Holy Smoke at Manchester Cathedral


Member Rating 3 out of 5 by duskmaiden on July 12, 2009


Manchester Cathedral is one of the oldest and most important buildings in Manchester City Centre.
The six hundred year old collegiate church is located in the oldest area of the city near the confluence of the Irwell and Irk rivers. The building although not the most impressive cathedral compared to York Minster or Salisbury, attracts 70 000 visitors each year. Within this there lies a problem: The cathedral role is dual as a place of worship and spiritual well-being and as a tourist and heritage attraction. The interpretation of the cathedral has to be sympathetic to the needs of tourists, pilgrims and worshipers. It has solved this by opening a new visitor centre opposite the Cathedral in May 2002.

The Cathedral and the visitors' centre are very much a key element of Cathedral Gardens: the first urban city park of the new millennium contained in the Millennium quarter of Manchester City Centre alongside other historic buildings such as Cheethams School and newer attractions such as the Prrintworks leisure development and Urbis. It is interesting that the oldest part of the city is promoted as the newest part of the city due to urban renewal and redevelopment.

The Cathedral is easy to get to via car, train, bus, tram or foot. It is right next to Victoria railway station and the Metrolink tram stop
History
The site of the Cathedral has been an important one for more than a thousand years. The present cathedral dedicated to St Mary, St George and St Denys was built in 1421 to serve a growing medieval town. However this was not the first church on the site. It is speculated that there had been two other churches the first one dating back to 800AD. The Angel Stone displayed in the cathedral might have come from this church however there is little evidence to prove this. The Doomsday Book mentions a parish church dedicated to the Blessed Virgin which probably would have been on the same site as the present cathedral. Like most churches the collegiate church has been adapted, extended and rebuilt due to changes such as the reformation, and damage caused by events such as storms in 1792 and the blitz in 1940. The biggest change in the building's history was the upgrading of it from collegiate church to cathedral with the creation of the Diocese of Manchester in 1847 due to the rapid growth of industrialised Manchester in the late 18th and early 19th centuries.

The cathedral is no way as impressive as York Minster, Saint Paul’s Cathedral or other big cathedrals. In fact you would hardly know it is a cathedral . It looks more like a big parish church. Warning, around the cathedral area there are drunken naïve Mancunians and skater kids hanging around.
Although Manchester Cathedral is not the most impressive Cathedral from the outside, it does have a wealth of interesting features . These include the 9th century Angel Stone, examples of fine medieval carving in the Pulpitum ( choir screen) and on the beautiful fan vaulted ceiling in the nave. Its modern stained glass windows especially the Fire Window by Anthony Holloway are also of special interest. They are very bright and colourful. Features I specifically liked were the carved figures of medieval musicians and also the carved kangaroo on the bishop’s chair the Cathedra.
The interpretation in the cathedral itself is mostly information based using interpretation panels, guided tours, guidebooks and leaflets. What is available inside the cathedral is well written and presented, but is very basic. To an extent it does try to engage the visitor. This is demonstrated in the free leaflet which suggests a walk around the cathedral. The leaflet gives plenty of information about the cathedral and its parts but makes the walk more interesting by pointing out little details you might miss
One thing that did contribute to my enjoyment of my initial visit to the cathedral was the scholars of Cheetham's School of Music practicing for a concert.. Concerts are held daily in the cathedral and add to the tranquil atmosphere. Perhaps it could be suggested classical music be played when there are no services to enhance the visitors experience.
The Visitor’s Centre
Manchester Cathedral, alongside other cathedrals such as Hereford and Salisbury, has opened a visitors' centre to solve the conflict between the need for catering for tourists but not being too commercialised either. The new visitor centre was opened in May 2002 in refurbished Victorian buildings opposite the cathedral, and was funded by the Millennium Commission. It contains exhibition space, a refectory, meeting rooms, a gift shop and the remains of the medieval Hanging Bridge, Manchester's only ancient monument. Whilst being designed, the concept of the visitor centre was "to provide a 'bridge', both spiritually and physically, to lead and link the religious and secular characteristics of the central Cathedral site" and "introducing and interpreting the things of the Spirit to a very different community today". The way this would be done was through the exhibition space. It is implied in the promotional literature before the opening of the centre that there would be two exhibitions. The Living Cathedral Exhibition that would give a historical survey of the church buildings and famous events, and the Medieval Exhibition that would show and explain archaeological discoveries made on the site, and artefact's from excavations near the Cathedral.
The first problem with the visitor's centre is it is quite hard to find. It is hidden away down a side street and it would be easy to miss if you did not know it was there.
The visitor centre is fairly small. On entrance there is a gift and bookshop selling a wide range of gifts from inexpensive merchandise such as postcards and bookmarks to expensive items such as jewellery and chess sets. The staff who are volunteers from the Diocese are friendly welcoming and informative. Before the main exhibition area there is an audio-visual about the history of the cathedral and the town. This is a good idea but it is hindered by its location in a main corridor with no seating, so the benefit of the video may be lost. It would have been better to situate it elsewhere in the exhibition space. After the audio-visual there is a bridge-like walkway with a two-dimensional figure representing different events in the cathedral's history with short and concise interpretive panels to explain what they represent.

The main exhibition area is dominated by four touch-screen interactives. The first one covers the development of Manchester and the cathedral at different times in history. These are Medieval Manchester, Manchester in the Industrial Revolution and Manchester today. It does this through computer reconstructions of the city and accounts from people in the various periods. The second module's theme is famous Mancunians from the world of science, literature and theology. The third module is a virtual tour of the cathedral, whilst the last one focuses on the cathedral's international links. I particularly enjoyed the first one of these as I was interested in the history of Manchester and there was enough audio and reconstructions to keep my interest. I found some of the other ones a bit dull.

The archaeological remains on show consisting of a carved stone and one of the earliest known remnants of one of the testament are not as successful as the touch screen interactives, as they are hard to relate to. The fragment of testament is tiny and uninteresting to all but a theologian. It is also tucked away at the side of the exhibition I found these fragments dull and boring.
The final component of the visitor's centre is the Hanging Bridge. This has been hidden in the basement of the visitor centre building since the nineteenth century. The bridge is one of early Manchester's most important buildings linking the cathedral to the city. Access to the bridge is via the visitor centre's refectory. This is an ideal usage of the arches of the bridge. The bridge it self is hardly breathtaking. It seems a nice little café but I have not sampled the goods.
The cathedral is a nice place to visit but is hardly breathtaking. The visitor centre is a good way to spend a spare half an hour.
Manchester Cathedral
Victoria Street
Manchester, England, M3 1SX
+44 161 833 2220

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