09 May 2016

Llandaff Cathedral

I go often to Llandaff Cathedral, not because I’m religious but to admire its architecture, soak in its history, explore its fascinating cemetery, and because it’s at the end of a lovely woodland walk alongside the River Taff here in Cardiff. This is a place with something for everyone to enjoy.

The present cathedral sits on one of the oldest Christian sites in Britain, the place where Saint Dyfrig founded a Christian community in the early 6th century and where his successor Saint Teilo built the first church in the mid 6th century. The only remnant of those very early days is an ancient Celtic cross that now stands in the grounds near the Chapter House.

Construction of the present building began in 1120, when the conquering Normans occupied Glamorgan and appointed Urban as their local bishop, though little of that first cathedral remains – an arch behind the present High Altar and the doorway into the Welch Regimental Chapel are thought to be original. The very impressive west front of the present cathedral was built around 1220, and the cathedral was eventually finished around 1280.

During the subsequent 736 years, the building has, not surprisingly, suffered from the human history happening around it: there was significant damage during the 1400 rebellion led by Owain Glyndwr, it was desecrated by Parliamentarian troops during the English Civil War, and Mother Nature has also inflicted her share of damage, during the Great Storm of 1703 and during further traumatic weather events of the early 1720s, when the entire south-west tower collapsed.

Those architectural traumas were repaired using the gifts of the pilgrims who came to pay homage at the Saint Teilo – his tomb still stands in the Sanctuary – but, following Henry VIII’s restructuring of the church in Britain, pilgrimages were forbidden, maintenance on the cathedral could not be sustained and the building fell into a state of ruin.

Restoration work finally commenced in 1734, to the design of John Wood the Elder, an architect from Bath, though his new building, within the ruined outer walls of the existing cathedral, was never completely finished, and the original walls and pillars were left standing. A further phase of restoration took place during the 19th century, under the direction of J. P. Seddon and John Prichard, and much of their building remains today, though the cathedral was also severely damaged during the Cardiff Blitz of January 1941, when an exploding parachute mine blew the roof off the south aisle and the nave.

After the Second World War, the building’s restoration was managed by George Pace who is the man responsible for the enormous reinforced concrete arch that now dominates the cathedral’s interior. It was a bold decision to introduce such a modern element into such an ancient building but it works, primarily, I think, because of the magnificent aluminium statue of Christ in Majesty, the outstanding work by Sir Jacob Epstein that crowns the archway.

The cathedral continues to have its share of catastrophes: in February 2007 the organ was so severely damaged by a lightning strike that parishioners had to fundraise the enormous sum of £1.5 million for a replacement.

Llandaff Cathedral is the sum of its past, a reflection of the incredible range of historic events that have occurred in this part of Wales, a vital place of worship for the local Christian community, a mosaic of architectural styles and heritage, a place for the dead to rest and the living to ruminate.

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