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Jazz singing – not quite yet, but soon?

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, looks back on November and December, in his final blog post of 2020:

I suppose if we believe T. S. Eliot , then November is not the cruellest month – he gave that accolade to April. Yet this year it’s not felt the best, or the easiest of months at the Cathedral but more importantly probably for so many others in so many places. Perhaps it’s not fair to compare any month this year with any other month or any other year for that matter. It is definitely a year to remember – or in some parts to try and forget.

I left you at the end of October with Cathedral project news somewhat frustrated by rising costs and complicated logistics that were like dominos knocking into each other! I would love to report that since then everything has been plain sailing – but that would be at best a fabrication. I’m reliably informed on various fronts that this is just normal life in project management. Thank God I’m not leading HS2.

So, for November (cruellest month or not) I thought I’d deliberately change to a more positive tack. While it is true that there are frustrations – have been, and will be, no doubt – things have not stopped. We are COVID resilient at least so far, refusing to let the situation beat us. Of course, this has demanded that we have become quite agile. Arrangements to open for visitors, for worship and for activities have had to be changed on whispers and too often more than once. Our dedicated staff have been forced to run around changing signs, sending out new notices and instructions, cancelling arrangements and rethinking possibilities. Our happy construction workers have been similarly nimble and on any given day you will have still heard their whistles and banter alongside the sound of their hammers and machines. I’m amazed and thankful that on every front people have been able to get on and in spite of things they have not become too fractious. (I guess Paul the site manager will put me right on that!)

And without doubt things have been steadily moving forward. Take the main Nave floor. Nearly all the ledger stones have now found their new resting places. The levels have been carefully resolved with truckloads of a light but tough recycled glass product that looks like what I remember as coke for the fire at home. The underfloor heating has been laid and tons of concrete have provided a screed on top. All ready for the new year when the top flags can be put in position. These have started to arrive – they come from a quarry in Barnard Castle. The heating ducts and pipes are laid in place and will soon meet up in our own spaghetti junction to connect with the four new boilers in the basement.

Underfloor heating all fitted, and now ready for a new floor

The basement, which until recently was a massive dumping ground – though some folks may remember that it used to be the Cathedral’s very own ‘cavern’ and was used for young people’s work back in the 1950s – is now a whole series of rooms. They wait now for plasterers to get to work and will provide us with a suite of toilets, work rooms and a Volunteer Base. The lift shaft and stairs are ready to provide access in the new East Foyer and entrance to the Cathedral.

Of course, there is much still to do but things are moving in the right direction. Last week I was called in specially to say some prayers as some 19th century bones found under the basement floor were carefully and respectfully re-interred. Things are really moving.

Another exciting ‘moment of moving’ recently was when our oldest inhabitant – the unknown medieval knight – was lifted, ready to be transported to a new resting place in St Margaret’s Chapel. I say new resting place but that is not quite true. He was in fact moved to his ‘cockney home’ (underneath the arches!) in the South Transept in the early 19th century and we are merely returning him to a former resting place. Close to the medieval glass roundel and the other medieval grave slabs on the wall, he will look resplendent and be much easier to view.

The medieval knight on the move

So, the hall basement, the Nave floor and moving of other artefacts has been the order of the days but that is by no means all. Lindy, our Project Manager, had a great visit to a workshop in Bishop Auckland recently, where some tracing for the new North Porch area has been also moving on apace. The work is remarkably skilled and creative, and Lindy’s photographs show what a marvellous job is being got on with without many of us even knowing.

All this is just the how the inside building work progresses. Outside there has been huge movement too – literally, as mounds of soil and rubble have been moved to carve out the new churchyard landscape. Stone borders have begun to be put in place to form the platform layers and metal frameworks positioned to take the ornate grilles that will widen the walkways. The grilles, with detail patterns based on the cathedral window tracery, are being made right this minute in the foundry.

Away from the Cathedral building, other detailed ‘groundwork’ planning has also made sure we are far from standing still. The design of new internal and external wayfinding has been agreed and moved into fabrication, the interpretation scheme is now taking shape (worth a blog on its own, I think) and at long last the lighting scheme has been ‘signed off’ – and that was touch and go for some time, I can tell you.

The Home Team have been busy planning next years ‘events’ – not an easy task to second guess the COVID restrictions and how they might change things but we are trying to be creative, flexible and above all ready.

As I have written, some thoughts keep coming back to me. The first is that though at one level it has been a tough time and many things (and plans) have been frustrated, there has also been much going on and much achieved. Site manager Paul said as much when he advised that so much of the real work is ‘underneath’ or hidden but it is the necessary foundation, and when done properly the top stuff – the stuff we see – happens quickly and well. Perhaps Eliot knew that about April and other gardeners know it about November. Preparing the ground, doing those winter jobs, is a crucial process in order to get things right later on – tedious and slow as they may feel. I hope the hard work will reward us with dividends as we move into 2021. It is true for our personal development too, for our discipleship and spiritual wellbeing. Growth, like all development, is a good part tedium and laborious hard work, and perhaps the real creative bits – the cream on the cake – are in reality the smaller (though more visible) part. No wonder we are reminded that ‘worship’ is the ‘work’ of the Christian community – ‘a duty and a joy’ no less.

Just like I am reminded that ‘movement’ (or change) is an inevitable and necessary component of being alive. And movement needs (and takes, even drains) energy. Things are changing at the Cathedral – in the building but also deep among us who find in the Cathedral a spiritual home. If we are to be truly alive, they have to, and they will do, but that will demand our energy. This really is what we are about: recreation. It will happen best when we draw on the depths of the wells of tradition, of course, but also when we learn to play: to make all fresh and alive.

I love a piece of music called Officium; for me it could be the theme tune of our project. In it, Jan Garbarek a jazz saxophonist, and the Hillard Ensemble shut themselves away in the monastery of St Gerold. The Ensemble sing Gregorian chant, motets and pieces by 15th and 16th century composers and over the top, Garbarek plays jazz. The music is astonishingly beautiful and timeless. We must try and do the same – we must allow the building and the traditions that form our heritage to undergird all we do and to sing their song through us, but we must also not be afraid to add our own voice, to play our own improvisation. We are putting in the hard work in cruel months. We are also refreshing the subterranean foundations of our Cathedral and our Cathedral community.

Soon it will be time to find our voice and sing the jazz.