The low-key county town of HEREFORD was long a border garrison town held against the Welsh, its military importance guaranteed by its strategic position beside the River Wye. Today, with the fortifications that once girdled the city all but vanished, it’s the cathedral – and its extraordinary medieval Mappa Mundi – that catches the attention, lying just to the north of the river and at the heart of the city centre, whose compact tangle of narrow streets and squares is clumsily boxed in by the ring road. Taken as a whole, Hereford makes for a pleasant overnight stay, especially as it possesses a particularly fine hotel.
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Hereford Cathedral is a curious building, an uncomfortable amalgamation of styles, with bits and pieces added to the eleventh-century original by a string of bishops and culminating in an extensive – and not especially sympathetic – Victorian refit. From the outside, the sandstone tower is the dominant feature, constructed in the early fourteenth century to eclipse the Norman western tower, which subsequently collapsed under its own weight in 1786. The crashing masonry mauled the nave and its replacement lacks the grandeur of most other English cathedrals, though the forceful symmetries of the long rank of surviving Norman arches and piers more than hint at what went before. The north transept is, however, a flawless exercise in thirteenth-century taste, its soaring windows a classic example of Early English architecture.
The Mappa Mundi
In the 1980s, the cathedral’s finances were so parlous that a plan was drawn up to sell its most treasured possession, the Mappa Mundi. Luckily, the government and John Paul Getty Jr rode to the rescue, with the oil tycoon stumping up a million pounds to keep the map here and install it in a new building, the New Library, which blends in seamlessly with the older buildings it adjoins at the west end of the cloisters.
The exhibit sets off with a series of interpretative panels explaining the historical background to – and the composition of – the Mappa. Included is a copy of the Mappa in English, which is particularly helpful as the original, which is displayed in a dimly lit room just beyond, is in Latin. Measuring 64 by 52 inches and dating to about 1300, the Mappa provides an extraordinary insight into medieval society. It is indeed a map (as we know it) in so far as it suggests the general geography of the world – with Asia at the top and Europe and Africa below, to left and right respectively – but it also squeezes in history, mythology and theology.
In the same building as the Mappa Mundi is the Chained Library, a remarkably extensive collection of books and manuscripts dating from the eighth to the eighteenth century. A selection is always open on display.