Touching history at Peterborough Cathedral
Words: The Reverend Canon Tim Alban Jones, Vice Dean of Peterborough
Most first-time visitors to Peterborough Cathedral are visibly overawed by the impression which the magnificent West Front makes. It is truly breathtaking in its majesty and grandeur. If everyone who said ‘Wow!’ as they see the cathedral for the first time paid a fiver, the Cathedral would have no money worries!
But many of our visitors to the Cathedral are unaware of the many other architectural gems which are to be found within the Cathedral Precincts. The first of those is the Norman Arch through which the visitor approaches the Precincts. As its name implies, it is a very old structure dating back to the early days of the present building (which is the third building on the site). It does not require a great feat of imagination to think about the many people who have passed under the stone vaults as they approached the great Benedictine abbey, which only became a cathedral in 1541. Rich and poor, young and old, thousands have crossed the threshold for who knows how many different reasons? In recent years the Cathedral has hosted major exhibitions (such as Tim Peake’s Soyuz space capsule). In earlier years people came in their thousands as pilgrims to visit the relics of Thomas a Becket.
Around the south and east end of the Cathedral are the remains of some of the former monastic buildings, which have been re-purposed over the centuries. Today some of them are houses and some are used as offices. The impressive open arches of the old Infirmary give a hint at the huge building which once stood on the site. People still come today to admire the fine arcade, and to wonder at what once was.
Nestling up to the south wall of the Cathedral are the cloisters, which used to be such an important place in the days when Peterborough Abbey was in its prime. The inner walls of the cloisters were taken down after the Civil War and sold but the outer ones remain. Closer inspection of the walls reveals the oldest standing wall in Peterborough. A delightfully old-fashioned iron sign declares that this was the wall of the Great Cloister. It is only when one reads the display boards that the singular magnificence of what used to be there is revealed.
There are still tantalising glimpses though. In the south west corner of the cloisters is a spectacularly carved gateway into what was once the Abbot’s lodging, now the Bishop’s Palace. As the most important person in the Abbey the Abbot had his own lodging (complete with Chapel). The intricate and beautifully carved stonework with stone dragons on either side of the arch gives an idea of quite how impressive this was.
There are many other sights to see in the Precincts, such as the Little Prior’s arch (to the left of the West Front of the Cathedral), the grand 12th century arch into the Palace beneath what is known as the Knights’ Chamber and Almoner’s Hall at the southern-most end of the Precincts. Most of these buildings are available to see (and free of charge). You can reach out and, quite literally, touch history. And all of that is before you have even set foot in the Cathedral itself!
Peterborough Cathedral’s long history, stretching back to the middle of the 7th century, is not something that is long-dead and gone. It is very much alive. Visitors are welcome to come and inspect, admire, explore (within reason!) and immerse themselves in the living history and archaeology of this fascinating and under-valued place.