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Welcome to Rochester Cathedral. We’d love you to take away lasting memories from today’s visit, but please leave this audio player behind at the entrance desk before you leave. As this is a place of prayer we do ask that you respect the atmosphere of calm that the Cathedral offers to people who come for quiet reflection so please remember to turn off your mobile phones.
Now if you’re ready to get started you can wander at will or if you prefer you can follow our recommended route which takes you through each numbered stop and sequence. This route is marked on your leaflet. The first stop is at the west end of the nave, the lower end of the Cathedral. Look for the large central doorway under the big window.
I’m Jools Holland and I’ll be guiding you around the cathedral on your tour today. Now imagine you’re back 900 years in the 1100s. It’s a bright day and early Spring. As you cross the river Medway approaching the small huddled town of Rochester, its new Cathedral shines out in the morning sun, a blaze of colour towering over its surroundings, the whole of its west-front brightly painted, amazed you continue closer and catch your breath as you step through its great west doors. Even today standing here can be a breath-taking moment.
You’re in the nave. As you gaze up and around here, the space may feel overwhelming, even awe-inspiring. Perhaps you feel like Mr Grewgious, a character in Charles Dickens novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’ who when passing this Cathedral catches the view through the double doors of this end. ‘Dear me’ said Mr Grewgious, peeping in, ‘it’s like looking down the throat of old Time’. So it’s ok if you are feeling overawed. You’re meant to sense that this is a place to experience the majesty of God all around you. If the stones could speak they would tell us that this vast space is like the all-encompassing universe. Everyone is welcome here, everyone belongs, everyone is equally important to God. That’s why we like to keep the great wooden doors of this end open to symbolise this universal welcoming.
This site has welcomed worshippers, pilgrims and visitors for 1400 years. As we explore the Cathedral’s past, we will also discover something about its present life and community. I’ll show you how to unlock the symbolism of the building and decoration and it’s Christian messages. You’ll be able to use this knowledge to read other Churches or Cathedrals you visit. I hope you enjoy opening these doorways of discovery to the surprising and thought-provoking stories hidden in these ancient stones.
Find a good spot at the bottom of the steps that lead down from the double doors and stand with your back to them. You can see all the way down the Cathedral to its east-end through the small doorway in the stone screen. Can you just glimpse the high altar at the very furthest point? It’s easy to see why it’s called that because the floor is higher up there than down here where you’re standing. This long view from the lower to the higher is no accident. Medieval architects designed it that way to symbolise a spiritual journey. If you imagine God at the far end of it up above us then moving further into the Cathedral is like going deeper on their quest for God. They get higher and therefore closer to him.
The Cathedral’s east-west alignment is also an important part of its design. As you look down the nave towards the high altar, the west-end is behind you. For Christians, having your back to the west means you’re putting the setting sun (the dying day and your old sinful life) behind you. Walking through the doors and facing east means embracing the new day and a new life one in which a Christian accepts Jesus Christ as their saviour. So moving from west to east through the Cathedral symbolises a person’s journey to a new life as a Christian. You might want to think about your own reaction to these places for a moment.
Look at the steps in front of the double doors and then over to the right on the floor. Can you see a pair of curved lines cut into the floor? These mark out the apse or rounded end of an earlier Church, the remains of which lie buried beneath the present building. This earlier Church is probably the original Saxon Cathedral which was built in 604. It makes Rochester the 2nd oldest Cathedral in the country founded a few years after Canterbury. You can see a continuation of this outline outside. If the weather’s ok, go out there now just pause the commentary until you’re there.
This visage of the Cathedral is truly remarkable. Despite the insertion of the big window in the mid-1400s, the whole front still looks pretty much as it did in the mid-1100s. This style of architecture is called Romanesque and is associated in England with the Normans. Key characteristics you can see here are the rounded tops of the arches and the rose of decorative arches and columns called blind arcades. Rochester has the only surviving cathedral front of this period and this is perhaps the finest example of Norman architecture of its time.
The man responsible for starting but not finishing the Norman Cathedral is in fact standing just above you. He is the carved figure up to the left on top of the doorway. His name was Gundulf, a monk from Normandy who was appointed Bishop of Rochester by William the Conqueror. If you turn around and look across the road, you can see another of Gundulf’s projects, Rochester Castle. It’s mostly from after Gudulf’s time that parts of his original building survive.