With a fierce wind howling outside and a rumbling dirge from the organ rattling our bones, the atmosphere feels deliciously Gothic as we pass beneath the vaulted ceiling towards a narrow door and hidden spaces that have been under lock and key to the public for a thousand years… Members of Chester culture have kindly been granted a sneak preview of the new Cathedral At Height tour opening this April, and sturdy shoes are definitely the order of the day.
Our charming guide leads us forward and we begin the ascent. Climbing a ladder up above a Norman arch – the oldest part of the building – we’re shown old Roman columns discovered locally by the original Cathedral masons and recycled into the stonework. We’re then lead along the galleries of the North Transept, stopping to listen through our headphones as our guide points out architectural details and their fascinating stories. Here, a ceiling from the reign of Henry VIII studded with ornate coats of arms; there, dazzling and colourful Victorian stained-glass windows stretch above our heads. To be so close and to have the chance to wonder at every small detail around us is an absolute privilege.
We continue, heading up to the crux of the building below the bell tower. We’re shown the intersecting arches that crisscross the ceiling; dubbed the “Crown of Stone”, the feature is unique in Britain. Torchlight is shone onto carved heads that decorate each corner, effigies of the original stonemasons themselves who left this secret kind of signature away from the eyes of the unwitting monks down below.
Climbing ever upwards, we enter into the lower half of the bell tower itself. The room is once again home to the Tower Clock that was removed in the 1960s, but has now been restored and returned to its rightful place, along with a working Carillion. Up we head once more, and with the wind whistling around us we now stand where the chorus of bells would have pealed and chimed loudly together. Only two bells remain in this original location, but a recording of bells tolls around us as some of the Cathedral’s stunning stained-glass images are projected onto the walls above.
We set off to mount yet another winding staircase. It’s incredible to be able to see the chisel work on the walls, and to descry masons’ marks as well as carved graffiti from across the ages. Our climb at an end, we reach the roof and are rewarded for our efforts with breath-taking (albeit very windswept) views across the rolling Cheshire countryside, towards Flintshire and the Welsh mountains, and over to the Wirral. It’s wonderful to be able to work out the city’s place in the surrounding landscape, and to discover Chester afresh from an unrivalled vantage point. We peer down and spy the pedestrians far below us as we, in turn, are peered down on by the grimacing gargoyles that encircle the tower’s four spires and that don’t seem much used to having company.
Eventually, we regroup and make our way down a narrow spiral staircase; following, we learn, in the footsteps of none other than King Charles I himself, who in 1645 watched the defeat of his troops at Rowton Moor from the same hallowed heights, before making a hasty and crestfallen retreat down the steps to short-lived freedom.
We wind ever downwards, and are lead along another narrow gallery to gaze up at the nave’s vaulted ceiling enclosed in Victorian wood-panels and decorated with sublime holy figures in rich golds and reds. Remarkably, this decoration was only rediscovered in the late 20th century by a workman that rubbed away at the years of black grime in which it was then caked. In its place, once again, majestic Cherubim and Seraphim now stand, whose many colourful wings are adorned with watchful eyes. We walk further, and are given an uninterrupted view along the length of the nave with its intricate 14th century wooden choir stalls – some of the finest and most complete in England.
Next, we pass into the darkness of a small doorway and into one of the most hidden spaces of the tour. Walking along a dimly lit and very narrow passage, we crouch down and see on either side of us the infrastructure of some of the cathedral’s vaulted ceilings and arches extending away from us on either side. Our guide points out an unexpected and strange, little structure (which we’ll leave as a surprise) that was seemingly used by the cathedral builders for reasons unknown.
Once more and for the final time, we head down stair after stair in our descent back to earth, with a new found awe for the cathedral we all thought we knew so well.
Opening on 12th April, the Cathedral at Height tour is an absolute delight of an experience, and we can’t recommend it enough. Those afraid of confined spaces or heights beware though: it’s certainly not for the fainthearted! The tour lasts for about an hour, and admission costs are £8 per person, with a reduction to £7 for groups of 6-12 and £6 for Under 12s. It’s well worth every penny, so go along and discover a new perspective on Chester Cathedral for yourself!