Thursday, 31 January 2013

The glory of Norwich

WHAT is Britain’s finest building?
I don’t mean the most famous or the most iconic – so no, not Big Ben or Tower Bridge. They are good examples of Victorian engineering and triumphalism, though I prefer the Natural History Museum and the Crossness sewage pumping-station.
And please don’t say Buckingham Palace, which – whatever you may think of the institution it houses – must have a claim to being Britain’s ugliest building.
London gets more than its fair share of attention. And frankly, though many of its very street names ooze with history, and many of its common homes have a certain aura, most of its well-known buildings are more famous than fine.
So forget London and come up quickly, if you can, with a mental list. A Top Ten of great British buildings.
I’ll bet it consists of one or two castles, maybe, and a load of cathedrals. Perhaps, since this after all is sylly (i.e. ‘holy’) Suffolk, your local parish church.
And I’ll bet most – very likely all – of your private list were late medieval. That is, built between say 1100 and 1600.
First on my list would be Durham Cathedral. Other contenders would be King’s College Chapel, along with the cathedrals at Lincoln, York, Wells, Canterbury, Salisbury, Gloucester and – topping all of those – Norwich.
It’s not just the structure itself that is so lovely, though it is a particularly elegant example of Gothic airiness in beautifully warm Caen stone. What makes Norwich really stand out for me is its unrivalled collection of roof bosses.
All up the superb length of the high nave, and right round the cloister, every intersection of the vault arching has a delightfully carved scene, most of them biblical.
There are scenes from the life of Noah (at least one of which, below, might surprise you by its, um, ‘explicit’ nature), Salome dancing with the head of John the Baptist, exuberant musicians and feasting monks.
They are, taken together, probably the best collection of in-situ medieval imagery in Britain. Yet bizarrely little known.
When you add that the great east window of St Peter Mancroft rivals King’s Chapel for the finest stained glass in the kingdom, it may seem ironic that Norwich was revealed last month as the least religious city in Britain.
No cheap partisan jokes, please. To my mind, this distinction is another thing for our northerly neighbour to be proud of.
At least it would be if it weren’t simply a chance matter of demographics.
The 2011 Census figures showed religious affiliation across the country at a new low, with self-confessed Christians clocking in at 59 per cent of the population and those claiming “no religion” 25pc.
That’s Christians down 13 points from 72pc at the previous count, no-religion up ten points from 15pc. Those describing themselves as Muslim went up from 1.8pc of the population in 2001 to 4.8pc in 2011.
But those figures are misleading in several ways.
For one thing, the question of religion was only introduced into the census in 2001, so it’s hard to say anything meaningful about any trend.
For another, as Richard Dawkins and the British Humanist Association were keen to point out, there wasn’t actually a question “Do you have a religion?” If there had been, it’s fair to assume the figure for Christians might have been a lot lower.
“Christian” is, after all, the default position in this country for a great many people who never set foot in a church for any purpose other than weddings and funerals.
If the question had been about regular active participation in religious ceremonies, the non-religious would surely have been a large majority.
Meanwhile, in addition to that glorious cathedral, Norwich has more medieval church buildings put to new, non-religious, uses than any other. And that really is something to be proud of.
The reasons for it being bottom of the religion league table are, I suspect, two-fold.
No strong Roman Catholic tradition (in recent centuries, that is – all those churches, including the cathedral, were Catholic when they were built). And fewer adherents than most other British cities to the one religion that is really “trending” these days – Islam.


ONE long-tailed tit and one fieldfare – lovely to see, but these are not birds that usually travel singly. Where were their flocks?
In fact, where were the other birds? The finches in particular. One solitary female chaffinch is scant consolation for the flocks of green and goldfinches I’ve noted down in previous years.
The weekend’s Big Garden Birdwatch was a worryingly disappointing one for me. If my severely slimmed-down list of sightings is typical, it will look like a disastrous for the RSPB – and the birds of Britain.
  • Footnote: The day after I wrote this, my birdfeeder - sadly virtually ignored all winter - attracted a pair of siskins; my gardening was accompanied by three robins, one of which settled on my hoe almost as soon as I laid it aside; and I saw the first two housesparrows I've seen in our garden in all the seven years we've been here. Signs of spring (I'd better get on with that hedge-laying!)

WHAT a small world it’s become. And what a weird one it would seem to our ancestors – even our grandparents or our younger selves.
There I sat in Suffolk with my breakfast, watching a tennis match between a Chinese woman and one from Belarus, taking place in Australia.
Gobsmacking, really, when you think about it.

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