'We depend on God to keep it up there'
It may well turn into the stuff of legend. As the nightly blitz of London by the Luftwaffe intensified in 1940 nuns living in the may of Westminster Cathedral had a statue of Mary mounted on their rooftop in Victoria so the Virgin could watch over the great Byzantine building which was the special focus of their worship and a symbol to Catholics nationwide. Along with the nuns' prayers, and those of all the Cathedral's parishioners, some believe that this act of faith may well have helped save the building — although one bomb did explode in the playground of the Cathedral's Choir School.
Now, more than a century after the building was completed and the first Mass held, those dedicated to its preservation as the vibrant House of God it has become have launched a bold appeal for £3 million to keep it "as new" for many generations to come.
"The work is unglamorous but absolutely necessary," says Mgr Mark Langham, the Cathedral's Administrator, clearly relishing the challenge ahead. "It is prudent, a matter of good husbandry, to do it now. For all sorts of reasons it could not be left for another 10 to 20 years. And, of course, we want to do the work so that it causes the minimum of inconvenience to worshippers and visitors."
Decorative work must take a back seat. Proceeding with the beautiful glass, gold and marble mosaics, which currently cover 12 per cent of the Cathedral's huge ceiling and can be seen at their splendid best in the Lady Chapel, is not a feature of the appeal. The appeal is instead aimed at the more practical elements in the builder or restorer's lexicon. , There are an astounding 12,454,474 bricks in the Cathedral, of which 100,000 are in the main four domes facing downwards. Clearly they need replacing or extensive pointing because the mortar holding them has become dry and crumbly.
There have also been some leaks into the interior brickwork. These have been sealed from the outside as part of regular maintenance but damp has left some white stains.
The windows around the main dome above the sanctuary are protected by wire mesh but one of the domes lacks any protective covering. The upper galleries on either side of the cathedral — they should seat 200 on either side — cannot be used Hanging down from the brickwork above the central aisle is the Great Rood, which weighs three tons. "If we don't take action, we are depending on God to keep it up there. It is absolutely necessary to have this work done." says Neil Fairbairn, the Cathedral Estate Manager.
It should be said that both he and Mgr Laugh= are talking about necessary maintenance, not imminent danger. From the cross, 284 feet up atop its magnificent bell tower, to its deepest vaults, Westminster Cathedral is simply showing a natural tincture of age.
Engineers designing the boiler rooms of the Titanic would have recognised some of the features of its magnificent but inefficient oilfired heating system which heats the huge space through a system of hot air. ducted through grids in the wooden floor. The electrical system, conspicuous for its Victorian steel switches, black boxes, red lights and tangled wiring, is also a candidate for the Science Museum. As to the drains, perhaps it is best to leave them to the experts and move on...
Once work begins, qualified staff, contractors and workmen will be able to see the upper brickwork in more detail. A new machine, called a "cherry-picker , will allow men on a platform to be easily moved about on a flexible arm to considerable heights. Steel bracing may be used in places. and chemical cleaners to remove the sulphurous stains left by the burning of thousands of candles and incense over the years. Candles have exemption, of course, but one -politically correct" requirement to comply with the omnipresent Health and Safety regulations will be the posting of No Smoking signs at each entrance. "No one has even been found smoking in this or any other cathedral that I know of," says Neil Fairbairn. "But," he shrugs, "that's the law."
There will also be compliance with legislation concerning wheelchair access for the infirm and disabled, and new "green" light bulbs — though not those which produce a harsh, neon-like light which would disturb the ambient light and shadow, so important to the Cathedral's huge interior.
It is this immense space that strikes visitors to the Cathedral for the first time. Cardinal Vaughan (1865-1903), who gave the go-ahead for its construction following the full restoration of Catholic dioceses by Pope Pius IX in 1850, at first wanted a Gothic building. But his architect John Francis Bentley counselled him to adopt the Byzantine or Romanesque style. That way, he persuaded the cardinal. there would be no question of an invidious comparison with the exquisite and authentic Gothic statement of Westminster Abbey. Using domes instead of arches would allow him to create a larger space more suitable for the Catholic liturgy, with 2,000 worshippers able to see the high altar. And the decorative mosaics could be left to the resources of subsequent generations, to be completed as funds allowed. But mosaics cannot be successfully applied to bricks which have been left unpointed. This is another reason why the work cannot wait much longer. For in the areas where the mosaics have been applied the Cathedral has a lustre which is uniquely beautiful. And as the decorative work progresses over the years the interior will become even more majestic than it is today.
When does the work begin? The plan is to spend the £3 million over two to three years, with the longest run of work being this year from Easter to Advent. Of the total, £1 million will be spent restoring the domes. Scaffolding will be necessary but will be dismantled as soon as work has been completed at each stage.
Where is the money coming from? As many people as possible will be asked to respond to the appeal and big business is going to be among the targets.
"City firms and banks will be approached but equally we hope individual parishioners and Catholics everywhere will help," Mgr Langham says. "The Cathedral was built without endowments to maintain it and we have no government grants, nor do we receive anything from other parishes or dioceses or from Rome." He does not rule out using professional fundraisers and hopes that a contribution will be forthcoming from English Heritage. "What we will never do," he adds, "is resort to entry charges or turnstiles. The Cathedral must be freely open to all."
To inquire about making a donation or for further information about the appeal and how you can help, please telephone 020 7798 9055