Exeter Cathedral: Looking Good for a 900-Year-Old

For all of its grandeur, Exeter Cathedral tries hard to remember its central mission as a community of God. And, for the most part, it succeeds. We were fortunate to walk in on a recent afternoon just as the hourly tour was starting. The docent was in great spirits and obviously was enthused about sharing this great Gothic cathedral with others.

I’ve been to many of the great (and likely not-so-great) cathedrals in the US and several countries of Western Europe, and Exeter Cathedral holds its own in terms of prominence, beauty and history.

Linebackers (not) Wanted

Started on the foundation of an earlier Norman church, two towers and about 10 feet of the nave walls remain from the earliest building. But atop those humble walls sits the longest continuous medieval stone vault in the world, about the size of an American football field.

Despite its age (started in 1114, with a rebuild in Decorated Gothic style in the 13th and 14th centuries), the cathedral seems much more open and airy than many other cathedrals I’ve visited. Part of the reason may be the bomb that hit the back of the church during World War II, which blew out most of the stained glass windows. Fortunately, the Great East Window was removed and stored in Cornwall during the war, so the 14th century glass remains. You can still see gouges in the columns that resulted from flying debris from the bomb blasts. One of the new windows depicts the bombing and its aftermath.

Parts of the cathedral also retain their original paint. Stone certainly is beautiful in its own right, but paint brings out a warmth that stone can’t match. The stone figures outside the cathedral were once brightly painted, but the docent said there are no plans to recreate those colors in the cathedral.

Whip it Good

We particularly enjoyed the astronomical clock that dates from 1484, when the earth was thought to be the center of the universe. The minute hand was added at the relatively late date of 1760.

Other relevant features of Exeter Cathedral include:

  • A 4,000 pipe organ that was recently refurbished. According to a history of the cathedral, the longest pipe is 36 feet tall.
  • The elephant misericord, one of 50 tie-up seats that ran along the walls of the cathedral so clergy could sit while appearing to remain standing. Seats are a relatively “modern” convenience. These misericords were carved in the 13th century.
  • Proof that idiots exist in every age can be seen in the extensive graffiti on the alabaster effigy of Bishop Edmund stafford, who died in 1419.
  • The 14th century Minstrels’ Gallery features 14 carved angels playing a dozen medieval instruments, including the bagpipes.
  • The windows above the Minstrels’ Gallery were for the dog whipper, who kept order in the nave, which was the social center for the town for centuries. In the illustration the docent showed, the dog whipper was going after a canine who had just peed on one of the columns.

Our nearly hour-long tour flew by, and we were left with a deeper understanding and appreciation of Exeter Cathedral’s place in history and in the life of the Anglican church. During our visit, activity ceased within the cathedral as the duty chaplain called for silence and offered a prayer for those within the cathedral and for the larger world.

That simple act reminded everyone that while parts of the cathedral are more than 900 years old, the church remains vibrant today.

Getting from A to B Nearly All the Battle in Venice

Everyone gets lost in Venice. Tourists, definitely. But so do locals, those who’ve been here a few years or their entire lives. We’d have seen more of the canal city during our day-and-a-half stay, but we kept seeing the same streets time and time again.

We were warned by a local not to trust Google Maps, so Marilynn bought a full-size city map, in addition to those tourist maps you get in any tourism office. Didn’t help. You’d think that staying along the Grand Canal would be a great way to navigate from one part of the city to another. Good idea, except for the fact that the street along the main canal is cut apart by restaurants, fisheries and other businesses.

So here we are, wandering down one street, only to find it’s a cul-de-canal. Another street looks promising, until it twists 90 degrees, then twists again on itself. You’d think that the larger plazas that dot the city would serve as great landmarks, but you’d think wrong. We weren’t the only ones. We saw scores of people consulting maps, and I’m certain a large percentage of people staring at their phones didn’t know where the hell they were, either.

Hate to be a deliveryman

Copy editors are trained to spot the unusual, and on the first morning, after marveling at how the lingering mist clung to St. Mark’s Basilica, I was struck by the sheer number of delivery folks I saw. Other people were taking photos, and I’m looking at the goods coming in by boat, being transferred to hand trucks and two-wheeled portage vehicles and hauled up and over the steps of many canal bridges. And don’t forget the outgoing freight—mainly parcels and refuse—that has to be hauled out the way it was hauled in. No tractor-trailers here, and, as Declan rightly pointed out, we saw not a single car during our stay in Venice.

My feet were sore after half a day getting lost. Imagine missing a turn when you’ve just hauled a full load of boxes up and then down steps on either side of a canal. Oh yeah, while dodging oblivious tourists.

Touristy stuff

We did manage to see a few things, including the impressive St. Mark’s Basilica, which has more gilt on the ceilings than Catholics have guilt in their hearts. Declan and I also took the water bus to Murano, known for glass-making. We saw a master craftsman quickly make a clear vase, then turn another tube of molten glass into a stallion rearing up on its hind legs. Then we spent a couple of hours along the central canal, perusing the literally dozens of glass shops there. I assume there is some place on the island where you can buy a Coke and a bag of crisps, but it ain’t along the main drag.

We traveled to Murano while Marilynn was a guest lecturer at Ca’ Foscari University of Venice. Georgia State University has an exchange program with the university, and one of her students last fall is finishing up her degree at Ca’ Foscari. Before our afternoon apart, we all had lunch with her former student, as well as a GSU student who’s taking classes in Venice this spring.

We eventually got to the point where we could make it from St. Mark’s Basilica to the Grand Canal to our guest house without incident—just in time to leave for Rome.