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Bradford Cathedral: Son et Lumiere Historical Pilgrimage (01/02/2020)

Updated: Feb 28, 2020

The centuries-old church may have only become a cathedral in 1919, but the story of St Peter's in Bradford goes back much, much further...

"I'm a dweller on the threshold," said the cathedral's Dean, in the north porch, "and I'm waiting at the door, and I'm standing in the darkness," he said, as the wind blew out our valiant little candles, "and I don't want to wait no more." Van Morrison, on the holy hillside in the heart of Bradford, on a cold and blustery night.

This was exactly the sort of thing I'm interested in. The idea was that Bradford Cathedral staff would lead visitors on a walking tour of the building, talking them through the history of the church and city as they went. It was billed as a pilgrimage to fit in with the Year of Cathedrals Year of Pilgrimage, and functioned as part-pilgrimage, part-tour and part-prayer service (for the music involved, see this playlist).

The Year of Cathedrals, Year of Pilgrimage is a collaboration between the Association of English Cathedrals and the British Pilgrimage Trust, aimed at encouraging people to take up the ancient practice of pilgrimage, and to celebrate England's great churches, many of which have a special anniversary in 2020. The British Pilgrimage Trust have published a series of 'short' (!) pilgrimages, with a cathedral destination, for all of Britain's cathedrals, and many cathedrals are hosting events throughout the year. Bradford, despite having their big anniversary in 2019, got into the spirit with their Pilgrimage Through History.

Now, I'd walked the 10-mile pilgrimage route from Halifax Minster to Bradford Cathedral, and arrived in time for the event's start, but the two are entirely separate pilgrimages (more about the Halifax route another time). Though I felt I'd gained something from the longer journey, I'm sure my fellow evening pilgrims appreciated the evening's experience too.

We began in the blustery darkness outside the north porch, with the Cathedral Dean welcoming us as pilgrims and describing the arrival of monks from Dewsbury on this hillside in the 700s. He went on to talk about how the area had changed since then, including the parish church's elevation in 1919, when it was surrounded by slums where the average life expectancy was just twenty years. We stood, of course, on the cathedral's north side, on land that had once been the paupers' churchyard, but is now the landscaped Cathedral Close.

I've written elsewhere about the idea of churches as way points on a journey, and having walked the ten or so miles into Bradford, I could really appreciate the Dean's comments about churches – cathedrals in particular – being places of longing, and places where people might long to be. When you're walking hours to your destination, you really long to be there, and any welcome is greatly appreciated.

Thankfully, we soon entered the cathedral itself – we'd all noticed that the Dean had stayed inside the doorway, while we'd listened outside. I hope that was just to give extra weight to his Van Morrison quote ('I'm waiting on the threshold'), but it did conveniently mean he could keep dry too...

In all seriousness, the Van Morrison quote was a handy way in to describing Christians as living on the threshold of eternity, and the church building itself as a portal to that eternity. Through the church door, as through Christ, we enter into God's sacred space. In pilgrimage, he told us, place is important, but so is the journey. We were about to embark on a journey of discovery round the oldest building in Bradford.

Inside, the nave was candlelit, which in a larger building might be gloomy, but this is an enlarged parish church rather than a grand old church, so the effect was instead cosy. Our own candles were lit as the choir sang the tenth century Gregorian chant Attende Domine, and we made our way up the cathedral's north side.

[Music: Attende, Domine, Gregorian Chant]

Here we found evidence of possibly the oldest man-made structure in Bradford, a seventh-century Saxon cross, built into the cathedral's wall and harking back to the first Gospel preaching known to take place near 'the broad ford'. Particularly striking for me was the prayer of Saint Columba read here [1]. It has a bit about trusting in the protection of God, and being safe within his hand, and I couldn't help thinking of the several points along that day's journey where I'd been essentially alone and isolated, but had felt the most enjoyment, in moments that felt closest to the principle of those earlier pilgrims. Had I felt held in God's hands? Not exactly, but I still identified with those words.

'Alone with none but thee, my God,/ I journey on my way/ What need I fear, when thou art near[?]' - the prayer of St Columba

From there, we went into Saint Aidan's Chapel, part of a very recent and modernist extension to the cathedral, named for the founder of Lindisfarne Priory. St Aidan was sent forth by King Oswald of the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria in the 630s, with the intention of evangelising and baptising more northerly Saxons. Like the monastery at Iona, where Oswald had been baptised and Aidan trained in ministry, Lindisfarne was intended to be separate and apart from the main kingdom, and the chapel follows the same pattern in relation to the main cathedral body. It's a place of calm and reflection, with few distractions. 'Leave me alone with God as much as may be', begins the prayer of St. Aidan, read at this point.

[Music: Sancta Maria, John Dunstable]

The choir sang John Dunstable's (c. 1390-1453) Sancta Maria to lead us up from St Aidan's Chapel and into the nave for the cathedral's early medieval history. This was the time when Scottish raiders destroyed the second church on the hillside, and construction began on the third and current building. We stood on flagstones probably representing the oldest part of the current church, in the building's centre.

Here, we were read a prayer of the 1300s, by Walter Hilton, called 'Overcome by Weariness' – having been on my feet and walking for around five hours by this point, I could sympathise. Hilton's prayer begins with words that could have been aimed at me:

Just as the pilgrim who travels all day/ without eating or drinking/ is nearly overcome by weariness,/ but at last comes upon a good inn/ and is well refreshed with food and drink.

Wait a minute, I thought, I know the first rule of pilgrimage is that you have to walk it, but are we supposed to avoid eating and drinking as well? Was I cheating when I snaffled that granola bar earlier? Which bright spark came up with that idea? Luckily, I think this is another rule that doesn't quite apply to the modern pilgrim. I know there are supposed to be sacrifices as part of the journey, but all day is a long time to go without fuel, especially with such physical activity going on. The British Pilgrimage Trust route does include a stop for lunch, so I didn't feel too guilty about it all.

[Music: Super Flumina Babylonis, Giovanni Pierlugi da Palestrina]

Back at the northern wall, we examined the staircase that now leads to nowhere – the Tudor Reformation caused the removal of not only the rood screen but the rood loft too. This is just one example of the physical changes wrought on English churches during the fall-out of Henry VIII's break from the authority of the Pope in Rome.

[Music : O Come Ye Servants of the Lord, Christopher Tye]

From there, we processed down the central aisle of the nave to the west window and the chamber organ. This left us directly underneath the taller of the cathedral's towers, which is still graced by the recent addition of a glowing Christmas star – intended to echo the star followed by the Wise Men, and retained into the new year as a reminder of Christ's light and life. It always looks cheery when my bus passes it in the early morning gloom or evening darkness.

The tower was a useful vantage point during the English Civil Wars (or the Wars of the Three Kingdoms), and during the siege of Bradford by Royalist forces from Leeds. This was when the tower was clad with the local woolsacks that later became a symbol of the city and feature on the cathedral's crest, the idea being that woolsacks would protect the tower from cannon fire. It wasn't only cannon the inhabitants had to worry about; apparently, Royalist snipers were shooting at the woolsacks too, hoping to hit the strings holding them in place. The church must have been a pretty dangerous place to be around.

[Music: Magnificat in E Minor, Henry Purcell]

The choir gathered around the chamber organ, and we took seats in the nave for 'Industrial Bradford', a period beginning in the early 1700s. That's the time when Bradford really took off, and gained a worldwide reputation for the quality of its steel. Industries around steel-making also prospered, and by the the late 1800s, Bradford was producing around a quarter of all the coal and iron in Yorkshire. Our reader talked here about the water, coal, wool and steel of Bradford going toward Britain's world-leading industrial output, and about industrial equipment somewhere in South Africa that proudly bears the stamp 'Made in Low Moor'. Textiles were also a booming industry for Bradford (those woolsacks again), powered in part by the abundant supplies of local coal, and spun in mills built from local sandstone.

He wasn't mentioned on the night, but this is also the time when the industrialist Titus Salt based his growing textiles empire in Bradford, before consolidating his business interests in the specially-constructed Salt's Mill and Saltaire, the surrounding village which has since become a UNESCO World Heritage Site. But that's a story for another time.

The boom of the Industrial Revolution, and subsequent population growth, is partly why the city needed a cathedral come the early twentieth century. It's worth remembering that, for all of the city's prosperity in this time, the city centre slums the Dean mentioned on welcoming us were surrounding the parish church on its elevation to Cathedral status. Wealth, then as now, was not distributed evenly across society.

From the nave, we joined the choir in singing Methodist founder John Wesley's hymn Put Thou Thy Trust in God, and moved to the cathedral's south ambulatory, where the next stage of the pilgrimage addressed another historic inequality.

[Music: Anglican chant, Psalm 89, 1-8, Henry Smart]

We visited the south wall to admire the stained glass window depicting Saint Hilda of Whitby, but several of the building's (mostly Victorian/Edwardian) windows feature women prominent in faith, the Bible or local history. Saint Hilda, for example, was niece to a Saxon King and founder of a monastery at Whitby, which is supposed to have hosted the first church synod in northern England. She was given an unusual amount of power for a woman of her time, and as Abbess of Hartlepool gained a reputation for wisdom that saw her consulted by kings and princes.

More recently, there's the story of Louisa Pesel, who doesn't appear in stained glass but has a inspiring biography. Having grown up in late nineteenth-century Bradford, she studied at the Royal College of Art and was Director of the Royal Hellenic School of Needlework and Lace in Athens. By the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, she had returned to Bradford and was producing examples of historic embroidery for the V&A Museum, but turned her hand to teaching embroidery first to Belgian refugees then to war veterans at the Bradford Khaki Handicrafts Club, on the basis that creating beautiful things is therapeutic [2].

The cathedral, like many churches, is a haven of peace and calm amongst the storms of the wider world, and nowhere is this more true than in the south side's Peace Chapel, where our pilgrimage through history concluded. We moved there from Saint Hilda's window while the choir sang another thing of beauty crafted by a woman, Hildegard von Bingen's O Virtus Sapientis, written back in the twelfth century.

[Music: O Virtus Sapientis, Hildegard von Bingen]

The Peace Chapel was set aside in 2003 as a response to an increasingly fraught international situation (of which the war in Iraq was just a part), and now features a cluster of chairs away from the main nave, and a simple altar. We pilgrims were drawn back to the beginnings of Christian worship in Bradford with a poem (Siting) by 2019's poet-in-residence Diane Pacitti, which drew together the different time periods we'd already explored and ends with a reminder of the modern city of Bradford ('a city/of crossed continents, thrown-together faiths') and of the Cathedral's mission, then as now, to 'site a crossing;/to sight hope'.

Our pilgrimage ended with five minutes of quiet contemplation, free to wander the darkened nave, or simply rest in the Peace Chapel. Finally, we regathered in the nave and shared the Grace, as well as the Association of English Cathedrals' Year of Pilgrimage Prayer, before being sent back out into the cold, dark night.

I'm kidding, of course! This being a Yorkshire Cathedral, and one that prides itself on the warmth of its welcome, there was hospitality – tea, squash and biscuits – on offer before anyone left. The Diocese had a small kitchen installed at the rear of the nave around the same time they replaced all the wooden pews with individual chairs, as part of a drive to make the building more accessible and useful for the local community (and as a canny move to allow them to host more events).

This pilgrimage through history was one such innovative event, which functioned as part-walking tour, part-prayer service, and – though I personally could have done without the communal singing – successfully fulfilled the brief of bringing in visitors of all faiths and none to appreciate a sacred space in a new and interesting way, while learning about the building and its surroundings. I hope more cathedrals try something similar.


1. All prayers and hymns quoted from A Pilgrimage Around Bradford Cathedral, the event's guide booklet

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