UK 2019 Day 13: St. Mary Redcliffe

Posted March 1, 2020

May 21, 2019

After almost two weeks of intense riding around England and Wales (Darren and Ruth doing all the driving, bless their souls), we took a slightly slower day and focused on Bristol itself. We did have a lovely visit to the Bristol Museum [map], which is probably one of the better local museums, but decided to leave the picture taking behind. But the centerpiece was the church of St. Mary Redcliffe [map].

Gothic church with spire.
St. Mary Redcliffe is situated right inside urban Bristol, so there aren’t many clear overviews of it. This view is looking east.

This church building has been called the epitome of high English Gothic architecture, and it isn’t hard to see why. The ornate stonework and tracery, as well as the flying buttresses and the tall spire, mark this – one of the largest parish churches in England – a real stand-out. Queen Elizabeth I is said to have described it as “the fairest, goodliest, and most famous parish church in England.”

Stone church facade with tall arched winows and flying buttresses.
Part of the northern facade of the church. The tower and spire are just off to the right.

Inside, the church as a couple items of historical note. There’s a model of John Cabot’s ship, The Matthew, to commemorate his 1497 voyage to North America, as well as a piece of whalebone he brought back to England. We had visited the observation tower named for Cabot on our first day in Bristol. Cabot’s expeditions sailed from Bristol under the commission of King Henry VII.

Whalebone affixed to the interior wall of a church, by a stone archway.
Whalebone from North America, via John Cabot’s expeditions in the 1490s.

There is also a wooden carving of Queen Elizabeth I, dating from her reign (likely circa 1570). She is known to have visited the church in 1574, but I don’t know if the carving was already there, or done later to commemorate her visit. It is remarkably well preserved, though I suspect the paint’s been touched up now and then.

Painted wooden carving of Queen Elizabeth I
HRH’s likeness in painted wood.

The rest of the interior is quintessentially Gothic, with high, almost delicate looking arches and vaulting and exquisite stained glass. Much of the original stained glass was destroyed during the Reformation, but later replaced. Bombing in the second world war destroyed the glass on the west side, and was replaced again.

Church interior with high vaulted ceiling and stained glass windows at the far end.
A view along the nave toward the restored stained glass on the west side of the church.

That bombing could have destroyed the church, and a poignant reminder of that is a section of tramline (from a light rail system) that was blown up and onto the church grounds, where it remains today as a memorial and reminder.

Memorial plaque and tramline (rail) section stuck in the ground behind it.
This section of rail was left embedded where it landed after a German bombing in 1941. On Good Friday, to be exact. [Thanks, Mrs. Lonely Birder for the photo!]
St. Mary Redcliffe’s interior is stunningly beautiful and, like most Gothic churches, airy and open. It’s tempting when we hear “Gothic” and architecture of the Middle Ages (“The Dark Ages”) to think of heavy, dark, and oppressive themes. But on the whole, this church and the other medieval structures we saw during our visit, were more atmospheric and almost ethereal. The designers were building these spaces to evoke heaven and salvation, and that’s very much reflected in this church.

04_St-Mary-Redcliffe_04
Another interior view of St. Mary Redcliffe. The ceiling decorations are more golden than what shows up in this photograph, but really, no photos truly do justice to this amazing place.

As a final note to this spectacular church, the tall spire you can see today was finished in 1872. The original was destroyed in a storm – perhaps struck by lightning – in the 15th Century. For much of it’s existence, the church had short, truncated cone cap on its tower.

South_Porch_of_St_Mary_Redcliffe_Church,_Bristol_c.1791-2
This watercolor by J. M. W. Turner shows St. Mary Redcliffe with its truncated spire. It would be almost 80 years before the current spire would be built. Image copyright Bristol Culture.

 

13_St-Mary-Redcliffe_13
One final look at St. Mary Redcliffe and its spire.

We also visited the M Shed museum, though we took no photographs as some areas expressly forbade it, and we were so engrossed that we didn’t think of it! There were some interesting Banksy pieces and some great tributes to Bristolians and their city. If you visit Bristol, M Shed is a must-see!

 

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