When you visit the website for Llandaff Cathedral (and you should do!) you will first encounter a very well produced and choreographed drone video, which is at the same time absolutely bonkers. It starts outside and having done several close passes at roof and tower height you are left wondering where it is going next. At which point it goes inside, flying between two robed people, before flying through the choir and threatening to extinguish a candle lighter with its propellor wash as it whizzes past. Congratulations to everybody who did not flinch as the drone passed by.
I have seen a few interior shots of Llandaff Cathedral before my visit, so I think I’m looking forward to seeing one thing in particular. But why? I’ll keep you hanging on a bit longer.
After visiting St Davids on Monday we spent a couple of nights exploring Pembrokeshire before moving to a dull and rainy Gower Peninsula. We ‘swam’ in rough conditions off Rhossili Beach, and a rapidly incoming tide meant that our towels and clothes weren’t as dry as we would have wanted, but that’s another story. The weather has transformed overnight and during our 90 minute transit from the Gower to Cardiff the temperature rises considerably and the sky completely clears.
We are reasonably familiar with Llandaff – our daughter was in the Plas Gwyn University Halls opposite the BBC studios a few years ago, and I remember seeing signs for the Cathedral but never making the time to visit. The BBC studios were the filming location for some Christopher Eccelston era episodes of Doctor Who and the Cathedral itself has been an exterior location on several occasions when they needed a churchy background – it’s ‘Leadworth Church’ where Amy grew up and it’s the church window in ‘Vincent and the Doctor’. The BBC studios closed and have now gone, currently being redeveloped for housing, but there are enough points of familiarity for us to get our bearings.
We pull onto Llandaff’s Cathedral Green and sit on a bench to eat lunch. We could be forgiven for wondering where the Cathedral actually is. There’s a big clue in the form of a spire looking above the Deanery, a spire which I spotted about a mile away, but where is the building that it’s attached to? Llandaff is a city within a city, absorbed into the city of Cardiff about a hundred years but clearly distinguishable still as that village district.
Like St Davids the cathedral sits in the bowl of a hillside, but here it is more closely surrounded by the landscape. It’s possible from the lych gate to the south (another filming location!) to get a similar ‘looking down’ perspective as at St Davids, but without the unrestricted view. The trees which have been sorely absent since Newport and Brecon have made a comeback for Llandaff. These factors combined mean that it’s difficult to get an overall view of the building from any one position. That drone video is actually quite helpful in getting an overall appreciation.
The guide book talks about the setting, speculating as to why it is where it is, close to the River Taff, but without really having an answer as to why it is where it is. When your location is determined by the actions of saints 1500 years ago the reasons will inevitably be lost in the mists of time. The building is dedicated to Saints Teilo, Dyfrig and Euddogwy, a combination unlikely to be matched elsewhere. There has been a place of worship here for at least 1500 years, with parts of the current building dating back to the 12th century. There are some amazing Romanesque details which leap out at you when you are least expecting it, counterbalanced with some very 20th century introductions.
I’m beginning to realise that the origins of the Welsh Cathedrals are traceable back somewhat further than English ones – where many are celebrating 900 years in existence, Welsh ones are exceeding 1000 years, and these last two 1500!
At one point in the early 1700s a tower collapsed and the damage was so severe that serious consideration was given to moving the See to Cardiff, but this came to nothing, and in the early 1800’s it was proposed to move to Bristol, but that too was a dead end. Along the way, an extensive but unloved rebuild in the Italianate style (a little like St Paul’s Cathedral) came and went, with a Victorian restoration pretty much rebuilding what had fallen before. I might disrespect some aspects of Victoriana, but this isn’t one of those moments. They did a good job!
However, it was a visit by the German Town Planners in January 1941 that had the most significant internal visual impact on the building. A bomb exploded in the churchyard to the immediate south, destroying many graves, excavating a crater which is still discernible, blowing off large sections of roof, part of the spire and destroying sections of the organ. It was the most extensive damage to a UK cathedral in World War II next to Coventry. There was an opportunity to do something radical. Outside you can’t tell the difference from before, but inside is a different story.
Most recently, a lightning strike in 2007 caused major damage to the organ. It was replaced with a completely new organ, which glows in its newness!
I approach initially from the south. There is a fairly steep roadway which runs past the West end of the building and pedestrian steps descend towards the cathedral from South and West. It’s just about possible to get a wide-angle view of the West end and its tall towers from right in front of it. Once again the main entrance is via the West door and down a short flight of internal steps (like Bangor) but apart from a level access door at the south-eastern corner there are no other public entrances in use. At four of the six cathedrals you enter by the West Door – another interesting quirk of Wales.
I’m intercepted quite quickly by an enthusiastic and friendly member of the welcoming team who makes sure that I am aware of what to look out for, and then I’m free to explore. There are basic map leaflets in various languages but the only one that seems to be absent is an English one.
Having done my research beforehand I kind of know what I’m looking out for, and to my immediate left is a Rossetti triptych (a three section painting in the form of a folding screen) that used to sit behind the High Altar – a setting which Rossetti did not like due to inappropriate lighting. It survived the bombing by virtue of having been removed to safety but for reasons which will become apparent it was not returned to its original location. Instead it now sits in the northwestern corner in the Illtyd Chapel, and with its frame recently restored positively gleams and throbs with colour where it now sits in a darkened corner, strategically well lit.
Having enjoyed that, I return my attention to the main body of the building. And There It Is.
What On Earth Is That?!
The central section of the nave where there would more usually be some form of screening between the nave and the quire or chancel holds a textured double concrete arch with four feet, topped by a concrete oval barrel with little gold figures on the side, and a giant metal Jesus gazing towards the West window.
At first glance it’s quite startling. I’m glad I knew it was going to be there. I’m glad that I’d read the history, as I had chance to prepare myself.
It is the direct result of that bombing. The roofs were repaired quite quickly, making the building weathertight once again during 1942, but full repairs had to wait until after the war was over. During the 1950s the decision was taken not to replace the Victorian restored medieval furnishings with a modern replica, but to do something different. This concrete arch is it. With the aim of NOT providing a visual blockage from West to East (tick) the concrete barrel houses a division of the organ (I have no idea what that means) and gives Scary Metal Jesus somewhere to hover.
Scary Metal Jesus isn’t an attempt at a crucifix – it is simply a standing robed Christ with arms hanging down and hands open towards you, gazing out over the city – or at least over the steps in the hillside.
As I spend more time I gradually get used to it. The boldness, the textures of the concrete structure, the golden figures which were retrieved from the wreckage of the choir stalls, regilded and rehomed. Passing through and around it you see – if you are looking for them – the joins between old and new. New choir stalls grafted almost seamlessly into older sections, but quite distinct at the same time. New sections of floor. A brand new organ in pale oaken casing after that 2007 destruction. Where stained glass was blown out it has been replaced with plain glass, meaning more natural light comes in.
Theologically, the growing of the new out of the old speaks of the change that Christ can have in our lives – we are changed, but not necessarily unrecognisably so.
During the same 1950s/60s reconstruction a new chapel was added to the North side, going in an North/South orientation. This is the Welch Regiment Memorial Chapel. Full of light, which on a bright day like today is photographically tricky – I have to shade my phone’s sensors in a way that I’ve never tried before! There are a few sections of older stained glass in here, I am left wondering if they are surviving panels from pre-1941.
Returning to the main nave, the font is in the South Aisle, and it’s a stunner. It appears to be ancient, but dates from the 1950s work, as the Victorian one was war damaged. It depicts the Fall and Redemption of Mankind, showing Eve kneeling near the Tree of Knowledge, with the Angel and his flaming sword casting her out of Eden as she says ‘the Serpent beguiled me’. Then Isaiah’s prophecy of Christ, and the Tree of Life, with Mary presenting the infant Jesus in his cradle.
Moving eastwards down the south aisle I notice the modern wooden chandeliers which provide artificial light, very obviously using the most energy efficient bulbs. I also notice a slight change in the flooring, which coincides with the transition from stained glass to plain glass. This is where the bomb did its worst damage.
I’m now immediately adjacent to the concrete arch. I move to explore its shape, its texture, its Scary Metal Jesus which stares without expression straight ahead. A parishioner of mine has told me of her childhood fear of the figure, after accidentally ripping a Prayer Book she was paranoid that Scary Metal Jesus was going to fall on her! He does appear to be quite firmly fixed.
The nave furniture here is light oak, with a dark modern wooden pulpit providing contrast.
Continuing down the south aisle we are between the outer wall and a substantial part of the organ – there is a matching piece of organ on the other side of the building. On the southern wall is a small bronze wall sculpture, in memory of Kenneth Clayton, and then behind the organ is an amazing stained glass depiction of the Crucifixion, dating from 1906, by James Sparrow. The guide book describes it as dark, but maybe I’m fortunate in my timing, as the bright sunlight outside is shining directly through it and it blazes with colour for me! Then comes the chapter house – but this is kept locked and I don’t realise until later that I could have asked to see it!
Further on is a large piece of wall art – a painted wooden panel which formed part of the throne of Bishop John Marshall (died 1496). It’s huge – if it was a back panel there was room for a sofa sized seat in front of it!
Heading towards the south-eastern corner I pass a Celtic Cross monument on the way, and an attractive memorial to the architect George Pace who oversaw the post-war rebuilding which is framed by a couple of panels of war-wrecked carvings. I also see the display for a local pilgrimage route, the Pen-Rhys Pilgrimage, which links Pen Rhys and Llandaff via Tonyrefail, Llantrisant and Creigau. Ultimately I find the St Teilo Chapel, where, in a niche, is a fragment of skull, in a circular metal cradle, reputed to be the skull of St Teilo. On the opposite side is a tall wooden carving of Madonna and Child, with her staring into the distance in a similar way to Scary Metal Jesus.
I move then into the Lady Chapel, which, as in many cathedrals, is in an eastern extension of the building beyond the quire and High Altar. It’s a highly decorated section, but it hasn’t always been this way. Originally decorated in 1909 it was whitewashed over in the 1950s refit, and then repainted to the original pattern in 1987.
Here is a plastered vaulted ceiling painted in cream, red and green, with side walls holding a leafy/floral design in pale green and cream, and the east wall additionally having a reredos with natural stone niches decorated with blue, red, gold and green highlights and each one holding golden coloured bronze sculptures of flora representing different ‘Maria’ plants found in Wales, for example Miaren Mair – ‘Mary’s Briar’. These sculptures were added in 1965, the work of Frank Roper.
Added to this are very recent cross-stitch embroidered communion kneelers, in bright pastel primary colours, a gift in memory of Dr John Rigby 1933-2014. This might be my brightest ‘Shadows of Mortality’ section yet! It’s just a pity that they aren’t arranged in the order of the story they depict, although I only really notice this as I am reviewing the photos to write this – otherwise I might well have intervened myself! They show The Fall, The Flood, Abraham and Isaac, the Annunciation, The Nativity, The Presentation at the Temple, and a representation of this cathedral and its Bishop.
A floor brass on the resting place of Bishop Rees, who died in 1939, catches my eye – he is depicted wearing glasses!
The east window is a “Jesse Tree”, a post war replacement for the previous window, and a variety of eras of stained glass are also found around this chapel, some Victorian, some new Elizabethan.
One final patterned detail also catches my attention for the wrong reasons. The altar here stands on a 20th century tasselled rug, a gift from the Mother’s Union to celebrate their 1976 centenary. It just doesn’t go. All the patterns are beginning to mess with my eyes and my head, and this rug is the final straw. Looking back at photography it doesn’t offend my eye quite so much, but in person I’m not a fan.
I move back towards the West, via the sanctuary and quire, where the wooden furniture is the main feature. The organ casing dominates, particularly as it is so new. The stalls appear to be a blend of old and new. There is a very clear join, where new post-war materials have been blended with the surviving canon’s stalls and Bishop’s cathedra. The newer stalls are a simpler style than the older ones, but are clearly different without clashing.
My next point of call is the St Dyfrig Chapel, where there is a visiting icon on display, alongside a couple of other permanent ones. 20th century stained glass depicts Celtic saints alongside King Arthur. The backing to the altar is formed by six tiles representing the six days of Creation.
Just outside the chapel, a very modest brass memorial to Glyn Simon, Dean here, then Bishop, then Archbishop of Wales until 1971. And that’s all it says really! There is also a very recent addition, a painting ‘The Virgin of the Goldfinches’ in which the artist imagines his favourite garden bird in an encounter with Mary at the Annunciation, which appears to be taking place in Cardigan Bay!
Again it’s the flooring that slightly lets this bit down – a tatty golden carpet, edges taped together with more rugs. Feels completely out of place here and I can’t quite work out what’s going on.
Finally, the north aisle, one end dominated by the last section of the organ, which like its twin piece hides another fine stained glass window showing Ruth, Dorcas and Anna, above a niche containing the tomb of Dean Vaughan, died 1897. In some ways he rests in peace here in this ‘dead end’ (forgive the pun) where you only go if you are storing chairs. Nearby are memorials to the Armed Forces and the Royal Auxiliary Air Force.
Before I leave I take it all in once more. The mixture of old and new, in architecture, in artwork, in pattern and plainness, the natural stone and the concrete, stained glass and plain glass, new oak and old oak, gilded and grained.
As I leave, Scary Metal Jesus watches me depart, and reassures me that not-at-all-scary Real Jesus is watching my back too!
I walk around the outside of the building. On the south side where the bomb fell there is a memorial stone in what is now a Garden of Remembrance. It’s tidier now than it would have been in 1941 but they haven’t tried to flatten the crater out too much. If you know, you can see it.
The building and the grounds bear the scars of the centuries and do not attempt to hide it. Bold visionaries in the mid 20th century made sure that future generations could not ignore what happened in the destruction of war.