His fascinating stories have much to say about our shared history and culture: from the waves of invaders, such as the Normans, who shaped the architecture of our cathedrals, to the memorials commemorating dimly remembered heroes, and the ancient and modern artworks celebrating the sacred in life. “Art is absolutely fundamental to a cathedral,” a priest tells him in Salisbury: “It’s what this place is about: moments of creative surprise.”
Somerville is one of our finest gazetteers of the British countryside, as his numerous books and articles testify. He must have walked more of these isles than just about any other living writer, and he brings his formidable knowledge to bear on his personal quest to explore the cathedrals — a quest that began when, as a boy, he leaned so far back to admire the facade of Wells cathedral that he fell over and was left gazing at the sky. Across which the heavy galleons of these magnificent medieval creations have now sailed in this entrancing book.
To capture all this, vividly and stylishly, in one, not-very-long book suggests something close to divine inspiration. In this invigorating pilgrimage, the veteran travel writer and Times walking correspondent Christopher Somerville journeys from St Davids in the far west of Wales to St Magnus on Orkney.
Yet it’s not the breadth of his travels that impresses. You can buy many a glossy gazetteer that gives you the tourist spiel on dozens more British cathedrals than the 20 he covers. Rather, it’s the depth of the “cathedral experience” that he uncovers by the old-fashioned journalistic method of getting knowledgeable people to talk freely about what they know best, then using his sharp eyes and wits to fill in the rest of the story.
The author of The January Man traverses Britain once again, this time in order to marvel anew at his 25 favourites among the nation's cathedrals, including Wells, Lincoln, Liverpool (x2), Armagh, St David's, Orkney and Durham. Less a guidebook and more a voyage of discovery, it's a scintillating read which brings these glorious, godly buildings alive through various human eyes, including those of the clergy, and of lost souls lurking in the back pews. Richly illustrated with colour photographs and line drawings, it promises to be a beautifully produced book as well.