This is an architectural journey that would be hard to equal for intensity of aesthetic delight and as a way into the minds and lives of the people of the Middle Ages it would be difficult to surpass. Personalities of extraordinary capability and vision will be discovered, and the thought processes and techniques used by craftsmen of genius revealed and decoded.
The tour ranges across England – north, south, east and west – to see some of the most glorious mediaeval architecture to be found anywhere. Connoisseurs may carp at the omissions, but logistics exclude only a couple of cathedrals of comparable beauty, magnificence and interest. With an average of little over one cathedral a day, there is plenty of time at each to really get to know, assimilate, appreciate and contemplate each one.
All but one are mediaeval, Norman (as Romanesque is generally called in Britain) and Gothic. It is easy to underestimate the length of time the Middle Ages encompasses: the span from the earliest work we see on the tour to the latest, from the Norman Conquest to the Reformation, equals that from the Reformation to the present day. There was huge variety in the building arts and historical circumstances during those 460 years. The one non-mediaeval cathedral on the itinerary is Coventry. Rebuilt after the Second World War, not only is it a treasure house of mid-twentieth-century art but it is a moving monument to rebirth and reconciliation.
There are many special arrangements to enable you to see more than most visitors. Organ recitals are organised for us at some cathedrals. There are also opportunities to hear some excellent choirs at Evensong. Cathedrals come with cities, and many of these were relatively little changed during the era of industrialisation and now rank among the loveliest in England. Much beautiful countryside is traversed as well.
For centuries, British scholars and critics laboured under an inferiority complex, believing English Gothic to be a defective derivative of the thoroughbred French version, inferior according to the degree to which it departed from the soaring, clean-limbed and impeccably rational paradigms across the Channel. That cultural cringe has all but evaporated in the last couple of generations, not least because evidence has been piling up that masons and architects in England had entire confidence in their inventiveness and deliberately chose to shun French conventions in favour of England’s own distinctive and fascinating imaginative universe.
Ely. The coach leaves King’s Cross, London at 9.30am for Ely, a surprisingly remote and rural location for one of England’s greatest cathedrals. The mighty Norman nave and transepts (c. 1110–30), with their thick walls, tiers of arches and clusters of shafts, leads to the crossing and its unique 14th-century octagonal lantern, a work of genius. The detached Lady Chapel, also in the Decorated style, is the largest and perhaps the finest in the country; the Early English quire a ravishing setting for the lost shrine to St Etheldreda. Overnight Lincoln.
Lincoln. Also largely by-passed by modern urban development, Lincoln’s hilltop site above the broad Witham valley renders this enormous cathedral even more imposing. Largely rebuilt from 1192, it has always been revered as one of the finest of Gothic cathedrals, its fascinations enhanced by myriad minor inconsistencies and variations which reveal the struggle for solutions at the frontiers of artistic fashion and technological capability. The steep streets of the ancient town are a delight. First of three nights in York.
Durham. By train to Durham (40 mins), where the topography and riverside walk provide the most exciting approach to any English cathedral. Massive towers rise above the trees which cling to the steep embankment, a defensible bulwark in the frequently hostile North. Largely completed in the decades from 1093 and little altered since, the nave and quire with their great cylindrical pillars, distinguished by their engraved patterns, constitute one of the world’s greatest Romanesque churches. Overnight York.
York. York Minster is the largest of English mediaeval cathedrals. Above ground it is all Gothic, from Early English to Perpendicular but predominantly 14th-century, demonstrating an exceptional knowledge of the latest French Rayonnant ideas. It is a treasure trove of original stained glass, and the polygonal chapter house is without peer. The city retains its mediaeval walls and an exceptional quantity of historic buildings. Overnight York.
Coventry. Coventry Cathedral is perhaps internationally Britain’s best-known 20th-century building. Built to designs by Sir Basil Spence beside the ruins of its predecessor, destroyed in 1940, it is both a showcase for some of the best art of the time (Graham Sutherland, John Piper, Jacob Epstein). In the evening, a walk through Stratford-upon-Avon, which has retained many buildings Shakespeare would have known. Overnight Stratford.
Gloucester, Bristol. The procession of tall cylindrical pillars in Gloucester’s nave is unadulterated Norman, but, following the burial of Edward II in 1327, the eastern parts are exquisitely veiled in the first large-scale appearance of Perpendicular architecture. The east window, which retains its mediaeval stained glass, is one of the largest in Europe. Bristol cathedral is a much-overlooked gem with fine work of every era, from the lavishly patterned walls of the Romanesque chapter house to G. E. Street’s great Victorian nave. But its highlight is the east end, among the most innovative and beautiful of early 14th-century buildings. First of two nights in Wells.
Wells. An exceptionally unspoilt little city, Wells has a fortified bishop’s palace, 14th-century houses of the Vicars Choral and much else of charm and interest. The cathedral was one of the first in England to be built entirely in Gothic style. Its screened west front, eastward march of the nave, sequence of experimental contrasted spaces of the Decorated east end, serene chapter house and Perpendicular cloisters all contribute to the cathedral’s exceptional allure. The strainer arches supporting the sagging tower are among the great creations of the Middle Ages. Overnight Wells.
Salisbury. One of the most uplifting experiences in English architecture, Salisbury is unique among the Gothic cathedrals in England in that it was built on a virgin site and largely in a single campaign, 1220–58. To homogeneity are added lucidity of design and perfection of detail. Completed a century later, the spire at 404 feet is the tallest mediaeval structure in Britain. The close is the finest in the country, and the town beyond has an extensive expanse of historic fabric. Overnight Winchester.
Winchester. Winchester Cathedral is one of Europe’s longest churches, reflecting the city’s status intermittently from the 9th to the 17th centuries as a seat of English government. The transepts are unembellished early Norman (1079), raw architecture of brute power, whereas the mighty nave was dressed 300 years later in suave Perpendicular garb. The profusion of chantry chapels constitutes an enchanting collection of Gothic micro-architecture. Wall paintings, floor tiles, the finest 12th-century Bible. Return to Tothill Street in central London by 4.00pm.
Writer, lecturer and broadcaster, and specialist in historic religious architecture. He teaches at Bristol University and co-wrote and presented the BBC’s How to Build a Cathedral. He has also travelled extensively in China and has published on the country in the London Review of Books and in his The Secret Language of Sacred Spaces.
Two sharing: £2,740. Single occupancy: £3,060.
Hotel accommodation; private coach throughout; rail travel between York and Durham (return); breakfasts, 1 lunch and 6 dinners with wine, water, coffee; all admissions and donations; all tips; the services of the lecturer and tour manager.
The Castle Hotel, Lincoln: an historic building close to the cathedral. The Grange, York: also in an historic building with a new wing, within walking distance of the city centre. The Stratford (Q Hotels), Stratford on Avon: a modern hotel, located on the edge of the historic centre of the town. The Swan, Wells: in a building of 15th-cent. origin in a narrow street close to the cathedral. The Wessex, Winchester: excellently located overlooking the cathedral in a 1960s building. Rooms at all the hotels, being city-centre historic properties, vary in size and outlook.
There is quite a lot of walking on the tour. You ought to be able to walk at about three miles an hour for up to half an hour. There are also a lot of steps and uneven surfaces. Roof and tower visits are optional of course, but at Salisbury there are 332 stairs to climb. Two of the hotels do not have lifts. There are three days without any coach travel, but there is an average on the remaining five days of 73 miles.
Between 10 and 22 participants.
'The lecturer was excellently prepared and communicated vast learning with charm and a light touch.'
'The itinerary was enriching. The whole experience was rich and coherent.'
'This was my first experience with Martin Randall. You met and exceeded all my expectations. I could not have been more pleased.'
'The lecturer was an unbelievably knowledgeable, enthusiastic and affable tour leader. He was a consummate teacher who made the complexity of the history, geography and structure of the cathedrals both interesting and accessible. We were constantly enthralled.'