Worcester and the Malvern Hills

11 09 2005

The original plan was to take a quick peek at Worcester Cathedral followed by an easy walk along the River Severn. I have seen many great cathedrals of the country; so this shouldn’t interest me for long with any sort of uniqueness. The exterior came as a surprise. It was difficult to like the patchwork of stones, stones of different colours that failed to create a uniform mood of austere character that one expects of a cathedral. The architecture of any building must create a feeling that befits its purpose. This multicolour assemblage of stones, a product of Victorian restoration, came across as incongruous and jarring.

The interior was something else, full of points of worthy note. The evolution of architecture is best displayed by some bays towards the west end of the nave. Here the rounded arches of the Norman style retain their essence but give way to a slight pointed finish. This “Transitional Norman” style is a rare feature. I have seen it nowhere else. The Jesus Chapel is yet another wonder in its intricately carved reredos that depicts Christ and the events surrounding his life. We have all heard of the notorious King John, whose tomb and effigy lie here. A lion at the king’s feet clearly represents royalty. The same lion biting the end of his sword perhaps reminds us of the authority of the barons and the Magna Carta. The choir and the Lady Chapel are my favourites, beautiful executions in the Early English style. The arches and slender shafts of Purbeck marble in many tiers are matched by the plain pipes of the organ. These merge so well with the overall mood. The misericords are always a fascination with their combination of wit, humour and imagination.

The best part of visiting the cathedral was a chance to climb to the top of the tower, discover the hidden passages above ground level and walk above the Perpendicular vaulting. A whole new perspective of cathedrals was gathered. From the outside, the nave roofing may appear quite high. By this we may infer that the nave vaulting is just as high. In reality, they are some thirty feet lower. The difference in these heights is taken up by passageways which enable easy access for building maintenance. The base of the tower forms the Clock Chamber where the clock is now automatically operated. Above this is the Ringing Chamber where I witnessed bell ringers in action.

Bell ringers are generally volunteers. It is solely their effort that proclaims to the town that there is a cathedral nearby. Bell ringing in itself must be a wholly satisfying experience. Physical strength should be matched with concentration. Timing and coordination are of utmost importance. Like one step follows another in walking, one ring follows another in meditative fashion. It is almost as if the echoes of one ring creates the next, thereby linking the distinct sounds into a seamless melody of divine invocation.

What does this sound mean to those who hear it and more importantly to those who make it? It is acknowledged that when the sense of sound is busy, the mind is freed from distracting thoughts. Standing within the ringing chamber and hearing a massive peal of bells reverberating through the tower and through me is yet another spiritual experience. Such experiences are not the monopoly of meditative yogic postures. Such experiences are also given to hands that are busy and minds that are bent towards meaningful tasks. It is therefore no surprise that St Benedict prescribed a packed routine for monks to keep them free from idleness. It is no surprise that ISKCON recommends the same for all loving servants of Lord Krishna.

Higher up is the Bell Chamber. Except for the Hour Bell, all others are swinging bells. In other words, it is not just the clappers that move. It was also possible to climb to the top of the tower from where I obtained a good view of Worcester. This view included the beautiful expanse of the cricket ground.

All these were possible only because this Saturday was the Heritage Open Day at the cathedral, thanks again to the numerous volunteers, old and young. I do not know how this cathedral compares with others but if we were to call this cathedral progressive and close to the community, it is a credit to the active involvement of these volunteers. Interest in the Church is not what it used to be in the past. As such, church establishments have to innovate and devise new ways of creating interest as a first means to advance their core objectives. Those interested in heritage and cathedral architecture will support preservation. When a cathedral is preserved there is always hope for those who need it, a touch of the divine and possible salvation.

This was hardly the peek I had intended. The truth is simple. No matter how many splendid cathedrals I step into, I always find something to interest and occupy my curious mind at every fresh visit. So it happened today that walking was sacrificed in favour of the Open Day at Worcester Cathedral.

This spiritual flavour of the weekend’s visit continued at Great Malvern at the Great Malvern Priory Church. As I continue these notes upon my return from Worcestershire I must confess that I have lost count of the number of times I visited this church. The exterior gives the same displeasing effect as Worcester Cathedral. In this age of computers and digital representation, this is what we can call “coarse pixellation”. In compensation, the church relies on its location for its appeal. It is situated on fairly high ground. The higher slopes covered in mist provide an enchanting background. Surrounded by lovely trees, it opens an isolation for quiet self-discovery. Yet, it is at the heart of town; and why not, for the town itself has grown out of this church.

The best part of the church is on the inside. The plain Norman pillars stand out boldly. Elsewhere if we are to witness only crumbling remains or partial glimpses of Norman architecture, here the pillars come as a surprise. We are no longer required to exercise the powers of imagination and contrived feeling. The Norman air lingers. The vaulting, the church, the aisles and the windows disappear before our very eyes. All the embellishments of Perpendicular Gothic are lost. The warm Victorian tiles of the nave fade. Only the pillars, the capitals and the arches remain. Such is the effect. A more magnificent representation is to be found at Tewkesbury Abbey, and to a lesser degree at Gloucester Cathedral, details of which are displayed in the crypt of Worcester Cathedral.

The second impressive aspect of the Great Malvern Priory Church is the decoration of tiles, floor and wall. The Victorian tiles deserve a close study of their numerous motifs and designs. Simply put, they are beautiful. They do not have the advantage of antiquity and its romance. This does not in any way belittle their art. The legacies the Victorians have left behind are indeed worthy.

The older tiles huddle together in various shades telling the effect of time or perhaps inconsistencies in the lead glazing process. Either way, they are so much a study of light and shade that the immediate association that sprung to my mind are the views of Rouen Cathedral by Monet.

More than the church, it is the Malvern Hills that are a draw to visitors far and near. It is these that first prompted me to make a weekend of it. I walked these hills as many others who were taking to the outdoors and the pleasures therein. The hills are surprisingly easy to climb. More often, it is no more than a hard stroll. A few hours were sufficient to discover the hills by an easy ridge path. I had expected something spectacular. I should have realised that these are neither the mountains of Cumbria nor the lakes that mirror towering silhouette forms. The terrain here does not offer a great variety of views. Once on top of the hills, the landscape opens widely before our eyes. Once this is savoured, no new views appear. The same picture remains and repeats.

There is no doubt this is a beautiful place but it did not thrill me. Was it the cold wet weather? Was it that I had imagined something better? Was it because I had a 360 degree view, I was too distracted to frame beautiful pictures? Was it because I had become immune to beauty and forgotten to appreciate by overexposure? Was it due to my inner spiritual mood that prevailed over outer transient beauties? Was my walk too quick or my visit too short?

So I left the hills early and headed back to Great Malvern for lunch at the Foley Arms. What a fantastic meal! It was well-presented and delicious. Named “Char-grilled vegetable strudel”, it was layers of aubergine, courgettes, peppers and mozzarella cheese coated with filo pastry and served with Dauphenoise potatoes. It is difficult to say if this is an English creation but the ingredients surely point to a mix of influences.

Having little else to do, I browsed some of the shops in town and bought some second-hand books in the process. Then I took a guided tour of town, arranged by the Tourist Information Centre. It was conducted by Dudley Brook, a man not born in the Malverns but settled here for many years. The town does not appear to charm but if it does one should stay longer to discover it. Clearly it was close to Dudley’s heart. He spoke of the buildings and the streets. He showed us the springs that brought the doctors and their patients. He described how Worcester sauce was born in one of the shops although the fame went to Worcester. He knew each and every tree. He pointed the varying colours of the Malvern stones. He was full of life. It was a joy to listen to him. He was 82. I am glad he did not dwell too much on Edward Elgar, a local pride. There is so much mention of this composer that it is overdone. It has served only to cloy rather than whet my appetite. But Elgar is more than local pride. If anyone takes a look at a twenty pound note, he will find a portrait of this English composer. He will also find the west front of Worcester Cathedral and an image of St Cecilia, the patron saint of church music.

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