I always associate Gloucester with Mike Oldfield’s Tubular Bells II. I think of one, I start to hum the other. It may be where I bought my copy. The album certainly came out in 1992, the year of Bonusbarn’s birth, and that was my first summer in Abingdon. I took a week off work and a day trip to Gloucester was my first major venture out of my new home. I felt quite the explorer, navigating the diabolical Marcham S-bend for the first time in my trusty Renault 4.
So yesterday, our third anniversary and the day after Bonusbarn’s 17th birthday, that was where we went.
Pleasant place. Nice, wide, pedestrianised city centre; good range of shops; and a cathedral, which was of course the purpose of the visit. It achieves the effect managed by all good Perpendicular Gothic cathedrals of making several thousand tons of stone look delicate and lace-like.
The western half, up to the choir screen, is strangely sparse with little ornamentation on walls, floor or ceiling.
From the choir onwards is where all the ornamentation is. Tombs, side chapels, ornate fan vaulting, beautiful tiled floors.
We nearly doubled the congregation of a quickie lunchtime communion service in the Lady Chapel (the celebrant told us our anniversary is also the feast day of St Mary Magdalene; Best Beloved knew this, I either didn’t or had forgotten). Three modern screens behind the altar here give the Saviour a definite hint of pubic hair (left) and a pair of muscular buttocks (right). Not areas traditionally associated with veneration, but the church must move with the times.
Then we went exploring. The cathedral scores especially high in its nook-and-cranny quota by letting the public up to the next level – the galleries set into the walls behind the arches on either side of the choir (at £2 a head, which I don’t remember being the case in 1992). Up there you get a good close-up view of east window, and the Whispering Gallery. The latter really is a surprising feature. Before they put the east window in, you could get all round the east end of the building at that level. Then the window cut one side off from the other. So, they built a free-standing enclosed stone passageway outside the walls – you can see it from the outside – that goes around behind the window. If someone standing at one end whispers, someone at the other can hear it quite plainly. I was standing at one end of the gallery; Best Beloved, in the red coat, indicates the other.
I like the way this side chapel refuses to let anything as plebian as an important support buttress get in its way. It just quietly gets on with its life and pretends the buttress isn’t there.
I got the feeling of the cathedral being a physical part of the city, much more than Salisbury where my (still favourite) cathedral sits in aloof dignity in the middle of a neatly mowed lawn. Buildings on the north side of the cathedral start to accrete onto the cathedral itself – you can’t tell where one ends and the other begins. It actually is a complex.
We went through the gate at the west end of the cathedral precinct, looking for somewhere to sit and have lunch. This turned out to be the site of the martyrdom ofJohn Hooper, of whom I hadn’t heard before yesterday but now probably approve, and I got the distinct feeling Gloucester had stopped trying. The fronts of the houses that look onto the precinct are immaculate, but the back sides really are the backsides. It was like the precinct was mooning us. The rear of the precinct forms one side of a square of 60s or 70s houses and flats that could be in Milton Keynes for all their sense of history. Bit of a letdown.
But, nothing daunted. Outside, when it wasn’t raining I found a real seaside feel to the city, without a sea. Something in the air and light tells you you’re close to a large body of water, i.e. the River Severn. The calling of the seagulls adds to it. And so we went looking for the Historic Docks (which we knew to be Historic because the signs said so). These have been very nicely done up, either converting the old warehouses or adding new buildings in a recognisably related style. Mind you, actually go into the buildings and you enter Retail Hell – it’s a retail outlet centre, like Bicester Village, utterly dry and soulless until you step outside again. We went mad, drunk with retail intoxication, and bought some socks at Marks & Spencer. Oh yes, three years of marriage has taught us how to splurge.
And so home, and a delicious anniversary dinner at Kitsons, which is under new management that doesn’t yet have a credit rating and so only takes cash or cheques. But, as the waitress helpfully pointed out before forgetting to bring the bread I ordered, there’s a Nationwide with a cashpoint opposite.
Tentative plans are now being drawn up for a raid on Worcester (after which we will have done the Three Choirs without any of that tedious singing stuff); or even for a long weekend taking in Worcester and Tewkesbury. Watch this space.