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Transformed Leicester Cathedral reopens

24 November 2023

Pat Ashworth inspects the fruits of the two-year Revealed project

PAT ASHWORTH

The refurbished cathedral, now open again after two years

The refurbished cathedral, now open again after two years

LEICESTER CATHEDRAL, closed for two years for its Revealed project, involving a complete upgrading of its infrastructure, is to reopen on Sunday.

The project was viewed as more urgent in light of a tenfold increase in visitors since King Richard III’s tomb was created in 2015 (News, 27 March 2015). The exterior of the cathedral has been made good, and the interior, which was essentially still that of the Victorian city-centre church of St Martin’s, though its origins went back to at least the 12th century, has been transformed.

Repairs to crumbling stonework on the south side have included the restoration of the parapets and the rebuilding of the buttresses and some of the facing stones.

New grotesques have been added, in the form of a family of creatures with local associations or significance. A fox and a tiger were created in 2018 to celebrate the city’s football and rugby teams, and to these have been added the mythical, dragon-like wyvern, which appears on the city’s coat of arms, the shaggy, distinctive Leicester Longwool sheep, a peregrine falcon, and a white boar, the symbol of Richard III.

The largest task has been the excavation of the entire cathedral floor to remove the Victorian pipes and ducting and to install new underfloor heating. The floor is now limestone and level at all entrances and throughout the building.

The removal of a line of radiators that had truncated the nave, and the re-siting of the font, have opened up the west end to create a curved space with lighting on windows, installed in 1996, that depict the parting of the Red Sea. The font now stands prominently by the south wall, on a new plinth of Kilkenny marble, with lettering by the artist Josephine Crossland, which reads, “Where do you get the living water? John 4:11.”

The design of the new floor flows outwards from the font, as the whole building is intended to speak of the journey through life from baptism.

LEICESTER CATHEDRALScaffolding, which has now been taken down

The underfloor heating comes from new energy-efficient gas boilers, which proved to be the only workable option. “We’ve done as much future-proofing as possible, so that when, for instance, electric or hydrogen boilers or better heat pumps come on stream, we could retro-fit in the future,” the project manager, Simon Bentley, said on Monday.

Some reordering took place in 2015 to accommodate Richard III’s tomb, including the installation of a new alabaster altar on a dais. It was always intended to be portable, but, now that the floor has been raised up to meet it, it can be moved with ease. Each unit of the structure, including the central alabaster, is on wheels.

The building has been completely rewired, with new pendant lighting and focused spots, all controlled from tablets. There is WiFi throughout the cathedral; and concealed data points enable different spaces to function more easily for services, performances, and events.

Starting in the sanctuary and continuing to the east window, the spaces between the roof boards have been painted in a midnight blue, to give a sense of the heavens opening out above people as they move east. In another local reference, the tiny stars depicted are a Cinquefoil motif from the city’s coat of arms. Some of the Leicestershire colours of red and green in the woodwork have been toned back to give a more heritage look. Damaged bosses in the nave have been sculpted afresh.

LEICESTER CATHEDRALStonework on the south-western arch under the tower that was damaged in the 1920s has been restored

The cathedral seats 400 at present. Seating is on stackable chairs, which will eventually be stored in the basement of the new Heritage and Learning Centre, which is due to be completed at the end of next summer. It stands on the site of the demolished 1930s Song School, and will have direct access from the cathedral.

The firm intention from the outset was that the cathedral would be closed for only one Advent and Christmas; and so it has transpired (News, 5 January 2022). “It looked like a battle zone 18 months ago. You can’t make an omelette without cracking eggs, and the cracking-eggs phase was quite something,” Mr Bentley said.

The project has cost nearly £15 million, of which £6 million came from the Heritage Lottery Fund. The remainder has had to be raised.

“Cathedrals are renewed maybe once a century. It’s a major piece of work. There was the reordering to accommodate Richard and to give him a dignified resting place, but we now have a building in which we can show off our history and our heritage and offer a warmer welcome — literally,” the Acting Dean, Canon Karen Rooms, said. She paid tribute to the previous Dean, the Very Revd David Monteith, and to the team that had brought the project to fruition.

It is a gift, she says, that the cathedral already has a good relationship with the city. “I think we need to be really intentional, open across all communities, and also offering this as civic space. We talk about the public square and how cathedrals are a platform for that. We’re very keen to welcome new audiences and to make sure that the whole community is not only welcome here, but can see themselves here.

LEICESTER CATHEDRALWorkers replace the underfloor heating

“Connecting through our history and heritage with the stories of South Asia is something we’re really looking forward to researching more in the future, and making sure it’s visible in this building. We want to co-create with the city and county and across the diocese, so that it’s not us putting on hospitality, but inviting our guests in and saying ‘Let’s do something together’ — creating good community space where we can celebrate and lament.”

Worship has continued while the cathedral has been closed. City churches have hosted services, and the cathedral choir has sung evensong around the diocese. For choristers who have joined durng the past two years, Sunday will be their first opportunity to sing in the cathedral.

The project has been promoted as “Celebrating the convening power of the cathedral — to reveal the Christian message and to promote compassion and peace in a city and county where all religions are respected”.

leicestercathedral.org

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