Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Learning to Live in England, Part 17

Saturday 17 July

We spent today in Chester with David and Julia and their younger son, Nick, who lives there.

Chester is a city established by the Romans, who originally intended it to be the capital city, before they eventually chose Londinium instead.

First we went to the Mill Hotel, where we had lunch on their narrow boat in the Shropshire Union Canal. You make reservations beforehand, and then check in at the hotel dining room at noon. You order from the menu, board the boat, which is all outfitted as a dining room with 12 tables, and sit at your assigned table.

The starter (appetizer) course is brought and off you sail, down the canal. You return to the hotel in time for the first course to be cleared away and the main course and desserts to be brought aboard. Then off you sail in the other direction, up the canal. You pass through several locks, which is interesting. You pass a stone tower in which lead shot used to be manufactured for use in the Napoleonic wars. Molten lead was poured through a sieve at the top, separating it into globs. The globs fell down, forming themselves into 'perfect spheres' before landing in a vat of water at the bottom. We also passed some morehens, with tiny, new-hatched babies swimming along the edge of the canal.

Two hours after we had begun, we tied up back at the hotel and disembarked.  Next on David's agenda was Chester Cathedral.  (He must have pricked up his ears when he heard me once wish to ride a narrow boat, and to see Chester Cathedral!)

On our way there, we walked along a stretch of the top of the ancient city walls; that was fun, too.  (Everything is fun in a new place with beloved people!)

The Cathedral began in  1092  as a Benedictine abbey, centered on the existing shrine of St. Werburgh, a nun renouned for her miracles of healing.    (That shrine had undergone some restoration in 1057 by, of all people, Lady Godiva.)   The Abbey became an Anglican cathedral in 1541.

You can still see the Chapter Room, where the monks assembled daily to hear the reading of one chapter from St. Benedict's rule.  Tehre is also a courtroom, called the Bishop's Consistory  Court, where eccelesiastical cases were heard.  It's a large room containing a very ancient, large, square, wooden table surrounded by wooden beches.  At the center rear of the table is the bishop's throne.  The overall effect is highly intimidating!

Here are some pictures of it, courtesy of Wikipedia.  For more photos and info, go here.

We were standing in the North Transept when a uniformed official asked us to step aside as the choir would shortly be coming that way.  So we waited, and in a few minutes, in came the choir and sang a psalm in Latin, right there in the Transept, before entering the Nave for Evensong.  We didn't stay for Evensong, though.

Instead, we sat on a couple of benches in this garden, back in the corner to the left of the tree, and I wondered aloud if each person would share two or three adjectives that for him most described his overall impression of the Cathedral.  Demetrios said 'majestic' and Nick said 'impressive.'  Julia said it was impressive but didn't make her feel any closer to God.  David said the combination of the architecture, the choir, the organ, all together gave him a certain feeling he described as the hairs of his neck standing up, a feeling of awe and reverence, I suppose; but David is sophisticated enough to question whether a physical sensation has anything to do with the spiritual realm.

I agreed the Cathedral was both majestic and impressive, but my main reaction was, 'Creepy.'  I've just begun, more and more, to dislike non-Orthodox places of worship.  I appreciated the wooden carving, very intricate and it must have taken ages, and the stone carving and all the tremendous love and dedication and work that went into the constructing of the Cathedral, but it seemed to me a monument to the God of Fear. 

A detective novel I'm currently reading, set in England, has one character commenting that people are less religious than they used to be, and another replies, 'Perhaps people are less frightened of God these days.'  So I asked our English friends whether they thought religion here was driven largely by fear, and they all three heartily agreed that it was.  Whether fear of God or fear of parents, though, wasn't perfectly clear to me.  Fear, at any rate; they grew up with, 'You WILL go to church!' with the 'or else' implied.

After a while, we got up and walked back to the car through downtown Chester, with its Tudor storefronts.  They aren't allowed to change appearance, so even the more modern buildings look Tudor, if only superficially.  There are more black-and-white, half-timbered buildings here than even in Frankfurt!

We dropped Nick back at his flat, which was not ready for visitors today, and that was just as well, as it was late and we were ready for home.


Bb said...

I'm quite fond of Chester Cathedral - especially the mosaic icons, which are quite unusual for an Anglican cathedral in England, and a pleasant change from sandstone. St Werburgh's shrine is one place in the Northwest that doesn't have a regular pan-Orthodox pilgrimage, which my parish is thinking of rectifying in coming years.

However, I must admit to not liking Chester as a city at all. I say that having worked there for a year.

The vast majority of the population of Chester is of white, Anglo-Saxon ethnicity, which is of no matter in and of itself, but the "small town" mentality shows in the surprise at seeing anybody different. Coming from a place like Manchester, with its cosmopolitan history which permeates its culture and the make-up of its population even to the present day, I always found Chester very intimidating.

People in shops, banks, taxis, and at the bus station would routinely express surpise at my English accent because I don't look the way they expected English people to look. On one occasion, a lady who was part of a group walking through the streets publicising the Chester Mystery plays walked up to me, handed me a leaflet, and said very loudly and slowly, 'Stories from the Bible. It will help your English', before continuing along the street. I was with a friend who later told me he had wanted the world to end right then and there, he was so embarrassed. Yet this was a normal part of my experience there. I was crossing the bridge at Chester railway station one day, and passed a young man speaking on his phone. I heard him tell whomever he was speaking to that a terrorist had just walked past, clearly referring to the dark-skinned, bearded man (me) who had just passed him.

The problem is that Chester isn't a major centre of anything in particular. It gets one-day tourists who go to see the cathedral and the old buildings, but they then go back home and aren't really a permanent fixture. It doesn't host any of the sorts of large cultural festivals that tend to draw people from around the country, and it isn't particularly close to any of the areas which were settled by the waves of immigration from different parts of the world: Jews and Asians in Manchetser, Afro-Caribbeans in Leeds, and so forth. Until very recently, Chester University was simply Chester College, and didn't draw the variety of international students that are beginning to trickle through today, so there was really nothing to challenge this way of thinking.

At the end of the day, Chester has cathedral city status only because of its Roman history and its cathedral. Any other settlement of comparable size and import without those features would simply be a small town, and I'm afraid it shows.

There. Grumpiness over. :-) Now I shall go and tyr to find the cat.

123 said...

Chester was always a nice one day trip from Liverpool, so I've been a few times.

FYI, The Orthodox Church of St Barbara is in the Overleigh Cemetery Chapel, Overleigh Road, Handbridge, Chester CH4 7HW,

I thought I remembered the former priest of this parish telling me there was a convent nearby, too, but I can't seem to find anything about it online, so... (Incidentally, this Fr. Alban Barter was Her Majesty’s Coroner for Liverpool for more than 30 years! He had known my Granddad. His obit:

Anam Cara said...

Interesting comments about Chester. The main thing I remember from my one visit to that city was that it looked like it had snowed due to the wispy, cottony flowers fallen from the trees. I can't remember what month we were there, but I could probably dig up some photos. It was pretty amazing.

Of more interest to me - what are you reading?

Bb said...

Orrologion, it was Fr Alban who received my parish priest and his family into the Church, so he is mentioned ocasionally.

There used to be some Anglican nuns in Chester, near the cathedral, but they moved away probably 8 or more years ago now.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

Michael, I'm sorry you've received that sort of treatment, and drawn that sort of reaction. My son still speaks to my husband slowly and distinctly and a bit loudly. He can't help it, even though his dear wife has tried to correct him. We just laugh. When we arrive at our age, such speech is always appropriate, actually!

Anam, are you English? Or just an anglophile?

Christopher, I will check out St. Barbara's.

Actually, I did think I caught a glimpse of two Orthodox nuns in Chester, but it happened so quickly I couldn't be sure.

Anastasia Theodoridis said...

P.S. We did admire those mosaics! They're faded, but very beautiful.

Anam Cara said...


Although all but one of my ancestors was in America before the Revolution, I have English ancestors and grew up looking at slides of places family members visited in England from various trips.

My husband and I lived in Europe for 12 years (1974-1978, 1981-1984, 1997-2002). I spent as much time as possible in England - used any excuse I could find to go. (I would get other women to go with me and used the excuse I needed to pick up another place setting of china) We've spent weeks on camping trips with the kids, as they got older I took kids on trips to go to plays (and not just London), had the 2 girls pick out china patterns and then slowly collected pieces on each trip so now they both have entire service for 8 - platters, bowls, teapots, etc. as well as place settings, gone to conferences, anyone who came to see us, got a trip to England included. So I was able to visit a number of times a year.

One of our ancestors fought at the Battle of Hastings and received a land grant in Stopham. The land could never pass out of the family and, in fact, it still is in the family - just not our branch!

I found the least expensive way for me to go the last 5 years was to take Ryan Air (then between $10 and $25 for a flight - also used Ryan to hop from Stansted to Ireland) and stay at the Lord Baden Powell house in London and use that as a base. I was for years a registered Boy Scout. I have stayed in many nice hotels in London, but the last time I was there for a conference, I left the hotel and went to the BP house for breakfast. On one trip staying there, I got up early each morning and volunteered to help make breakfast so I could learn how to make a proper English breakfast which, in my opinion, is the best meal the English make!

So, in answer to your question:
English by heritage, American by birth, Southern by the grace of God.
(which I guess, ultimately makes me an anglophile)

Again, what book are you reading?