Visiting Britain's Top 10 Cathedrals
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One thing I've always loved about Britain is the abundance of spectacular cathedrals peppered around the island. These magnificent places of worship are quite unique in the spiritual world, and second to none in my opinion. Far from your average medieval church, the most exquisite spiritual centers in Britain are a testament to the imagination and meticulous craftsmanship that abounded during the days of lord and master. Even if you're not into churches or history in any way (which to be fair would be a bit crazy if you are visiting Britain), you can still marvel at the scale and beauty of some of mankind's finest achievements. These amazing structures can literally be found in every corner of Britain. However, as with anything else, there are always some that are better than others, and it would be hard to find the time to visit all the great churches and cathedrals of Britain, which is why I've made a list of what I believe to be Britain's top 10 most famous and breathtaking cathedrals. Enjoy!
#1) Canterbury Cathedral- Wow is the only word to describe this magnificent cathedral nestled in the small walled town of Canterbury in southeast England. As soon I walked in the main entry I was immediately blown away by the sheer size and breadth of the central nave, which is one of the largest in Europe. Huge stone pillars that rise to what seems like hundreds of feet, a central nave is flanked by shadowy aisles and studded with old statues of church patrons, giving a very fantasy type feel to the entire experience; a bit like walking into the mines of Moria in Lord of the Rings. Canterbury is the oldest church in England which is still in use. The church was originally founded by St. Augustine on a mission trip for Pope Gregory the Great in 597. According to legend after seeing Angle slaves being sold in the market, Pope Gregory was moved by their beauty and desired to convert the island. Augustine's original building was extensively rebuilt and enlarged by the Saxons, and now lies beneath the floor of the modern nave. The cathedral was then completely rebuilt by the Normans in 1070 following a major fire, and although the church has seen many additions over the last nine hundred years, parts of the quire and some of the stained glass windows date from early as the 12th century. Today, Canterbury Cathedral sees nearly 2,000 services held each year and still stands a towering testament to the power of religion in England's early history.
Location: Canterbury, England
#2) St. Paul's Cathedral- Built by one of Britain's most famous architects, Sir Christopher Wren, St. Paul's Cathedral is an absolute architectural marvel, and well deserves its place as number two on the list of greatest British cathedrals. The site of the present cathedral has housed a church dedicated to St. Paul for over 1,400 years. The present building was built between 1675 and 1710, after its predecessor was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1666. The cathedral serves the city of London as its Cathedral Church of the Diocese of London. St. Paul is best known for its iconic dome, one of the largest in the world, which dominates the London skyline. As part of your visit to the cathedral I would highly recommend climbing to the top of the dome. The 271 step climb to the top is well worth the effort, offering unmatched panoramic views of downtown London. Other notable highlights of the cathedral include the large underground crypt, which houses some of the nation's greatest heroes including Admiral Lord Nelson, The Duke of Wellington, and the famous architect of the building himself, Sir Christopher Wren. The cathedral is open for sightseeing Monday-Saturday from 8:30am-4:30pm. Adult tickets are 15 pounds (roughly 25 USD), which includes entry to the cathedral floor, crypt, and three galleries in the dome. An absolute must see on your tour of London, St. Paul's stands as one of London's most iconic buildings and greatest spiritual centers of Britain.
Location: St. Paul's Tube Stop, London
#3) Salisbury Cathedral- Officially referred to as the Cathedral of Saint Mary, this Anglican cathedral is a beautiful testament to early English architecture and stems deep back into English history. Standing at over 400 ft tall, the cathedral's spire stands as the tallest in the United Kingdom. The cathedral also encompass Britain's largest cloister, contains the worlds oldest clock (circa 1386) as well as the best preserved copy of the Magna Carta. What a rap sheep right? And the entire structure was built in just 38 years, from 1220 to 1258. An absolutely stunning structure, both inside and out, this wonder of Britain should be on the must see list of any tour around the south of England.
Location: Salisbury, England
#4) Wells Cathedral- This romantic cathedral set in the somerset countryside serves as the seat for the Bishop of Bath and Wells. Wells cathedral is unique in Britain in the fact that it was the first to be built in the Gothic style, unlike most other British cathedrals which were built during the Norman period. The present building has undergone many extensions and renovations since its consecration in 1239, but stands largely original to the medieval period.
Location: Wells, England
#5) Winchester Cathedral- Sitting in the heart of the historic town of Winchester, this magnificent Church of England Cathedral stretches back 15 centuries into English history. Winchester was once the seat of the Anglo-Saxon monarchs, and thus placed Winchester cathedral at the very center of English spiritual life. With the coming of William the Conquer the already five hundred year old cathedral found new life, and began to take on the present form we see today. Along the cathedrals rich and integral historical significance, the church also serves as one of the largest in England, and more importantly, has the largest nave and overall length of any Gothic cathedral in Europe. Among the many great treasures housed in Winchester you'll find Triforium Gallery, displaying precious works of art, and the Winchester Bible, the largest and finest of all the 12th century English bibles. Winchester cathedral, and the surrounding sleepy little town, are absolutely worth the journey on your tour of southern England.
Location: Winchester, England
#6) Lincoln Cathedral- This stunning structure was once the tallest building in the world, and from the early 1300's until 1549 stood alone from all others in the world. Lincoln cathedral is one of my favorite simply because it's so unique. Often most cathedral what I like to refer to as the 'Canterbury Archetype', consisting of the standard long nave with crossing apes to make the symbol of the cross. But Lincoln's Norman and Gothic combination spanning over centuries resulted in one of the most unique in Europe. Like many of its contemparies, the cathedral houses important historical works such one of the four copies of the Magna Carta, and texts from Saint Bede. Across from the cathedral is Lincoln castle, which is a fun visit and will give you the very best place in the city to get great pictures of the cathedral.
Location: Lincoln, England
#7) St. Giles Cathedral- The High Kirk of Edinburgh serves the city and the country as the official principal place of worship for the Church of Scotland. There has been a site of worship here for over 900 years, with the present building owing bits and pieces to different historical periods from the 13th through the 19th centuries. This constant adding and reconstruction has produced one of the most iconic buildings in Scotland, and one of my favorite in Edinburgh. The cathedral's unique spire, large frontal stained glass windows, and general dreary demeanor stands beautifully apart yet seems so right at place within the cityscape. Situated right in the middle of the royal mile, St. Giles is always a must visit on my trips to Edinburgh. Always open and always lively it's never a bad idea to at least poke your head in while taking in the rest of historic Edinburgh!
Location: Edinburgh, Scotland
#8) Ely Cathedral- Pronounced 'Elee' this stunning now Church of England cathedral has Anglo-Saxon roots, seeing the first monastery being established in 637 A.D by St, Etheldreda. Work began on the current cathedral by William the Conqueror in 1093, and as with many of its counterparts underwent constant restoration and addition over the medieval and early renaissance period. This magnificent largely Romanesque church is absolutely stunning. Before you even walk in the front door you are met with a multi-layered stone entrance carving so precise it makes you almost feel sorry for the poor soul who had to carve all that. Upon entering the cathedral the awe lessens none as you are instantly hit with the high arch ways and deceptively long nave, one of the longest in Britain. Take a stroll around and you'll find an abundance of stone staircases and little transepts to explore. The cathedral also keeps on display a stained glass exhibition, which is worth the couple pound entry.
Location: Ely, England
#9) St. Magnus Cathedral- Built for the Norse Earls of Orkney on the Orkney Island of Kirkwall in the far north of Scotland, St. Magnus cathedral definitely takes the cake on the most historically romantic and poetic. The red sandstone, quarried from nearby Eday island, stands out as a healthy reprieve from the otherwise green and blue dominated landscape. The Orkney Islands are right in the middle of the North Sea, making it often very cold and bleak up there. However, that is not to say there isn't extreme beauty either. Quite the contrary, as the Orkney Islands are among the most beautiful in Britain and all Europe. Now other place can you find perfect white sandy beaches and beautiful flowers alongside frigid waters and often snowladden terrain. The cathedral itself is a fine example of typical Norman architecture, studded with large pillars and many small archways. Found in a small cavity during renovation in the early 20th century. the relics of St. Magnus forever rest within the cathedral he founded. Across from the cathedral lies the Bishops palace, where the local elite Bishops lived and presided over their see. The historic building will be a can't miss spot as the island of Kirkwall is quite small with only a handful of major historical attractions. Make sure to watch the film chronicling the building and history of the majestic cathedral!
Location: Island of Kirkwall, Orkney Islands
#10) St. David's Cathedral- By the 8th century St. David's already had enjoyed such a prominent spiritual force in Britain that the Wessex King Alfred once called upon aid from the monastic community during his holdout against the invading Vikings. The present building was begin in 1181, but not long after completion and throughout its life the church saw devastation after devastation, including the collapse of a central tower and subsequent earthquakes. Culminating in the cathedrals misfortunes was the wrath brought by Oliver Cromwell and his forces. The historic building was largely destroyed, not finding restoration until the late 18th century. St. David's lies in a small town of the same name, which lies on the most westerly coast of Wales, offering revelers a chance to awe at the surrounding natural beauty.
Location: St. Davids, Wales
I hope this account has encouraged you to visit some of the most beautiful and historic buildings in Europe. This list was meant to give you an idea of the most famous and most elaborate Cathedrals in Britain. However, the list did not include many other places of worship in Britain such as Abbeys, Kirks, and everyday churches. The two most glaring omissions I can see here are Westminster Abbey and Bath Abbey, both of which are spectacular and absolutely worth a visit, but unfortunately don't qualify as cathedrals as they don't serve a Bishop, so had to be left off the list of Britain's top cathedrals.
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