A few weeks ago I shared with you all my love for Gothic architecture in the article Channelling My Inner Esmerelda at The Notre Dame de Paris. Since writing that article I was lucky enough to be invited on my first trip to the historic university city of Cambridge by YHA Cambridge (see my hostel review here) where I had 24 hours to indulge in as many varieties of Gothic architecture as I could get my gargoyle-stalking fingers on.
Since I’ve been letting you in on my little secrets, such as wanting to be Esmerelda, I may as well also tell you that I have a fear of staircases.
Not heights; just tall staircases.
I first realised this on my way up to King Arthur’s Seat in Edinburgh on New year’s Day 2013. About a third of the way up I began to panic – how would I get down without slipping or falling? My friends told me not to be so stupid when I suggested waiting for them where we’d stopped for me to panic, and I’m glad they encouraged me to go on to the top. Even if I was shitting it all the way down.
I love heights. I just don’t love getting there.
So of course when I was told that to get the best views of Cambridge I would have to walk to the top of the bell tower of Great St Mary’s Church I was a bubbly mess of apprehension and excitement…
Dizzy Spells Great St Mary’s Church Cambridge
…but I made it to the top of all 123 steps in the bell tower! More importantly I also made it down without slipping on the very tight and windy staircase.
Believe me I am more than thankful that it was such a cold day as it’s likely that’s what allowed me to have the bell tower all to myself. If I had crossed someone on the way up or down I would have frozen as hard as the gargoyles on my favourite Gothic churches.
The current church was constructed in the early 1500s, but the original structure to stand in honour of the Church on the same plot dates back as far as the 1200s, during which it was used as the very first meeting place for scholars from London, before the construction of the various colleges that make up Cambridge University.
Whilst not quite Gothic enough on the exterior for my standards (taking more architectural influence from the Perpendicular Old English style), the interior of Great St Mary’s is every bit as glamorous as her name would suggest. The cold and light stone walls break only to allow the sunshine to pick up rainbow tints as rays shimmer through the stained glass windows. Surprisingly, whether the filter colour of each pain of glass be red or blue the whole interior bathes in a golden glow, complimenting the gilded decor at the altar and the bronze plaques commemorating generous benefactors and dead poets.
On entering the Church, and if you can resist the inbuilt tendency of being a church tourist to drop your jaw and wander with a look of awe straight down the aisle, you can take a sharp right and be at the very entrance to the bell tower and it’s many steps.
Completed at the very dawn of the 17th Century, the bell tower is not only a challenge to quaking short dark-haired English girls scared of stairs, but also to the undergraduate students of Cambridge. A long-standing tradition requires that all first-year students live within a three mile radius of the tower. This obviously dates way back when to the age when the Church was the most important place in town… even more important than the local pub if you can believe it.
Before you get to the top of the tower, I highly recommend that you take a few minutes to try and get a good glimpse of the bells stored halfway up. I say try because the glass that separates you from the bells could really do with a good wipe.
But before you get to straining through grubby fingerprints I’ll let you in on a
little secret well known source of Cambridge pride. Apparently Big Ben (the famous bell within Elizabeth Tower at Westminster…and yes Big Ben refers to the bell and not the tower itself you tourist) was modelled on the bells at the Great St Mary’s.
So it’s well worth stopping for a glimpse. Or to catch your breath as I did. A few times I stopped even without the bells for distraction.
I don’t know if you can tell, but I had a pretty rough time climbing these steps. But with great determination comes great reward and my days was I rewarded at the top!
Don’t get me wrong. It was bloody cold at 10am on this morning in January. But much as it had at Versailles, the frost and cold fog tinted the historical city with a magical shimmer. Take a look at the images I caught below and tell me truthfully that you couldn’t possibly imagine Dumbledore floating across the perspective on a broomstick.
Yup, thought so. You can’t do it.
How gorgeous is Cambridge in winter?!
The Gothic Steeples of Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church
The following images are not quite so magical, but I was like a dog in a bone shop running all around thee perimeter trying to get the best shots and placate my Gothic obsession.
Constructed as recently as the late 19th Century, Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church gives just as much effort in to reviving the old traditions of Gothic architecture as visitors have to say her name. I don’t know about you but I think the effort paid off…
Battered, weathered, and discoloured the sharp features portray everything I love about the Gothic tradition. Including the fusion of demonic and saintly statues to guard the Church, a great example of which can be seen in the photo above.
The photo below also shows the try-hard aspect you see in so many Neo-Gothic structures where sometimes there is just too much going on. Latin lettering, floating leaves being carried adrift by faux stone skulls and the repeated pattern on the oak doors is just a little too much. Calm down already.
Nevertheless, the design of Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church (can we shorten it to OLEMC?!) definitely provides the Church a dominating presence over a central junction in the main high street of Cambridge.
Standing a little out of place amongst the traffic lights and double decker buses, it is a stark reminder of how much England revered her faith as a country. Before the construction of the
Our Lady and the English Martyrs Church Cambridge had only one remaining Catholic site of worship as a result of the English Reformation, when the Church of England broke away from the Catholic Church in Rome and consequently placed Catholics in England under constant punishment and strict rulings.
The Church represents a huge historical and financial effort by the Catholic residents of Cambridge, spanning several decades, that eventually resulted in a new centre of Catholic worship in the city. You can start to see why they decided to go overboard with the embellishments…
It goes without saying that the main attractions in Cambridge are the University Colleges… but I highly suggest visiting the Churches of Cambridge.
And taking a trip up the bell tower of Great St Mary’s is a must!
Lots of love,