Tuesday, December 30, 2003

Evensong at Salisbury

In the weekend, we visited Salisbury via Shaftesbury. The latter is billed as a 'Saxon hill-top village' and to be sure it has a very photogenic cobbled steep street complete with thatch, bulgy stone walls and all the other 'Ancient Britain' trademarks. But nowadays the hilltop is crowned with a Tesco's supermarket and car park: not what the Saxons would have favoured, I suspect. A gloriously eroded St Peter's church on the side of the hill - more gargoyles and beasties duly photographed. More shibui.
Salisbury, on the other hand, is quite a delightful town. Grid layout, no less - no more easy to get lost in mediaeval twisty narrow streets. Lots of quite old houses and shops: mostly intact/restored above the ground level floor, better not to comment on that ground floor level though. Imagine, if you can, a Mr Minit below and a 15th century half-timbered three storey house above. Salisbury is full of these and the overall effect isn't nearly as clash-filled and unfortunate as might be expected.
Salisbury Cathedral is an amazing church. It was put up (as is usual) over several hundred years, starting in the 11th century, but it was when they started adding the 6,300 ton tower (123 m high) that things got interesting. The columns inside hadn't been expected to carry that weight, and they bowed. There was much hasty buttressing and lightening, in two goes, over the next three centuries, and it is now stable, we are assured. Inside, the bowed columns are very obvious: they have bowed towards the body of the church by around 15-50cm (by eye-ometer) and the tower centre is around 75cm out to the south-west as a result.
We did the usual tour around, then noticed that Evensong was at 5.30pm. So after shopping and looking round Salisbury a little more, we attended.
It's been perhaps thirty years since I attended church except for weddings and funerals, and we were seated in the quire (choir) stalls. The Cathedral itself is of course massive - 147m long on the nave - a nativity scene under the tower at the crossing (there is a technical term for that bit of floor space but the booklet is packed) and room for several hundred people in each part of the cross layout.
So, apart from the choir (people), the organist, the clergy (it took six or so), there were precisely 20 other people there, of course. Seated in the quire stalls, the choir was literally alongside, clergy either end, organ right above, and the celing was 30m up in the dark. Full Evensong service, complete with two lessons, intro organ and a voluntary organ piece to end. And a collection. We put in, to make sure that tower doesn't fall in the near future. But considering we are rather rusty at Church ritual of any sort, it was easy to follow (standing and sitting were clearly marked in the Order of Service) and of course, so close that it was all very real and moving. Evensong is sung every night in a well-ordered cathedral parish, and is quite a happy service. Keeps those gargoyles away for the night (not that Salisbury the building has many, certainly not like Notre Dame). We left into a light rain, strangely uplifted. Must have been that closing organ voluntary, an all stops out affair with rolling bass.
Then off to a playhouse with a light-hearted Xmas production: funny and the music (they all played instruments) very well done. And a meal, then home to Wincanton through the dark, sweeping curves of country A-roads. A great night.

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