Toby Venables takes a Cathedral tour that takes you to the parts other tours can’t reach...
It’s hard to describe the view from the narrow gallery of the Cathedral Crossing Tower looking down into the nave below. ‘Head-spinning’ might cover it. ‘Queasy’ is another that has been suggested. But it is also stunningly beautiful. As my immensely knowledgeable guide, Mike Goodall, explains, this one part of the tour sometimes catches people off guard; he’s even had scaffolders and sky-divers who have felt disconcerted by it.
Certainly, you need to have a reasonable head for heights to take this particular tour – and reasonable stamina to tackle the 400 or so steps to the roof – but the rewards are absolutely worth it. It’s not just about the stunning view across the city from the very top of the Crossing Tower, either (the highest point in the city; no other building is allowed to be taller). Nor is it just to do with the very tangible delight in being allowed to peek behind the scenes (needless to say, these are all areas to which the public are not normally admitted). It is also the incredible, hidden treasures that are revealed along the way.
They look as if they were made yesterday, but the masons’ marks were carved by the Cathedral’s builders nearly 900 years ago…
The tour begins with a climb up a cramped, medieval spiral staircase which takes us to the upper floors of the Norman Cathedral. Along the way we pause to examine small, incised marks on the smooth Barnack limestone – a stylised fish, a cross, a pentagram. They look as if they were made yesterday, but are in fact the masons’ marks, carved by the Cathedral’s builders nearly 900 years ago.
Moving along the Triforium gallery one comes up close to the few remaining examples of medieval stained glass in the building. All the stained glass was smashed by Cromwell’s troops, but fragments were later found by the enterprising Victorians who attempted to reconstruct some of the central windows. It appears they were only moderately successful, however – the jigsaw pieces may have been put together to create an impression of scene, but closer examination reveals that the relationships between the bits is often startlingly random.
Tests have shown that the oak log that forms the central winding shaft was felled around the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066
The overall effect, though, is breathtaking – and the details, seen close up, are exquisite. Via a suspended walkway we pass above the wooden North Transept ceiling and along the perilously narrow gallery of the Crossing Tower, then up again, and out onto to the Tower roof. It’s a bright, blustery day, and Ely Cathedral is just about visible in the distance. Stunning as it is, this isn’t the highlight for me, however. That is to come once we have travelled the length of the Nave roof (on the outside) and entered the North West Tower. This is where the ringing chamber is situated, but also, in another chamber a truly remarkable find: a complete medieval windlass that was abandoned at the end of the building process. Consisting of a huge wooden wheel with a stout central winding shaft, this was used by the Cathedral builders to lift the huge stone blocks to the upper levels. Apparently, however, the Cathedral was not its first project – or possibly this was not the first use for the wood from which it was constructed. Tests have shown that the oak log that forms the central shaft was felled around the time of the Battle of Hastings in 1066 – and that was a half century before the Cathedral was even begun. It’s quite a special feeling to touch this unique artifact and imagine what other hands were once placed upon it, and what momentous events it has seen.
Finally, we cross the huge gothic vaults over the West Front and descend to the ground floor once more. With my feet back on solid ground my mind is whirling with impressions. I have to admit that when I first heard the tour lasted 90 minutes, I wondered why it took quite so long. But the time passed in a flash, and I felt I would gladly have spent twice as long exploring the hidden riches of this remarkable building. I’ll certainly be back for more.
Booking and further information
The tour lasts around 1 hour and 30 minutes. Numbers are strictly limited, so advanced booking is recommended. Tower Tour tickets are £10 for adults, £8 concessions and £5 children (children over 10 years only are admitted).
● Book tickets online through the Cathedral website or via Peterborough Visitor Information Centre, 9 Bridge Street, Peterborough PE1 1HJ (01733 452336).
● For the latest tour dates, events and other information please visit www.peterborough-cathedral.org.uk