Realms of faith

10th October 2003 at 01:00
Lichfield Cathedral's rich and varied past makes it an ideal place in which to learn about history, architecture and Christian community. Phil Revell reports

Lichfield Cathedral may not be as well known as Westminster or Durham, or as big as York or Canterbury, but it does have 1,300 years of history covering the Saxons, Normans, Roundheads and Cavaliers, and encompassing Puritan destruction and Victorian renovation. It's a lot to take in, which makes it an ideal place for teachers looking to combine history and architecture with a real sense of a continuous Christian community.

Lichfield lies at the heart of England, 17 miles north of Birmingham.

Thirteen hundred years ago this was the kingdom of Mercia. When Chad was made Bishop of Mercia in 669 he moved his "see" (seat of authority) to Lichfield and after his death in 672, pilgrims began to visit his shrine.

A simple Saxon church was replaced, first by a Norman Cathedral and then by the current Gothic structure, which was started in 1195 and completed in 1330.

Lichfield was a fortified site, with a curtain wall and a great gate.

During the Civil War it was a royalist stronghold that changed hands several times until it was taken by the Parliamentary forces in 1646.

During this time it sustained a great deal of damage. The third spire was destroyed by artillery and all the building's medieval stained glass was smashed.

Essential repairs were carried out after the war, but the main restoration had to wait until the Victorian era, when funds enabled it to be restored to its original medieval glory.

Today the cathedral is very much a working church. On the day I visited, a school group had to wait for a funeral to finish before completing their tour, which started earlier in the morning.

There are resources for all the key stages and special studies can be undertaken. For history there are study units on Invaders and Settlers, Medieval Realms, the Tudors and the Reformation, and the Stuarts and the Civil War.

Trained guides escort school groups through the building and even on to the roof where children can experience a Cavalier's view of how a Parliamentary siege would have been conducted. The guides are ready to answer questions ranging from "Is there really a dead person in there?' (answer: yes) to "Why do we light candles while saying a prayer?"

"The bulk of our schools come for the history," says Canon Tony Barnard.

"At KS1I we get them to measure the great stone pillars by seeing how many children are needed to form a circle around the base."

Groups normally arrive at 10am and see an audio-visual presentation before moving into the building. "We try to catch the kids where their interest is and gently nudge them on to where their teacher wants them to be," says Canon Barnard.

The technique worked with 12-year-old James Churcher, visiting from Ercall Wood Technology College. He is impressed by the size and splendour of the cathedral: "I thought it would echo. I've never been inside anything this big," he says.

James went away with a real sense of history and an idea of why various aspects of the building are significant: "It's called a cathedral because it's where the bishop has his chair. We saw that inside."

Cathedral tours cost pound;1.80 per child and advance booking is essential. Contact the officer for school visits: Visitors Centre, The Close, Lichfield, WS13 7LDTel: 01543 306240Email: Lichfield Cathedral

19A The Close Lichfield, Staffordshire, WS13 7LDTel: 01543

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