The Private Life of Britain’s Cathedrals
The author of the acclaimed The January Man walks across Britain again to tell the stories of his favourite cathedrals, not as a guidebook, but as a voyage of discovery across the ages.
When Christopher Somerville, author of the The January Man ('a truly wonderful, uplifting book, bursting with life' - Nicholas Crane), set out to explore Britain’s cathedrals, he found his fixed ideas shaken to the roots.
Starting out, he pictured cathedrals – Britain possesses over one hundred – as great unmoving bastions of tradition. But as he journeys among favourites old and new, he discovers buildings and communities that have been in constant upheaval for a thousand years. Here are stories of the monarchs and bishops who ordered the building of these massive but unstable structures, the masons whose genius brought them into being, the peasant labourers who erected (and died on) the scaffolding. We learn of rogue saints exploited by holy sinners, the pomp and prosperity that followed these ships of stone, the towns that grew up in their shadows, the impact of the Black Death, the Reformation and icon-smashing Puritanism, the revival brought about by the Industrial Revolution, and the hope and disillusion of two world wars.
Meeting believers and non-believers, architects and archaeologists, the cleaner who dusts the monuments and the mason who judges stone by its taste, we delve deep into the private lives and the uncertain future of these ever-voyaging Ships of Heaven.
“Writing about the spirit of place is sometimes like nailing jelly to the wall, but Somerville's thoughtful, occasionally poetic prose hits the spot for a book that sets out to define the genius loci of these magnificent buildings.”
Ian Vince, Countryfile
“Cathedrals are all things to all people. ... To capture all this, vividly and stylishly, in one, not-very-long book suggests something close to divine inspiration ... Yet it’s not the breadth of his travels that impresses. You can buy many a glossy gazetteer that gives you the tourist spiel on dozens more British cathedrals than the 20 he covers. Rather, it’s the depth of the “cathedral experience” that he uncovers by the old-fashioned journalistic method of getting knowledgeable people to talk freely about what they know best, then using his sharp eyes and wits to fill in the rest of the story.”
Richard Morrison, The Times
“[Christopher Somerville's] writing is utterly enticing”
Jenny Walters, Country Walking
““[A] friendly wander around twenty-one British Cathedrals, Christopher Somerville, the walking correspondent of The Times, passes the hard test giving life to buildings that most readers have never visited…He provides many human faces to the cathedrals he visits…I hope he inspires readers to go for themselves””
Christopher Howe, Literary Review
“Cathedrals are perhaps Christianity's greatest modern ambassadors in these islands: welcoming portals to experiences and emotions beyond everyday concerns. Christopher Somerville is a genial companion as far as the remotest among these glorious communities, and charmingly opens the private doors at which visitors cast speculative glances.”
Diarmaid MacCulloch, Professor of the History of the Church, University of Oxford
“Christopher is a great storyteller and he has found many and various tales associated with the cathedrals to savour. The past is represented by inscriptions on memorials, cathedral records, dramas from the past and quite a few scandals. Interspersed with these engaging evocations are precisely worded observations about the architectural ‘feel’ of the cathedrals as places. One benefits from his longstanding experience as a professional walker with a gift of writing poetically about landscape. This is not a conventional architectural guide, more a personal and intuitive response to experiencing what should be recognised as our most important architectural heritage - altogether a most enjoyable read.”
Sir Jeremy Dixon
“Lively and engaging: I do admire Christopher Somerville’s ability to blend historical detail with keen observations of the current life of our cathedrals”
Canon Christopher Irvine
“Fascinatingly informative reading... It might even convince the sceptic of the continuing importance - and relevance - of the 'Ships of Heaven', and their role in 21st Century society. I heartily recommend this book.”
David Knight, Canterbury Cathedral Chronicle 2019
“There are plenty of books on Britain's Cathedrals...but 'Ships of Heaven' is a bit different...It's a book of stories about the people who have given the buildings their character through the ages and those who cherish them today.”
Rev William Howard, Secretary of the Friends of Coventry Cathedral
“Somerville is one of our finest gazetteers of the British countryside, as his numerous books and articles testify. He must have walked more of these isles than just about any other living writer, and he brings his formidable knowledge to bear on his personal quest to explore the cathedrals — a quest that began when, as a boy, he leaned so far back to admire the facade of Wells cathedral that he fell over and was left gazing at the sky. Across which the heavy galleons of these magnificent medieval creations have now sailed in this entrancing book.”
Hugh Thomson, The Spectator
“Somerville regales us with things temporal and spiritual, with tales of saints and deadly sins in abundance, of glass-makers, masons, cleaners and clergy - because a cathedral is a lively part of unfolding human history.”
“Christopher Somerville paints word pictures of exquisite quality, catching 21 cathedrals’ oddities and peculiarities and sheer glory.”
David Wilbourne, Church Times
“Meeting believers and non-believers, architects and archaeologists, the cleaner who dusts the monuments and the mason who judges stone by its taste, we delve deep into the private lives and the uncertain future of these ever-voyaging Ships of Heaven.”
This is England
“Readers will find this book riveting.”
The Church of England Newspaper