It is a pure coincidence – but a serendipitous one – that the site of some of Margaret Rope’s greatest works, Shrewsbury Cathedral, has been undergoing major alterations in this same year when Marga’s achievements are really getting the wider exposure they deserve.
As a result of the changes, the cathedral is now a more attractive proposition to both heritage-visitors and worshippers alike.
The cathedral’s frontage has been re-designed and re-ordered – moving the entrance to a more open and central position, and enabling much easier disabled access.
The new approach also means there is now a professional cafe on site (called The Orchard Cafe, and open seven days a week) and a small car-park.
See “Cathedral opens new facilities”
Over the summer of this year (i.e. until October), the cathedral will be open to visitors from 1pm-3pm weekdays, and 10am-4pm on Saturdays. Volunteers staff these hours, and it’s thanks to them that so many visitors who come to Shrewsbury can get in to the church at all to see the great seven windows by Margaret Rope.
It is interesting to consider the changes that the cathedral has gone through down the years, some of which are outlined in a fascinating booklet, ‘Sacrament In Stone’ by Judith Hall. Judith is the head of music at the cathedral, so she has a professional interest in the ‘shape’ of the cathedral’s interior as well as a simple love of the cathedral’s very being.
It was the great architect of nineteenth-century Neo-Gothic, Augustus Pugin, who created the original outline design for the cathedral. However he died before the project really got off the ground, and his son Edward took over the work and adapted his father’s designs.
As Judith points out in her booklet, Augustus Pugin’s design had called for a large tower and spire (which would have been 300 feet high), but it transpired that the foundations simply wouldn’t have supported such ambition, and idea had to be abandoned. (Judith Hall, pg 23). Shrewsbury town lies on a bed of soft sandstone & clay, with any sturdy rock far deep down below, so the ground would simply have not been hard enough for such a tall structure.
If the large spire had been built, the cathedral would simply have slid down into the river…
Unfortunately, this lack of a spire means (to my eyes at least) that the cathedral is rather unimpressive from the outside. If one sees it from a distance, i.e. from across the river, it does look rather squeezed into its own space … and even squat.
Of course, the true glory of the cathedral is within anyway. Notwithstanding the Margaret Rope windows, it has a quiet repose, and feels uplifting (almost literally, as its long narrow dimensions emphasise the height).
What is disappointing to a modern church-crawler is that, as Judith remarks in her history, the cathedral was re-painted in 1950s, and the turn-of-the-century stencilled figures on the chancel walls (designed by Gabriel Pippit) painted out. I’m told that they were fading anyway, but it’s a shame that no decent colour photos remain to tell us what it all looked like. (Judith Hall, 29)
Far-sighted thinking also seems to have been missing in 1975… when Canon Welch had a new organ installed, which “seems to have been badly sited” (Judith Hall, 31). The thumping great instrument is so placed that it (partly) obscures part of Marga’s magnificent West Window.
Fortunately, the current alterations will not create similar issues. I’m happy to say that no hasty decisions haves been made in the current re-design, so expect no howlers of the sorts of fifty years ago. In fact, the whole process of refurbishment over the last twelve months was much slower than expected – because of the concerns of conservationists.
The former porch/entry (to the right of the body of the cathedral) has been closed off, and now converted onto a memorial chapel. Thus, the current war memorial in there (designed by Margaret Rope) will be able to stay where it is.
And the Hardman windows are unaffected also.
Canon Jonathan Mitchell, the Dean of the Cathedral, is to be congratulated on seeing the work through to this stage of fruition.
The ‘visitor-experience’ at the cathedral is now much enhanced (and more is to come): so it’s now even more worth a visit… Let us know in the comments section below if you agree!