There are 41 Anglican (Church of England) cathedrals in England, and as of this week we have seen them all.
Some Americans plan to visit every Major League Baseball park. Others tick off National Parks. We elected to see the cathedrals of a faith community other than our own in a country where we are guests.
It came about this way. We had seen Saint Paul Cathedral in London years ago. That was 1 down, 40 to go, though at the time we weren’t counting. Then in 2014 when we began our full time travels, we popped into Manchester’s cathedral one day, the York Minster another; 2 more down. A few weeks later we spent one night in Carlisle, England making our way north to Glasgow. We asked our hotel’s front desk clerk what there was to see in Carlisle. “We have a splendid Cathedral,” she suggested.
The next morning, before we left for Glasgow, we visited Carlisle’s splendid cathedral. Understand that Carlisle is a small city on England’s northern frontiers, yet they boast a grand, Norman cathedral with 9th century Anglo-Saxon foundations. One of the best aspects of our travel the last few years has been the opportunity to discover the unexpected. On regimented, short-term, vacation style travel, there’s far less chance of discovering such an impressive work of architecture in a town off the tourist path. Who knew?
“How many more cathedrals are there?” we asked the friendly verger who had pointed out the more interesting features of the cathedral. “Forty-one,” he replied.
“We should see them all,” Lori told me before we left.
Three years and a few months later, England’s cathedrals…managed.
We’re not “list travel” people. In fact, we’ve advocated against “bucket list” travel in particular because it encourages superficial, tick-it-off sightseeing. Yet, we’ve been diligently working the list, the goal of this particular ecumenical bragging right always within reasonable sight. In our defense, a principle reason we worked our way from cathedral to cathedral was that we knew it would require our traveling to every nook and cranny of one of our favorite and most convenient countries to visit. In that way it’s not much different than someone setting the goal of visiting each of the 50 states and the District of Columbia (which we are also very close to achieving).
We also knew that ambling through every cathedral city—like visiting all 50 states—wouldn’t make us experts, wouldn’t represent an exhaustive exploration, of all of England. We fully expected that we’d end this process with a new list of places we want to return to and see more of. What we didn’t realize was that this derivative list might be as comprehensive as our original list.
There are three reasons we actually finished this endeavor, unlike some lingering kitchen remodel or unfinished jigsaw puzzle. First, we love architecture. Norman and Romanesque, Gothic and Baroque, modern and funky. The engineering, the art, the craftsmanship, the artisanal work of countless, mostly unnamed, stonemasons and carpenters and sculptors. Even with our 21st century building technologies we wonder if it is possible for men to build today what they built by hand, in some cases, a millennium ago.
Second, we love the history. We’ve stood where monarchs were coronated and where they lay in state before burial. We’ve seen the real, physical effects of the reformation and Henry VIII’s tiff with the Catholic Church, from statues with lopped-off heads and painted-over frescoes and ruined cloisters. We followed the amazing story of Richard III and his reinterment at Leicester Cathedral. Musket and cannonball damage from the English Civil War, copies of the Magna Carta and the Mappa Mundi, and the WWII destruction and phoenix-style rebuild of the modern (and we think, remarkable) Coventry cathedral.
Top: The Tomb of King Richard III; Bottom: The Mappa Mundi, How Medieval Europeans Thought World Geography Was
And finally, we’ve loved the hospitality of England’s cathedrals. We’ve experienced a vibrancy in these buildings, a pleasant reminder that they are still, active places of worship, as they were intended to be when built. We have been greeted and welcomed with warm smiles and hot tea, pauses for prayer at the top of the hour, organ practice and recitals, foundation-shaking rock concerts, and children practicing for Christmas pageants.
While we found every cathedral to posses unique, often fascinating, qualities worthy of mention, and undoubtedly each cathedral “speaks” differently to everyone, we admittedly wound up with some favorites. The massive nave and gleaming white ornate exterior of St Albans, the imposing hilltop gothic presence of Lincoln, the beautiful and unique scissor arches of Wells, and the modern construction in medieval style of Liverpool readily come to mind.
For the first time in more than three years, we don’t have any plans to return to England, so it seems we completed the cathedrals just in time. That gives us plenty of time to think about where in Britain we want to visit in the future. There are probably about a thousand parish churches. There are hundreds of miles of walking trails. England is also rich in homes and graves of great literary figures. Oh, and there are probably several hundred pubs claiming to be two hundred years old or older.
Just some ideas, Lori.