Cathedrals and abbeys have been a focal point for travellers for hundreds of years. Nowadays, groups are more likely to arrive by coach to marvel at the stunning architecture of the buildings. Angela Youngman offers a selection of places of worship offering tours, plays, music and art
In medieval times, mystery plays were often performed around the streets and within the cathedral precincts. These plays comprised a series of short performances of various Bible stories, culminating in the story of Jesus.
Each city had its own cycle of plays, and 2016 sees the revival of two versions at Lincoln and York cathedrals.
It will be only the second time in 700 years that the play cycle has returned to York Minister. The great Gothic nave will become the auditorium for this spectacular production. Apart from one professional actor, all the cast are amateurs.
The production starts on the feast of Corpus Christi on May 26 and runs for five weeks to June 30. It is anticipated that the production will be extremely popular. The last time these plays were performed at York was in 2000, when over 28,000 people attended the sell-out performances (www.yorkminster.org).
Several cathedrals and abbeys are introducing new exhibition facilities. At Durham, the new Open Treasure space gives access to previously hidden spaces within the Cathedral Cloister, revealing some of the most intact surviving medieval monastic buildings in England.
These include the Monks’ Dormitory, which has a stunning medieval oak-beamed roof, and the Great Kitchen; one of only two surviving monastic kitchens in the UK.
Also on display are treasures from the Cathedral’s spectacular collection of artefacts such as the Treasures of St Cuthbert with unique metalwork, colourful medieval manuscripts and rare Anglo-Saxon items.
Group tickets for Open Treasure and Durham Cathedral cost £10 per person and includes a guided tour (www.durhamcathedral.co.uk).
Abbeys To Visit
The 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings - an event that transformed the course of English history - will be marked in 2016.
Battle Abbey was built on the orders of the new king, William the Conqueror, at the site where the Saxon King Harold had died, in order to atone for the blood shed during the battle.
For the first time, visitors will be able to climb onto the Abbey Gatehouse roof and see the extent of the battlefield from above. A new exhibition has been set up in the Gatehouse, with displays of original artefacts that have never been seen before. Other facilities on-site include a visitor centre with café, an interactive exhibition and a dramatic introductory film designed to bring the story of the Norman Conquest to life.
Visitors have the option to explore the entire battlefield (www.english-heritage.org.uk/battleabbey).
In Yorkshire, Rievaulx Abbey is one of the best-preserved and most impressive monastic sites in England. This English Heritage site attracts thousands of visitors each year who are drawn by the serene beauty and atmospheric tranquillity of ruins that were once part of the most powerful monasteries in Europe. A new museum is set to open in early 2016, designed to tell the story of the site and its nationally important collection of artefacts. This development will also provide a bigger café, together with better facilities for groups and more coach parking (www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/places/rievaulx-abbey).
Fountains Abbey is another popular Yorkshire destination. Not far from Ripon, it is one of the largest ruined Cistercian monasteries in England. Built by monks seeking a quiet, simple existence, it became a victim of its own success as the abbey became one of the richest in Europe. Henry VIII ordered its destruction, but the romantic ruins eventually formed the focus of a Georgian landowner’s desire to create an unusual water garden. Now known as the Studley Royal Water Gardens, there are numerous ponds, statues and follies to explore.
A large deer park provides additional space to roam (www.fountainsabbey.org.uk).
Equally romantic are the ruins of Bolton Abbey, which form part of the Devonshire estate in Wharfdale, North Yorkshire, complete with scenic riverside walks, moorlands and woodland nature trails.
Many family-orientated events will be held throughout 2016 including an Easter Egg Trail, Welly Walk, Halloween Trail, and Father Christmas and the 12 days of Christmas (www.boltonabbey.com).
Immortalized by Geoffrey Chaucer in his famous Canterbury Tales about a group of pilgrims on their way to the Shrine of St Thomas A Becket, Canterbury Cathedral is now a World Heritage Site.
Tours of the Cathedral and its precinct tell the story of this spectacular site, with a history that includes scenes of a medieval king forced to come in person to receive punishment and apologize for ordering the killing of his archbishop.
Tours can be tailored to suit the needs of any group, whether it is educational, historical or religious. There are also behind the scenes tours available that take groups into the conservation workshops where stained glass craftspeople can be seen in action, along with stonemasons refurbishing the fabric of the building. You’ll also be able to see beautiful manuscripts and rare books in the library (www.canterbury-cathedral.org).
The iconic dome of St Paul’s Cathedral is one of the most instantly identifiable images of London. An awe-inspiring building, it stands at the highest point in the City of London and has been used for many state occasions including the Queen’s 2012 Diamond Jubilee celebrations.
As a destination for groups it has tremendous appeal. Apart from the stunning architecture seen from the cathedral floor, visitors can explore an underground crypt as well as the Golden Gallery, 111-metres above London.
One of the more unusual guided tours available is the Triforium Tour, which includes the Library, Geometric Staircase and Great Model, as well as an opportunity to enjoy a spectacular view down the nave from above the Great West Doors. Tours of the Triforium cost an additional £8 per person, in addition to the £15.50 per person group admission price (www.stpauls.co.uk).
At Chester, visitors can watch flying displays, learn about falcons and explore the pretty gardens.
Within the cathedral itself, there are a variety of group tours available including a Tower Tour, a highlights tour and an in-depth tour that focuses on the historical and architectural aspect of the building.
Built in 1876, Chester Cathedral’s grand organ has been described as one of the finest in the UK. Organ recitals are held every Thursday and feature performers from all over the world (www.chestercathedral.com).
The simple stone tomb of Richard III, England’s last warrior King, is proving a major visitor attraction at Leicester Cathedral. Groups will need to book in advance and there’s a charge. Guided tours of the cathedral, as well as the chapel in which the tomb is located, can be arranged.
Groups can combine this with a visit to the adjacent King Richard III Visitor Centre using a special all-in-one ticket available from www.kriii.com. There are also a series of guided Richard III trails led by Blue Badge guides who use the cathedral as their starting point (www.leicestercathedral.org).
Art is a major theme at Salisbury Cathedral, where a dramatic exhibition of the work of sculptor and artist Sophie Ryder will be attracting attention. Her work is monumental in scale. Gigantic Minotaurs and Lady Hares will be included among the beguiling figures in bronze and wire exploring the themes of relationship and family.
As visitors enter the cathedral, they will pass under massive clasped hands. This will be followed by Reflections – an international glass exhibition featuring the work of glass artists from as far afield as New Zealand - and a Contemporary Craft and Heritage Fair in September.
Salisbury Cathedral’s interactive Spirit of Justice Power of Words exhibition on the Magna Carta will continue to attract visitors who can write their own ‘Charter’ as they leave. This exhibition showcases the cathedral’s UNESCO protected original version of the Magna Carta (www.salisburycathedral.org.uk).
Norwich Cathedral is focusing on a different art form in celebration of the 400th anniversary of the death of William Shakespeare. The cloisters will become an open-air stage where Lord Chamberlain’s Men will be performing the popular battle of the sexes comedy, Much Ado About Nothing, in July 2016.
Throughout the year, groups can also participate in guided tours such as the Medieval Roof Bosses, featuring over 1,000 roof bosses in the nave and cloister, the historic Library and the cathedral close; including a tour of one of England’s largest cathedral closes.
Another interesting specialist tour covers the chapels and treasury, focusing on the many small chapels within the building each with their own story, and the stunning collection of silverware held in the cathedral treasury (www.cathedral.org.uk).
While in Norwich, your group may also like to visit the city’s other cathedral – the great Roman Catholic Cathedral of St John the Baptist created by George Gilbert Scott with its stunning fossil bedecked floor and walls, and the spectacular 360-degree views that can be experienced on a bespoke Tower Tour (www.sjbcathedral.org.uk). Both cathedrals offer catering facilities.