Guildford Cathedral is the last of the Church of England Cathedrals to be built on a new site and one of only three built in the twentieth century—the other two are Coventry and Liverpool. Fearing the worst, particularly in light of my distaste for Coventry, I was pleasantly surprised by the austere but airy interior; as the kids would say today, “It isn’t terrible.”
The exterior, not so much. The approach has been likened to the entrance to a crematorium—with good reason.
The actual site is spectacular, perched high on Stag Hill, so called because the Kings of England used to hunt there,
The burgeoning population of South East England during the early part of the 20th century led to the Diocese of Winchester splitting three ways, with the north section awarded to the new Diocese of Guildford.
In 1927 Dr John Greig was appointed the first Bishop.
At first, Holy Trinity Church was used as the Cathedral, but it quickly became apparent that it wasn’t large enough. In 1928, the Diocese decided to build a new Cathedral, and a contest for the design was held, attracting 183 entrants. Edward Maude’s (later Sir Edward Maude) design was chosen.
In April 1933, a cross made of teak timbers from the battleship HMS Ganges was erected on Stag Hill to mark the site of the new Cathedral; the cross still stands outside the eastern end of the Cathedral. On July 22, 1936, The Most Reverend Dr Cosmo Gordon Lang, Archbishop of Canterbury, laid the Foundation Stone.
The soft clay of Stag Hill posed a challenge to the integrity of the foundation, solved by piles driven up to 15m (50 feet) into the ground. Queen Mary assisted with driving the 778th and final pile into the ground in April 1937.
Work halted in 1939 with the onset of World War II. A shortage of building materials saw the Cathedral stand empty for the next decade, though regular services were held in the Crypt Chapel (the current Choir practice room) starting in 1947. That same year, Viscount Bennett, former Canadian prime minister, bought the land surrounding Stag Hill to memorialise Canadian soldiers billeted in the area during the war.
By the time materials were available, the estimated costs had quadrupled from the original estimate of £250,000.
The Buy a Brick fundraising campaign was launched in 1952, allowing work on the Cathedral to recommence in 1954. Over 200,000 people bought a brick made of clay from Stag Hill for 2s 6d (12½ p) and inscribed it with their name.
The campaign captured people’s imagination across the country; groups of school children clubbed together to buy a brick, and bricks were purchased in memory of loved ones and by couples on their honeymoon. Even Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth bought one!
The Cathedral was consecrated on May 17, 1961, by Bishop George Reindorp and finally completed in 1966.
Maufe’s architectural style is Gothic – that much is evidenced by the interior. But it’s “naked gothic, stripped of clothing and visual diversion as if desperate to be thought modern”, so accurately described by Simon Jenkins of England’s Cathedrals.
Jenkins goes on to say, “The clerestory is confined to pinholes. The windows are opaque, deepset and without colour, so from the nave we cannot see sun or sky, just a white tunnel of plaster with stone dressings.” I couldn’t have said it better myself.
The fearsome verticality is most evident in the side aisles.
Sir (by now) Edward Maufe’s wife, Lady Prudence Maufe, an internal designer and member of the Worshipful Company of Broderers, was given carte blanche over the interior fittings.
The colour chosen was the shade of blue for which Guildford’s past wool trade was famous.
A total of 1,447 kneelers, using a combination of standard and individual designs, were each reviewed and approved by Lady Maufe and her committee. The mind boggles…
Over 400 individuals, mainly from Great Britain but also from other countries, including Australia and New Zealand, stitched away to complete the mammoth task, starting in the 1930s and continuing into the late 1960s.
Lady Maufe also designed the Consecration Cope.
The shades on the lamps in the chancel and the candlesticks on the altar continue the blue theme.
The Lady Chapel at the east end of the Cathedral is also picked out in the same blue.
The ceiling in the Children’s chapel, reserved as a place for bereaved parents, is painted in the same blue.
The baptismal font has a stark elegance.
Additional colour is found in touches of stained glass in the Cathedral.
The Cathedral shares the site on Stag Hill with the University of Surrey.
A trip upstairs to the choir loft affords a view over the Cathedral nave.
Down the stairs…
and back outside, we note the statuary by Alan Collins on the wall of the entrance door to the Cathedral.
That’s a wrap, folks. Love it, loathe it, or something in between, you decide on Guildford Cathedral.