Derby Cathedral’s bright and beautiful refurbishment

PUBLISHED: 00:00 12 December 2015

The newly refurbished cathedral  Photo Mark Story

The newly refurbished cathedral Photo Mark Story

derby cathedral

As the refurbishment of Derby Cathedral’s interior is completed in time for one of the most important dates in the Christian calendar, Derbyshire Life talks to the Dean of Derby about the work and the important place the building holds in the life of the city

Work gets underwayWork gets underway

THE DEAN of Derby, the Very Revd John Davies, recalls the precise moment when the email came through from the grant-making body, the Cathedral Fabric Commission for England (CFCE).

He’d just returned upstairs to his office at Cathedral House after a meeting in the library below, and scrolling down through the preamble on his computer screen, got to the words, ‘You have asked for £535,000. You have been granted £535,000.’

‘I read it again and then I ran downstairs. Ran downstairs!’ he remembers. ‘There was much embracing and happiness in that library.’

The refurbishment of the cathedral interior, enabled by this grant and other monies, was long overdue. Cumbersome radiators dating from the 1940s and 1950s produced little heat; the lighting was poor and the walls grubby. Now the boiler has been replaced and the whole building rewired and redecorated, at a total cost of £825,000. When you walk in through the glass entrance door, what confronts you is simply stunning: a glory of light that pours in through the windows, twinkles in the chandeliers and illuminates the great pillars and capitals of this eighteenth-century masterpiece by the architect of St Martin-in-the-Fields in London and the Radcliffe Camera in Oxford, James Gibbs.

The Very Rev Dr John Davies, Dean of Derby CathedralThe Very Rev Dr John Davies, Dean of Derby Cathedral

‘A cathedral should lift your eye and give you a sense of space, and that’s exactly what the new uplighting does,’ says the Dean with pleasure. Re-wiring a building on this scale has been no mean feat, as the multiple skips full of old wiring, dead radiators ‘and all manner of stuff that was great 50 years ago but was now very tired’ have testified. The cathedral closed its doors from Monday to Friday for four months, to enable the building to be given over entirely to the army of workmen, a bold decision that paid dividends in getting all the work done on time and to budget.

For that, the Dean praises the principal contractors, MSM (Midlands Stone Masonry) as ‘exceptional to work with. We are singularly impressed by what they have done,’ he says warmly. ‘They worked with us very sympathetically and let us do some very interesting things.’

Derby Cathedral stands on the site of a Saxon church that became All Saints Church. The story goes that in 1723, its incumbent priest, Dr Hutchinson, had grown so irritated with the obduracy of the city’s aldermen that he got a crowd of men together and completely demolished the church overnight. It has always been thought that nothing was left of the medieval building, but the recent works have revealed the remains of some of those ancient walls within the cathedral.

‘They had to take the panelling off the walls in the south side, the area between Bess of Hardwick’s tomb and the east side of the building, to put the new heaters and supply pipes in,’ the Dean explains. ‘And they found there what was very obviously not an 18th century wall; a piscina (a shallow basin where the priest would have washed his hands) and also some sort of tomb – all behind the panelling.’ So one of the next projects will be how to display these discoveries whilst retaining the integrity of the 18th century whole.

Manager Bruce Parke of MSM during the worksManager Bruce Parke of MSM during the works

There were other discoveries too, some of which the Dean describes cheerfully as ‘wacky’. Cathedral regulars have always complained how cold this Cavendish corner of the cathedral has been for worship, despite the heating system. ‘It turns out that when the retrochoir, the space behind the high altar, was built, they just sawed off the heating pipe and blocked up the space. So it’s never been heated at all! The pipes have been reconnected now and it’s warmer than it’s been since the 1960s,’ says the Dean.

Slim radiators with fans gently move warm air around a building that with its creamy interior now looks and feels altogether bigger and more expansive. ‘The real driver behind the project, the principal driver of it all, was to let the things in the cathedral speak,’ the Dean reflects. ‘Pevsner, the twentieth century art and architecture historian, says in his description of the building that the decoration scheme as it was – pinks and cerises – seemed to be jarring and in competition with prominent things in the cathedral like the Bakewell screen and the Ceri Richards stained glass windows. What we’ve tried to do is rest the interior and let those things speak into the space.’

And speak they do, into the space and into the soul. On the eve of All Saints Day, November 1st, the cathedral held a service of thanksgiving for the restoration of the interior, which began in darkness and moved into permutations of lighting as the procession arrived at the sanctuary gate and passed through the Bakewell screen. ‘You could see people gradually opening up to the light. It was a lovely occasion,’ says the Dean.

Nothing has been missed. The great pillars, which the Dean describes as ‘marching down the church’, have two rings of gold at the base. With cost in mind, it was thought that these could be left as they were, but once the decoration was under way, it became apparent that ‘the rest of it looked so fresh that we couldn’t possibly leave it like that,’ he remembers. He approached the cathedral’s regular congregation and supporters and asked whether they could help fund the gilding. ‘I asked on Sunday morning and the money had come in by teatime – enough to do all the pillars bar one,’ he says with gratitude. ‘And MSM said, “We’ll pay for that.” Isn’t that lovely?’

A view of the beautifully painted canopy from belowA view of the beautifully painted canopy from below

Such a spirit of connection and co-operation has marked the whole project, he says, paying tribute, among many others, to the architect, Robert Kilgour, ‘who has been so good to work with.’ The work has earned the praise of everyone from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osbourne – who launched the cathedral works funding scheme on behalf of the Government in 2013 – to Frank Field, MP, former chair of the CFAC, who described Derby’s two funding bids as ‘excellent’. A second bid for £125,000 for some roofing repairs, was also granted. Money towards the work had been saved from legacies, and a small fundraising group in the cathedral raised £70,000.

For the Cathedral, it marks the final end of a troubled period in its recent history that has been well documented. Now it can put the past behind it and look forward with confidence, says the Dean, declaring: ‘We are not haunted by history now. The building is fit for purpose and in good order and we are ready to get on and use it.’

And use it they do, and not just for worship. This is Derby’s landmark place, its most iconic building, and the Bishop of Derby, the Rt Revd Alastair Redfern, holds many events here, including, most recently, a summit on migration attended by MPs, city and country councillors, charities and everyone concerned about the national and international situation. The Dean has hosted a credit union summit in the cathedral and is now himself a director of one of the credit unions operating in the city. There is regular dialogue with the Muslim community that makes up 10 per cent of the city’s population. The cathedral was part of the stunning Folk Festival in October, following it up with Harvest celebrations on a folk theme that the Dean describes as ‘hauntingly beautiful.’

Cathedrals are part of their environment, woven into their local setting and having a positive regard for everyone with whom they come into contact, he reflects, noting that these buildings have been given Government money for works such as Derby’s in recognition of that very involvement and engagement in community and civic life. Visitor numbers at Derby are up by 30 per cent, which is another cause for rejoicing. ‘And people are coming in now and saying, “isn’t this fresh and lovely and great,”’ the Dean concludes with pleasure.

A view of the beautifully painted Retro ChoirA view of the beautifully painted Retro Choir

‘When I arrived here five years ago, I knew we had all these plans but we didn’t know how we were going to do it. It seemed like a mountain. But it’s done, and we are able now to build our ministry around something that is truly positive. That’s just wonderful.’

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