Sunday, 28 August 2016

St David's Cathedral I

On Sunday we drove over to St David's - one the most remarkable places in Britain, remote and ancient; out on a peninsular in north Pembrokeshire, on the very edge of  Wales. A place where the veil between the worlds seems very thin.  The little city, which is Britain's smallest and is really hardly more than a large village, was packed tight with visitors, however slipping down between the houses and through the great gate - the Porth-y-Tyr - into the cathedral close we left the getting and the spending - 'that external world of telegrams and anger' - behind us.  It was as if a door had been shut.  There were plenty of visitors here too but the atmosphere was changed.  Silence reigned.  Holiness was palpable.  It radiated from the stones around us.  And before us a truly wonderful, awe inducing sight: the cathedral itself nestling below us to the right, cozened in the hillside.  And beyond that, beyond the stream - the river Alun which gently bisects the close, the ruins of the Medieval Bishops' Palace, with the tree covered valley side framing and enclosing everything.  Altogether remarkable.
The cathedral is perhaps the largest and most complex medieval church in the Principality. St David had founded a rigorous monastic settlement here in the 6th century that soon gained a reputation for holiness and learning; and became an important place of pilgrimage in the British Isles, with the shrines of St David and St Caradoc.  The present structure is a conglomeration of a number of medieval building campaigns.  Like Brecon Cathedral it is constructed of rubble masonry and shares some of Brecon's chthonic massiveness. The first campaign was undertaken at the behest of Bishop Peter de Leia c1180 and saw the construction of the nave, transepts and chancel.  At some point afterwards aisles were added to the chancel and an ambulatory constructed around the east end. Bishop Henry Gower was responsible for rebuilding the eastern chapels and for the second stage of the central tower.  The top storey was added by Bishop Edward Vaughan who also had built the Holy Trinity Chapel.  Vaughan died in 1522 shortly before the Reformation. There would be no more additions to the fabric.  Both the shrines were dismantled.  Post Reformation the eastern parts of the building were abandoned, and weren't restored to use until the early 1900s.  Abandoned too were the cloisters and St Mary's Chapel.  The Oxford Movement in the 19th century bought a reversal of fortunes, and Sir George Gilbert Scott undertook a massive restoration of the building - again, as at Brecon, he worked with remarkable tact. His most conspicuous work, on the outside at least, was to take down the W front constructed by John Nash in 1793 and replace it with a design based on what was there before, such as depicted in Sparrow's 1776 copperplate engraving in 'The Antiquities of England & Wales'. The most audacious thing Scott did was to rebuild the western arch and piers of the central tower while keeping the tower in situ. Quite a feat when you think about it.

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