July 12, 2024

Hereford Cathedral tower – 43 metres of Mediaeval history

Hereford Cathedral with two towers, circa 1742

If you find yourself in Hereford, you will have to visit the 12th century cathedral and see the Mappa Mundi. But that’s not the only sight worth seeing. If you have the energy to climb the 218 steps why not climb the tower?!

Hereford Cathedral tower – Only one survivor

Hereford cathedral used to have two towers, but the one at the West end collapsed on Easter Monday 1789. If it had fallen the day before many people would have been injured but as it is there were no reported casualties.

Hereford Cathedral with two towers, circa 1742

This means the only tower left to climb is the central tower over the crossing. To reach the staircase that takes you to the top you must enter the Cathedral and go to the North Transept. Although the main cathedral is from the 1100s this transept dates from the 1300s. Unlike the Southern transept which is older, this is modelled on the newly built Westminster abbey. Money was pouring in to Hereford at this time thanks to pilgrims visiting the tomb of Thomas Cantilupe – a tomb that has been repainted in the original – garish – colours. A reminder that cathedrals were not always grey walled but were painted and decorated to an extent that is hard to for Protestant eyes to comprehend.

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Once you’re through the door with one of the informative guides you will be taken up the spiral staircase to the ceiling above the North Transept. This is a revelation if you were expecting something as beautiful as the ceiling you looked up at from the ground and marvelled at. Here you can see the sand and lime mortar construction, as well as the Tufa which was used to build it. Tufa was used instead of the normal limestone as it is lighter.

Next you’ll look round the Lantern gallery. By now you’ve walked up 29 metres, so you’re over half way to the great view at the top. The lantern gallery was originally not visible from the ground as there was a ceiling over the crossing. After the collapse of the west tower the boffins decided to strengthen the central tower and remove the load it was bearing. So the ceiling was taken down and the bell chamber was moved higher to brace the tower. Also, possibly to reduce weight, windows were added to the tower to bring more light into the cathedral.

As you walk around the Lantern gallery you will get a good view of the patterned tiles below. You will also see the Denton tomb in the South transept. If you look closely you will make out not just a man and a woman lying on the tomb, but also a baby. This signifies that the woman died in childbirth.

From above the nave you get the best view in the cathedral – east towards the high altar and the Lady chapel. You can also see the large cathedra or Bishop’s chair on the right, as well as the centuries old King Stephen’s chair. This is only ever used by the monarch when she is visiting. Although it is called King Stephen’s chair it is actually slightly later, having been dated to the late 12th century – King S died in 1154.

Next stop is the ringing chamber. Danger of death, the sign says as you enter, so don’t touch the bell sallies. English bells are kept in a precarious ‘up’ position, so if you pull the rope the bell will rotate and momentum will pull you up through the ceiling. Unless you let go, but human nature means you tend to grab on harder and try and stop it. And with the largest bell weighing in at the same as two minis, you’re not going to be able to stop it.

Finally you make it up to the top of the tower. Watch your head as you exit onto the roof. On a good day you can see Wales to the west, the Malverns to the east and Clee Hill to the north. Hay Bluff, the Skirrid and the Sugar loaf can all be seen as well. Look for the large castle green where there was a castle as big as Windsor before the civil war. Look at the Old bridge over the river. One of the arches was blown up in the civil war and was rebuilt slightly more thickly than the rest of the bridge. There was a tunnel from the cathedral to the bridge but it has sadly collapsed over the centuries. I reckon we should raise money to excavate it…

Enjoy your visit. There is a charge to climb the tower and it is not open every day. Check https://www.herefordcathedral.org/visit-us/cathedral-visits and phone to make sure it is open before you travel.


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