St Asaph Cathedral – a splash of light and colour


After leaving Brecon we had a very wet drive of nearly 3 hours northwards on the way to a short break in Denbighshire. The rain didn’t quite wash the mud off those green wheels yet though but this gently sloping campsite was still slippery from the rain which had only just stopped. The grass here was refusing to provide any grip but fortunately it didn’t churn up – a chalk hillside with very thin topsoil. Eventually we developed a technique which didn’t involve reversing uphill and got Clara onto the hardstanding pitch where we didn’t move her for a couple of days. The site owner told us of her plans to level the site to prevent such problems – clearly we’re not the first!

Moving on to St Asaph three days later the weather had cleared and we got one of the hot days that we are owed from soggy July. Weather does make a difference to perception, and I remember from the English tour that there were a couple of the cathedrals that I would like to see again on a bright day rather than a gloomy day. You could add Brecon to that list, but I don’t think that the dark and brooding aspect of the churchyard there would change significantly.

The city of St Asaph (it was a town until the Queen granted city status for the Diamond Jubilee) is very small (pop c3500). My group of six rural Wiltshire parishes has a larger population! As we approach the satnav says that we are less than a minute away and we are still in open countryside. The last time that happened we were approaching Ripon. I spot a fairly low church tower and realise that this is my destination. Later after visiting the cathedral it will take me about 10 minutes to take in the sights of the city. I don’t see a single shop with a name that I recognise, nor do I see one open (it’s a Sunday in North Wales). The only business that is open is a pub, but it’s the only hostelry or restaurant that is bothering.
By contrast to Brecon the Cathedral of St Asaph sits in a very open space. There are mature trees in the churchyard, but they keep their distance, rather than appearing to want to get into the church. There are lush green lawns and a sensory garden, with seating and picnic benches to encourage people to use the space. Like Newport and Brecon this cathedral sits on high ground, and – bonus – is actually visible from a fair distance away in the lower part of the town. I am spoilt for choice on where to get a Clara shot, but we settle for one in the virtually empty Cathedral car park.

The Cathedral claims to be the smallest in Britain. Looking at it I can immediately see that it’s several times as big as Derby Cathedral, so I look for the qualifiers. It’s always in the detail, and this crucial detail is that it is the smallest ‘Ancient’ Cathedral! There are many parish churches which are bigger. But in that ‘Ancient’ world of the 12th Century when the building was first constructed it would have been proportionately huge for the size of the local population.

Entering through the West Door (this is fairly unusual as a main entrance) you pass through a modern wood-and-glass porch designed to let light in and keep draughts out. The east end isn’t that far away, and holds a beautiful bright and highly coloured window. In between there isn’t much in terms of visual intrusion, but it looks clean and crisp.

Turning around there’s an equally light west window with six panels containing coats of arms of the six Welsh Dioceses, and a portrayal of both St David and Archbishop Edwards, the first Archbishop of Wales. Which reminds me, will I find the Archbishop’s portable Cathedra here in St Asaph? No, I won’t. They clearly haven’t had a turn recently.

Widening my gaze either side of the lovely porch I find the local storage problem. Stackable lightweight staging and a platform with empty tripods speaks of both how much this building is used for different types of events and of the modern need for livestreaming of services. It won’t be the only place I find a strategically placed camera mount today. Unfortunately a side effect of all of this is that the stone font is stuck in the middle of this storage and I’m led to wonder if this font is ever used now or if there is a portable version somewhere. I don’t find an answer – there is nobody in attendance today. It’s Sunday in North Wales.

The western end of both north and south sides are lined with informative displays funded by a Heritage Lottery grant, so it is easy to learn something of the history of the cathedral. Today I arbitrarily go anti-clockwise, and find myself looking at wall memorials again. There are fewer than in Brecon, and none so grand or as gushing, but there are a couple that catch my eye.

Firstly one with a pair of angels, the like of which I have not seen before, and secondly a group of relatively small memorials to the Browne family. Sir Henry Browne (died 1855, aged 69), Louise Anne, his wife, died in childbed, 1823 aged 23 and Elizabeth Anne, his (presumably second) wife, died in childbed of twins, 1826 aged 25. It also looks as if his mother died in 1827. Bringing life into this world was risky 200 years ago, but if there is a glimmer of positive news in this story it is that the memorial to Henry was put up by his elder son, so there were at least two children who survived to adulthood.

There is also a display to those who translated the Bible into Welsh, and the actual 1588 Bible that was taken to Caernarvon for the institution of the Prince of Wales in 1969, alongside the QEII Deed that granted City Status. The Translators Memorial is outside.
The South Transcept is largely free of furniture, apart from some well crafted wall cupboards, and a foldaway hospitality station. A couple of minor caretaking things though: somebody had left the water heater on (didn’t want to interfere, maybe there are refreshments after the evening service?), and a key was still in the lock of the glass fronted cupboard which holds the holy oils…

The most striking thing in this part though is the sculpture ‘The Naked Christ’ by Michele Coxon. Better known as an illustrator of children’s books she relished the challenge of a different medium, and this life sized depiction of the crucifixion uses a mixture of materials – animal bones, metal, textiles, ceramic. It doesn’t hold back.

Moving now into the crossing and towards the chancel I am struck by the co-ordination of colours in this central area. Faced with the organ console, seating and various pieces of furniture it could be a jumble, but all I see is a well co-ordinated combination of red, gold, brown and blue. Above your head is an elaborate roof boss with these colours, and I’m left wondering which came first? Does below match above or vice-versa?

The chancel is lined with stalls for choir and clergy, and is tiled in Victorian patterns (Gilbert-Scott was responsible for a restoration). The sanctuary is, typical for that era, several steps higher than the approach, and the edges of the steps are tiled with the following words, which communicants down the ages will have read while waiting their turn:

Holy Holy Holy Lord of Sabaoth
To Thee cherubim and seraphim continually do cry
To Thee all angels cry aloud the heavens and all the powers therein
All the earth doth worship Thee the Father everlasting
Praise Thee O God

The windows here are (mostly) brightly coloured. Those who followed the English saga may remember that I developed a taste for certain colours, but not for others. These I like, both in style and in colour. The artist has a sense of humour, from the tiny details of animals (a tiny frog on a lilypad) to the portrayal of an Egyptian soldier and his horse struggling in the waters of the Red Sea.

Finally I go to a chapel in the North Transcept. The organ here is huge and takes a lot of space, but it doesn’t dominate. The oak organ casing forms a pleasant backdrop to this quiet chapel, which has a copy of ‘Madonna of the Harpies’ by Andrea del Sarto (d.1531) and a 2016 sculpture ‘Nativity’ which has had an accident, and the current repair process makes it look like Baby Jesus has been born with a plaster cast! This is also a storage area, slightly out of the way, and is lined with multiple boxes of as yet unbuilt IKEA Tordh shelving unit.

Around the building have been various items relating to the North Wales Pilgrim Way – a walking route linking churches from the River Dee in the east to Bardsey Island at the western tip of the Lynn peninsula. I’d like to see a copy of their Pilgrim Passport, but it’s a Sunday in North Wales and the tearooms which sell them are closed so I can’t. We are developing a similar project in North Wiltshire (the Athelstan Pilgrim Way, launching Easter 2024) so it’s more than a passing interest.

I sign the visitor’s book, and try to make a donation by card but the machine is switched off (Sunday in North Wales?) so I have to fish around and find less cash than I had intended to give by other means.

I have spent well over an hour here, appreciating the light and colours and the way that everything has been co-ordinated and laid out. Once again this cathedral building feels lived in and loved and welcoming. I step outside into the early September sunshine, look at the Translator’s memorial to the North, and return to Clara to eat my lunch. The vast car park has only 5 vehicles in it, and one of them – I’ll call her Gwyneth – has parked right next to Clara. There goes my plan for sliding open the door, sitting on the side step and having a sandwich.

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