The Secret Cathedral

Earlier this year, when I showed you Liverpool’s Anglican Cathedral, I said we’d be back to take a look at its Roman Catholic counterpart, down the other end of Hope Street. Yesterday, on a sopping wet day of constant rain this happened. It also happened to be Sarah’s birthday.

But before we get to the relatively modern Catholic cathedral that ended up getting built, I want to show you what might have been. And then pay a visit to a bit of this ‘might have been’ that is almost secretly there, underneath the modern reality.

A model of what might have been, now in the Museum of Liverpool.

In the 1930s, Edwin Lutyens, the architect who designed the Cenotaph and much of New Delhi, designed what would have been the largest cathedral in the world. Work began on the foundations and the crypt, while money began to be raised for the rest of the structure. World War Two then interrupted the building works. And then post-war austerity and changing tastes ended them altogether.

The Lutyens Crypt

The crypt was roofed over, and come 1967 a more modest and modern cathedral had been erected on top. I was an altar boy at the opening celebrations in May 1967. Just a couple of years before my early faith in the Catholic religion faded away for good.

And in the years that followed the vast structure of the Lutyens crypt slept on under the modern cathedral, almost unnoticed by most of the people of Liverpool.

The Lutyens Cathedral would have dominated the city landscape. The eventual building, by Frederick Gibberd, gently overlooks it.
Along the far end of Hope Street from the Anglican Cathedral.

Recently, though, the great crypt has been joined to the ‘new’ cathedral. So, robbed of our planned Sarah’s birthday walk on the Shining Shore by the torrential rain, we set off on what would be her first visit to the Lutyens Crypt. The new Crypt entrance and stairs seen here on a much sunnier day than we had yesterday.

You go in through the main doors of the cathedral, pay your £3 each and begin your descent into a dream of what might have been. Down into the basement of an unfinished story.

Sarah, on a wet birthday, at the top of the stairs.
Down the 52 steps.
To emerge into a vast space. The Lutyens Crypt.
Where even the side chapels are high and imposing.
Like a secret cathedral.

And it really is like one huge, mostly underground cathedral. There is no single, great, gathering space. Just corridor after corridor of vast,brick and pillared archways. We are, after all, standing in the foundations of the biggest cathedral in the world.

Some of the space is used for an exhibition of the history of the place. There’s a performance space with a Steinway grand piano on the stage. And part of it is clearly a working chapel, lit by candles. But most of it is gloriously empty.

And, having no religious faith, either of us, how come we like the place so much? Well, I suppose like all great buildings, we appreciate the human imaginations that made it and constructed it. We enjoy what being in the space feels like. The sound of almost silence. The peace of a thing done perfectly.

The peace of a thing done perfectly.
Sarah on her birthday.

After such peace, it’s eventually time to leave. Time for a brief look around ‘upstairs.’ So, we emerge from our dream of what might have been, up the lovely new stairs, into the cathedral that really did get built in the 1960s.

And it really is very beautiful.

A circular space, a vision of a more egalitarian time.

Imaginative uses of natural light, to brighten the dullest of days.
And its crowning glory.
Stained glass inside and out.
And yes, it was a very wet day.

And it’s time for lunch. The Cathedral does have an ok kind of café that we’ve been to once or twice. But it’s not good enough for your birthday.

So we’re soon in Greendays, Sarah knitting happily.
And after cooking our lunch,Carole the owner, cheerfully sits down and finishes off Sarah’s new gloves with her. Thank you Carole!

Published by Ronnie

Writing about life, Liverpool and anything else that interests me. As well as working with others to make the world a fairer and kinder place:

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  1. Love it!!! Also, am I being too girly if I say I also love that shawl Sarah is wearing? Did she make it? Also, don’t have to be religious to feel spiritual. xoxo

  2. No you certainly do not have to be religious to appreciate and absorb the glories of a beautiful cathedral. Recently I spent some time sitting in silent contemplationi in St Mary’s Cathedral Perth. Recently renovated, the cathedral would once have been set above the city centre from its hilltop site but other buildings have overtaken its presence. But this cathedral shines with amazing natural light that pours in through huge windows on to rows of polished jarrah pews. The outside walls have been cleaned and the sandstone positively gleams. While I was there the organist began playing, Bach I think, amazing ! So I understand how you feel about your building and such an enthralling story about the secret cathedral. Lovely photographs by the way.

    1. Thank you Mandy, Sarah took most of the photographs this time. Her camera’s smaller than mine, so she was safely able to ignore the vaguely bossy ‘No photography’ signs in the Crypt!

      And I too love silent contemplation in cathedrals. I close my eyes and get lost in the echoey silence.

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