I am acutely aware of what day it is today, which is why I am writing about something else.
2020 should have been the year of so many, many things, including the Year of Pilgrimage for UK cathedrals (43, including the Isle of Man), complete with a little blue passport and so many unique art installations to enjoy. I had hoped to spend much of the year on trains visiting as many as possible. I do love a cathedral, a cathedral with contemporary art even more. Alas, Covid came and cathedrals, like everything else, shut up tight. Since restrictions were relaxed, and the dissertation turned in, I have been trying to make up for lost time. Since the horrific terrorist attack at Nice Cathedral, in France, last week, I feel there is an urgency to reclaim, as quickly as possible, the power and majesty of these sites.
With a new lockdown looming (2 days to go) I will spread the writing of these recent adventures out. But today I can still write in real time, about today in Lichfield, a small city just north of Birmingham. I first became aware of Lichfield Cathedral at a conference I attended a few years ago about using contemporary art in cathedral settings. What was immediately obvious was that Lichfield needed no advice, in fact they seemed to be leading the way. With their own artist in residence, sculptor Peter Walker, and a very supportive Dean, Lichfield engages its community continually with a variety of projects from child-centered installations to light shows to sculpture. I chose this day to visit because both Peter Walker’s new ‘The Leaves of the Trees’ installation, in response to the Covid crisis, and the Poppy Fields, an immersive sound and light experience, in anticipation of Remembrance Day next week, are on display. Or they were, anyway. I arrived at Lichfield, a gorgeous little Tudoresque town of American dreams, to learn that Poppy Fields 2020 had been cancelled thanks to the impending lockdown. And the cathedral was closing early. However, with the kindness of Verger Chris, I made the most of my 75 minutes.
Dedicated to St. Chad, the first Bishop of Lichfield, the Cathedral was built in 700, with additions through the centuries. Badly damaged during the English Civil War, sword marks are still visible on some of the now faceless stone carvings in the blind arcades, others worn by exposure after the roof collapsed, the Cathedral was rebuilt and restored by Bishop Hackett almost immediately following the restoration of the monarchy in 1661. As was their wont, the Victorians left their mark, including a rather stunning metalwork screen, lots of new heads for the arcades and an intricately carved reredos in the Lady Chapel.
Walker’s metal leaves, each one stamped with the word Hope, fan out across the floor in an area otherwise dedicated to military engagements that are less comfortable to 21st century sensibilities.
The juxtaposition is interesting, the suggestion perhaps that we, like the building itself, are constantly having to rebuild and realign ourselves. Not to erase the past but welcome in the new, to allow a blending of then and now in order to create an atmosphere that resonates with today. The reality of what was with the optimism of what can be. Or better yet, the reality of what is with the hope of what is. The long lasting effects of terrorism and Covid, the potential outcome of the US election, the re-evaluation of history, the timeless persistence of kindness and love. I thought of the lines from the John O’Donohue poem I saw on the Tube, this morning, ‘Try, as best you can, not to let / The wire brush of doubt / Scape from your heart / All sense of yourself’
As I stood in the otherworldly, dusky light and the thoughtful stillness of the Cathedral I knew it to be a place where wire brushes, if not forbidden, were at least kept at bay. It was a good day to be there.