Viewed from the Rheims Way last February, Canterbury Cathedral towered majestically above the City’s medieval roofline, winter’s pale sunlight bestowing a mystical translucence upon its delicately soaring spires. Since the foundation of the Cathedral by St. Augustine in ad 602 it has been rebuilt many times although the Cathedral’s present vaulted nave and main transepts date from 1377, work begun by Henry Yeveley, master mason to Edward 111, creating a building of extraordinary genius and imagination.
Our afternoon began, chronologically speaking, in the 12th century with Thomas Becket at the Hospital of St. Thomas the Martyr, Eastbridge in Canterbury’s High Street. It was founded c1177 following the murder of Becket in 1170, to provide hospitality for the many pilgrims who came to visit his tomb at the cathedral. As our members were to discover, Eastbridge is undeniably one of Canterbury’s treasures with its Norman arched undercroft, now several feet below present street level. There is also a Refectory and two Chapels, the main Chapel still with its original oak-timbered roof of 1285: it is laudable that this charitable foundation still maintains almshouses today.
Evensong at the Cathedral was a little different from usual as Dr. David Flood was away in America. In his absence, Robert Patterson, the Assistant Organist, conducted the choir and the Organ Scholar, Tim Harper, played the organ. The service opened with the Thomas Tomkins’ (1572-1656) Preces, five-part music of timeless beauty, eloquently sung by Canterbury’s choir of sixteen boys and ten men. Tomkins was a pupil of William Byrd and his music echoes Byrd’s Elizabethan style; music so perfectly suited to the clear vibrant voices of a cathedral choir of boys and men set in an ancient resonant acoustic.
Mander Nave Organ
Psalms, when there are a number set for the day, can be a challenge for a choir if they are not to sound tired and “workman-like”. On reaching the fourth psalm, there was more than a suspicion of this, although they were competently sung. However, Tim Harper’s organ accompaniment included some quite engaging embellishments sensitively played. Psalm 84, O how amiable are thy dwellings was sung, unusually, to a chant by Rev. W H Havergale (which, for those of a certain age, is inextricably linked to The Highway Code).
The Canticles were Collegium Regale by Howells and the anthem was Stanford’s Justorum animae. This was sung at the east end of the Cathedral following the processional hymn, when the choir came together as a single body, by the far east end Corona, where the Cathedral’s acoustic beautifully enhanced the choir’s blend and clarity. The service finished with Tim Harper giving a stunning performance of the Maurice Duruflé Toccata (from Suite Op.5).
Following the service, Robert Patterson spoke of the long-term plans for the rebuilding of the organ, together with the proposal for a new and complete Nave organ. Robert also invited us to visit the organ loft to try the organ for ourselves; our President, Roger Gentry was, quite rightly, first on the organ stool, followed by several of our members. Tim Harper was on hand to assist with registration and kindly answered our queries. It had been an honour and privilege to have such free access to the organ and we are grateful to Robert Patterson and Tim Harper, in the absence of “the great Dr. D” as Tim affectionately called him.
Canterbury Cathedral Quire
A generous tea was waiting for us at St. Paul’s Church Hall where we were able to view the 2-manual and pedal 1900 Forster & Andrews organ in the church. However, it could not be played as it had been partly dismantled, undergoing a major overhaul by F. H. Browne & Sons. Nevertheless, we could see the inner workings and pneumatic tubing of the underactions, with the dismantled bellows and large wooden Pedal Bourdon 16ft pipes laid out across the church pews.
Following tea, Martin Taylor, author of the book The cradle of English Christianity gave a talk entitled The making of Christian England. Mr. Taylor, reading from detailed notes, spoke of the post Roman period and the coming of St. Augustine in ad 597, sent by Pope Gregory the Great to lead the mission for the evangelisation of England, becoming the first Archbishop of Canterbury. He also showed us slides of sites and artefacts, St. Augustine’s grave and illustrated maps of the routes taken by him as he journeyed from Italy through France to England. Casting aside his notes, Mr Taylor spoke with animated enthusiasm of the foundation of our Christian culture, the beginnings of democracy and the introduction of English coins. Also, the foundation of the Sees of Canterbury and York and the Venerable Bede within his monastery at Jarrow, “the greatest man of learning of the Anglo-Saxon age”.
Our visit to Canterbury had been a full and fascinating one and, in addition to the music and organs, the interest of viewing Canterbury’s historic buildings and streets, preserved and tidied for posterity. But, passing the “Old Tannery” housing development, its buildings thoughtfully designed to blend with the old, one wonders what skills have been lost, with the artisans of old Canterbury passing into history, the City robbed of its life and smells.
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