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Southwell (pronounced Suthall) is a picturesque little village in Nottinghamshire, close to the Lincolnshire border. It is famous as the place where the Bramley Apple originated and it is also home to The Workhouse, Britains best preserved example of a Victorian Workhouse, which is now in the care of the National Trust. Southwell's most famous attraction is however it's church.
Southwell Minster has held Cathedral status since 1884 but the church itself predates that by almost 1,000 years. It is officially known as Cathedral and Parish Church of the Blessed Virgin Mary.
It was in the year 956AD that construction of the present church began although an earlier church, possibly on the same site has existed since 627AD. The Doomsday Book of 1068 describes the "Archbishops Manor" in great detail but in 1108 the Norman's largely rebuilt the church so most of what remains today dates from this period and later.
If you visit Southwell you really cannot fail to notice its Minster. It is located right in the middle of the town centre on its main street, appropriately called Church Street. I visited here many years ago but those memories are hazy so this has always been a place that I have wanted to go back to. I finally returned again on Saturday 5th September 2009.
The first thing that visitors see are the fancy arched stone gateways that lead into the grounds. There are two main entrances each with identical stone arches, which are full of the skills of medieval craftsmanship and should not be dismissed. The churchyard itself is very well kept with a perfectly cut grass lawn, flower beds and lots of mature trees. When I visited the sun was shining (although not for long!) and the birds were singing in the trees and it all seemed very tranquil. The churchyard is full of old gravestones dating from the 18th and 19th century. I didn't see any evidence of any modern burials so I presume that it isn't used for this purpose any more.
The size of the Minster is vast and for me at least it really did have that "wow factor". I was in no rush to go inside so I started my exploration by walking around the full perimeter of the church. The design of this church is unique as it has two twin towers at its eastern end, which are capped in grey lead. These are known locally as "pepper pots" and looking up at them I could see why. In addition to these symmetrical towers there is also a huge square central tower. All around the exterior of the building if you look closely you will see lots of little gargoyles and other weird carved figures that were popular on many churches of this age and were believed to ward off evil spirits.
At the rear of the church there are ruins of the Bishop's Palace that date from the 14th century, and adjacent to this, and also detached from the main Cathedral there is another small building that looked like an old church. This building is intact and is actually the Great Hall. I was surprised to find the small wooden door on the front was unlocked and so I went inside. The first thing that I noticed was the door itself, which looked very ancient and had one of the biggest keyholes I have ever seen. Inside the Great Hall there were some modern toilets but sadly all of the doors on the lower floor said "Private" on them and were locked so I climbed up the staircase to the upper floor. At the top of these stairs was another old wooden door, which again was unfortunately locked but like the entrance door it had a huge keyhole so I peered inside to what looked like a little chapel. A little disappointed that there wasn't much to see inside the Great Hall I went back outside, crossed the lawn and entered the main Cathedral through one of its side entrances.
I wasn't really too surprised to discover that the interior of the Minster is just as grand as it's exterior. The huge stained glass windows allow plenty of daylight to flood in and the ceilings are very high but looking upwards I suspected that the dark wooden roof was much more modern that the stone walls that supported it. As with any building of this size there are several supporting columns that run right from the floor to the roof but other than that the building is quite open plan, which gives the illusion that it is even bigger than it actually is.
The oldest remaining parts of this church are parts of the floor and the Nave above main entrance, which I didn't see until I left the main building via its main entrance. The floor has lots of memorial gravestones on it that marks the spot where notable members of the community have been buried over the centuries. There are also several large tombs within hold the remains of some of the old Archbishop's of this church. I always feel a bit odd walking on top of these horizontal gravestones, but since they line the aisles it really cannot be avoided.
Inside the cathedral there are five separate chapels, which include the Pilgrim's Chapel (my personal favourite) and the Airman's Chapel, a more recent addition for those that lost their lives during the recent wars. The other three chapels are St Thomas's, St Oswald's and the Candle Chapel.
The Pilgrims Chapel is accessed via a short flight of steps off the north east corner of the North Transept. It feels like an old chapel but most of the furnishings that are present were actually designed in 1988. It is based around the design of a three dimensional cross with the altar strategically positioned at its intersection. Within the walls there are cut out that feature elaborate carvings of the Virgin Mary and other religious symbols and above these there are impressive stained glass windows.
During the English Civil War large parts of the building were destroyed and further damaged was caused by lightning in 1711 but the present building looks and feels very old despite numerous modern additions and restorations. It is even said that the inside of this church was used as stables for the horses during the English Civil War, but whether this is true or not is open to debate.
I would suggest that a non religious person like myself who appreciates a nice church should set aside at least one hour to look around the inside of the cathedral and about half an hour to walk around its exterior and the Great Hall. I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and I am pleased that I finally returned.
Southwell Minster is still very much an active church and regular services take place. There is no official admission charge to enter but there is a recommended donation of £3 per waged adult and £1 per unwaged adult. There is a donation box just inside the main entrance next to a reception area and small gift shop. A guided audio tour is available at a cost of £3 per adult.