11. The Crypt

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Please note: the crypt tour information is now outdated! The crypt was renovated and reopened in 2016 as a bright and vibrant exhibition area and cafe.

 

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The atmosphere down here immediately strikes you. Crypt means hidden, and this secluded area has two sides to it as a result. On the one hand, it is sometimes a good place to host noisier activities like school children learning about the mediaeval Cathedral, for example, but on the other hand it can be the quietest part of Cathedral, a refuge of calm, silence and private prayer.

Most of us have at some time need to take a break from the bustle of daily life, or to quietly things through a problem, or to be alone with our thoughts. Just a moment to take a deep breath. People often come here to do that, and during special services after dark the powerful atmosphere down here really helps people feel the presence of God.

Imagine the place in pitch blackness, but lit by people holding candles and you can see why spiritual searching is often compared to looking for a light in the darkness.

But while it is still light, you can see you’re standing amidst the foundation stones of the cathedral. The columns here raise up the higher east end of the building and originally provided extra space for seven small chapels where the mediaeval monks celebrated mass daily. If you look at the section to the left and set back from the doorway where you came in, you’re looking at the earliest part of the crypt, part of Bishop Gundulf’s original Norman cathedral of around 1100. You’ll notice the columns and arches here are plainer than elsewhere.

The rest of the crypt dates from about a century later, created when the east end of the cathedral above was rebuilt. Stand facing the glass doors that lead into the little chapel here, then turn to your left and walk around into the corner of the crypt. Just pause the commentary until you’re there. On the ceiling in this part, you should be able to see the traces of the mediaeval painting that once covered the whole of the space here. What a difference that must have made an impression of the crypt, like walking down into a colourful picture book.

Now go back to the chapel doorway and look at the stonework on either side protected by glass. You might wish to pause the commentary whilst you find the right spot. Can you see the outlines of some faces? They’re quite hard to make out.

No one is certain what they represent. They might mark the location of the tombs of St. Paulinus and Ithamar. These were two of the earliest Bishops of Rochester whose tombs originally thought to have laid above us, near the quire. They may have been moved down here when saints tombs were being destroyed during the religious upheavals of the period called the Reformation.

The chapel through the glass doors is dedicated to St. Ithamar, the first Saxon Bishop of Rochester. Feel free to go in, but bear in mind this is a special space usually reserved for quiet prayer. You may want to take a moment to reflect here, surrounded by these ancient stones, on the 1400 years that people have been coming together to worship on this site.

These words of the prayer of St Benedict, by who’s guidelines the monks here at Rochester live their lives:

‘Gracious and Holy Father, give us wisdom to perceive you, intelligence to understand you, diligence to seek you, patience to wait for you, eyes to behold you, a heart to meditate upon you and a life to proclaim you. Through the power of the Spirit of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.’