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Fit for a king
King's College Chapel (Cambridge)
Member Name: Chouchin
King's College Chapel (Cambridge)
Advantages: Wonderful architecture
Disadvantages: Getting there
Middle England and the wider world know King's from the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols broadcast live on Christmas Eve. I usually have it on in the background while I'm contemplating turkey giblets and counting brussel sprouts. There is enough tradition, statistics and myths from this programme alone to make a review. Did you know that the choirboy who is selected to sing the first verse of "Once in Royal David's City" is only told a few minutes beforehand? Keeps them all on their toes and stops hours of nerves blotting the performance. Did you know that listeners in the West Indies hear those first treble notes micro-seconds before the congregation at the back of the Chapel? Something to do with satellite transmission and acoustics. Did you know that the BBC lays so much cable it is counted in miles? I could go on. Suffice to say that the time to visit is not December. Cambridge is in any case arctic in winter but that still leaves you 11 months to enjoy this little gem.
Why is it here and why is it special? The simple answer to the first question is historic. The king in question is Henry VI who established two "royal and religious" foundations (the other being Eton) to educate scholars from poor backgrounds. It was begun in 1441 and was to be more magnificent than anything else in Oxford or Cambridge. Only the Chapel was completed according to the original plans. Whether it succeeds in its aim of magnificence is for individual judgment, but Cambridge is not a city of "dreaming spires" like Oxford, and from a distance only two buildings stand out on the skyline: the awful slab of the university library and King's College Chapel.
But more interesting is the fact that it was started at all at that time. The 15th century was as war-torn as the 12th: the Hundred Years War followed by the Wars of the Roses. One imagines that it needs a stable economy and society for art to flourish, yet in the midst of all this it was felt appropriate to construct a great spiritual monument. The past is indeed another country.
The renaissance is much acclaimed as giving a fillip to western civilisation through its rediscovery of classical forms. But the gothic style which preceded it was neither a rebirth nor a rediscovery, but a spontaneous outburst of a completely new style. Technology and vision seem to have come together to produce a new way of expressing the spiritual. The gothic style replaced romanesque rounded arches, barrel vaults, dark interiors and dread-inducing carvings of devils and beasts. Now we had upsurging walls and pillars, pointed arches, "walls of light" and stained glass. Suddenly all churches were reaching upwards, to heaven, and letting light in to previously unilluminated dark recesses. This movement appeared in northern France about 1200 and produced the great cathedrals of Notre Dame, Amiens, Rheims, Rouen and Chartres among others. Of course, the movement reached England, but, insular as ever and sniffy about strange continental ways, we developed our own approach to the new style: the English Perpendicular.
Strictly speaking there are three periods to the English gothic, of which the Perpendicular is one, but you'll be relieved to know I'm not qualified to give a discourse on architecture. Let us simply acknowledge that King's is one of the supreme examples of the English version of this sudden change of direction in building, and look at what we see today.
It challenges one's expectations of a church/chapel shape. Envisage a Christian church in western Europe: imposing façade topped by a spire, or a tower or two. Lower nave behind, possibly with side naves and side chapels. Transept about three quarters of the way up the nave, so that from above the floor plan resembles a Christian cross. But this chapel is not like that. It is a box: two long sides and two short sides. You could lift it up and turn it round and it would still look pretty much the same. From all sides it is defined by these great perpendicular lines, topped by tiny turrets and a very shallow roof angle. The classic view, which you can see above provided by Dooyoo, is taken with an upward-facing camera angle. It gives the impression of the front turrets being much higher than they are, as if they were a more traditional arrangement of façade spires.
Another unique aspect is the fact that you can stand back and get a view, from two sides at least, of the whole building. Many of the great cathedrals are hemmed in by other buildings, which makes it difficult to appreciate their size and shape. This Chapel is pleasingly surrounded by swards of grass to the west and south so you can get a long uninterrupted view without the need for a helicopter. The surrounding buildings of King's College are, in my opinion, far from being the most aesthetic of the Cambridge colleges, but they needn't impinge on your appreciation of the Chapel.
Let's go inside.
If ever a style was aptly named, Perpendicular is surely it. We've already seen the high walls dominating the shape outside. Inside it's impossible not to look upwards. Every pillar line, every window shape, drags your eyes to the ceiling; it's like being in a one-dimensional space. And up there, 80 feet above you, is fan vaulting of the most marvellous intricacy and delicacy, stone fingers reaching out and intertwining in a seemingly impossibly complex arrangement. You're going to get a crick in your neck, so perhaps the best idea is to lie down face up on one of the pews, and hope that other visitors, who are also looking up, not down, don't sit on you. The master mason responsible for this was John Wastell. Heard of him? No, nor has anybody else. Yet this is the largest vault of its kind in the world. What a vision he and others like him must have had to create these slim lines, stretching upwards and fanning out in such delicate arching tracery. We should be grateful that the Wars of the Roses did interrupt the building work, so that by the time it came to putting in the vaulting there was some confidence it could be achieved on this scale.
Now sit up, or give your neck a rest, and have a look at the rest of the interior. The narrow box-like shape is more accentuated inside. Take the dimensions in metres which are in nice round figures and so easier to compare. The Chapel is 88 metres long, 12 metres wide and 24 metres high; that makes it over 7 times as long as it is wide, and twice as high as it is wide. So it is narrow, yes. Yet there is no feeling of being squeezed, more a sensation of an indoors vista. The stone is light-coloured, and daylight floods in through the enormous windows. These contain, amazingly, the original stained glass, lightly tinted so the illumination provided by daylight is not impeded, quite unlike the jewelled, but darkening, red and blue rose windows of northern France. The choir stalls are heavily carved in Italian 16th century style, and there is a Rubens behind the altar. A small side chapel leading off the choir is dedicated to the war dead of the College - the poet Rupert Brooke's name is inscribed here.
The leaflet you are given free with your ticket provides some information. It is a triple-folded, black-and-white, unillustrated document which does its best to dampen any enthusiasm you may feel about your visit. It covers King's College but is mostly about the Chapel. The first three paragraphs consist of "don'ts" - drop litter, walk on the grass, picnic, make a noise, ignore privacy notices. The rest is a rather dry exposition of the Chapel and its history which fails to convey any "wow" or "oomph" about a building which is quoted in just about every reference work on the history of architecture. Perhaps they're being modest, or trying to be scholarly and impartial. Or they could try harder.
Before you start planning your visit, some words of warning. We all have towns we hate to drive in - the impenetrable one-way systems, the rage-inducing ring roads. But when it comes to the complete incompatibility of the built environment and the motor car, Cambridge, in my experience, takes the biscuit. The streets are narrow and the pavements narrower still so pedestrians spill into the road. The bridges over the Cam are lilliputian and act as wonderful bottlenecks. Wicked-looking spikes block many roads and can only be lowered by an automatic beam on public service vehicles.
I have no idea where you would park in the centre. If you are going by car there is a large park and ride to the south of the city. Take the Cambridge South exit off the M11 and you're right there. There is a rail station reasonably near the centre of things, or you could take a coach trip then the driving is someone else's problem. I once watched a large tourist coach trying to negotiate a 90º corner from one very narrow street into another equally narrow. It took him about six goes, by which time he had attracted an admiring crowd.
Spending a weekend is a possibility; after all there's lots to see in Cambridge, not just King's College Chapel. Unfortunately, I recently read of a survey of "black holes" in reasonable city centre accommodation. Guess what came top. Correct. Cambridge.
So is it just too much effort? Well if you think so then this review has failed. If they managed to build something like this five hundred years ago, it shouldn't be beyond the ability of 21st century man and woman to at least get there. And admire.
Entrance fees are £4.50 for adults, £3 for children and concessions. Free entry to local residents and members of the university who can also take in two guests. An audio tour is £2. Main entrance is through the north porch but there is a ramp for wheelchair users at the south porch. Opening hours are complicated and affected by recordings and recitals. The website has a full page of opening hours through the year, so best check first. The Christmas Eve Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols is open to anyone, but tickets are not sold in advance, it's first come, first served. This means you have to be in the queue before 9.30am, you are let into the Chapel at 1.30pm and the service begins at 3pm. I'll stick to Radio 4.
Summary: A gem of a chapel
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