Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of Britain’s most beautiful buildings are places of worship. Head to one of these five architectural wonders and prepare to drop to your knees in awe, if not necessarily in supplication.
Ely Cathedral, Ely
Ely Cathedral (pictured above) was created to invoke a sense of awe. Constructed over two hundred years, it’s an architectural tour de force, all the more impressive for standing apparently in the middle of nowhere – Ely isn’t exactly a big city. Perched atop the “island” of Ely, the cathedral looms over the dykes, drains and rich, black fields of the Fens. Pancake-flat and desolate in winter, this is perhaps the most melancholic landscape in England. Thanks to the Fens, Ely’s enormous West Tower can be seen for miles, a castle guarding the shore of a dried-up sea. God-like indeed to the monks that came across the watery marshes to serve here in the Middle Ages – for the folk that lived in wattle-and-daub huts, it must have seemed miraculous.
Not that it seems any less so today. The West Tower rises 215ft, most of it (incredibly) constructed in the twelfth century. Under the tower the great west door is the main entrance to the cathedral, a fine early English Gothic porch built of Barnock stone and Purbeck marble. Aficionados of English architecture are in for a real treat inside, beginning with the nave, surely one of the most inspiring interiors in England. It’s the fourth longest of the English cathedrals, but its Norman architecture, with distinctive round arches, is exceptional. Its crowning glory is the Octagon Lantern tower in the centre, which replaced the original tower that collapsed in 1322. Take your time studying this masterpiece of medieval engineering – critics often describe it as one of the most spectacular spaces ever built in an English church.
Ely Cathedral, Ely, Cambridgeshire, www.elycathedral.org.
Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin
Even if you don’t believe the fanciful stories that Rosslyn Chapel conceals Masonic or Templar secrets in its sculpture, or perches on top of secret underground vaults, or is a resting place for the Holy Grail, it’s still a very odd place indeed. This weirdness has something to do with the chapel’s incongruous location, almost within touching distance of Edinburgh’s suburbs, and also the chapel’s bizarre appearance – it looks as if someone began building a miniature cathedral and downed tools halfway (and indeed this is probably precisely what happened: construction work seems to have halted when the chapel’s donor, Sir William Sinclair, died in 1484).
The chapel’s strangeness, however, is mostly due to its rare and wonderful profusion of stone sculpture. Across arches and architraves, voussoirs and vaults, hardly a stony surface lacks decoration, and the symbolism of some of it is intriguing. There’s a bound, upside-down Lucifer, a bagpipe-playing angel, a Dance of Death scene and over a hundred representations of the fertility figure known as the Green Man, some of them stunningly realized. Behind the altar stand the Prentice Pillar (or apprentice pillar), Master Pillar and Journeyman Pillar, all of which have attached legends.
Since 1997, the chapel has been half-buried under a protective canopy but in 2010 this was finally removed, revealing the chapel’s flying buttresses in all their glory.
Rosslyn Chapel, Roslin, Midlothian, is seven miles from Edinburgh – (www.rosslynchapel.org.uk).
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, Neasden
One of London’s greatest architectural feats is in a place where you would never expect to find it. Just off the North Circular road, through the unremarkable suburb of Neasden, lies the largest active Hindu temple outside India. Its full name – BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir – will win no awards for catchiness, but its majestic design, both inside and out, is a showstopper. It’s almost how Angkor Wat might appear if made of limestone: its seven tiered pinnacles bear similarity with that other great Hindu complex, as do its staircases and elaborate carvings of dancers and deities.
The miraculous nature of the temple is further enhanced by the manner of its construction. Built in only 27 months, it is made primarily of 2000 tonnes of Indian marble and 3000 tonnes of Bulgarian limestone; uniquely for a modern British building, it contains no iron or steel for support. All that material was shipped to India, where an army of sculptors carved it into 26,300 separate sculpted stones. Those pieces were then transported to Neasden, where the temple was assembled much like an IKEA kit.
On the ground floor inside is an assembly hall, a shrine to the eighteenth-century saint Bhagwan Swaminarayan, to whom the temple is dedicated, a small museum and a shop. But the real reason to come in is to visit the mandir upstairs, the central shrine. In this magnificent marble space, filled with intricate carved pillars, are seven murtis, or icons of divinities – one underneath each of the seven exterior pinnacles. The air is cool, a near silence prevails, worshippers prostrate themselves. It’s here you’re reminded that this is a living, breathing temple, and not just a mind-blowing piece of architecture.
BAPS Shri Swaminarayan Mandir, 105–119 Brentfield Rd, London, www.mandir.org.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London
In a secular city St Paul’s Cathedral continues to reign supreme as the greatest building inherited from a more generous past. Standing high at the top of Ludgate Hill, and with the view of the building from many directions still protected by planning laws, it dominates a large part of the city, and for many Londoners it remains a source of tranquillity and wonder long after the city’s other notable sights have become over-familiar.
What makes the building so great? There are many answers to this question. One of its triumphs is the marriage of a strong and immediately intelligible form – the dome, the barrel, the great walls turning and folding – with a wealth of beautiful detail. It’s also a wonderfully balanced composition: one of Wren’s greatest achievements was to give a structure with a dome, rather than a spire or a tower, a truly vertical emphasis. Climb up to the dome’s galleries inside and you’ll discover its secrets and find out how he managed to raise the dome so high. The dome itself is not a hemisphere: it is taller, egg-shaped – another brilliant touch that adds unmistakeably to the building’s impact.
St Paul’s Cathedral, London EC4. www.stpauls.co.uk
The stained-glass wonders of York Minster
It’s hard not be overwhelmed by York Minster. It took around 250 years to complete, is the second largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and one of the most visited sites in northern England, a gorgeous pile of carved limestone with three towers rising to nearly 200ft high. Yet the real genius of York lies in that most underrated of art forms: stained glass.
It should be called “Gothic glass art” instead. For many, “stained glass” conjures up images of cold, dull Sundays in church, or boring museums. York isn’t like that at all; the Minster has one of the finest collections of stained glass in England, with 128 windows containing around two million individual pieces of glass. You’d have to be a real aficionado to work your way through every one, but there are some obvious highlights.
The 76ft-high Great East Window is truly monumental, a massive construction dating from 1408 and comprising an ornate tracery and 117 panels of carefully crafted biblical scenes, everything from the Creation to startling images of the Last Judgement. The Great West Window, completed even earlier in 1338, is known as the “Heart of Yorkshire” thanks to the heart-shape pattern in the tracery. Finally, the strangely modern Rose Window, which glows like a mighty star, its 73 panels of glass emblazoned with white and red roses, symbolic of the union between the houses of York and Lancaster. Completed around 1500, the window commemorates the marriage of Henry VII and Elizabeth of York, effectively ending the Wars of the Roses.
York Minster, York, www.yorkminster.org.