Monday, 27 October 2008

Autumn peace and quiet in Lichfield’s Cathedral Close

Lichfield Cathedral and the Minster Pool from a poolside table in Ego in Bird Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Patrick Comerford

The past few days in Lichfield have been well-spent … they have been both blissful and revitalising. Ryanair flights from Dublin to Birmingham make Lichfield more accessible than many places in Ireland, and it was a peaceful way to start into this peculiar bank holiday weekend we have in Ireland.

I stayed once again at No 8, The Close, where the rooms at the front look onto the West Front of the Cathedral, and are filled with early light at sunrise, while the rooms at the back overlook the wondrous herbal garden first planted by Erasmus Darwin, the grandfather of Charles Darwin, shortly after he built Darwin House 250 years ago in 1758.

The Cathedral Close in Lichfield is the most serene cathedral close I know, and has become quieter in recent months. For the past six months, day-time car parking has been prohibited in the Close, keeping all but the most essential parking out from this area. Although the restoration work on the cathedral means there are still a number of white vans, work vehicles and delivery lorries in the Close on a normal, busy, working day, the ban on parking has had an immediate impact.

The Close is now a visitor-friendly and pedestrian-friendly area, with people relaxing and stopping to chat on the street, carers and people in wheelchairs know they’re welcome, and a calming peace has descended on this quiet corner of the Midlands.

The cathedral plays an important role in the artistic and cultural life of Lichfield. In the run-up to Christmas, the cathedral programme will include candle-lit tours throughout November and December, and Advent Carol Services on 29 and 30 November with the clever title of “Light in Our Darkness,” playing on the words of the Evening Collect, “Lighten our darkness ….” The Sunday service will be followed by spiced wine and Advent Cake in the Great Hall of the Bishop’s Palace, which is now the Cathedral School.

The Tallis Scholars – once described by the New York Times as “the rock stars of Renaissance vocal music” – are in concert in the cathedral on 5 December, with a “Journey through Advent to Christmas” presented by Lichfield Festival in association with Lichfield Cathedral. The programme includes works by Orlando Gibbons, William Byrd and Thomas Tallis, and culminates with Tallis’s Missa Puer natus est nobis. And Olivier Messiaen’s centenary will be marked with a performance of Messiaen’s La Nativité du Seigneur by Philip Scriven on 10 December.

In addition, local schools are public bodies are holding their own carol services in the cathedral, including Lichfield Cathedral School (12 December), Staffordshire Women’s Institute (13 December), the Friary School (15 December), King Edward VI School (16 December), the Mayor (17 December, followed by mulled wine and mince pies), Lichfield Cathedral Special Choir (18 December), three afternoon carol services for shoppers at 2, 3 and 4 p.m. (20 December), and the cathedral’s own traditional carol service (21 December).

Despite these and many other busy programmes, the Cathedral Close remains calm and peaceful. At night, when darkness descends, and only the slim moon and the stars light the sky, it is difficult to remember that Lichfield has city status. With lights out throughout the cathedral and the close, with no pubs or clubs nearby, and no through traffic, the calm that fills this quiet corner makes me feel as if I am in the middle of rural England.

Yet, late each night, two members of the verging staff walk around the Close, to check over 60 cathedral properties – following the tradition of Alfred Haycock, who worked at the cathedral from 1912 to 1955.

I was in Lichfield Cathedral for one of my regular retreats and pilgrimages, and appreciated the time for prayer, reflection, strolls by the Minster Pool, and a chance to reflect and to think.

There were visits to some of my favourite places, including Saint John’s, where my whole adult faith story begins, the Staffs Bookshop, which is my favourite second-hand bookshop … anywhere … morning coffee in the Tudor Café on Bore Street, strolls through the gardens of Darwin House and Vicar’s Close, a nostalgic ramble by the house on Birmingham Road where I stayed when I first began writing freelance contributions to the Lichfield Mercury, afternoon coffee in the Couch Potato, a look at the art exhibition in the Guildhall ... And there was time to drop into both the King’s Head on Bird Street and the Queen’s Head in Queen Street, and for meals in two of my favourite restaurants: in Ego on Bird Street, at a table overlooking Minster Pool, and in the Olive Tree on Tamworth Street.

From Tamworth Street in Lichfield it was time to drop in on an old haunt in Lichfield Street in Tamworth. Lunch on Saturday afternoon in Tamworth was in the Moat House on Lichfield Street, a tumbling Jacobean pile that was once home to generations of the Comberford family. Later, the light autumn weather provided a welcome opportunity to head out to Comberford Hall and then to stroll across to Comberford Village.

A peaceful and tranquil corner in Lichfield District, between Lichfield and Tamworth

Despite the proximity to Tamworth and Lichfield, Comberford is in the heart of rural England, with a feeling of remote tranquillity and rural peace … so remote and so peaceful that even the local taxi driver didn’t realise there was a Church and a whole village in this little quiet corner of Lichfield District.

The combination of the calm and tranquillity of Lichfield Cathedral and the peaceful isolation in the surrounding villages, made these ideal days for prayer, for thinking, and for being in communion with God and God’s creation. A row of autumn conkers from the drive leading up to Comberford Hall now lines the window ledge of my study … a reminder to return in the spring.

Lichfield Cathedral is at: http://www.lichfield-cathedral.org/.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Director of Spiritual Formation, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute