paul’s in London used to grace the city’s horizons but has now been overshadowed by glass towers worshipping Mammon. But if you have a very fertile imagination, Gloucester Cathedral defines the skyline of Gloucester like the Cattedrale di Santa Maria del Fiore does in Florence. But there the resemblance ends.

Gloucester itself is not exactly a wonder of the Renaissance. But the cathedral is most definitely a majestic mediaeval masterpiece. So if visiting coach tours ignore the rest of the city apart from the old docks, and focus on this architectural marvel, they won’t be disappointed. The precinct around the cathedral has recently been refurbished to a high standard so the immediate surroundings and nearby period buildings makes for a tranquil oasis for visitors. And while restoration work on the building follows the legendary pattern set by painters on the Forth Bridge, the ever present scaffolding somewhere on the facade should not detract from a feeling of wonder when visitors are in the presence of the work of master masons from throughout Europe.

With regard to the activities at Gloucester Cathedral, whether religious or of a more secular and artistic or educational nature, you never know what might be going on when you visit as various exhibitions and events take place there. And if you’re really lucky, or truly thankful like I was, it might be the day when the organist is practising, the choir is rehearsing, or the cathedral’s campanologists are having a bit of a ding dong. And to hear the cathedral choir with their angelic voices soaring up to the fan vaulted ceilings and no doubt beyond, all the way to heaven up on high, was to be transported back in time by the century.

There are other awesome sights to see too like the stained glass windows. Using a term that I have lifted from the TV historian Lucy Worsley when she was examining one of the Rose Windows at Notre Dame Cathedral recently; the windows at Gloucester Cathedral are a ‘kaleidoscopic wonder,’ the window in Lady Chapel being ‘arguably the finest post-mediaeval stained glass in any of our cathedrals.’

The gardens at Wells Cathedral. ALAN PAYLING


In addition to the architecture and the activities, there is some serious history associated with these wonders. Again, looking at Gloucester Cathedral, this dates back to 678 when it was founded as an abbey. As ever, it was the Normans that then did a lot of the heavy lifting starting work on the building we see today. A momentous event took place at the then abbey at Christmas 1085. It was while William I, the famous Norman conqueror, was visiting during the festive season that he announced his intention to carry out a great survey of the country’s assets. The result was what we now know as the Domesday Book.

One of the abbey’s other claims to fame is that Edward II was buried there after his death in 1327. His death was due, apparently, to natural causes. But the famous legend tells that it was he who had a horn placed in a dark place of his anatomy into which was then placed a red hot poker while he was a prisoner at nearby Berkeley Castle. Given the brutal punishments that were meted out during our long history, whether that constitutes a natural death, I cannot say. But it certainly makes for a great story to tell your passengers, particularly if they’re sitting down! Thereafter, the monks made a killing due to the hordes of people who wanted to pay homage to Edward. They still do.

Other snippets to impress passengers with include the fact that one of the stained glass windows contains the first known image of a golf player and one of the earliest images of medieval football. If passengers have a head for heights, then they can climb up the tower. It’s some 225 feet tall and involves 269 steps. No lift, I’m afraid.

Cloisters & ceilings

While the interior and exterior of the building is awe inspiring, truly, the cloisters and the fan vaulted ceilings therein are exceptional. And we are lucky it survived. Gloucester Cathedral was originally a monastery. At the time Henry VIII decided to strip such religious institutions bare, after the monks had scarpered and the king’s commissioners had plundered their physical wealth for Henry’s coffers, the locals in many places regarded the monasteries as we think about builders merchants and places like B&Q – as places to get some building material for a bit of home improvement and DIY.

That’s why so many monasteries like Torre Abbey in my home town of Torquay are in ruins: everyone nicked the stone. But Gloucester Cathedral survived – thank God. It was after the dissolution of the monasteries that Henry re-founded the abbey as Gloucester Cathedral. He also founded the choir at this time.

The cathedral is also a part of the Three Choirs Festival, run on a rotating basis with Worcester and Hereford Cathedrals. This is the oldest annual musical event in the world dating from 1715. The choir is helped along by the thunderous organ which is actually quite new – it dates from 1666.

And if all that doesn’t help sell a tour and make a visit very interesting, then the fact that parts of three Harry Potter films were made at Gloucester Cathedral – or, ‘Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry’ – should add a touch of bang up to date literary and cinematic modernity to your offering. The films were The Philosopher’s Stone (2001), Chamber of Secrets (2002) and The Half Blooded Prince (2009). That’s not to mention – which you probably will – that other films and TV programmes have been filmed there. These include Dr Who (2008 and 2019), Wolf Hall (2011), Sherlock (2015) and Mary Queen of Scots (2018).

The Bishop’s Garden at Wells Cathedral. Ideal for tea and cake. ALAN PAYLING

Food and drink

It’s worth noting that some of these cathedrals have on site catering or are not far from places where passengers can be fed and watered. Some of the refectories are not that large but, from my own experience, being a lover of cakes and scones, they invariably offer decent and very tempting food and drink. If you have a large group, the caterers are quite adept at making a few loaves and fishes into something quite tasty that goes a long way to feeding everyone. The catering facilities for example in the Bishop’s Palace Garden at Wells Cathedral are superb being as you can sit and eat and drink outside. I can tell you a more delightfully sheltered spot to sit in the sun and have a smashing cappuccino and a tangy piece of lemon drizzle cake would be hard to think of.

And speaking of gardens, some of the suggestions here will keep any green fingered souls on your coach very happy indeed if not elated at their beauty. Again, the walled gardens at The Bishop’s Palace at Wells Cathedral, are wonderful, beautifully laid out and are a haven of peace and quiet. Others being in their respective city centres are not so blessed, but as mentioned above, the precinct at Gloucester is an oasis of calm.

So if you’ve been praying for fresh ideas for a new and imaginative tour, then your prayers might just be answered with this suggestion. And if you want to know who to thank for this idea, I can’t really claim that I was inspired by divine intervention while I was carol singing, but if this does sell and you get repeat business for this tour, you will at least be very grateful for a second coming. What’s that I hear you say? Hallelujah to that? Quite so. And while there are some at the magazine that think CBW is God’s gift to the coach trade, well, perhaps they’re on to something. Amen, and God bless you all.