This post was first published in 2017, but as Manchester Cathedral appears on Lonely Planet’s guide of suggested places to visit in 2023, I have decided to post it again. Cathedrals, by definition, stand the test of time, so I doubt there has been much change since the post was originally written, except that perhaps those gargoyles have a few more stories to tell.
Two of my favourite things are stained glass windows and gargoyles. I decided to spend a quiet hour on a rainy Sunday afternoon in a spot where there are some splendid examples of both.
Manchester Cathedral, or the Cathedral and Collegiate Church of St. Mary, St. Denys and St. George to give it its full title, stands at the north eastern edge of the city, near to Victoria Station and to the border with the city of Salford. Cathedrals are mostly grand imposing buildings, designed to command attention, to make their presence felt; Manchester’s feels like it’s tucked away behind a screen of shops and a mock Tudor pub, its grounds a haven for lunching office workers and, at the weekends, huddles of teenaged goths. World renowned Chetham’s Music School -home of the Cathedral choir -is adjacent.
Ask anybody to tell you what they associate with Manchester and their replies will probably include some of the following: Oasis; New Order; The Hacienda ; premier league football; the Peterloo Massacre; The Smiths; a certain coconut-covered custard tart; ‘Madchester’; ‘The Village’ and, more recently, the northern quarter. The cotton trade, early trades union movements and political activism might also feature……………..and rain. The city is synonymous with it. It’s unlikely that anybody will mention the Cathedral.
Visitors rarely arrive here by accident – unless they take a wrong turn when visiting the Christmas Markets or heading towards Harvey Nicholls . Most would have sought out this almost hidden gem, perhaps pulled by the promise of the gorgeous windows which are – in my opinion – the big attraction. The Cathedral is not a crowd puller and this is to its credit. A trickle of sightseers drifts in and out, leaflets and maps in hand. Admission is free, where the same, sadly, cannot be said for most other British cathedral churches, perhaps an admission – or exploitation – of their change of status from spiritual centres of the community to local visitor attractions.
From the outside it is not possible to appreciate the aesthetic impact of the stained glass windows. Yes, most churches have at least one or two, usually depicting biblical scenes whose subjects have been attributed suitably anglicised features: haloed blond martyrs fail to fend off marauding beasts, and blue-eyed virgins gaze longingly into the distance, hoping to be swept up into the sky by a heavenly wind. We’ve all seen lots of examples, and one is usually much the same as another. Not so in this case.
All having been added during the last 50 years to replace originals destroyed by war time explosions, the stained glass windows of Manchester Cathedral form an intensely colourful folk-art collage. Non- traditional designs, vibrant and engaging, are apt in a city which prides itself on modernity, openness and progression, not to mention diversity.
Remembrance goes hand-in-hand with reconciliation within the design of my favourite ‘fire window’. Situated in the chapel dedicated to the Manchester Regiment, the window designed by Margaret Traherne pays tribute to lives lost. The orange flames represent the blitz, but as fire destroys it also clears the way for new beginnings. The glass used in this window, significantly, was created in Germany. On a sunny day the flames come alive as the light pours through the glass. Today the rain patters against the panes.
The spirit of inclusion and the celebration of the colourful spectrum we find in nature and in all life is evident in this building. Art work depicts the community which the Cathedral serves and welcomes into its fold. This space feels unpretentious and welcoming.
Back outside, look up and you will see the marvellous array of gargoyles and grotesques which adorn the stonework and guttering. The word gargoyle originates from an old French word meaning throat, hence the verb ‘to gargle’. Technically, to qualify as a gargoyle there must be a spout for the purpose of channelling water away from the building. The non-gargling varieties are more accurately described as grotesques or chimeras and were added to places of worship for decorative effect and to ward off evil spirits from the buildings, evil spirits being prevalent in the mediaeval mind-set.
I’ve been fascinated by gargoyles for many years and enjoy photographing them, though I don’t do that as much as I used to. Fantastical in appearance, comical, terrifying, grimacing and gurning, the rows of stony faces tell stories of a world long past. This is the post- industrial north and some are exceptionally grimy and grim. Each one seems to have its own personality and it amuses me to imagine their discussions about the passage of time:
Dragon: “It’s a bit glum for the time of year.”
Beast: ” Yep! Where’s all this rain come from? It’s more like November!”
Dragon: “It reminds me of that washout of a summer we had in 1546. My spout got blocked with moss. It played havoc with my waterworks and no amount of gargling would clear it. I flooded in the end”
Beast: “I remember it well. We all suffered. That rising damp really gets into the mortar! The serpent on the east wall took such a battering by the storms that his forked tongue dropped off. “
Dragon: ” I know, poor sod. You can’t make out his features now. ‘Erosion’, I’ve heard those surveyors call it. We’re all losing our looks. Mine started to go downhill in the 1700s.”
Beast: “I sometimes feel like we’ve been forgotten about. Even the evil spirits don’t come up like they used to back in the day. Health and safety regulations……”
Now we have new cathedrals made of glass and steel, temples to the gods of commerce and celebrity. The nearby football museum rises like a glass obelisk. Across the city, Manchester Hilton looms on the distant grey skyline. The Cathedral will witness other grand designs have their moment and will still look on, sagely, as, in time, they too disappear.