The Cathedral of St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelbert the King appears at first sight mainly Victorian. But it was founded in the 7th century, rebuilt in the 11th and again in the 13th, but mostly in the 19th century. There are earlier bits left, specially the north transept built for Bishop Aquablanca in the 1260s. He is buried there, as is Hereford's big medieval draw, St Thomas Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford from 1275 until his death in 1282. Lots of interesting detail survives, including the German Epiphany triptych, which played a part in this service (see below). The cathedral doesn't really have a close, but in the not-close is a jokey statue of Elgar leaning against his bike.
The cathedral is the proud custodian of the Mappa Mundi, a 13th century vellum map, with about 500 drawings depicting the history of humankind and the natural wonders of the world. It has been called the most important and most celebrated medieval map in any form and the most remarkable illustrated English manuscript of any kind. The cathedral also sponsors a full program of concerts, lectures, and other events. There is holy communion and cathedral eucharist each Sunday, plus matins, evensong, and ‘the Evening Hour,’ which rotates through a variety of services. Morning prayer, holy communion and evensong take place each weekday, plus prayers for peace on Wednesdays.
Hereford is a small cathedral town, largely gutted by traffic. The Cider Museum is a big attraction. The river is not, but it should be. Hereford is on the Welsh border, and for centuries it has attracted violence from both sides. The border country is hilly and beautiful and renowned for apple orchards and Hereford cattle. The picturesque style in landscape was invented here and you can quite see why.
The dean, visiting clergy and altar party, assisted by uncredited people who read the lessons.
What was the name of the service?Epiphany Carol Service and Procession.
How full was the building?
We were requested (not required) to sit in the nave, which was pretty full and might hold 500. The north transept was full of invited guests (maybe another 50 but I did not see them).
Did anyone welcome you personally?
I was handed a service sheet. A very attractive feature of Hereford is the freedom to go where you like. Nobody minded me enjoying the crypt and the Stanbury Chapel just before the service – both very enjoyable.
Was your pew comfortable?
Fine. Wooden chair.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Cheerful and orderly. Although we had freedom to roam, there was no chaos.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
The service started with distant singing in German: Wie schön leuchtet der Morgenstern (How beautifully shines the morning star).
What books did the congregation use during the service?
Service sheet only.
What musical instruments were played?
Organ. The Hereford Cathedral Voluntary Choir sang.
Did anything distract you?
The dean kept looking at his watch. On the plus side, he can sing – a huge bonus.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
Conventional, although this is not a service I've attended before. Based on the service of nine lessons, it added an Epiphany angle, celebrating the veneration of the Christ Child by the Magi.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
The Epiphany triptych, which I have not seen open before. It depicts the Adoration of the Magi, with St Gabriel and St Ursula on the side panels, and is by the South German (Swabian) school dating from about 1530. The wings, showing St Andrew and St Sebastian, are kept closed during Lent.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
The lighting was truly diabolical. Very bright spotlights on the back of the nave (where I sat) made a mockery of the candles we all held up. There was artificial (flickering) candlelight, as well as a lot of real tea-lights. The centrepiece was a flashing star, which could have been very effective if it had been the only bit of electric light.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
Nothing. We all surged about and saw what we could.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
6 — There's always more I can see, but I wasn't inspired by that particular service.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
A bit embarrassed. They tried hard, but to me nothing came across.
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
Being in the spotlight. And the triptych.