Friday, 20 June 2008

Southwark Cathedral

Unlike its more famous counterpart (St.Paul’s) across the river, Southwark Cathedral has often been overlooked by visitors to London. However, with the recent regeneration of the Southbank and the Cathedral’s cleaning and renovation in 2000 it has, quite rightly, become a significant religious landmark as well as a popular tourist destination.

Southwark Cathedral is London’s oldest Gothic building, dating from 1220-1420. However, religious buildings have stood on the same site possibly since the 7th century. In an archaeological dig in 1999, Saxon foundations were found so this is, without doubt, an ancient religious site of great importance. Southwark was awarded Cathedral status in 1905.

The building itself is a positive mish-mash of styles and materials. I don’t know a lot about architecture but somehow this fusion adds to the splendour and it is an incredibly attractive Cathedral. It is worth walking the full perimeter of the Cathedral and admiring its turrets, towers, spires and steeples.

There are several entrances to Southwark Cathedral but, whichever door you use, volunteers are on hand to answer questions and lead you in the right direction. There are also helpful signposts throughout the Cathedral which is a little strange but necessary in such a sprawling building.

I admit that my first reaction on entering the Cathedral was one of disappointment. It is such a shame that in a beautiful building with stunning stained glass windows and striking stone work, ones eyes are first drawn to the ugly, incongruous chairs where, I assume, wooden pews once stood. I know modern seating is quite normal in many churches and cathedrals across the country and appreciate that the ancient pews cannot last forever, but surely more fitting chairs could be found?

I went straight to the Cathedral Shop to claim my free souvenir guidebook and audio guide. Unfortunately they had run out of audio guides but, rather than wait for one to be returned, I was happy to find my own way round and use the guidebook for information.

Southwark Cathedral has so many interesting links to famous people through the ages and memorials, plaques, windows and even chapels are dedicated to a wide range of luminaries. The Harvard Chapel is named after the university benefactor, John Harvard, who was born in Southwark, baptized in the church in 1607 and educated at Emmanuel College, Cambridge before setting off for a new but short life in America. He died prematurely in 1638 leaving part of his fortune to a college for the “education of English and Indian youth in knowledge and godliness”. That college eventually became known as Harvard University.

Other highlights of Southwark Cathedral are the 20th Century Shakespeare Memorial in the east end of the south aisle, depicting the playwright in a relaxed pose in front of the Globe and Rose Theatres. Next to this is a memorial tablet to American actor/director Sam Wanamaker who was responsible for the recreated Globe Theatre that I visited recently. Shakespeare’s actor brother, Edmond, is also commemorated in a floor tablet near the Great Screen of the Chancel along with two dramatists of the same era.

Among the many memorials is a tablet shaped like a ship’s wheel, dedicated to the victims of the Marchioness disaster on the River Thames in 1989. Geoffrey Chaucer is also remembered in a stained glass window depicting his Canterbury pilgrims leaving Southwark.

In 2001, Nelson Mandela officially opened the newest part of the Cathedral which houses the Refectory Restaurant, a shop, library, conference facilities and also a museum. It is also where you can find the toilet facilities, below the Refectory, which I awarded 7/10 in my London Ding Dong’s Loo of 2008 contest!

Southwark Cathedral is a beautiful place to visit. Despite its Cathedral status and size it still feels very much like a community church and I would imagine the worshippers of Southwark feel very fortunate to have this incredible Cathedral as their local place of worship.

Admission to Southwark Cathedral is free but a minimum donation of £4.00 is requested. Photographs may only be taken inside the Cathedral with permission and a £2 fee must be paid (£5 for video cameras).

£2.50 is charged for an audio tour wand and the authorised guide book is also £2.50.

London Pass holders receive a free audio guide and glossy souvenir guide book and are offered 10% discount at the Refectory restaurant.

No comments: