Taking a tour of St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s Millennium Tower

PUBLISHED: 15:03 02 June 2020 | UPDATED: 15:13 02 June 2020

The abbey west front with troglodyte dwellings.

The abbey west front with troglodyte dwellings.

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A tour of St Edmundsbury Cathedral’s Millennium Tower reveals architectural wizardry, kaleidoscopes of colour and awesome views, inside and out | Words and pictures: Lindsay Want

This article was written prior to lockdown so all information should be checked before your visit

“One for today’s tower tour? Well, it’s gotta be done!” declares the lady at the ticket desk of St Edmundsbury Cathedral, recognising that almost automatic compulsion to climb every towering edifice encountered, whatever the weather, when you’re out and about visiting places.

So, what’s the attraction? The sense of achievement when you get to the top, maybe, the far-reaching views and a sense of scale. Or the opportunity to get your bearings, put things in perspective and spot somewhere and something familiar.

At St Edmundsbury Cathedral it’s all this and more. It’s not just what you see from the top but all the colourful stories and optical diversions en route when there’s a knowledgeable guide to lead the way.

Bury St Edmunds' magic lantern.Bury St Edmunds' magic lantern.

The thing about Bury St Edmunds’ cathedral is that it’s all a bit of an illusion. We’re so used to seeing a good helping of 15th century Gothic Perpendicular or recognising English cathedral accoutrements like Canterbury’s Bell Harry Tower as being the creations of centuries past, that we tend to take these things for granted.

But here convention is both honoured and thrown to the wind. Built around the historic hull of St James’ parish church, there is extraordinarily authentic contemporary stonework which combines seamlessly with centuries-old architecture. It all makes the place complete.

The tower looks timelessly at home on Bury St Edmunds’ historic skyline and, from any distance, you’d presume it to be as old as Canterbury’s, just buffed up a bit. Yet only a couple of decades ago it wasn’t even there...

By the font in the great nave, volunteer guides Robert and Jacky start with a quick baptism into the building’s history as a cathedral. Towering high, brightly painted and laden with Gothic pinnacles, the font’s cover dates from just 1927, when the cathedral was in its infancy.

St Edmundsbury Cathedral Milennium TowerSt Edmundsbury Cathedral Milennium Tower

The all-important ‘cathedra’ – the bishop’s seat – had only arrived the year before, barely a decade after a newly formed St Edmundsbury and Ipswich diocese had led to the re-birth of St James’ in 1914.

A few more steps and Jacky puts the place in even greater context beside an artist’s impression of the mighty Benedictine abbey of St Edmund, established 1,000 years ago.

She tells of a decapitated king being brought to the Saxon settlement of Beodricsworth, of secular priests and scores of pilgrims, of a powerful, self-ruling ‘liberty’ almost like a Vatican State.

And there in the picture was St James’, built into the walls of the town within a walled-town, overshadowed by the biggest building in Europe, with a tower as tall again by half as the cathedral tower seen today. Awesome, quite unbelievable.

Robert and Jacky, tour guides, lead the way.Robert and Jacky, tour guides, lead the way.

At the ‘crossing’ at the eastern end of the nave Robert says: “It’s all new up there. And that’s where we’re going.” Eyes follow his finger heavenward to where arches and stone pillars explode in a kaleidoscope of colour.

“The tower ceiling’s 130 feet up and we’re going to look on top of it.” Oh wow, show me the door.

To tread the 202 steps to the tower’s open roof, it’s wise to have a certain level of fitness (and a woolly hat), but this modern ‘medieval’ build’s pleasantly even stone steps make it a relatively comfortable climb.

Round and round you go like one of those Victorian zeotropes, building up a different picture of the ecclesiastical realms below from secret glimpses through narrow squint windows.

Views from the top.Views from the top.

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Near the nave’s roof, a ladder takes you onto an outdoor platform. Here are close-up views of the Abbey’s original 12th century ‘Norman Tower’ gateway and the lantern windows of the new Bell Harry-type tower – just one of the structures envisaged by Stephen Dykes Bower, the eminent architect who took up the challenge of planning St James’ seamless architectural evolution into a full-blown cathedral.

Up here, the facts and figures start to mount up – 600,000 ‘Suffolk’ white bricks (made in Birmingham), 9,244 facing stones, 80 per cent coming from one rare Lincolnshire seam of Barnack stone.

“The other 20 per cent look very different so had to be integrated as they went along,” explains Robert, “otherwise, it’d look like a pint of Guinness.”

Inside the tower, little low gallery windows look out along the nave hammerbeams, down into the quire, or directly at the colourful ring of shields, the arms of England’s cathedrals.

The view of the nave from the tower.The view of the nave from the tower.

Climb some more, and every lancet window gives a flash of that bright kaleidoscopic ceiling. Up close, the oak carvings look even more intricate.

The lead-based (used under special licence), linseed oil paint colours inspired by the Bury Bible and the 23.5 carat gilding seem almost garish. Six and a half tonnes of laminated Croatian oak, 2,500 component parts made, like the whole tower, according to traditional methods by highly skilled craftsmen, with a little modern techno-help along the way.

It’s an awesome undertaking and hard to appreciate the ceiling’s scale until you enter the space above it to see the solid complexity of its construction. In Canterbury, medieval masons left their crane’s ‘donkey’ wheel behind.

At Bury a massive ring-girder with sliding pulley still circles above the ceiling’s framework. The blend of old and new is so unusual it’s breath-taking. But so is the view from the roof.

Milennium TowerMilennium Tower

In the full bloom of spring, the beautiful borders in the Abbey Gardens give the tower’s ceiling a run for its money.

Whatever the season, the historic street patterns of Bury and the vast extent of the Abbey enclosure are as mesmerizing as the mosaic of coloured rooftops, the trails of steam from the brewery and the ‘troglodyte’ dwellings burrowing into the remains of the old Abbey’s west-front in the precincts below.

“It’s a pity we can’t wave a wand and bring back the Abbey church,” dreams Jacky. “How that would dwarf us.”

“On a clear day though, you can see the lantern tower of Ely cathedral,” tempts Robert, pulling up his collar.

Towards the LarkTowards the Lark

Now that would that be magic, wouldn’t it?

Take a tour of St Edmundsbury Cathedral Tower.

Tours are run most Saturdays (10.30 am) and Sundays (1.45 pm) from March, also Wednesdays and Fridays (May – July included).

Adults (under 80) and accompanied children (10 – 17 years) only.

Tickets: £10, available online or at the visitor information point by the cathedral shop. Group tours bookable.

stedscathedral.org/visit/tower-tours

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