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  1. The first cathedral I ever set foot in was for my 28th birthday, the gentleman that I’d been dating for a few months (who’s now my fiancé) suggested that we visit somewhere as a birthday present. There was one place I’d wanted to visit for years, and happily he agreed to take me – Canterbury Cathedral!

    Old Before the Normans

    Canterbury was an old church even before the Normans arrived with a grand rebuilding plan. The first cathedral was founded in 597, after Augustine of Canterbury was sent to convert the Anglo Saxons by Pope Gregory I. The chronicler Bede recorded that the first cathedral was founded on the site of an earlier Roman church, but so far excavations haven’t found any evidence of this. Assuming the date of 597 is correct, a cathedral had still stood on that site for over 460 years before the Norman invasion.Canterbury Cathedral

    The cathedral was damaged during a Viking raid in 1011, and burned down in 1067. The first Norman archbishop, Lanfranc, took the opportunity to rebuild in the style of his homeland. The new Canterbury Cathedral was designed along the same lines of Caen’s Abbey of St Etienne, Lanfranc’s former abbey and an institution founded by William the Conqueror in his pre-conquest years. Successive archbishops continued the building work, including a new crypt and choir, and several chapels.

    Further expansion was needed after the murder of St Thomas Beckett. The veneration of the martyred archbishop led to a significant rise in pilgrim traffic, and income. The Trinity Chapel was built to house a shrine to St Thomas, his remains were relocated to the new shrine in 1220. Along with significant donations from wealthy nobles, both in England and abroad, smaller donations and purchases were made by pilgrims who travelled to the cathedral to pray at the shrine. As proof of their visit, they could buy little pilgrim badges made of cheap metal, which depicted the saint, or his shrine. It also became a Royal burial site, Prince Edward (The Black Prince) was buried in the Cathedral in 1376, although his wife Joan of Kent chose to be buried next to her first husband, Edward was her third. Henry IV, who died in 1413, chose to be buried in the Trinity Chapel raised to St Thomas, and his second wife Joan of Navarre was interred next to him in 1437.

    It’s Still Standing! (Just About)

    The abbey side of the cathedral was removed during the Dissolution of the Monasteries, but Canterbury’s tradition of being the seat of the main Archbishop in England remained. St Thomas’ shrine was also destroyed, and his remains were destroyed (possibly thrown in to the river). During Cromwell's time most of the stained glass windows were destroyed, and part of the building was used as a stable for horses.

    In the following centuries more care was taken with the buildings. The north west tower was in a dangerous condition and had to be removed in the 1830s, but was replaced by a copy of the south west tower to keep the symmetry of the building. A fire in 1872 destroyed the roof of the Trinity Chapel, but the body of the chapel survived and the roof was quickly replaced. The Cathedral was was a target for German bombs during the Second World War, and although the cathedral's library was destroyed the Cathedral itself was relatively unscathed.

    In recent years the Cathedral has been found in desperate need of repair, as the stained glass is corroding and the stonework is crumbling, while roof leaks were doing further damage. Work is currently being focused on the North West Transept, with a team of masons, conservators and carpenters, and several apprentices. Work is supported by donations to the Canterbury Cathedral Trust, and there's still lots to be done to ensure the cathedral can be kept openly safely for visitors. If you'd like to find out how to donate to the trust, click here!

  2. Ford End is a village in Essex with a collection of pretty 15th century cottages, among other more recent houses. With such old buildings at their core, you'd be surprised to come round the corner and find an odd-sized red brick church, far from the traditional old churches you normally find in the area.Ford End Church, Essex

    That's because the church of Ford End was only erected in 1870, and it's short life has already had a very patchy history. Designed by Frederic Chancellor, a local architect credited with over 700 buildings over the course of his career, the church was built on an osier bed, where willows were planted and then harvested for making baskets and fish traps. Unfortunately for the church, the old osier bed was unstable, leading to structural problems with the building. The church was originally bigger than it's current form, but the 1980s saw the the destruction of the chancel, reportedly after it became so weak that masonry was falling on the congregation.

    The large tower was also, at one point, considered to be unsafe. Happily this was proved to be incorrect, and it's now used to train new bell ringers as the peal in the tower is quite light. The enormous "cat slide" roof over the main body of the church makes the walls look particularly tiny, but with the tall thin tower, it gives the church a unique appearance.

    Due to the fairly recent construction of the church there isn't any particular set of memorials, except for the one dedicated to Reverend Arthur Cripps, and there's no medieval graffiti. But the building itself makes this church worth a visit, if only so you can gawp at the odd proportions of the roof!

  3. The church of St Mary Magdalene at Barkway was the first church I went to, as my primary school hosted many nativity shows, Easter ceremonies and harvest festivals in this building over the years. As a child I mostly just remember it being a rather plain and very cold building (especially during the nativity show), but as an adult I have gone back repeatedly to remind myself of it's beautiful memorials and some nice stained glass.Barkway Church, Hertfordshire

    The church in Barkway has stood on this spot since Norman times, and possibly may have been the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon church. It was rebuilt in the 13th century, and extended in the 15th, but by the 19th century it was suffering from neglect. Two prominent locals, Mrs Harcourt from the Newsells Park estate(who also paid for the porch to the built) and Colonel Clinton from the Cockenach estate, paid for a major restoration of the building. During this work, the old church tower collapsed and was replaced, albeit a little larger than the original.

    The restoration work means that if Barkway had any medieval graffiti then it was most likely plastered or painted over. However that doesn't mean that the church is short of historical things to look at. Memorials include a set of 16th century brasses depicting one Mr Poynard and his two wives, and several elaborate 18th century memorials in white marble, including one by noted Flemish sculptor John Michael Rysbrack. One window shows the fragmented remains of a 15th century stained glass window, which was smashed during the reformation. In some parishes the locals collected the glass and buried it, hoping it could be restored in the future. In this case the glass was too small to put together in a coherent picture (there's also a rumour that the glass was originally in a window in the church of neighbouring Reed).

    In terms of more recent memorials, one large stained glass window was placed in the wall of the north aisle to commemorate those who fought in the Burma Campaign during the second world war. This corner in particular features multiple memorials to fallen soldiers. A small plague mirrors the main war memorial, a large stone cross placed at the top of the High Street, listing the names of Barkway men who died in the First World War. A larger memorial is dedicated to John Perkins Sworder and his brother Hubert Pelham Sworder, sons of William and Annie Sworder, who were living at Newsells. The younger brother, Hubert, joined the air force and died in April 1917 aged just 19, John died of wounds in France in 1918 aged 24, the memorial includes a quote from an officer of each young man. A second memorial is dedicated to Captain Wilfred Hubert Chapman, who was killed at Gallipoli.

    Perhaps the most interesting story of Barkway church comes from 1980. The turret bell, which rings on the hour, was in need of a restoration. Due to it's size and weight, it was eventually decided that it should be removed by helicopter, and then returned in the same way! 

  4. The High Kirk of St Giles is one of the landmarks of Edinburgh. But despite it's size, the church isn't a cathedral. Before the reformation the Cathedral for Edinburgh was actually at St Andrew's, while the reformed Church of Scotland has no bishops, and therefore cannot have a cathedral. The name "High Kirk" has been in use in Scotland for some time, and so St Giles' is known as the High Kirk of Edinburgh, rather than Edinburgh Cathedral.Ceiling of St Giles, Edinburgh

    The building dates from the late 14th century, with the usual Victorian-era restoration work. It was in the 19th century that the windows were replaced with stained glass depicting figures and stories from the bible, with more windows being added in the 20th century. One window in particular is dedicated to the Scottish saints, including the country's patron saint St Andrew, and St Giles himself. The top of the tower is unique due to it's crown steeple, a set of flying buttresses that are built on top of a tower, giving the effect of an open crown.

    The inside of St Giles is really pretty. Looking up in particular is lovely as the ceiling has been painted a lovely shade of blue and cream, with golden stars painted around the centre. The walls are neither plastered nor whitewashed, making it one of the few churches I've been to with completely exposed brickwork. The contrast of grey stone with multi-coloured stained glass windows and blue ceiling gives a lovely effect between the church's history - plain simplicity of Protestantism, and the more colourful Catholic origins.

    There are several memorials to famous Scots dotted around the church. One of the largest is a bronze memorial dedicated to Robert Louis Stephenson, who was buried on the island of Samoa after he died suddenly aged just 44. A much smaller brass memorial is placed on one wall in memory of Sophia Jex Blake, the first woman to study medicine at the University of Edinburgh's medical school (as with her contemporary in England, Elizabeth Garrett Anderson, Jex Blake had an uphill struggle), and the first woman to practise medicine in Scotland. Her first clinic was set up in Edinburgh, and she pioneered the Edinburgh School of Medicine for Women.

    Next time you're in Edinburgh, make sure you pop in to St Giles, the ceiling alone will be worth your time! 

  5. The church of St Mary the Virgin in the village of Brent Pelham in Hertfordshire looks rather unremarkable from the outside. Like a lot of churches in theBrent Pelham Church, Herts local area the walls are flint rubble, while the square tower has buttresses and a Hertfordshire spike. Inside the church is a collection of memorials, including one from the 17th century depicting Mary and Ann, the two wives of a man named John Rowley, and some 18th century marble memorials.

    The real gem in St Mary's though is in the wall opposite the door. Here you can find a large niche in the wall and a carved black marble slab, believed to date from the 13th century. This slab marks the tomb of Piers Shonks, a local dragon slayer.

    Piers was reportedly the local Lord of the Manor. When a dragon began to torment the local people, Piers rode out to fight it. After a hard-fought battle he succeeded in killing the dragon, but as soon as the dragon died the devil appeared in front of Piers. In some stories the dragon was the devil, in others it was simply a tool sent by the devil to torment people. Either way, the devil was angry with Piers for winning, and swore that when Piers died he would come back to claim his soul, regardless of whether he was buried inside the church, or outside in the church ground.

    To get around this threat, Piers had a tomb cavity built inside the church walls, and was interred there when he died. By being buried in the wall he was neither inside the church, nor outside it, and so the devil couldn't get him. Although the tomb slab is from the 13th century the date "1086" was carved in to it, along with Piers' name.

    Piers Shonks, Brent Pelham

    Setting aside the dragon story, there also appears to be little information about anyone in the local area named Piers. Brent Pelham was actually home to three manors known as Greys, Chamberlyns, and Beeches. The original owner of the tomb probably came from one of these manors, but their name has been lost in favour of a dragon slayer.