The AJ Writing Prize 2014: Entry
As I sit to rest, I press my back against a cold, smooth surface and close my eyes as I reflect on the space surrounding me. There is very little sound; just the hum of people walking nearby, often seeking something much grander than where I rest. My feet sit unevenly on the slab flooring, but it is not uncomfortable; it reminds me of my awareness, my being. I stretch my hands out to feel something which I instantly know was once very strong and robust, although its purpose has begun to fade and a new meaning awaits it. What feels like a solid stone column is cold, and it syncs itself with the cool breeze that gently washes by me. It is a hot summers day and I am thankful that many of our buildings have the ability to provide a retreat from our temperamental climate.
I find my hands wandering; curious to know what surrounds me. The seat I rest upon is smooth to touch, the setting of the height matches with my lower back and legs. This seat was designed with purpose and thought, and I can feel ever so slightly, the dints of mortar which separate its solid form. I try to imagine where I could be, a gallery, a museum, or even a hospital? But I know the place I am is distinctive, its characteristics go beyond a simple configuration of materials. The sound does not echo, yet it is not mute and dull. The fresh air gives a crispness which is so difficult to define within a building. This is no accident, the building serves its purpose beautifully.
As I fall away into myself I begin to feel my head yearning to rest, until suddenly, I realise my head keeps falling. There is no head rest, no wall, the solid form breaks. I contemplate why this is and as I do, I find that curiosity gets the better of me; my hand raises its self and moves behind my head. I feel solidity again, but it has depth and is set back with columns linking together in a structural vault. I think as to why this is so; why has someone designed a space to rest but prevented the occupant from truly relaxing? Then suddenly it occurs to me, perhaps this is a space which is designed for rest, but not relaxation. The craftsmanship in this form already knows your movements, your process and most importantly your thoughts. It is allowing you to rest but reminds you there is more to come.
As I regain myself, my curiosity leads me to the delight of sight. What awaits my eyes when I open them is something quite spectacular; it is one of a set of beautiful bespoke windows directly ahead of me. Both windows commemorate two very distinctive themes, yet their presence is linked by the bond of solid masonry.
The light falls quite differently from these windows, perhaps because only half the frame is glazed, yet this is no mistake. The window has a stained pattern on it of rustling wheat and barleys. The colours are autumnal and the light shines through a warm orange glow just like a setting sun.
Despite the dense mass of stone that surrounds me, I feel secure. The vaulted ceilings carry their own sense of purpose, yet their decoration rejoices in progress. The mullions that link the glass to the vaulting are deep and heavy but the light creates shadows which form patterns which cleverly articulate its architectural language.
As I look up I see small shields abutting the ribs in the vaulting, these are more little personal reminders of the people that used and love this building. The colours are striking but only when you look for them, as the long vista is what attracts you most. As I look closer I can see the markings which my hands weren’t skilled enough to feel. I can imagine so clearly, a man sitting carving away at this piece of stone that lifts the vaulted ceiling up high. He is amongst us through his craft. This is a building which we often see as a historical artefact that should be preserved, but why it is preserved, countless reasons can be suggested. However, one of these reasons is the intense skills, training and pure faith that went into creating a building of such a massive proportion, with only their hands and basic tools. There were no architect’s by name, yet the ambition and thought existed and it is what makes us who we are today.
Canterbury Cathedral is just one of many historical buildings which give us more than its original intention, and even just one small space can open up our eyes to the thought and care taken to create places with a meaning and purpose. The craftsmanship is evident, merely by looking at the mass of Bell Harry, the gigantic tower that sits atop the nave, yet what really catches my imagination is the detail. The detail is so clever we barely notice its even there to be thought of.
My experience of sitting within the cloisters of Canterbury Cathedral has shown me the need to embrace our ancestors love for detail and demonstrating their thoughts through intricate design. The windows installed earlier this year not only mark a celebration in the Cathedrals calender but the beginning of a new reign in architecture. We celebrate our history and we respect it, just as our ancestors did, yet we can create a subconscious journey full of anticipation, excitement and delight throughout our built environment. Thus, although I am in awe of Canterbury Cathedrals great scale, I can’t help but feel the element that has altered me most was the little space within the cloisters.