There’s so many secret places and concealed spots to discover at St John Baptist Cathedral. From a hidden chapel to a secret tunnel for priests to walk through, there’s plenty you probably won’t be aware of, and the Cathedral runs a Hidden Places tour, which is the perfect way to hunt them out!
Both images above: the Cathedral of St John the Baptist, credit David Street
We started the tour at the Duckett Library; named after Canon Richard Duckett, who was instrumental in the plans for building the Cathedral (so a very worthy namesake!) The library’s entirely staffed by volunteers and has around 4,000 religious publications - plenty to keep anyone busy!
We then climbed the spiral staircase to the ‘hidden chapel; it’s pretty dark so we’re given torches to help find our way – then we all emerge into a light, bright space right above the floor-level Walsingham Chapel. No one actually knows the real purpose of this space – it’s never been a chapel, but may have been a quiet contemplation space for the clergy. The only clue that the space was originally intended for public access is the hand rail up the spiral stairs!
Image: The Hidden Chapel - credit David Street
This is a balcony above the confessional booths. People assumed that the balcony was built to seat the Duke of Norfolk (to get a good view of Mass!) but this is actually wrong - at the time the balcony was built, the high altar would have been all the way up at the East end of the church, out of sight from the balcony. However, you can get a rather great view of the cathedral!
We then climbed up another spiral staircase onto… the roof! We opened the door to the right and saw the secret rose window which isn’t visible from inside the Cathedral; squeeze through the narrow gap and you’ll find yourself right outside the Great South Window (called the Pentecost Window) which means you can see exactly how the stained glass window is constructed.
Image: On top of the South Transept - credit David Street
We then took a walk through the Sacristy and through Cathedral House, which is where the priests live, continuing through the front door of the Cathedral House and down into the Columbarium, where people can have their ashes interred.
This space was actually originally an undercroft, likely built for a number of reasons - firstly, at the time St Johns was built (then a parish church) Catholic priests could be fined 1d (an old penny) for wearing their vestments in the street (although there is no record that this law was ever enforced in Norwich!). But many feasts and services call for a procession - the tunnel meant that the priests could carry out their procession but just not in the street.
If digging a tunnel sounds like a lot of effort, just remember that it might have been considered unwise to process in the street in catholic garb at a time when anti-Catholic sentiment was still substantial in East Anglia.
We then passed through the Door of Mercy (by doing this you can gain an indulgence – which is essentially like an absolution, absolving you of your sins – more information on this here.). The door is open every day.
We ended the tour at the Narthex, in the annexe’s lovely café, where we decided to treat ourselves to a spot of lunch and a cup of tea – crucial relaxation time to process and reflect on all that interesting information we’d learnt!
To do this tour justice you really need to come and see with your own eyes! It’s an absolutely fantastic experience for all ages and interests – and completely free as part of Heritage Open Days (see our blog post all about HODs here). Tours will run on Thursday 11th, Friday 12th & Saturday 13th September at 11am, 12.30pm, 2pm and 3.30pm, and on Sunday 14th at 12.30pm and 2pm.
If you’d like to come in a group and arrange a private tour, get in touch as they’re very accommodating - why not combine the tours with refreshments (lunch, dinner, afternoon tea, even champagne…!) to create your perfect event, exactly as you want it! Prices start from £5 per head. Please email firstname.lastname@example.org or call 01603 724381 to find out more and book.
But whatever you do, wear sensible shoes – no one wants to be tripping up those spiral staircases in stilletos!
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