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We Need a Bigger Skip!

4 June 2021

The Very Revd Geoff Miller, Dean of Newcastle, writes:

Paul, our new Head Verger, is clearing out St George’s Chapel. He has quite a job on his hands, though fortunately, nothing seems to daunt him. Part of the problem (if we can call it that) is we have been forced to constantly move things around the Cathedral to free up space and get out of the way of the contractors. 

St George’s is very convenient because it is a discrete space away from building work and behind closed doors. Cathedrals, like all churches, hoard stuff in mammoth quantities. We put quite a bit (at least one container full) in storage off-site but looking back, that wasn’t enough. Like packing up any home, we had to make sure stuff was as safe as possible and equally try and make certain other stuff was accessible ‘just in case we needed it’. Now, all that sounds understandable, even reasonable. However, the unintended outcome (and I am finding that there is always one of them) was a cluttering among the gathering cover of dust. So much that it was hard to find anything, never mind use the space. 

“We’ll put that in St George’s out of the way!

“They could use part of St George’s to get ready in and leave their stuff there!

“Isn’t that in St George’s at the back behind the GoPak tables?

I’m sure you get the picture. Then comes the moment when you want to take a photograph of a window detail, and hey presto, an assault course lies before you. (Paul, if you are venturing in there to start the clear-up, best to put on the Lycra climbing gear and the hiking boots!)

On the one hand, it’s a great pity. I’ve seen the chapel in lots of guises over the years; I remember it stashed with blankets, sleeping bags and supplies for rough sleepers in 2018 during the ‘Beast from the East’. I also recall sublimely peaceful and moving Eucharists and times of prayer and so many profound pastoral encounters that it has hosted. Perhaps most of all, I can still hear the nervous excitement of countless ordinands, robed and ready to process out to a full Cathedral and begin their public ministry.

So, I am thrilled that we are beginning the ‘big sort out’ and even more thrilled that Paul (without the climbing gear and Lycra, I might add) has turned his determined attention to the task. I can guarantee that ahead are many fascinating moments as things are unearthed, dusted and polished… It made me recall many hours at home on rainy days fiddling in the button box marvelling at what we found, or hands down the sides of old sofas picking out lost ’10 Bob’ notes amid old sweet wrappers and comics. Or evenings spent thumbing through old photograph albums bemused and entertained by the ever-changing haircut fashions (my brother never really suited that Kevin Keegan perm!). To be sure, the treasures we will find in St George’s go back way beyond our corporate memories. Still, they will absorb, fascinate and inspire again and again.

St George’s Chapel, like many of the Cathedral chapels, began life as part of the porch this one in the north transept the church. One ancient historian imagined it to be built by a king of England, but perhaps the emphasis should be on the word ‘imagined’, though it was called the King’s Porch for some years. Bourne, without any evidence, says it was one of the many chantries that gave the church its early wealth (none of which is left, I am afraid!). In 1617, while the lord president and council of the north were at Newcastle, Lord Sheffield (the then president and knight of the garter) celebrated the feast of St George in this porch. Is this where it gained its name?

We know via the ordinary of the Society of Drapers (dated 1652) that the town’s drapers would meet every year on the Monday after St Bartholomew’s day at nine o’clock in the porch to choose two auditors under a penalty of forty shillings. I waited for any to arrive this year, but sadly, there were no takers. In 1710, however, the Society gave £100 towards the chapel’s reparation. Does anyone have an address for me to contact them today? – ‘Shy bairns get nowt!’.

Bourne tells us that the chapel is nearly 49ft high and 29 feet in breadth, and in his time, there was on the north window the head of the king, the father of the lady whom George delivered from the dragon. Apparently, after being ‘long in a ruinous state’, the large, beautiful Gothic window was partly blown out by a strong win in March 1823. When they took the window down, the workman found built into the wall a grotesque head very similar to that above the entrance to Durham Cathedral. The then vicar purchased it, and therefore, sadly, another piece of our history disappeared.

The chapel today is, of course, quite different to that seen and used by many of our forebears. Its present state is, in the main, the result of some extensive restoration work to the north aisle that was completed in 1933. The rebuilding of the eastern aisle of the North Transept reinstated St George’s Chapel (and the Crypt, or charnel house) as a memorial to Archdeacon Blackett-Ord. The side of the organ case dominates the west wall with its beautiful carving and gold lettering so much that you might not notice the beautiful round window in the far corner, which belongs to the crypt below. Above it is the Hall memorial, erected in 1630 in full renaissance style, echoing the Maddison memorial in the south transept. And, of course, Goodwife Hall was indeed one of the Maddison girls. 

Of course, dominating the chapel are the windows which were installed between 1934-35. These are the one fully coordinated scheme of glazing in the Cathedral, and it is perhaps these windows that give the place its sense of intimate enclosure that is so conducive to prayer. The windows were installed in 1934/5 and are the work of A.K. Nicholson’s studio in London. Influenced by the Arts and Craft movement, Archibald was influenced by the beautiful handicraft work of his teacher (sculpture, metalwork, jeweller and enameller) Henry Wilson. The windows have an eclectic style and pay honour to some of the great leaders of industrial Newcastle – Charles Algernon Parsons, Andrew Laing, Lord Stamfordham and Viscount Grey of Falloden. The subtle use of glass allows different shades of light to illuminate sections of the chapel, and the fascinating detail of saints, ships, birds, and wildlife each tell their own story. There is always something new to explore, not least the only representation of the riotous ‘Boy Bishop’ tradition at the heart of medieval Newcastle ritual. Take a look next time you are near, and as you gaze, listen out for the bird sounds or the sounding of the great foghorn of the Mauretania. I’m sure it lingers. 

Tucked into the corner, you will also delight in the Green Man and the mermaid just about visible on the wall memorial – the oldest, dedicated to Thomas Surtees (1629). On the floor are some superb examples of ledger stones but be careful not to trip on their deep cut carvings. I hope that Paul manages to enjoy some of these findings under the clutter and that he will pave the way for all of us to enjoy this space again. He leads the way in what I consider a very holy activity and one on which the Cathedral community needs to spend some time and energy in the coming weeks.

‘De-cluttering’ is quite a spiritual activity – I remember Jean Skinner teaching us so in a sermon not long ago. It is both a personal and corporate discipline and carries with it the joys and pains of finding and of letting go. Not always such a simple choice: neither is it just a physical activity. Dropping useless customs and traditions and unearthing forgotten healthy practices is as important as chucking out the rubbish. In my experience, churches are brilliant about hoarding stuff and the practice easily rubs off on us. Indeed, as Archdeacon, I had this secret dream of sending every church a skip every sixth months for them to fill. I guess it’s harder to imagine the container needed for that rubbish that clutters but not in a physical sense.

There is a sense in which the process of de-cluttering is as important as the end result. As Ursula Le Quinn said in that brilliant novel The Dispossessed, usually ‘the means are also the ends’. If my dream for a church is a regular skip, my nightmare for the Cathedral is that we re-open and try and put all the junk and tat and whatever back where it was just over 18 months ago. It would be terrible for this fresh, light, spacious cathedral we have worked so hard on to take on the character of a Victorian parlour with Aspidistras, antimacassars and all the other ‘muck harbourers’ (my dad’s favourite name for bric-a-brac).    

So, Paul, I wish you well as you lead us in a ministry of de-cluttering, starting with St George’s. May you unearth some treasures, and may you dare to stop and be absorbed by what you uncover. Be careful what you put in the skip but make sure you fill it. When with your help, we’ve finished with the physical side of things, it will be for us time to dig deeper into our lives and spiritual disciplines and church traditions and do the same.


Newcastle Cathedral’s National Lottery Heritage Fund project, Common Ground in Sacred Space is due for completion in summer 2021. You can watch the April/May 2021 video update here.

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