A church dedicated to St Peter has existed here since 678, and the present building dates from about 1100. It is basically Norman, with embellishments in a variety of Gothic styles. The large Perpendicular tower dwarfs the medieval part of the city and is one of the few cathedral towers that can be appreciated from all directions. The tower would have been an important part of the pilgrim's experience and even today the tower makes its presence felt. The massive Norman nave contrasts with the light Perpendicular quire and, of course, most people would recognise the cloisters from the Harry Potter films. It has an airy interior with a fine Willis organ on the main screen and the effigies of various royals! The best fitting to my mind is the little lead font in the Lady chapel, which came from the ruined church at Lancaut near Chepstow.
The Cathedral Church of St Peter and The Holy and Indivisible Trinity reflects the wealth of the medieval city, which is still very much evident. They recently hosted some indoor skateboarding in the nave, which caused a bit of a stir. The cathedral is part of the Three Choirs Festival, which rotates among Hereford, Worcester and Gloucester.
Gloucester, in southwest England near the Welsh border, was founded by the Romans in AD97. During the Middle Ages it was known as an exporter of wool, leather, iron tools and weapons. Gloucester's economy today rests primarily on the service industry, banking and business. I felt like a pilgrim entering the city through the many medieval streets sporting fine timber-framed buildings. Fortunately there is a wealth of architectural history that has escaped the bulldozers. Tourists come to visit the tomb of King Edward II in the cathedral, to enjoy music and dance events at the Guildhall, and to attend the Frightmare Halloween Festival, the largest Halloween festival in the southwest of England.
The Revd Canon Celia Thomson, canon chancellor.
What was the name of the service?Evensong.
How full was the building?
Most of the quire was full.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
We waited for the choir to finish rehearsing and then a gentleman asked if I was here for evensong. The well dressed crowd filed through the gates well dressed, that is, except for me in my jeans and white shirt hanging out!
Was your pew comfortable?
A nice medieval stall with a very good view of the choir.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
The bells were ringing on this very hot day. I heard them from the watery quays where I was enjoying a look around the antique shops. However, I decided to let the bells draw me to the cathedral. It was noisy, with the organ raging and the choir practising and the tourists clicking away on their cameras! We filed our way into our seats and I noticed a few clergy scattered around. I sat next to a friendly nearly 90 year old lady who asked me where I was from.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"Good evening and welcome to Gloucester Cathedral."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Book of Common Prayer and a hymn book.
What musical instruments were played?
A very loud cathedral organ. The case was originally built in 1666 by Thomas Harris and is the oldest surviving 17th century organ case in England. The instrument itself was rebuilt in 1847, and again in 1888, by Henry Willis. Harrison & Harrison rebuilt it again in 1920. In 1971 Hill, Norman and Beard carried out a total redesign of the organ, and in 1999 Nicholson & Co. overhauled the instrument one final time.
Did anything distract you?
The music was beyond heavenly! I was amazed at the choreography of the young choristers as they bowed before entering and leaving their stalls. One or two looked as though they were mischievous, and three very young choristers looked rather sleepy, especially during the sermon! However, the organ really roared at points and one wondered if this was how pilgrims felt when hearing the music and conjuring up images of the apocalypse! Certainly the music appeared to draw us away from our everyday lives into the beauty of heaven.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was certainly stiff upper lip in a nice way. Everybody attending was clearly expecting a very high standard of cathedral music. The cathedral choir sang some modern and traditional music. The responses by Tomkins just added to the atmosphere of the medieval surroundings and architecture. The anthem was in Latin. However, for me the very best part of the service was the hymn "He who would valiant be" my favourite hymn; they even included the original words about hobgoblins and foul fiends! I love this hymn, as clearly did the elderly lady sat next to me, who gave me a look to show she was enjoying it too.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
On a scale of 1-10, how good was the preacher?
8 – Canon Thomson was quietly spoken.
In a nutshell, what was the sermon about?
The sermon was based on the story in Genesis of Noah and the flood, including the appearance of the rainbow. Rainbows are beautiful; we don't need to understand them to know that. The rainbow is a symbol of God's covenant with his people.
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The music, without a doubt! Well rehearsed and well chosen. The whole thing felt timeless, and I felt timeless being just part of a short part of the cathedral's ongoing story along with the great and good commemorated in memorials on the walls. One touch was the inclusion of prayers from visitors, which were read out. Even so ...
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
... There was a touch of the public school about the service. This may seem unfair, but one often feels that the class system is never very far away from any cathedral in the UK. Also, I was very much aware that I was a little underdressed for the occasion.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
The elderly lady next to me told me a little about herself. She then asked me where I worked, which seemed strange. She seemed to think I was part of the cathedral establishment! Finally she said, "You'll be wanting to get away now, won't you?" I really wanted to sit and listen to the organ postlude, Cesar Franck's Chorale No. 3 in A minor.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
9 – I'm not entirely sure how this service, beautiful as it was, reflected the community around it. Also, not sure whether it was worship or performance – or whether it mattered either way!
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
Yes it did, and part of a long history throughout the ages at Gloucester.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?