The Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin and St Ethelbert the King is one of the oldest cathedrals in England, containing some of the finest examples of architecture from Norman times to the present day. It has many stunning windows, most of which are Victorian, although stained glass windows dating from the late 13th century can be seen on the south side of the Lady chapel. In the quire area, a bishop's throne and choir stalls with finely carved misericords date from the mid 14th century. The altar reredos is of Caen marble and has a frontal emblazoned with the words SANCTUS SANCTUS SANCTUS. At the tower crossing is a golden corona, designed in 1992 by contemporary British artist Simon Beer, symbolizing Christ's crown of thorns and his glory; it is placed above a modern altar table and rails. Shrines of five saints can be found in the cathedral: St John the Baptist, Mary the Mother of Jesus, and three unique to Hereford – St Ethelbert, Thomas Traherne, and St Thomas of Hereford. A newly constructed shrine to St Ethelbert has 12 brilliantly coloured icons. A larger very colourful shrine to St Thomas of Hereford has a backdrop that tells his life story.
Full details of this cathedral's many services and organized events can be found on its website. It is famous for its mappa mundi and chained library, both of which are housed in a new building. The mappa mundi is an ancient map of how the world appeared some 700 years ago (flat and stationary). The mappa mundi shows Christ sitting in judgement above a world centred on Jerusalem, amidst the continents of Asia, Europe and Africa. The British Isles appear near the bottom. The chained library is the largest of its kind in the world, containing nearly 1500 books, each attached by a chain to rods in the ancient bookcases.
Once the Saxon capital of West Mercia, Hereford is steeped in history. Now a modern bustling city with a pedestrianised heart, it lies deep in the rural countryside of picturesque Herefordshire.
There was no customised service sheet, so from portraits of "who's who" on a display poster, I think the service was opened by the dean, the Very Revd Michael Tavinor. The precentor, the Revd Canon Andrew Piper, and the chancellor, the Revd Canon Christopher Pullin, read the lessons.
What was the name of the service?Choral Evensong.
How full was the building?
There were about 30 people in the congregation.
Did anyone welcome you personally?
No. I don't think its that kind of service. Service sheets and the Book of Common Prayer were provided for us to help ourselves.
Was your pew comfortable?
It was quite comfortable and spacious.
How would you describe the pre-service atmosphere?
Very quiet. The organist was playing some introductory music.
What were the exact opening words of the service?
"O Lord, open thou our lips."
What books did the congregation use during the service?
The Book of Common Prayer and a service sheet entitled "Hereford Cathedral weekly Choral Evensong."
What musical instruments were played?
There is an awesome Henry Willis organ, originally dating from 1879, that has been restored and extended over the years. We were very lucky to hear it put through its paces a few days earlier when we attended an organ recital given by Robert Dixon, an organist from nearby Gloucester Cathedral. From my position in the nave I counted 23 in the choir and I felt rather embarrassed because they seemed easily to outnumber the congregation! (I couldn’t at that time see the congregation who sat in the quire stalls.)
Did anything distract you?
I was rather distracted by a painting mounted on a pillar in the crossing. From where I was sitting I couldn't make it out, with or without glasses! On later inspection it turned out to be a 1994 painting of the Crucifixion by the Scottish painter Craigie Aitchson, known for his spare and surrealistic but vividly coloured renditions.
Was the worship stiff-upper-lip, happy clappy, or what?
It was divinely formal in wonderful cathedral fashion. A crucifer led a procession of robed choir, consisting mostly of boy choristers plus some lay clerks who would sing the alto, tenor and bass parts. Three clergy wearing academic hoods followed them. The Magnificat and Nunc Dimittis,, set in E flat by Herbert Brewer (well known to most English choristers), were beautifully sung, as was the anthem Great Lord of Lords by Orlando Gibbons. The soaring high notes produced by the choristers in such a glorious house of God sent shivers down my spine.
Exactly how long was the sermon?
Which part of the service was like being in heaven?
It must be the exquisite singing and chanting in such wonderful surroundings.
And which part was like being in... er... the other place?
I spent too much time worrying about who was conducting the service since the sheet didn't give any information.
What happened when you hung around after the service looking lost?
We listened to the playing of the organ. The clergy and choir had disappeared into the bowels of the cathedral, so there was little else we could do but make our way back to the car.
How would you describe the after-service coffee?
There wasn't any.
How would you feel about making another visit (where 10 = ecstatic, 0 = terminal)?
8 – I am always attracted by anything like this and I envy people who live in cities who are able to make a cathedral their regular place of worship.
Did the service make you feel glad to be a Christian?
What one thing will you remember about all this in seven days' time ?
I know the mappa mundi was not part of the service, but I just can't get it out of my mind.