Friday, 22 July 2011

Above the Cathedral Vault II

Having walked above the entire length of the cathedral's main vault visitors return to the area above the crossing, the point where the transepts join the choir and nave. A doorway leads into the roof space above the aisle that connects the main body of the church with the transeptal South Tower, the location of what was once the cathedral's lead workshop left.

Since its construction, the cathedral has always consumed a vast quantity of lead. The current roof has about 450 tonnes of lead on it, a colossal amount even in the 21st century. In the 14th century it seems that the cathedral authorities sourced lead from a number of places. The Fabric Roll for 1302 records that a large stock of lead was purchased at St Botolph's fair in Boston, Lincolnshire, over 200 miles away from Exeter. Another consignment entered England at Dartmouth in 1325, possibly sourced from the continent and shipped over the English Channel.

Lead ore was also purchased. The ore was brought up to the lead workshop where it was smelted down in a furnace. The molten lead was then poured out onto the stone floor where it was beaten and rolled into flat sheets. The lead workshop continued to be used up until the early years of the 20th century and the flue for the furnace is still visible jutting out from the roof of the south transept.

The photograph right shows the view towards the eastern end of the cathedral, the steep, leaded roof of the choir on the left. This walkway is accessible via a narrow door off the workshop itself.

A flight of stone steps takes visitors from the lead workshop up into the South Tower, one of two which remain from the original Romanesque building. Both towers contain bells. The North Tower holds a single bell called the 'Peter' bell (the cathedral is dedicated to St Peter), but the South Tower has a total of 14 which together, at 14 tonnes, constitute the second heaviest peal of bells in the world (the heaviest being at the 20th century Anglican cathedral in Liverpool).

The heaviest bell in the South Tower, weighing over 3.5 tonnes, is called the 'Grandisson', named after the bishop who was in office when the cathedral was completed in the mid-14th century. It was recast in bronze from an older bell in 1902. Although the oldest current bell was cast in Exeter in 1616 many of them use material from medieval bells, some of which were probably installed in the Norman cathedral when it was completed c1180.

All of the bells, including the massive 'Grandisson', can be swung in a full circle rather than simply from side to side, as happens in most other countries. The cathedral bells are fascinating and deserve their own post on this blog at a later date.

The 14 bells in the South Tower are located two floors above the ringing chamber but unfortunately it's not possible for visitors to view them. The photograph above left shows the bell-ringing chamber high up in the South Tower. The two blocked openings in the wall on the left have the distinctive round-headed arches of the Romanesque style and were two of the tower's original 12th century windows. The large metal hoop near the ceiling is designed to hold the ropes apart to prevent them from getting tangled together. Access to the bells is via a spiral staircase set into a corner of the chamber.

Having returned through the lead workshop and back to the crossing above the main vault the visitor passes into the North Tower. Access into the upper levels of the tower is through what was once one of the windows of the Norman tower prior to the 14th century remodelling of the cathedral and leads into the equivalent of the bell-ringing chamber in the South Tower. The timber roof of this large chamber is black with age and contains some of the most gigantic oak beams in the entire building. The walls are just rough-hewn stone, the atmosphere redolent of a castle keep. One interesting feature is a colossal trap door right, approximately 10ft (3 metres) in diameter, set into the floor through which bells were once transported via the wooden vault in the north transept and up into the belfry at the top of the tower.

Also in this room is the striking mechanism for the 'Peter' bell. The 'Peter' bell weighs around 5 tonnes and was recast on the orders of Bishop Courtenay in 1484 as a replacement for an earlier bell. Over-excited celebrations at the failure of the Gunpowder Plot in 1606 caused it to crack and it was recast in 1676 by Thomas Purdue.

The 'Peter' bell is essentially a clock bell, striking the hours using a hammer falling against its side. A clock with a bell has been in the cathedral since at least 1327 but in 1885 the striking mechanism was replaced with the current mechanism left. The clock movement itself is located in a room further down the tower. The striking mechanism was formerly wound by hand but an electric motor has been used since 1970. The 'Peter' bell still tolls every hour and its sombre tone can often be heard across the city.

From this chamber another spiral staircase takes the visitor up onto the roof of the North Tower itself. Each tower is approximately 150ft (44 metres) high, and the impression of height is remarkable after emerging from the confined interior of the roof spaces.

And here we are on top of the cathedral. The views across Exeter are panoramic and it's possible to appreciate the city's beautiful geographical location, sitting in a bowl with the cathedral in the centre and surrounded on nearly all sides with the rolling green hills of Devon, the estuary of the River Exe a silver ribbon in the far distance.

The photograph above right was taken from the top of the North Tower and shows the eastern end of the cathedral looking over the copper beeches in the grounds of the Bishop's Palace, over the backs of the remaining Georgian terraces in Southernhay West and out towards the suburb of St Leonard's. The flying buttesses that support the vaulted ceiling and the roof, and the tall clerestory windows, are all clearly visible.

The Norman builders shared a similar view over the area nearly 900 years ago and the sheer scale of the towers' construction makes their achievement even more remarkable. It's difficult to imagine the mighty impression of political, social and religious power that the original Romanesque building must've made on the Anglo-Saxon population as it arose stone by stone over a city that had once rebelled against the Conqueror himself. Nothing remotely on the scale of these two towers had ever been seen in Exeter before.

From here the guided tour returns back the way it came to the floor of the nave in the cathedral's south-west corner. The tour is exceptionally interesting and can be highly recommended for anyone either visiting the city or living here. The photograph below shows the view towards the trees of Rougemont and the university buildings scattered upon the far hills, with some of the few remaining fragments of the pre-war city clinging to the edge of the Cathedral Close, the brick wasteland of the post-war reconstruction beyond. Queen Street is visible to the far left with Mol's Coffee House in the centre foreground. The ruins of the medieval St Catherine Almshouses and the Canonry in Catherine Street can just be seen to the right.


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