Thursday, 24 May 2018

269 steps

Friday 18th May, afternoon; Gloucester cathedral.

I wanted to go on the Tower Tour at the Cathedral, but Dave’s knee was playing up and he thought the 269 steps up the tower, and then down again, might not be the best thing for it.  Instead he went to get a card for the electric from the Waterways Museum and thought he might visit that instead.

I arrived in perfect time for the tour.  There was a Crypt Tour at the same time too but I was more interested in the tower.

We walked through the huge nave to the base of the tower.  To start with we were introduced to (the very late) Bishop Seabroke, who commissioned the rebuilding of the tower which took place in the 1450s, though he died before it was complete.

31 abbot seabroke

We looked up at the glorious vault of the tower above him – which I regret I failed to take a picture of – then turned to one of the corners of the tower to a little doorway, and began the ascent.  The steps were of stone and in the form of a spiral, but in height and ease of use similar to an ordinary flight of stairs.  This made them easier than the steps in many church towers.  But there were a lot of them.

The first stopping point was a walkway which crossed the tower above the vault.  What looks like some strange substance heaped up in a barn is a load of bits of stone and other mediaeval builders’ rubble mixed in with lime mortar.  Once the decorative part of the vault had been completed, and while it was still supported underneath by formwork of some kind, this was heaped on top and when it went off and solidified it supported the vault from above and the formwork could be taken away.

10 above the vault of the tower G cathedral

Our guide said that no-one really knows exactly how the tower was built.  The master masons didn’t write anything down, and their jealously guarded secrets were only passed on to their apprentices.  So what is known about the construction methods is based on a lot of conjecture.

More stairs.  Now we were in the presence of Great Peter, the mediaeval bell which rings the hours and the quarters, and is chimed (electrically now, though it used to be by pulling a rope from below) before services to call the faithful to prayer when the bells up in the belfry were not being rung.

11 great peter

I think I remember the guide saying the clock mechanism is an 8-day pendulum, although these days it is not wound by hand.  There is no clock face – only the sound of Great Peter indicates the time.

12 clock mechanissm

We walked through now into the ringing chamber. This is where the ringers do their stuff.  For safety’s sake the ropes of the twelve bells are kept out of the way when they are not being rung, as is the case in most towers.  In Gloucester cathedral they have central heating for their ropes! The bit of grey plastic pipe is sitting on an electrical box keeping the ropes warm and dry.  If you are a ringer you will appreciate that this makes ringing much more comfortable when the weather’s wet and/or cold.  If you are not ….  the red furry bits looped at the top are called the sallies.  This is the bit you see cartoon monks swinging from on Christmas cards but that’s actually not how it’s done!

13 pipe keeps tails dry

The rope above the sally goes up through the roof of the ringing chamber into the belfry and is attached to a bell.  Below the sally is more rope, several feet of it, called the tail, and that’s the end the ringer must keep hold of.  But before our guide really got into his stride, Great Peter started to speak … the tour is carefully timed so that visitors are close by on the hour.  We were quickly back into the clock chamber in time to see – and hear, it was loud!- the bongs of 3 o’clock.

Back we went into the ringing chamber to carry on the tour.  On the walls were hung records of peals that have been rung in the past.  I won’t go into detail – if you are a ringer you will have seen them in your tower and know what I’m talking about, and if not – well, a peal can take over 3 hours and the ringers will have memorised where in the changing sequences they must ring their bell throughout that time.

14 peals

More stairs.  As you go higher in the tower, the spiral becomes narrower - a big bloke might find himself turning his shoulders sideways, but for ordinary sized people it’s not a problem.  Next stop was the belfry, where the twelve bells hang, each on its own frame.  It is a sizeable room. 

15 belfry

It was difficult to take the picture because of the light switched on behind the bells.  Each rope coming up from the ringing chamber is attached to a bell and passes round the wheel.  I won’t explain how it’s done – look here for an explanation, it’s easy to understand and there’s an animation to make it clear!  Or even better, go along to your local tower and ask to learn – you don’t need to be a churchgoer to ring the bells.

16 speaking tubes so light bells can be heard below

Here is more plastic piping, and gaffer tape too – an adaptation of the old speaking tube system that was used in days gone by to communicate between rooms in posh houses.   Nobody stays up here while the bells are being rung – they would be deafened - and down below in the ringing chamber it can be hard to hear the lighter (higher pitch) bells in amongst the deeper louder ones.  So the ringers invented this system to enable the lighter bells to be heard while they were ringing them.  The pipes go through the floor to the ceiling in the ringing chamber below.  If you look at the picture before the one above, you will see that the larger bells, to the right, don’t have this little extra.  In the snap below is one of the heavier bells, the only one I could get close enough to for a picture.

18 bell

There used to be a working carillon in the tower, which chimed tunes on the bells.  It stopped working years ago but someone has transcribed the music to a computer which will ‘play’ the bells.  This is the original drum, which was quite large, easily a couple of feet across.

17 drum of carillon

And still more stairs.  At last we came out through a low doorway onto the top of the tower.  In each corner is a pinnacle and between them is stone balustrading with metal railings so you couldn’t slip through.  For scale; the lower stone balustrade was above my head and I could easily walk under the diagonal pole.

19top of tower

The views of course are very wide.  We could see the Black Mountains, the Cotswolds … but not the canal, though I thought I could pick out the warehouses round the docks.  Rather closer, though a long way down, are the solar panels on top of (I think) the nave.

20 solar panels

Just as we left we looked at some of the graffiti that has been scratched over the years.  This was just at the top of the stairs on the curve of the wall.  Why a parrot?  who knows.

23 graffiti

It was a lot quicker and easier coming down I can tell you.  I took more photos before I left – I was particularly taken with the floor of the Quire which contained illustrations of Old Testament stories.

26 quire floor27 quire floor

            The Garden of Eden ….             oh no, the beguiling serpent ….. we know what’s coming next.

28 quire floor

The floor was stunning.

29 quire floor

I took more photos but that’s enough for now.  On my way back to our mooring I remembered to take a snap from the pontoon side of the dock.

34 chuffed across the dock

Dave had decided not to pay to go round the canal museum as we have been to both Ellesmere Port and Stoke Bruerne in the last few years.  We had a cup of tea then it was back to the Cathedral for Choral Evensong.  The congregation – mostly visitors I think – were asked to sit in the choir stalls not reserved for the choir itself, so we were very close.  There is not a lot of congregational participation (no hymns, unlike in a normal church evensong, and there was no organ to keep them in tune) but plenty for the choir - a psalm, responses and an anthem.  The choir was stunning; as well as adults there were young trebles with their beautiful soaring voices – an all-male choir today.  One of the ladies on the tour this afternoon told me that there is now a girl’s choir too.  I was also told that the acoustics here are phenomenal; our ears aren’t that educated, but we thought it was wonderful.  When the choir stops the sound hangs in the air for a moment before dying away.

We couldn’t be bothered to cook so graced Wetherspoon’s with our presence again.  Steak tonight and no need for an electric socket to charge my laptop now we are plugged in, so we had a table upstairs with a view over the water.  Afterwards we walked over for a look at the ruins of Llanthony Secunda Priory.  Down the right edge of the picture is the very modern side of Gloucester College.  The outside seating and benches used by the students are right under the walls of the priory.  You do wonder what happened with the planning permission.

39 priory

40 priory

The City of Gloucester website says ..

Llanthony Secunda Priory is a ruined former Augustinian priory in Gloucester, England. It was founded in 1136 by Miles de Gloucester, 1st Earl of Hereford, as a retreat for the monks of Llanthony Priory, Vale of Ewyas, in what is now Monmouthshire, Wales, from persistent attacks by the local population.

Tomorrow (nearly a week ago now as I write) we will start the journey up-river to Stratford.


  1. HI Debby. What an interesting post, Mick would have loved to have gone up the tower. You obviously timed your visit better than us as the choir was closed and the bells rang out for what felt like hours.
    Suspect you are around a week ahead of us up stream on the Avon now, so I doubt your bows will cross.
    Happy cruising

  2. Debby I really enjoyed reading about your tour in Gloucester Cathedral - something neither of us can do at present as we are both suffering with dodgy knees. I was hoping to go up St Botolph's in Boston (we should be there Monday), but it won't happen this trip. I am sure you are enjoying (have enjoyed) the trip to Stratford. Jennie