Roof

It’s easy to miss. Speeding along the busy road that rushes from Scotland to England, that crosses borders and farms and a Roman wall, most of us are too busy to take the ten minute detour needed to see it, but you should for this Cathedral is rather special.

Park by the castle and take the short walk up the hill through Carlisle’s shopping precinct and you will find yourself in the past. The Cathedral Church of the Holy and Undivided Trinity is not the largest cathedral in the UK, nor is it the smallest. It is not the oldest, or the highest or the richest. It cannot boast the graves of the famous or the infamous. But what it is, is red sandstone and coloured glass bound together with almost a thousand years of history.

I entered through the side door—a heavy oak affair with the requisite iron hinges and studs to convince me I was passing through not just a door, but a portal to another time. In the cathedral itself there was light everywhere, and arches and sculpture and, perhaps most unexpected, a welcome. By the door an elderly woman smiled as softly as a whisper and held out a leaflet. She was dressed in what looked like a grey academic gown and was one of the cathedral’s ‘welcomers’—volunteers who loved the place and wanted others to love it too.

‘This will tell you a little about the cathedral,’ she said in a soft and faltering voice that complimented her smile. I immediately wanted to talk with her—’are those arches Norman?’ ‘Oh yes, this is the oldest part of the cathedral,’ she said with pride, her smile broadening as she realised she had hooked something worth reeling in.

She began to tell me the history of the place, and we discussed its battered journey from 1120 to the present day, by way of wars, and greedy kings and even a reformation. ‘But, we’re still here,’ she concluded, as she visibly took on the persona of the building and seemed to be one of its more important parts.

‘Take a look around,’ she urged, knowing that just a little more familiarity with her cathedral would seal the deal. As I walked carefully, almost daintily, along the side aisles, the way you do in old churches so as not to disturb the sleeping dignitaries beneath the slabs, I could see that this place was cared for. The brasses were highly polished and, reflecting the red sandstone of the walls, almost shone with a copper coloured glow. The windows were dazzling and in some places ancient. Fourteenth century shards of glass still held in fourteenth century leadlines, that shone as brightly this morning as they had seven hundred years before. The great west window was particularly beautiful.   And if this cathedral needed a superlative, it was without doubt the largest I had ever seen. The barrel vaulted ceiling was painted the blue of a starry night and on every wall there were carved and chiselled memorials to people I had never known and never would.

I have visited many cathedrals—including the largest, the oldest, the grandest and the richest—but there was something indefinably special about this one. I sat for a moment, to take it in and to ponder what it was and then I realised that I was sitting not in a building, but in a living entity. Many buildings have a long history but most are simply piles of masonry, long dead, and are visited to be scrutinised in some archaeological sense. This cathedral, perhaps because of its light, its care or its welcome was aged, but alive.

It would have been so easy, rushing towards my destination, not to have taken that road into Carlisle. That day I had a little more time and a little less hurry that usual, and almost by chance I ended up standing beneath a ceiling of painted stars conversing with the stones. When we are focussed on our goals, always looking ahead it is always difficult to see what lies to the side. In such cases, we often use the metaphor that we are blinkered, like cart horses, forced to look ahead and unable to enjoy the distractions to our left and right. Of course, the lesson is simple here. If we do not, at least occasionally, take the time to wander from our preset path, we will miss the wonderful and the exceptional that may be just out of our peripheral vision.

My only thoughts, as I was leaving the cathedral, were that the visit had been long overdue and that my departure was premature. There was still so much to see and savour in this wonderfully living building. I confided in my welcomer as I took my exit that I was sorry my visit had been so short, but I assured her that I would be back. ‘Well,’ she sighed as she smiled, ‘we’ve been here for 900 years—I expect we’ll be here when you come back.’ I knew she would, and so did the cathedral.

© Allan Gaw 2014

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