Norwich Roman Catholic Cathedral
History, tourist information, and nearby accommodation
HERITAGE HIGHLIGHTS: One of the high points of Victorian Gothic architecture
This 'other' cathedral is easily accessed from the city centre by way of a footbridge over the ring road. Those visitors who take the easy stroll from the medieval Anglican cathedral to its Catholic counterpart are rewarded by one of the finest examples of Victorian Gothic architecture in England, a sumptuous symphony of 19th century style and decoration.
Norwich's Catholic Cathedral was begun, not as a cathedral at all, but as a church for Norwich's Catholic comunity. The date was 1882 and the patron was Henry Howard, the 15th Duke of Norfolk, head of the Norfolk Howards, one of the most powerful Catholic families in England. Howard hoped that a new church would help reinvigorate Catholicism and help make his religion a more accepted part of English life. The story goes that Howard was so delighted by his marriage in 1877 that he decided to build the church as a sign of gratitude to God.
Howard called upon architect George Gilbert Scott, a recent convert to Catholicism and one of the most prolific and successful Victorian architects. Scott was a member of a family of architects who were to dominate 19th and early 20th century ecclesiastical architecture in England. It was not a surprising choice, but it was a choice that had unexpected consquences, for only two years later Scott suffered a complete mental breakdown and was certified insane. Keeping things in the family, Scott's work was carried to completion by his brother John Oldrid Scott, and work finished in 1910.
The result of the Scott's design is a magnificent structure, emulating 13th century Early English Gothic, considered by many Victorians to be the most 'pure' and 'English' style.
The design is cruciform, with aisles and an octagonal chapel projecting from the north transept. The structure is dominated by a crossing tower and a massive east front with flanking turrets rising above a peaked gable. The striking tower is so distinctive that during WWII it was used as a turning beacon by RAF pilots returning from bombing raids in Europe.
The material is ashlar combined with varieties of stone from famous English quarries at Beer (Devon) and Ancaster and Clipsham (both Lancashire). The original design called for Beer stone to be used throughout, but after a decade of work it was obvious that the Beer stone was too soft and was weathering quickly, so the church was finished using limestone from Clipsham and Ancaster.
If talk of materials bores you, look down as you walk up the main steps to the door and you will see thousands of tiny fossils embedded in the stones. More fossils add a speckled look to the dark Frosterley marble pillars fringing the nave. The nave is of ten bays, supported on massive rounded columns. The columns seem to simultaneously lead your eye up to the vaulted ceiling, and down the length of the nave towards the richly decorated east window. Like much of the church this is filled with beautifully coloured Victorian glass that adds a glow of colour to the interior whenever the sun shines.
Perhaps the best glass is in the Sunken Chapel, also known as the Chapel of St Joseph. This glass ranks with the best 19th century stained glass in Europe. The windows depict four saints; Flora, Pauline, Ester, and Barbara. The choice is not random; these are the given names of the Duke of Norfolk's wife, Lady Flora Hastings. Lady Flora died young, and the Duke remarried, so it was his second wife, Lady Gwendolen Herries, who paid for the north transept chapel, with stained glass telling the story of Our Lady of Walsingham's shrine. The glass is attributed to John Powell of Hardman and Powell, with the exception of the chancel windows, which were by Dunstan Powell.
But such praise was not always universal. When the church opened for worship in 1910 some visitors thought it vulgar and dim, even forbidding, and out of character with Norwich's rich heritage. Time changes sensibilities however, and it would be a visitor hardened to aesthetically pleasing art and architecture who would cast aspersions on this wonderful building.
St John the Baptist served as a parish church until 1976, when it was named the mother church of the new diocese of East Anglia, raising it to cathedral status. It is one of the 'Norwich 12', a group of a dozen key historic places in the city.
Wow! How's that for a summary? You owe it to yourself to visit this wonderful Victorian church if you get a chance. It truly is a magnificent example of 19th century Gothic Revival architecture, and rightly deserves its reputation as one of the true Victorian gems among England's historic buildings. Apparently you can climb to the top of the tower on Saturdays. I can't comment on that as I didn't visit on a Saturday, but given the sheer height of the tower it would offer fantastic views!
About Norwich Catholic Cathedral
Address: Unthank Road, Norwich, Norfolk, England, NR2 2PA
Attraction Type: Cathedral
Location: Just outside the A417 ring road on the western edge of Norwich, off the B1108 at the junction of Uthank and Earlham roads. Open 7.30am - 6:30pm daily. By foot from the city centre via Upper St Giles Street and a footbridge over the ring road.
Website: Norwich Catholic Cathedral
Phone: 01603 624615
Photo Credit: David Ross and Britain Express
Heritage Rated from 1- 5 (low-exceptional) on historic interest
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