Flatland

The abbey at St Albans strikes me as rather odd, both for its rather distended, squat and narrow, proportions and for its placements. English cathedrals generally tend to nestle in pleasant greens in the middle of town, with the river nearby. St Albans is placed high up on a hill and looks rather more like St Vitus than Winchester or Tewskesbury. As a building, it’s an odd hotch-potch of styles, from the romanesque to the gothic, with an equally odd mixture of medieval paintings and Victorian sculptures. It’s especially strange seeing a shrine to a martyred saint in an English cathedral, complete with praying nuns. Afterwards, I have a walk around the remains of Verulamium, especially a Roman ampitheatre and a mosaic floor from a town house. It’s all rather reminiscent of Calleva, even down to the prominence of flint in the walls, although the mosaic is better preserved than anything there.

From Hertfordshire onwards to Cambridgeshire. In a lot of ways, Cambridgeshire reminds me of the Midlands. The Trent valley shares the flatness of the fens, although the landscape there is more shaped by industry and agriculture on an industrial scale. Inevitably, Cambridgeshire is rather more picturesque. I start off by visiting Ely. Easily the most unusual cathedral in England, the romanesque exterior is matched by an interior with Victorian ceiling frescos, George Gilbert Scott reredos and organ cases, and a gothic dome. Tudor tombs jostle for space with replica Rublev icons.

Within Cambridge itself, I have to admit that in many respects I prefer it to Oxford. Although many of the classical and baroque buildings, like Downing and Emmanuel, have a golden sandstone that would fit perfectly in Oxford, there’s also the redbrick Tudor and medieval gatehouses. I visit Jesus, with its gothic chapel and Paolozzi sculptures, the darkened ‘gloomth’ of Bodley’s All Saints with its Morris and Company window, St John’s with its turreted gatehouse and Eric Gill sculptures, Giles Gilbert Scott’s library with Gray’s new sculptures (easily the tallest building in Cambridge), Trinity with its Roubiliac and Thornycroft sculptures, Clare with its beautiful gardens and Hepworth sculptures. Walking into one of Giles Gilbert Scott’s new buildings with a Moore sculpture, I notice a rather large bracket fungus growing on the trunk of an especially large tree. After eating on the backs as dandelion snow drifted through air, I visit with Kings. It’s easily one of the most impressive buildings in England, although I’m left wondering if the splendour of the ceiling isn’t somewhat offset by the emptiness of the interior. Perhaps I prefer the clutter at places like Ely. Finally, I pass briefly into Selywn, where I’m in time to disturb the college cat from eviscerating a mouse.

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