The London Society recently organised an evening tour of this fascinating building. Rebecca Snow of Stiff+Trevillion reports.
Emerging from London Bridge tube station one is spat out into loud, brash 21st Century London. The Shard towers over commuters, traffic converges from every angle and trains trundle relentlessly overhead. However, nestled firmly in its place by the Thames sits Southwark Cathedral, oozing a quiet confidence that says, I have been here. I will continue to be here. This ancient building is not remotely out of place; in fact it is the contemporary architecture that looks awkward around it.
Gathering in Lancelot’s Link, part of Richard Griffiths Northern Cloister extension that opened in 2001 sitting very comfortably next to the Cathedral, it prepares visitors beautifully for stepping out into the main body of the cathedral. And it is a wonderful moment to look up into the vast cavernous ceiling that contrasts so well with the enclosed feeling of the Cloister.
Although billed as candlelit, electric lighting was also on offer to illustrate areas of this historic building candlelit would simply not show – and presumably to stop us all falling flat on our faces on the uneven floor. The tour began in perhaps the most spiritual space in the cathedral – certainly the oldest part of the building – the Retro Choir. Four small chapels dedicated to Mary were created, not to venerate the Mother of God but to allow the many priests serving in the 13th Century to fulfil their religious obligation of celebrating Mass each day. Interestingly for a Cathedral of this size there are no side chapels, these four small chapels behind the main altar were created for practical rather than spiritual reasons.
Moving through the Cathedral it was almost impossible to take in the vast amount of history that is simply stuffed into the space. Every wall monument, statue, sculpture is precious, ancient and most fascinatingly dedicated to men and women of this earthly world.
The carved sculpture of Richard Humble and his family is one such monument. Humble, a city Alderman is remembered in this touching record of his family and children, with those that didn’t survive to adulthood depicted forever as children.
In marked contrast to say Catholic churches whose walls are draped with often grisly images of Christ suffering, martyred saints, The Stations of the Cross, Southwark seems filled with relics to the human life. The walls are groaning with memorials to men and women who have donated money to Southwark presumably in the hope that this would secure them a decent spot in heaven.
The Cathedral has had a strong connection to theatrical community. With its proximity to the Globe Theatre, Shakespeare who lived in Southwark, is remembered here as a reclining alabaster figure, clutching in his unmoving hands a sprig of fresh rosemary.
There was an overwhelming sense that this has been a building in constant flux over the centuries. Fire damage, collapsing walls, ruination by rain and the elements, repeated moving of heavy stone memorials, it feels like the structure was never still but shifting and moving and reflecting the life of the city around it.
Although a building that was created for the glory of God it rather seems to celebrate the life of city and people who lived around it. It is as much a social history of Southwark as religious one and its clear that its role today still feels this tension. It’s a challenge for a building to be open and accessible to all and still respect the quiet solemnity that serious religious worship requires. Southwark seems to walk this tightrope well and that comes from its confidence and security that it will stay while the shouty newcomers alongside it may not.