3 old churches to visit now that Britain is open again

The pandemic never officially closed the United Kingdom, but mandatory quarantines and periodic testing for nonessential travelers kept most Americans from visiting.

That changed earlier this month when borders reopened to fully vaccinated Americans.

While the reopening may have come too late to salvage the all-important summer season — the United States is Britain’s largest and most valuable tourism market — popular attractions, including historic churches and cathedrals, are making the most out of a difficult situation.

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The following are three old churches to visit when crossing the pond.

The baptismal font inside Beverley Minster. The parish church rivals many cathedrals in both grandeur and size.
The baptismal font inside Beverley Minster. The parish church rivals many cathedrals in both grandeur and size. | Dennis Lennox

Beverley Minster

This church is in Beverley, a relatively small English town in the East Riding of Yorkshire about four hours by car from London.

Beverley Minster, with its medieval architecture and superb twin west towers, has been used by filmmakers as a double for the considerably more famous Westminster Abbey. Despite rivaling many cathedrals in both grandeur and size, Beverley’s principal parish church is not a cathedral, despite there being a suffragan (or assistant) bishop of Beverley in the hierarchy of the Church of England.

Rather, the minster designation is one of those English peculiarities. It reflects the church’s Anglo-Saxon origins. In those days, churches with a monastic or collegiate foundation were named minsters.

Rebuilt from the 13th century in Gothic, the architecture spans the Early English, Decorated and Perpendicular styles. As with so many other churches and cathedrals, Beverley Minster was greatly changed by the Reformation, when the old religion of Roman Catholicism and its trappings of chantry chapels, statuary and saintly relics were lost, sold or destroyed.

Rochester Cathedral is England’s second-oldest cathedral.
Rochester Cathedral is England’s second-oldest cathedral. | Courtesy of Prioryman

Rochester Cathedral

The Cathedral Church of Christ and the Blessed Virgin Mary, as it is formally dedicated, is England’s second-oldest cathedral.

Built by the Normans after the 1066 conquest, the cathedral in Rochester — 30 miles from London — stands opposite a ruined castle of the same era at a strategic position near the River Medway. It replaced an earlier building from the 7th century, not long after St. Augustine of Canterbury arrived in England to convert the pagans.

Controlled by Anglicans since the Church of England’s break from Rome, it features prominently in English Roman Catholicism as the then-bishop of Rochester was martyred and subsequently canonized as St. John Fisher over his refusal to side with King Henry VIII against the papacy.

Of particular note is the magnificent 12th century Norman (or Romanesque) great west door with its tympanum containing a relief of Christ in majesty. Bibliophiles will want to see “Textus Roffensis,” a medieval book containing several pre-Magna Carta laws and charters including the 7seventh century law code of King Æthelberht.

St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Scotland, hasn’t been a cathedral since the Scottish Reformation.
St. Magnus Cathedral in Kirkwall, Scotland, hasn’t been a cathedral since the Scottish Reformation. | Dennis Lennox

St. Magnus Cathedral

Built after a Norse earl by the name of Magnus Erlendsson was martyred some 900 years ago, when the Orkney Islands in Scotland were part of Scandinavia, St. Magnus Cathedral is spectacular.

Despite being called a cathedral, it hasn’t been a cathedral since 1689. That’s when the episcopacy of Scotland’s established church was dissolved for presbyterianism — a polity more aligned with the Calvinistic tone of the Scottish Reformation. Polity aside, the church has retained the cathedral moniker, allowing tourism officials to market it as Britain’s northernmost cathedral. The massive piers and bold rounded arches in the interior are telltale signs of Romanesque architecture and date to the 12th century, when the Roman Catholic bishop’s throne was here.

Besides St. Magnus Cathedral, Kirkwall is delightfully charming and the perfect place to explore the rest of Orkney.

If you go

While the United Kingdom is open once again, American visitors need proof of vaccination. Additionally, negative coronavirus tests are required both pre-departure and on or before a visitor’s second day in-country. More information on entry requirements can be found at the VisitBritain website.

Stay at the Tickton Grange Hotel in Beverley, the family-owned Ayre Hotel in Kirkwall and The Ship and Trades Hotel near Rochester.

Admission to all three churches is free.

Follow @dennislennox on Instagram and Twitter.

Dennis Lennox writes about travel, politics and religious affairs. He has been published in the Financial Times, Independent, The Detroit News, Toronto Sun and other publications. Follow @dennislennox on Twitter.

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