Hereford Cathedral: The spiritual, Economic And Social Wellbeing Of The City

PUBLISHED: 23:16 08 February 2010 | UPDATED: 16:05 20 February 2013

The Wye Bridge and cathedral

The Wye Bridge and cathedral

Chris Poole visits Hereford Cathedral and discovers the vital part it plays in the spiritual, economic and social wellbeing of the city and its people

Whichever way you approach Hereford, one building dominates the view. And has done for almost a thousand years. For much of that time it was even more prominent than today when its spire reached upwards until the ravages of time took their toll and it had to be demolished. Hereford Cathedral, with its weathering sandstone corbels and buttresses, standing centrally among cloisters and school buildings, plays a major part not just in the ecumenical life of the city but in many more ways.
The cathedral is one of the oldest in England. Its fortunes have, inevitably, been mixed. But it has survived plague, conflict and physical dilapidation to retain its vital role in the city of Hereford. Fanning out from Cathedral Close there are streets today that can be recognised on medieval maps of Hereford with homes, shops, offices, hostelries, schools and a hospital providing a complete environment for our earthly needs. The Dean of Hereford, Michael Tavinor, describes its place in the life of the city: "The cathedral is for the all of the people; and not just for their spiritual needs. It is also a place of unity for a wide range of community activities."

You only have to glance at the building's calendar to appreciate the variety - from concerts to craft fairs, from art exhibitions to school speech days.
Without doubt one of the most important of those events is the Three Choirs Festival, being hosted, this year, by Hereford. For eight days in August the city will be home to a varied programme of musical excellence opening with Elgar's Dream of Gerontius at the cathedral. The festival attracts visitors from around the world and is more popular than ever this year. Debbie Liggins, the festival's development manager says: "Ticket sales are going phenomenally well and we've had to open the booking office earlier than planned."

Although the major performances of the festival are in the cathedral others are elsewhere. "The cathedral is a focal point," explains Debbie, "but we try to use other venues as well giving the festival a true community feel."
Guy Rawlinson, administrator for the Hereford festival, attributes the exceptional level of interest in part to more sophisticated marketing: "The Three Choirs website has been brought up to date and is much more effective" and to economic circumstances "evidently more people are planning to stay in this country for their holidays this year."

There have been times when church and city did not see eye to eye on the area surrounding the cathedral. Indeed, the Three Choirs Festival itself was once the subject of some disagreement. Happily, those times are now long gone and the redevelopment of Cathedral Close is a major project combining the resources of the Heritage Lottery Fund, the cathedral itself, city and county administrations and a range of commercial sponsors and supporters. HRH The Prince of Wales was in Hereford earlier this year to mark his support for the project.

According to Glyn Morgan, Secretary of Hereford Cathedral Perpetual Trust: "Work has already begun behind the scenes; the public will start to notice progress at the Cathedral Barn in June. More major works will begin in September after the Three Choirs Festival and the main tourist season."

Near Cathedral Close there are other reminders of how this part of the city has always been its focal point. Hereford has long been a transport hub with roads radiating to all points of the compass. Attempts to connect Hereford to other places using waterways as trade routes, though seen as economically attractive at the time, were destined to fail. Railways came; roads remained vital. At times upwards of 40 stagecoaches a day rattled in and out of the cobbled yards of inns such as The Green Dragon on their way to or from Hay, Ledbury, Leominster, Monmouth and beyond. Deputy General Manager Caroline Tiller describes the hotel's coaching days. "The prominence of the hotel during the days of stagecoaches is well known; some of our architecture still shows signs of horse and carriage traffic. We remain, today, the city's largest hotel and only a few minutes walk from the cathedral and museum."
School holidays apart, Cathedral Close on a weekday is enlivened by pupils from Hereford Cathedral School. The school's origins were as a "song school" for the cathedral. Today it is a modern, independent school with strong musical credentials and the best academic results in the county. Headmaster Paul Smith explains: "We provide a rich diversity of opportunity - in and beyond the classroom - instilling confidence in our pupils to put their experiences here to the best possible use."
No description of Hereford would be complete without mention of its two great treasures. The Mappa Mundi probably came to the city in the 12th century. Lying unnoticed in the vaults it was eventually recognised for what it was and restored by the British Museum. It is now displayed in a fine, modern exhibition space at the cathedral. The adjacent room is equally remarkable - the unique chained library. Not, as fans of Terry Pratchett might suppose, full of books anxious to escape their surroundings but ancient tomes tethered to prevent human hands from liberating them. Visitors to Hereford during the summer of 2009 will have an additional treat. Hereford has the finest surviving example of the 1217 version of Magna Carta. It will be on display until the end of August in the cathedral's exhibition area.

Times may be hard but Hereford has much in which to take pride. Nowhere more so, perhaps, than its own cathedral at the very heart of the life and soul of Hereford. The Dean says: "We want the cathedral to be a place where the arts are celebrated. It is a beautiful space inspiring a sense of wonder and awe."

Hereford certainly celebrates the arts, and does so in great style. As Steve Davies, owner of the Tidal Wave Gallery in Bridge Street a short walk from Cathedral Close puts it: "The cathedral brings people to the city centre. We, the traders, all benefit from it. Especially this year when trading conditions are tough, we'll see the Three Choirs bringing much-needed business to the city."

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