This story starts 17 years ago, when I moved from North London to South Norfolk. Or maybe 47 years ago, when I immersed myself in medieval literature at uni. Or maybe 57 years ago, when I first visited Chartres cathedral and was blown away.
I’ve always loved cathedrals, and had a fascination for all things medieval. After years in outer London, Norwich cathedral seemed almost within reach from South Norfolk. Could I train as a guide? The commitment required is two hours per week, but I was still working full-time. Freelance, admittedly, so flexible, but add in the commuting time and other non-work commitments, and there weren’t realistically enough hours in my week. Seven years ago, I moved into Norwich, and eventually sent in an application. Then came Covid, and under the Cathedral’s six-month rule my application had been shredded long before normality returned.
Now, finally, I’ve done it: application, interview, a variety of training sessions to back up my weekly two-hour stint observing my mentor Ken and gradually joining in to do bits of his tours. I’ve reached the dizzy heights of a three-month probation, and I’m allowed to wear the blue sash.
What have I learned?
So much. The first lesson was being inspired by Ken, a born story-teller who can hold a group of visitors in the palm of his hand.
And there are so many stories to tell. They start in Anglo-Saxon times, with the Saxons whose lives revolved around Tombland (‘open space’, nothing to do with tombs). Then how the cathedral was built by Herbert de Losinga, the founding bishop born and trained in Normandy. He used stone cut in Caen. It’s beautiful stone (and we don’t have much stone here in Norfolk) but it also carried a clear message that the Normans were moving in when they shipped it over the Channel, block by block, up the Yare and Wensum, and to the building site up a canal cut from where Pull’s Ferry now stands.
Stories of the past
There are stories from the past, of course. The Benedictine monks whose home was integral to the cathedral, in which they prayed eight times a day, interspersed with their work. The modern window in the Bauchon chapel celebrates the Benedictine heritage and shows their motto, taken from the Rule of St Benedict: Ora et labora (pray and work).
The Benedictines provided education for Norwich boys (of course), established by Losinga in the same year that he founded the cathedral, 1096. Their teaching tradition survives to this day in Norwich School, sited in the cathedral close. I reassure visitors that pupils are no doubt motivated more positively than they were in the days of the little carved scene under this misericord.
Visitors often enjoy the story of Thomas Gooding, a stonemason who asked to be buried upright in the belief that this would give him a head-start on his journey to heaven. And who was the unfortunate Keynsford whose name was cursed by being scratched upside-down and back-to-front on one of the pillars near the high altar? We may never know.
The spire, now 500 years old, is the fourth. Previous ones were burnt, blown over by a hurricane in 1362, and struck by lightning in 1463. In the early 1800s, a 14-year-old boy named Roberts, one of Nelson’s crew and no doubt skilled at climbing rigging, shinned up the spire to the very top, spun the weathercock, and came back down – to be arrested.
But the cathedral is not a museum
I’m learning to flex around the lively programme of services. School groups ebb and flow around the cathedral. At Christmas one encounters Marys and shepherds a-plenty, under the guidance of the education staff and volunteers. Cathedral life would be impossible without the 500 volunteers involved in many of its activities: from welcoming and guiding the 500,000 visitors per year (2022 figures) to stewarding events and helping in the shop, in the cathedral library, with the flowers, with the cleaning. The Broderers’ Guild volunteers produce magnificent embroidered banners and vestments not only for the cathedral but also for churches around the Diocese of Norwich.
The building and its surroundings have seen many changes, and not only in the religious turbulence following Henry VIII’s split with Rome and the Civil War. New artworks have been created, such as the statue of Julian of Norwich outside the main west door, holding her book, the earliest writings in English known to have been produced by a woman, and the luminous abstract ‘Trinity windows’ by John McLean added to the north aisle in 2014.
Another recent addition is the gravestone of 20th-century Norfolk hero Edith Cavell (it rhymes with ‘travel’). She was born just outside Norwich, and by 1914 was a distinguished nurse teaching in a Brussels hospital. Covertly, she began to help Allied soldiers escape from occupied Belgium via neutral Holland, was betrayed, court-martialled and shot, prompting a boost to volunteering for the British army. She is still honoured not only in Britain but also in Brussels: in 2015, one hundred years after her death, the teaching hospital gave Norwich Cathedral a memorial stone in her honour.
All life is here
It’s impossible to plan for this, but lucky visitors encounter Budge, the cathedral cat. Clearly, the cathedral is his – he even has his own Twitter feed – and he is savvy enough to have evaded the peregrine falcons who nest on the spire.
And there’s more to learn
So much more. Guides who have been volunteering for well over a decade are still learning. Lectures and tours are offered, and there’s always lots to learn from chatting with others in the friendly and supportive community of guides. My story is only just beginning.