A practical guide to the Cathedrals of England

Whereas in France, their great cathedrals receive government funding, in England, it can be a shock to tourists that many of our cathedrals charge an entry fee. This can range from £6 to a whopping £22.

The funding situation for our historic buildings notwithstanding, of course visitors should donate to these great buildings to keep them alive if it is within their means. As well as maintaining these huge buildings, cathedrals also maintain choral and musical traditions, and professional choirs and organists can’t work for free!

But on the other hand, required entry fees can put people off visiting, especially if they are backpackers making a quick stopover, or families who aren’t going to spend more than a few minutes looking around. Sometimes visitors wandering in can be put off by the hassle of a cashier’s gaze if they just want a very quick nosy about. So here’s a guide on what to expect when visiting cathedrals in England.

The Medieval Diocesan Cathedrals

All of these are definitely worth a visit if you’re in their city. English medieval dioceses were relatively large, and their cathedrals always on an impressive scale. Therefore I’ve kept my descriptions fairly short because they’re all worthy of many paragraphs to details their architecture and fittings. Of the 19 original medieval cathedrals, 7 of them have mandatory admissions fees as of 2018.

Carlisle (Cumbria)

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No charge, unrestricted entry.

Photo permit £2 (no tripods caveat)

The smallest medieval cathedral in England since most of its nave was demolished in the mid 17thc. The presbytery is uniquely light and perfectly proportioned though.

Durham (County Durham)

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No charge, but very strict on photography for some reason. If you can prove academic status a permit is £15/£7.50 for students. It’s under the pretense of “preserving the peace” but if you don’t see one custodian shouting at a tourist with a camera, you’ve visited on a very quiet day. In fact the whole building feels on a knife-edge because of it, so a bit of an own-goal really, but they continue to be pretty much alone enforcing this rule outside London. They do have photography evenings occasionally, unlike Westminster Abbey (see below)

World-famous for its rich Romanesque nave, but the 13thc Nine Altars east end is spectacular also.

York Minster (The city of York)

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£11/£9 concessions on the door. Automatically valid for a year. Also includes access to the crypt museum which makes it a great value day out.

One of the best collections of medieval glass in the world. Also the biggest medieval cathedral in England by volume. Nave is enormously wide.

Lichfield (Staffordshire)

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Welcome desk but no charge.

Very restored after Civil War ransacking but architecturally extremely impressive. Nave incredibly richly adorned with sculptural embellishment.

Coventry (Warwickshire)

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Base of the north-west tower of the nave of St Mary’s Priory – the first of three buildings called Coventry Cathedral

Access to excavated nave of St Mary’s Priory, the only English cathedral to be totally demolished, open any reasonable hours. Visitor centre for St Mary’s Priory also free but only open Wed-Sat. See below for post-1918 cathedral (bombed out 1940) and the Basil Spence replacement.

Lincoln (Lincolshire)

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£8/£6.40 concessions. Free unrestricted entry outside when the cash desk is open (9.30-4.30 Mon-Sat) The big drawback here is the ticket is valid for a year, but only for one further visit. Annual passes are £24.

A contender for best English cathedral, but not really “on the way to anywhere” so not much tourist footfall, sadly. Also the town is a bit grim when you get down the hill.

Hereford (Herefordshire)

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No charge, unrestricted entry. Charge to see the chained library/Mappa Mundi: £6/£5.

Its nave very badly damaged when the west tower fell down in the 18thc, but still a fine place, better than the sum of its parts.

Worcester (Worcestershire)

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No charge, unrestricted entry.

Quite restrained, architecturally, but soaring vaults and lots of interesting sculpture.

Ely (Cambridgeshire)

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£9/£6 concessions. Unrestricted access outside 9-5 Mon to Sat. Slightly more permissive than most about free entry if you really cannot afford in those hours.

If you ask, they will give you a one-year pass.

Luscious 14thc lady chapel, electrifying east end, world-famous octagon crossing.

Norwich (Norfolk)

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No charge, but in visiting hours (9.30-4.30ish) they will make you walk past the welcome desk and ask for a suggested donation.

Most complete Romanesque cathedral in England, second-tallest steeple, late medieval vaulting throughout with hundreds of finely-carved bosses.

London (St Paul’s)

£18/£16 concessions on the door. Access to nave only after cash desk closes. Also access to crypt (café) unrestricted.

If you Gift Aid your admission, you can ask for a one-year pass, which makes it much more reasonable.

No photography. But they do have photography evenings occasionally.

Of course, this is all Wren now, with William Blake Richmond’s mosaics on the choir domes. You can see the outline of the medieval chapter house on the south side. There’s absolutely nothing medieval to see inside. The oldest thing on display is the monument to John Donne (although there are bits of medieval stonework kept in the lapidarium in the galleries, which are not open to the public).

Canterbury (Kent)

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£12.50/10.50 concessions. In fact, the only cathedral you need to pay to see the exterior, as the gatehouse is the cash desk. Free entry for local students. Ask for your ticket to be upgraded to an annual pass for free (or Gift Aid).

Extremely important architecturally, and the vivid history of St Thomas Becket, its destructive fire, and Becket’s internationally important shrine.

Rochester (Kent)

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No charge, unrestricted entry.

Unusual Romanesque nave with false tribune (no vaults to the aisles) and the uniquely unaisled late 12thc presbytery.

Chichester (Sussex)

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No charge, unrestricted entry.

Often forgotten, a little smaller than some of the giants, but much to admire, especially the post-Canterbury retrochoir. Slightly spoilt by the steeple collapsing in the 19thc, but meticulous replacement of what was destroyed by G.G. Scott.

Salisbury (Wiltshire)

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No charge, but in visiting hours you will go past a cash desk who will ask you for a recommended entry fee.

The most consistently built of the English cathedrals, constructed on a virgin site in the 13thc, but still quintessentially odd.

Winchester (Hampshire)

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£8.50/£6.50 concessions, automatically valid for year.

Extremely long and packed with stuff. The transepts very early Norman work and extremely brutal in their scale. However I don’t think I’ve ever been when big chunks of the building aren’t frustratingly covered in scaffolding.

Wells (Somerset)

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No charge, but you may be ushered past a cash desk that asks you for suggested donation. Sorry, last time I was here was like 2011 and I was in there at 6 am because that’s how I rolled.

Often passed over by tourists (it’s essentially in a small market town), but as important as Canterbury as far as the architecture goes.

Bath (Somerset)

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No charge, but you will go past a entry desk with a suggested donation during normal hours.

Not usually considered a medieval cathedral, since it is now essentially a grand but small late-medieval abbey church. The original Romanesque cathedral was so overshadowed by Wells, it became so dilapidated it was all but totally demolished and replaced by the current Tudor-Gothic building in the early 16thc.

As of 2018/19 undergoing serious work restoring the foundations under the floors in its Footprint project. Visitor experience will be transformed after this, as currently the admittedly fine G.G. Scott pews do restrict the movement of the hordes of Bath tourists and make it feel uncomfortably cramped a lot of the time.

Exeter (Devon)

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£7.50/£5 concessions. Gift Aid for annual pass. Free for residents. Unrestricted access early morning/evening.

Unique for its 14thc high vault running between two mighty Romanesque transept towers. Towering early 14thc carpentry in the Bishop’s Throne canopy which practically touches the vault.

The “Henry VIII” Cathedrals

At the Dissolution of the Monasteries, six abbey churches were chosen to be the cathedrals of new dioceses. They are essentially the same architectural quality as the medieval diocesan cathedrals.

Chester (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Werbergh), Cheshire

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£6 entrance fee introduced 2004 abolished in 2013. Cash desks still there, and you need to get a ticket from them even if you choose to pay nothing.

Very restored, like all the red sandstone cathedrals (Lichfield, Hereford), but still impressive. Definitely the least well-known of the Henry VIII cathedrals and frequently forgotten.

Gloucester (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Peter), Gloucestershire

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No charge, unrestricted entry. Entry to crypt by tour only.

Interior of the presbytery – a Romanesque apse retrofitted with mid-14thc panel tracery – is brittle, complex, and overwhelming. Gigantic medieval east window with its original glass. One of the very best medieval churches.

Bristol (Formerly Augustinian Abbey), City of Bristol

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No charge, unrestricted entry.

Only the east end is medieval, but it has a unique vaulting system, and lots of other weird architectural quirks. Perhaps interesting rather than beautiful a lot of the time.

Oxford (Formerly Augustinian Priory of St Frideswide), Oxfordshire

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Currently £8/£7 concessions, rising to £10/£9 in July 2019. Includes visits to the rest of the Christ Church college grounds (but not the picture gallery, which is an extra £4/£2).

Free entry for parishioners of Oxford diocese on completing a form.

Often referred to as Christ Church cathedral, which is very confusing for Kiwis. Unusual place for being inside a university college complex (Cardinal Wolsey had dissolved it in 1520 with a view to turning it into a secular college like Bishop Alcock had done with Jesus College, Cambridge), but essentially it is a late Romanesque priory church with lots of later fancy bolt-ons. The cathedral was going to be the much bigger Osney Abbey outside of Oxford, but then there was a change of mind and the executed Wolsey’s college was picked instead, and Osney was almost entirely demolished.

Peterborough (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Peter), Huntingdonshire

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No charge, unrestricted entry. Photography permit £3.

Nearly as well preserved as Norwich for muscular Romanesque, except the formerly cavernous ambulatory was replaced with the bright and fan-vaulted New Building in the early 16thc.

Westminster Abbey, London

Ooh boy. Here we go.

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£22/£17 concessions on the door. £5 extra for the new Gallery museum.
Free entry for residents of the City of Westminster (like they need it!)
If you really do want to visit multiple times in a year (because you’re researching the building or teaching on it) then you can get an annual pass for £50 (£40 direct debit). It used to be photo ID but now it just has your name on it. Other joint and guest memberships available. Also you get access to occasional private evening visits.

This is just about the only church here (except perhaps St Paul’s) that you can not visit for free on a Sunday and wander around after the service. If you go to a service (which to be fair, nearly always will have high-quality music) you will be watched like a hawk afterwards and ushered out promptly.

Westminster was only briefly a cathedral between 1540-50, but it remains so central to the nation it essentially is one. It often comes as a shock to people that is not like Notre Dame de Paris where you can just pop in. Not only is the entrance fee the highest of any church in the country, but there are often long queues in the rain and fumes of Westminster Square to endure for an hour or two. Bring a bin-bag to put on. It’s appropriate because you will feel like a piece of rubbish by the time you’ve been fleeced at the cash desk.

The big thing about the Abbey is that you can NEVER get permission to take photographs. Even for personal research. If you really needed a photo of something for a book, and they don’t have an image of it in their library, it would have to go through the Dean and Chapter. They’re extremely strict to the point of pettiness about it.

One top tip if you don’t have much time is that because they used to be owned by English Heritage, an agreement still exists that members can get in the chapter house, cloisters and pyx chamber for free. Go in the gate to the school by the west front and ask to see the cloisters and chapter house (this used to work even if you weren’t an EH member but sadly since the Abbey acquired the trust of the cloister complex back in 2016, they closed this loophole).

The York Diocese medieval “Pro-Cathedrals”

These three were essentially built on a great-church scale in the Middle Ages as pro-cathedrals to the massive diocese of York and are medieval cathedrals for all intents and purposes (Southwell and Ripon were made true dioceses in the 19thc, Beverley is still only a parish church).

Southwell Minster (Nottinghamshire)

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Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permits are £5 which is a bit steep if you just want a few snaps.

Well-preserved Romanesque nave and crossing, stunning early 13th east end, but it’s the chapter house, with the famous foliage carvings on the capitals, that is justly famous here.

Ripon Minster (Yorkshire, West Riding)

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Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permit £4.

Ripon has the earliest Gothic fabric of any cathedral, but most of it fell down, but that’s all part of the fun, innit? Although it is still called a cathedral, it no longer has its own proper bishop: along with Wakefield and Bradford it being amalgamated in the Diocese of Leeds in 2014.

Beverley Minster (Yorkshire, East Riding)

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Free, unrestricted entry. Volunteers walk around politely selling photo permits for £3 – a reasonable price. They’re quite iconic stickers now. Essential souvenir to own one.

The only one on this list that is still nothing more than a parish church (with of course, support and advice from the Greater Churches Group on funding and maintenance). Therefore it is run by a parochial church council rather than a proper dean and chapter. I got told off a couple of years ago by some lady who reckoned they had copyright on the interior of the building and would sue me if I published any pictures of it. I was assured later this is not official line. But yeah. Be careful of whoever she was.

Unusually consistent Early English interior, a post-Lincoln design that is one of the most thoughtful elevations in English architecture. 14thc nave even continues the design quite pedantically. The Percy Tomb is one of the finest sculptural ensembles surviving in England.

Abbey/priory churches made parochial at Reformation that became diocesan in the 19thc

Southwark (formerly Augustinian Priory of St Mary Overie), London

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Unrestricted access, photo permits only £1. Group visits can be rather expensive though (particularly when you’re trying to teach a class and have a limited budget).

The nave was demolished in the mid-19thc and crudely replaced: the current nave is a late 19thc replacement that copies the 13thc choir, which is quite a surprising survival, right next to the Shard. The retrochoir is a very nice space away from the hustle of Borough Market. A good alternative to Westminster Abbey if you’re in London and want some medieval architecture.

St Albans (Formerly Benedictine Abbey of St Alban), Hertfordshire

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Free, unrestricted entry.

Spoilt by bully-boy Lord Grimthorpe’s ham-fisted and naff restorations in the mid 19thc, but extremely long and also in some places, very early Romanesque using looted Roman building material.

Medieval parish churches which became diocesan largely in their original form

St Martin, Leicester (Leicestershire)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

Originally the parish church of St Martin, not even the most interesting church in Leicester (see Mary de Castro or St Nicholas for that title), as the crossing steeple was entirely rebuilt from the ground up by Raphael Brandon in the 19thc. Of course most people go here to gawk at Richard III’s cheese-slicer tomb now. But it’s still free at least.

St Nicholas, Newcastle (Northumberland)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

The steeple with its stone crown is justly famous, but despite its size, the late-14thc interior is incredibly dull, even for someone like me who loves the ordinary. The Victorian high altar enclosure is the most impressive bit. If you don’t go in here while you’re in Newcastle, you really aren’t missing much.

Former collegiate church of Our Lady, St George and St Denys, Manchester, South Lancashire

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Free, unrestricted entry. Photo permits £1.

Manchester suffers because it doesn’t feel like a cathedral at all. But it is an exceptionally fine collegiate church, with some of the finest choir stalls in the country. If it was still just a parish church it’d be top of many more lists.

Medieval parish churches which became diocesan and architecturally upgraded

These are average-sized medieval churches (except Blackburn, which has no medieval fabric left, and instead has an early 19thc nave) that were given massive upgrades to their east ends in the interwar and postwar periods to make them more “cathedral-like”. None of them charge.

Bury St Edmunds (“St Edmundsbury Cathedral”), Suffolk

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Free, unrestricted entry.

The nave is quite an important work by John Wastell, mason of King’s College Cambridge. The Victorian chancel was replaced by Stephen Dykes Bower who is not one of my favourite people and frankly looks a bit plastic, childish and underwhelming.

Blackburn (North Lancashire)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

There was a medieval church here, but it was replaced in 1826 by a surprisingly “correct” Gothic nave designed by John Palmer. It became a cathedral in 1926 and the rather clunkily Gothic transepts built in the 1930s. The whole plan was scaled back after the war, and a centrally-planned approach taken, accentuated by John Hayward’s underrated furnishings.

Bradford (Yorkshire, West Riding)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

A rather ordinary chunky late medieval nave with proud Perpy tower you might expect in any northern market town. The off-the-peg cathedrally 1950s east end by Edward Maufe is perfunctory but the Morris and Co. glass is good.

Chelmsford (Essex)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Cathedral from 1913. Essentially late medieval but had much restored beforehand. The least ambitious of the upgrades. It’s very clean-looking now. Which is more than you can say about most of Chelmsford (oooOoh!).

Portsmouth (Hampshire)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

The east end of the church is a really important example of early 13thc architecture, and quite beautiful. Its crossing tower collapsed in the Civil War, and hence the choir is late 17thc. In 1927 it was made a cathedral, and from 1935 all the way unto 1991, the new west block, in a Neo-Byzantine style, was built. It’s actually pretty nice.

Sheffield (Yorkshire, West Riding)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

Became a cathedral in 1919. The most ambitious of the upgrades. Architect Charles Nicholson tried to pull off what Siena tried to do with their cathedral in the 14thc, reorientating the building with a new nave and presbytery, turning the crossing spire, chancel, and its aisles into a transept and building a matching transept on the other side. Which is insane, frankly. The 14thc nave he would have demolished is rather interesting. So what you have is a big medieval church with a weird modern west end and the intended new chancel stuck on the north side, scaled back and looking rather lost.

Wakefield (Yorkshire, West Riding)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

Made a cathedral in 1888. Medieval nave and aisled chancel, but east wall pulled down and new east end designed by John Loughborough Pearson undeniably impressive stone vaults. The west steeple, although much restored, is one of the tallest in the country and can be seen from miles around.

Post medieval parish churches which became diocesan

Birmingham

Free, unrestricted entry.

Built 1710-25 by Thomas Archer in a Baroque style. Became a cathedral in 1905. If it didn’t have the Morris and Co windows designed by Edward Burne-Jones, it wouldn’t be worth a look, but they are some of the finest 19thc glass in the world and make the building a must visit.

Derby (Derbyshire)

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Free, unrestricted entry.

A 16thc tower, but the body was rebuilt by James Gibbs in 1725. The wrought-iron chancel screen is quite unusual. Became a cathedral in 1927, and extended a bit eastwards 1967-72. I mean worth a visit if you’re in Derby, I guess. Because you’re in Derby. What else are you going to do?

The entirely modern cathedrals

Coventry

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The bombed-out church of St Michael, made a cathedral in 1918, is free to explore in reasonable hours because it’s just the outer walls, essentially. The Basil Spence building next to it had a £6 entry free introduced in 2010, but it was abolished in 2018.

It’s a strange building, to be honest, but the Sutherland Tapestry – reportedly the largest in the world – is quite something.

Guildford (Surrey)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Constructed 1936-61 to the design of Edward Maufe. It has its admirers, but I think most would agree: worth seeing, but hardly worth going to see.

Liverpool (South Lancashire)

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No charge, but welcome desk that may ask for donations.

Constructed 1904-1978 largely to the design of Giles Gilbert Scott. By volume, a contender for the largest cathedral in the world. It depends how you calculate it, but the sheer space under the central tower and transepts is phenomenal.

Truro (Cornwall)

Free, unrestricted entry.

Constructed 1880-1910 to the designs of John Loughborough Pearson. Essentially it’s a very big Victorian Neo-Gothic church that owes more to French architecture than than anything English. Incorporates a small part of Truro’s medieval parish church. Probably worth seeing if you’re this far down Cornwall (it’s a long way from anywhere!)

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There are of course Roman Catholic cathedrals too, and while they vary tremendously in architectural quality, at least you can be sure they won’t be taking money off you to have a look around. Basically no parish church charges for entry (exceptions in London of course: Temple Church and St Bartholomew the Great, Smithfield charge a mandatory few pounds) even the great former abbeys such as Selby. English Heritage sites are another matter, and perhaps for a future post.

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12 thoughts on “A practical guide to the Cathedrals of England

  1. peter kettle

    Just a small correction – St Bartholomew the Great Smithfield, London, is one parish church that DOES in fact charge for admission

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Oh yeah good point. And it really shouldn’t bother in my opinion. It’s not like it gets the footfall Temple does (which technically isn’t a parish church). Any more for anymore? I don’t really count Stratford-upon-Avon chancel either.

      Reply
  2. Heide

    Thank you for this fabulous “who’s who of England’s churches”! As always, I appreciate both your encyclopedic knowledge and your wacky wit (“… but despite its size, the late-14thc interior is incredibly dull, even for someone like me who loves the ordinary.” HA!).

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      Only to see the Shakespeare monument in the chancel, which is fair enough. Some churches rope off and alarm their chancels for visitors anyway. And I went to photograph the sedilia opposite him and they were extremely accommodating with letting me go over the communion rail.

      Reply
  3. Simon Cotton

    As you say, I’ve never had to pay to enter a French cathedral (experience of over 100), though they do sometimes charge for admission to certain parts, for example the choirs of some like Auch and S Bertrand de Comminges (but you can visit the shrine of S. Bertrand for free). Similarly admission to les Jacobins in Toulouse is free, but you pay to visit the cloisters (as I seem to recall that you do at Moissac).

    Reply
  4. Pingback: Opinion – 21 November 2018 – Thinking Anglicans

  5. Stanley Monkhouse

    very entertaining and informative. Thanks. I’d love to know why you find Dykes-Bower’s work not to your taste. I like his screens and furnishings on the whole, and colour schemes. I too, though, find Bury disappointing. Is it something to do with the fact that DB was given the old heave-ho and replaced by someone who lacked his subtlety? Carlisle (my home cathedral as it were) was cared for by DB – and his is the colour scheme at Penrith parish church, largely overlooked. Please do the catholic cathedrals – at least they are functional and not just part of the heritage industry for the “discerning” middle classes.

    Reply
    1. James Alexander Cameron Post author

      SDB destroyed the medieval roofs at Westminster Abbey, and refaced the whole N cloister walk for no real reason. He made Grimthorpe look SPAB. We medievalists hate him with a passion.

      I really don’t think I’ve been to all the Catholic Cathedrals but I do love Norwich R.C. and will try to do something on it some day.

      Reply
  6. Stanley Monkhouse

    Yes, Norwich RC is terrific. I like Arundel too. And anything with “candles”. that light up when you put money in the slot. Pugin at B’ham is a bit spindly, and at Newcastle gloomy. Lancaster’s OK. I like a bit of bad taste.

    Reply
  7. Sue Vincent

    A really useful piece… thank you.
    I have a problem with charges. I will always donate and am happy to do so. I am even happy to buy a camera permit. But if I visit a place that is part of a spiritual tradition, I do not approve of people being turned away because they are not able to afford the price of admission. I am pretty sure that Founder of this tradition would have disapproved too…

    Reply

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