St Deiniol’s Cathedral in Bangor / Cadeirlan St Deiniol in Mangor – reflections on local culture

After St Asaph we had a couple of nights on Anglesey, with an afternoon exploring a derelict brickworks by the coast with a nice little swim in clear blue water. Then back to the mission…

Local culture is a powerful ingrained thing. To change behaviour usually requires overcoming culture. When I say culture I mean those little things that all add up to the way people respond in a given situation, where somebody from outside might say “why are they doing that?”

By way of example, one of the parishes that I serve is famous for being the longest village in England, and it’s a long thin streak of nothing. Houses cling to the road, and there are only a handful of places where there is a second or even third house beyond it. The cemetery is long and thin and somehow has been permitted to be at right angles to the usual direction of flow. Locals are conditioned to think ‘long and thin’. We had a meal and quiz in the village hall once and the tables were set out in a long row in the middle of a square hall. After the meal had been cleared the quizmaster encouraged participants to move their tables and gather round so that he could be heard easier. I was the only one that started to comply, but nobody else on my table shifted, so the tables remained fixed in a long row in the middle of the room. Culture runs deep. (Yes, Brinkworth, I’m talking about you!)

What I’m getting to is that Bangor seems to have a culture of being either modest with or ashamed to talk about its own history. Before I visit a cathedral I have a look at their website to check the history and the visitor information, opening times, parking, etc. Bangor Cathedral has to have the least useful website in this respect. There is nothing. Plenty of news, quite a bit of it out of date, but inward looking towards its own internal audience, rather than capitalising on the tourism opportunities that its central location offers it. Could do better! Culture is a powerful thing.

While I toured the cathedral the Nordic Nomad went off in search of a history trail of the is-it-a-town-is-it-a-city (opinion seems to be divided) and pretty much failed to find anything. Tourist Information and various other places seemed to have nothing. Eventually she found a ‘timeline’ set of plaques going down the High Street, but it was tough work!

It was a very hot day, a late summer heatwave coming just at the right time for our trip, but where was this in July and August? A hour in a cool cathedral would be great. Only the same problem existed in the building as on the website, there was very little information provided. One small leaflet giving some very basic facts and a cathedral timeline, and a handful of postcards of significant features were on sale, but no interpretation boards. There were a number of pieces of art on display and each of these had a small explanation, but following St Asaph’s excellent displays this was quite disappointing.

So the building was left to speak for itself. And it does!

It’s a classic ancient cathedral layout. When I say ancient, I mean AD546 when St Deiniol became a bishop and his church became a cathedral. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt by Vikings, King John and the Owain Glyndwr revolt, but I don’t recall any other cathedral that I’ve visited going back that far. So it’s pity that this local culture of not really promoting ones own history seems to prevail here too. I’m not in too strong a position to criticise, as our own website focusses on the ‘now’ rather than the ‘then’, but most of my churches do have something on display that talks about the history. (Makes note to self to put some of this on our website upon return…)

I wander in through the main door at the West end, and straight away spot a sign which increases my knowledge of opening times by 100%. 11am to 3pm, daily.

I am immediately taken by the clear view down to the east end, by the crispness and tidiness, by the simplicity. During my time here I don’t find a single item out of place. There are no inconvenient storage problems, no stacks of books that don’t have a cupboard, nothing where it shouldn’t be. This is primarily a place of worship, and a well-ordered one.

There is a set of steps down into the cathedral (level access is available through another door) and on either side are large paintings from 1951, one showing various Welsh saints and historical figures alongside a couple of bishops. The other shows the 6 cathedrals of Wales, although I have difficulty working out which is which, given that Newport and Brecon were hiding in the bushes.

A 15th century wooden statue of “Christ – A Bound Rood” showing Jesus on a rock before his crucifixion is here, and is one of Wales’ greatest treasures. He’s missing his right arm and his lower left arm, which might make the crucifixion a bit tricky.

The nave is furnished with (relatively) portable short dark oak benches. They are new this year, along with the rest of the nave furniture and a very simple trestle type altar, the front of which is inscribed “O’r graig las daw’n fras ddyfrhau holi lynnoedd gloyw’n llannau”, which you will of course recognise as a reference to Psalm 78 (“From the blue slate abundance flows to fill afresh our sacred place’s wells”).

Somebody is putting more benches out. I ask what has been happening today and discover that I’ve narrowly escaped a toddler group, and as we chat he (Simon, the ‘custos’ or ‘verger’) keeps discovering half chewed biscuits and rice cakes amongst the benches. He has just started a course of theological study sponsored by the Cathedral, perhaps with a view to eventual ordination, but for now it’s just formal study! As I journey around the building he keeps popping up and offering little gems of information. Without this my visit would have been much briefer, given the lack of display material. I don’t think everybody gets this level of attention though. He invites me to the Eucharist which will take place soon, and the timing suits me, so it makes me linger a little further. The stuff that is in Simon’s head about this place really could do with being written down and shared.

Meanwhile I work my way around. Five stained glass windows in the north aisle have familiar wording from the sanctuary steps of St Asaph, although not identical. One phrase per window.

“Holy, Holy, Holy, Lord God of Sabaoth
We praise thee O God
We acknowledge Thee to be the Lord
All the earth doth worship Thee
Numbered with Thy Saints in glory everlasting”

A massive set of organ pipes is hidden away in what must be the North Transcept. This doesn’t look like public space, so I don’t go further, but it speaks of the rich musical tradition that the website is very keen to promote.

Above the crossing, hanging from the central arch is a classic rood carving of Jesus, Mary and John, in contrast to the modern pieces that I saw elsewhere. Beyond that are the stalls for the usual suspects, and the high altar. I’m not sure that the Victorian tiling adds much to this area, and I’m not particularly taken by the stained glass at this end of the building, but it works as a whole, and very definitely from a long distance.

Now, where is the Archbishop’s Cathedra? I’m expecting to find it here, as Andy John the Bishop of Bangor is the current Archbishop of Wales, and yet I look around the chancel in vain. I step into the South transcept, and momentarily distracted by a highly painted keyboard instrument (harpsichord?) I almost walk straight into the cathedra. Mission Accomplished! At this point Simon appears and regales me with a bit of the history, and how such a ‘portable’ item is remarkably bulky and pretty un-portable (unless you are the removal company appointed to get it from one cathedral to another). After all, it is a solid oak reproduction of a stone original. It’s very chunky.

The seat pad is embroidered with the six shields of the six Welsh Dioceses, and I am invited to sit down as the Archbishop says it is a chair for all the people. I need no further encouragement. It is quite wide and I’m told that it is popular with breastfeeding mothers in search of a quiet corner.

One thing that is particularly noticeable about Bangor Cathedral is the number of pieces of art on display, sculpture and paintings. Some are centuries old, others much more recent, but all sit well. Especially striking are the two paintings by local artist John Granville Gregory, showing people in 20th century dress and emulating Caravaggio’s ‘Entombment’ and ‘Doubting Thomas’.

The font is 15th century and is raised up on much more recent steps, about 3 feet higher than the nave level and which wrap around from the south door almost (but crucially, as you will hear soon, not completely) to the main west door. Near the south door the platform provides enough space for a small chapel type space, and near the West door is a paschal candle which is not of the traditional form but has clearly been decorated by school children. I like it. On the wall beside the candle is the painting of the 6 Welsh Cathedrals, mentioned earlier.

And so my tour has come full circle back to the point of entry. It’s nearly time for the lunchtime Eucharist, and I’ve been promised that it is in English, as the retired priest who will be leading it doesn’t speak Welsh. This apparently limits the role he can play in some circumstances. It strikes me that Wales might be a good place to retire to on that basis.

The service starts and about five minutes in there is a massive thud from near the West door. A lady has stepped backwards from the steps to appreciate a painting, into thin air. The thud is followed by time going slowly, as many rush to help, including a nurse who happened to be present.

It’s one of those nightmare scenarios that priests don’t look forward to. Do you pause, continue, or stop? Everybody is looking to you for what to do next. He pauses, I get praying, he walks towards the back, and he returns, mouthing that she will be alright, and so we continue after a few minutes break while she is tended further.

Afterwards we chat, and I compliment him on how he handled that incident. We also talk about the differences between the Church of England and the Church in Wales, with focus on the current discussions around sexuality, which he describes as ‘several years further down the road than you’ here in Wales.

Before I came here I was not sure what I would find on the basis of the unhelpful website, but what I found in the two people that I spoke to was an extremely friendly church community. People who ran to the help of someone in extreme need, and who care passionately about this cathedral and those who enter it. In fact, four cathedrals in, they are only the 2nd and 3rd people who have gone beyond a polite nod.

One useful fact that I did discover about Bangor. A bangor is a woven hazel fence, of the type used by St Deiniol to enclose the land in which he built his original church. The word transferred from the original object to the settlement within, and it stuck.

This ‘Foundation Prayer’ appears in the guide leaflet:
“O Deiniol, our forebear and founder, who raised a great bangor for shelter and sanctuary, and who was raised with your crozier to shepherd Maelgwn’s Gwynedd in those ancient days: raise to the heavenly courts the prayers of your successor’s household in this sacred place, that our hearts may awaken to faith, hope and love eternally. Amen”

It’s time to leave. I find the Nordic Nomad and we have lunch in a locally run cafe called Bwyd da Bangor, an ethical, environmentally sustainable cafe/deli/restaurant. Most of the staff are in some form of rehabilitation, and the menu includes a £2 unspecified “hot meal” available to any customer who asks for it, no questions asked. You probably don’t get a choice in what that is (soup, roll and drink?) but it says everything about the values of the business. We have a nice little lunch and move on.

We are heading to an eco campsite near the foot of Snowdon/Yr Wydffa in search of waterfalls and dipping pools. We are now making our way 160 miles down the West coast of Wales exploring as we go. It will be a little while now before the next Cathedral at St David’s, but we are in no hurry. This is a holiday, and we’ve done 4 of 6 cathedrals in the first week, so a little downtime is due. Like the English cathedrals, you sometimes get a whole load in one run and then a massive gap. Wales is no exception, with the geography forcing some historical decisions on location.

Geography also means that we are looking forward to spectacular scenery on the way!

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