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St Edmundsbury Marks End Of An Era

It might have been little noticed but an era of architecture that perhaps more than any other has defined the image of England both at home and aboard is finally drawing to a close over 700 years after it first started with the completion of St Edmundsbury Cathedral at Bury St Edmunds in Suffolk.

Although there has been a series of cathedrals built since the Victorian era ranging from the gothic revival spires of Truro to the modern take in Guildford St Edmundsbury Cathedral is a genuine medieval church whose completion was severely delayed thanks to the religious upheavals of the 16th century, wars, fires, architectural arguments and general bad luck.

For almost 450 years the church lay unfinished with the great nave and a medieval bell tower completed but grand plans that had surfaced every once in a while for central tower and attached chapels that had never been realised.

Originally there was a massive attached abbey which contained a series of towers hence the cathedral builders of the 15th century saw little point in rushing ahead and building even more towers. This abbey lies in ruins after a fire burned it down shortly before the ripples of the reformation hit England but until 1914 the attached nave had survived and was being used as a parish church.

This lowly classification also negated a grander vision applied by the Victorians to cathedrals throughout the land ever happening as what parish church deserved to look like a cathedral if it wasn't already in need of restoration? Only when the status was upgraded to cathedral in 1914 did the new Diocese of Suffolk start thinking bigger things with the dawning realisation that they should have an architectural symbol it was worthy of crowning the seat of their new diocese.

Work on a central crossing eventually started and but was unfinished by the outbreak of World War 2. Six long years of war drained any further money away from development and the cathedral stood unfinished with only piecemeal work being carried out with it being concentrated in the sixties on the East End. Indeed, the interior of the nave was only finished in the 1980s.

Construction was made possible on the north transept and actual central tower, imaginatively entitled the Millennium Tower in 1999 when a mixture of private donations, a major one from the original architect of the tower Steven Dykes Bower who had spent much of his life campaigning to get it built coupled with a substantial amount of funding from the Millennium Commission kicked in totalling over 12 million pounds.

Work was led by the Gothic Design Partnership who uniquely for a modern day church, built it in as authentic a medieval perpendicular gothic style as possible. Every new cathedral addition over the past hundred and fifty years had until this been done in a more modern style whether it was a Victorian pastiche of gothic or a modern version such as Liverpools Anglican Cathedral.

In the 50s and 60s when cathedral architect Dykes Bower tried to design a similar tower it was met with disbelief, modernism was at the time in full swing and old traditional styles were largely ridiculed as irrelevant architectural footnotes. After all, what cathedral would want to look like a museum compared to the white hot design of the catholic cathedral in Liverpool?

Times have changed since then, the grand rhetoric of modernism is to an neutered as many of the dogmatically produced pieces of that age have fallen victim to the weaknesses of technology that was supposed to save architecture and the utopian design associated with them discredited by association causing a more reflective approach amongst the architectural establishment than Dykes Bower experienced.

They also had a valuable pedigree of practical experience to draw on with an extensive portfolio of work on restoration projects of genuine medieval churches up and down the country.

In July 2001 construction of the finished tower plans by the Gothic Design Practise was started in earnest and would continue until topping out in December 2004 and an official opening in July 2005, three years after the North Transept was finished off.

To make sure the tower blended in properly with the rest of the building, Barnack and Clipsham stone clad the outside and the interior was lined with English Limestone, a favourite of medieval cathedrals, that reaches the top of the concrete base.

Masonry was then raised to the cill level of the main tower windows which stand about 20 metres tall where work was done, before raising the level again until it topped at the 45m mark.

Much of the towers intricate carvings that have made perpendicular gothic style so distinctive were done by hand by traditional masons piecing it together with only millimetres to spare between the blocks, like dealing with an enormous jigsaw puzzle.

Unlike a number of England's finest cathedrals such as Lincoln, it's in this detail of the masonry that the design really fails to impress. If you look closely there's little sign of local quirks we find in the Lincoln Imp or the Yorkshire Rose that made many English cathedrals distinctive.

Instead, we have a faithful gothic translation that slips up as a victim to modern blandness, perhaps as a victim of value engineering and a determination to build regardless of whether the funds can provide the underlying detail that can be found in so many others.

Why though build a large tower to start with, particularly in this secular day and age when so many churches are struggling to stay open? Well, the actual purpose of the tower fulfils a number of different criteria.

From an ecclestical point of view it encourages the worshipper to look up tot he heavens, and by implication God. It dominates the landscape around as traditional cathedrals did providing "a spiritual beacon of the new millennium" according to the project patron, the Prince of Wales.

This whole approach of shock and awe dates back more to medieval times too, modern cathedrals such as Clifton have often been more condensed and constructed on an intimate rather than grand scale that overwhelms a worshipper.

As well as serving to impress, the cathedral follows through the traditional English obsession that led to the process of buttressing to support walls and compensate for the structural weaknesses that large stained glass windows would produce.

In flooding the building from above via the central crossing, the large windows on the four walls of the tower act as a giant lantern letting in the daylight. They are strategically positioned so that sunlight can even hit the altar at specific times of day as well as illuminating the transcepts.

The tower may be complete but work continues on the cloisters, the final part under construction, and although they may not quite be finished yet there is finally a palpable feeling of the project reaching its final destination.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral may not be the most unique in England, it might not have the most scintillating design, but more than any other in the last one hundred years itís important for what it represents - a successful return to the past and perhaps the end of an era of the original medieval gothic spires.

Now if only they can rebuild the nearby Abbey... we can but dream.

Article Related buildings:

St Edmundsbury Cathedral

St Edmundsbury Cathedral
The Abbey Church of St Edmund

The Abbey Church of St Edmund
St Edmundsbury Cathedral Tower
St Edmundsbury Cathedral Tower