Despite visiting Chester regularly in connection with my work for almost 20 years, I’d never been inside the Cathedral. Like many other cathedrals in Britain, the original building was Romanesque, but it was gradually changed and remodelled in the Gothic style. There are still some remnants of the original building visible inside – included a round arch in the North Transept and some sections of the west end of the Nave around the Baptistery. It was originally founded as a monastery in 1092, and still has many monastic features, including cloisters. These survived the dissolution of the monasteries by Henry VIII as it had already become a cathedral.
The cathedral is built in dark Cheshire sandstone. Outside, classic Gothic features, including pointed arches, large stained glass windows, flying buttresses and pinnacles, are clearly visible. However the exterior was remodelled during restoration work during the Victorian period between 1868 and 1876 and so, according to the guide book, “does not reflect the medieval interior”.
Inside, entering via the Cloisters into the west end of the Nave, my initial impression was that it wasn’t as grand and ornate as York Minster, that I’d visited a few weeks before, but it was still an impressive building.
Looking down the Nave
The Nave has the classic features of high pointed arches, piers composed of multiple elements with moulded arches. The roof is supported by ribbed vaulting with a central rib and decorative, non-structural liernes, the rib joints disguised by ornate bosses. There is a clearstorey (an upper level with windows to light the interior) although the windows are glazed with plain glass, unlike those in the aisles which all contained stained glass some clearly quite modern. Checking the guide book confirms this, revealing that the windows in the south wall were donated by the local “big wig”, the Duke of Westminster” in 1992.
One of the windows in the Nave south wall
The aisle on the north side of the Nave has few windows as the Cloisters are on this side of the building. Instead the wall is decorated by a series of Victorian murals.
Mural on the Nave north wall
The great West Window almost fills the west wall of the Nave. Again, it’s glass is relatively new, installed in 1961.
The Great West Window
The North Transept contains some of the oldest parts of the cathedral, including the round Norman arch mentioned above. It stands right next to a later Gothic arch, making it’s presence particularly obvious.
Romanesque and Gothic arches in the North Transept
The structure of the Transept is similar to the Nave. Besides the Norman arch the features that particularly stood out for me were the very ornate organ loft and the large stained glass window in the south wall which dates from 1887.
Under the organ loft
The cathedral tower stands above the crossing of the Nave and Transept. It was started around 1300 and took about 150 years to build. It’s not possible to go up the tower at the moment, but there are plans to open it up to the public in the future. The tower used to house the cathedral’s bells, but in the 1960’s there were concerns about the stresses the bells were placing on the tower and they were relocated into a newly built modern bell tower outside the old cathedral in 1975.
The Quire is separated from the Nave by a carved wooden screen. It has a painted ceiling supported, like that in the Nave by ribbed vaulting decorated by ornate bosses covering the joins.
Looking along the Quire
The Quire stalls are very old, dating from around 1380, and they’re in remarkably good condition. The East window, which has relatively simple tracery, is filled with colourful stained glass.
The Quire stalls
In the south east corner, the Lady Chapel, built around 1270, has some attractive Lancet windows and relatively simple decoration, redolent of the Early English Gothic style. It has some very old bosses in the simple ribbed ceiling, dating from 1250 to 1275.
The Lady Chapel
Lancet windows in the Lady Chapel
The Chapter House and Cloisters were part of the original monastery. The cloisters dating from 12th century and the Chapter House, the first part of the cathedral to be built in the Gothic style (the conversion of the original Romanesque church started after it was completed), from the 1260’s. The Chapter House has lancet windows, although some of the glass is Victorian, being installed in 1872.
The Chapter House Vestibule is very interesting. It has a low ceiling making it easy to admire the Gothic vaulting.
Chapter House Vestibule
The Cloisters are on the colder north side of the church, which is unusual. This is because there was not enough room to build them on the sunnier south side due to the encroachment of the rapidly expanding medieval city of Chester. They’re built in a mixture of styles – Romanesque in the older parts with the later ones showing typical Gothic features.
The Cloisters surround a very pleasant garden that has a very distinctive statue – “the Water of Life” – by Stephen Broadbent, which was installed in 1994. Unfortunately access to the garden wasn’t permitted during my visit. When I enquired I was told that this was due to high winds (it had been particularly windy that morning). I was disappointed as I couldn’t see the statue properly through the old glass in the windows.
I think that the cathedral is a fine example of Gothic architecture, with some attractive features from both the Early English and Decorated periods. It was also good to be able to see the earlier Romanesque features that are still present in the building. Having taken so long to get round to visiting for the first time I’ll certainly visit it again in the near future. One visit is never enough to gain a full impression of such a grand structure.