This vivid guide to cathedrals forgets what they were built for

St Magnus Cathedral in Orkney (Wikimedia Commons)

Ships of Heaven: The Private Lives of Britain’s Cathedrals
By Christopher Somerville
Doubleday, 352pp, £20/$39.95

This is the book in which the walking correspondent of the Times gains his sea legs. Well, sort of. Positing the idea that the cathedrals of the United Kingdom are ships of heaven, Somerville provides a vessel-by-vessel account of “a year’s passage with this grand flotilla”. He has plenty of fun with a metaphor that first occurred to him when he fell flat on his back while admiring Wells Cathedral as a child.

Somerville is instinctively drawn to “imperfections, quirks, quiddities”, and every cathedral he goes to places a fresh pile at his feet for him to sift through, leading to a book teeming with glorious details – whether it be the pillars in Salisbury that “emit a faint, mysterious shimmer of silver”, which turns out to be coming from “the close-packed fossilised shells of millions of snails”, or the mason’s marks left by the original builders of Durham Cathedral: they left identical marks as they headed north to work on Dunfermline Abbey, and further north again to St Magnus Cathedral on the Orkneys.

Somerville paints a beguiling picture of the latter, its Scando-Scottish setting, and the celebrations that take place on St Lucy’s Day. Once more he is able to regale us with some wonderful cathedral lore, such as how, in the earliest years, the crews of trading ships spending time in the local harbour would hang their large square sails to dry between the pillars.

Each cathedral assumes a character of its own. Salisbury has the “appearance of having been lowered from the heavens all of a piece”. Canterbury wears “a different face from the other cathedrals, colder and more strait-laced”. Durham has a “militaristic” feel with the eye “frogmarched” down the nave by massive pillars. In Armagh, the Catholic cathedral faces its Protestant counterpart with its west towers “like two fingers cheekily upraised”.

Somerville writes very movingly about Coventry, its artwork and chapels, and everything it stands for in the sweep of history. St Paul’s, meanwhile, is “a love letter to the British establishment” and the author does a fine job of bringing Gordon of Khartoum vividly to life over the course of a few paragraphs.

The text is lightly peppered with analogies drawn from modern culture. In Hereford, the famous Mappa Mundi is said to be crammed with “fake news”. In Gloucester, where parts of three of the films were made, Harry Potter emerges as “a modern-day saint”, with the children swarming through the cloisters there on “a sort of pilgrimage”.

Whatever glamour they display, there is much to do just to keep some of these buildings upright. Ships of Heaven is full of tales of ravaging fires and collapsing towers; and also of Reformer, Puritan and even (in the case of Armagh) post-Vatican II destruction.

Somerville therefore makes a point of seeking out those responsible for maintaining and enhancing the fabric of the buildings: the stone masons, surveyors and glaziers. They have their work cut out for them. The external window frames, for instance, are “vulnerable to moisture, to pollution-borne chemicals, to freezing rainwater and bad repairs”. There are mutterings here and there about the quality of the training that the upcoming generation of stonemasons are receiving and their willingness to assume the burden. Des Harries, master mason at St David’s, calls his job wet, dirty, hard, heavy labour – but it is a job he truly loves all the same.

And yet, much as I enjoyed Ships of Heaven, my teeth were slightly on edge throughout. Somerville listens respectfully to ministers fretting about how to operate in a new spiritual marketplace of “yoga, crystals, New Age dabbling”, or to canons elaborating on the ins-and-outs of Anglican diocesan politics, or to a dozen other things. He hears about cathedrals as places “of community”, places where you can “tap into spiritual yearnings” or enjoy “moments of creative surprise”, places to house art galleries or “performance spaces”. He notes that modern art in ancient cathedrals “disturbs some people”, though, to his mind, it creates a palpable sense of excitement. He excels in conveying the sense of pride and ownership certain cathedrals inspire among local people.

But the ancient cathedrals were first and foremost churches, made to house altars at which the Holy Mass was to be offered. On the whole, Christopher Somerville chooses not to engage with this one great enormous fact. There are occasional bouts of near-religiosity, and Somerville is not one to shirk medieval depictions of Hell and judgment. But for the most part there is nothing too long or too strong to really frighten the horses.

Until, that is, late on, when the author (not once but twice) reports words of Cardinal Heenan about “enshrining the altar sacrifice”. The sound of a penny dropping? I have no idea but, by the very end, Somerville does seem to be uncovering within himself a hankering for a time and place “where stones endure and saints live on”.