Enjoy a visit to Exeter Cathedral
I have a great knack for turning up in cathedrals at just the right time. Last year I found myself toasting the Bishop at his farewell party in Winchester cathedral after I'd wandered in on a Saturday afternoon. And rushing to make the ‘final entry time’ of 4.45pm at Exeter cathedral, I was treated to a full rehearsal of that night’s concert for soldiers, featuring the Exeter Symphony Orchestra and Philharmonic choir. And so I wandered up the nave and in and out of small side chapels to the glorious backdrop of Handel, Mozart and Bach. Exeter is a mighty cathedral, it’s even better when it has a few hundred musicians and singers blasting out the tunes.
The first surprise on entering is the brightness; built from white stone including sections of marble, the building is lightly coloured and light filled. Originally constructed in the early years of the 12th century in the Romanesque style, the two towers and part of the nave are all that remain today from the early build. A huge addition in the Gothic style took place from 1270 to 1350. The cathedral library and archives, with rare book and manuscript collections, date from the foundation years, the café and shop are more recent additions (get there before 4.45pm for both). Pick up a leaflet for information and a self-guided tour– or latch yourself onto a cathedral steward, wearing a red sash, who will answer your questions. Tours take place regularly, times are displayed at the visitor desk.
And don’t forget to look up! The cathedral has the longest uninterrupted medieval gothic vaulting in the world. There’s a fantastic minstrels’ gallery, dating from the 1300s, with a host of angels playing medieval instruments and round stone ‘bosses’ along the ceiling, including the famous Becket boss depicting the murder of St Thomas Becket, (the cathedral has thoughtfully provided mirrors to get a better view). Other famous names in the cathedral include John MacDonald, son of Jacobite heroine Flora, who is buried there, and Captain Scott, whose first Antartic expedition flag hangs near the rear of the building. There are threadbare colours from the Crimean and Boer wars and memorials for World War 1 and 2.
But most of the wall and floor plaques around the building commemorate people you won’t have heard of - local dignitaries and aristocrats through the centuries – and it’s very entertaining reading the great testimonies of their lives and deeds. There are plenty of plaques for the ladies, detailing impressive lists of virtues – including one with a ‘mind possessed of an energy which does not often mark the female character’ …
I had a lovely hour wandering in and out of the beautiful little chapels that circle the aisles, took a walk through the quire and choir stalls, past the 14th-century Bishop’s Throne made from Devon oak which is the largest in Britain, and back out again to look at the Elephant Misericord, one of 50 medieval tip-up seats dating from the 13th century – yes, long before cinemas had them. (Why is it called the Elephant Misericord? It's carved with an elephant!)
You won’t find the 1284 clock here any more, though church documents show it to be the earliest recorded clock in England. The ‘new’ clock, which hangs by St Paul’s chapel, is an astronomical model depicting the moon revolving around the earth, and dates from 1484. A door beneath has a hole cut in it, a sort of a Reformation-age cat-flap, to provide access for the Bishop’s cat in its fight against mice and rats. Fat was used as a lubricant for the ropes of the clock, and mice running up them were thought to have inspired the rhyme ‘Hickory, dickory dock, the mouse ran up the clock’.
Admission to the cathedral is £6 (concessions £4, children under 18 within a family free), Monday to Saturday from 9am; visit www.exeter-cathedral.org.uk for more information and service times, including Sunday service programme.
Need somewhere to stay in Exeter? Read our review of the city-centre Magdalen Chapter hotel
Getting there: I travelled with First Great Western from London Paddington. For train times and tickets phone 0845 700 0125 or visit www.firstgreatwestern.co.uk
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