“It’s the only medieval cathedral in England with three spires” said the old tour guide with the moustache and the heavy cough. “Well, there’s Truro cathedral but that was built by the Victorians” he then added with a wry smile as if Truro was very much the Robin to Lichfield’s Batman. This place has a good 600 years on its Cornish rival he explained through his warm spluttering Midlands accent as we stood together in the nave looking down towards the stained glass windows in the distance. Whether through its eventful history or its unusual form, it’s hard not be impressed by Lichfield Cathedral.
Alastair Campbell once advised Tony Blair on the things he probably shouldn’t talk about after becoming Prime Minister and one of them was staying away from anything God-related. I don’t “do God” either however I do have a fascination with the grandeur and history of cathedrals. The bigger the better. The ones that look like epic, towering stone rocket ships pointing towards the heavens are the ones that really capture my imagination (Strasbourg Cathedral is a great example of this). I don’t care much for the message they preach inside but I’m in awe of how they built these ornate castles of faith hundreds of years ago with only the most rudimentary equipment and materials.
Like most large metropolitan cities in the UK outside of London, Birmingham doesn’t really have much in the way of a Cathedral scene. It’s got plenty of nice old churches with their pleasant spires. There are four or five dotted around the city centre that are instantly recognisable to locals but none of them are the soaring, grandiose edifices I’m looking for. Therefore I had to head 14 miles north to Lichfield to get my fix.
Lichfield town centre was a scene of cold, grey post-holiday melancholy. People were out and about but looked like they’d rather not be, their faces tired and gloomy. The empty calendar shop on Market St with the big ostentatious ‘sale’ signs in its window perhaps emblematic of the weary atmosphere around town. However I didn’t come to Lichfield to the wowed by its high streets, shops or restaurants.
Turning onto The Close from Bird Street has a pretty, quaint Englishness to it containing charming houses with colourful doors while the magnificent Cathedral waits for you in the near distance. So English is it that they might as well just go the whole hog and cobble the street, throw in a bright red post box and a few chaps in bowlers hats too while they’re at it. Erasmus Darwin lived on this street and has a whole museum there dedicated to him but I was so transfixed with the spectacle ahead that I completely discarded what would normally have been a fine point of interest.
Approaching Lichfield Cathedral you immediately discern that hundreds of years ago this would have been the only thing you could see for miles around, such is its bucolic majesty. The central spire is 252 feet high while the two western spires come in at a not too shabby 190 feet. There’s barely a square foot on the facade that isn’t taken up by a decoration of one sort or another and its sandstone radiated with a warm peach colour which made a nice contrast against the grim, grey skies that hovered above. The long row of bearded early medieval kings just above the main doors was a favourite of mine, their heads all askew and pensive like they were on a bumper feudal edition of Blind Date.
There’s been religious worship in this spot since 700AD but construction on the present cathedral was started in 1195 and finally completed over 100 years later in the 1330’s (which makes our complaints about Wembley Stadium’s overdue construction seem rather trivial). Sadly it came under siege from both sides during the English Civil War and by the time the conflict was over it found itself without a roof or its central spire while all of the stained glass had been smashed. Statues, monuments, documents and carvings were also destroyed. Thankfully it went through an extensive renovation in the Victorian era which restored its splendour and dignity back to what we see today.
Inside tall Gothic arches line their way down from the nave through the Choir to the Lady Chapel in the far distance where the stained glass windows have been restored to their former glory. The ceiling was obscured by a beautiful art installation called Peace Doves which features 70,000 white paper doves suspended from the nave to mark the centenary of the Armistice of World War One. Normally I’d be quite irritated by a temporary exhibition getting in the way of my viewing pleasure but this was subtly striking, touching and blended well with its surroundings. Further down at the Lady Chapel I learned that the handsome stained glass windows on display were imported from Herkenrode Abbey in Belgium and installed here in 1803. Rescued from destruction during the Napoleonic Wars, they’re some of the finest examples of medieval Flemish painted glass currently in existence.
Earlier that morning the weather app on my phone had confidently predicted azure, blue skies but on arriving at the cathedral that afternoon the mass of grey clouds stubbornly stood firm like a marathon Geoff Boycott innings. In my frustration at this I arrogantly thought they might ruin my photos. As usual I was proved wrong. It’s hard to feel gloomy facing such a sight.