Many of us have preconceptions of what we might find when visiting a cathedral for the first time: be warned, with Southwell Minster these are likely to be entirely swept away with the first glance of the 'Rhenish' caps on the west towers that protrude from an otherwise English rural environment. Southwell is the smallest cathedral town in England, and the Minster has been famously referred to as the 'village cathedral of the Midlands'.
Records show that Southwell was an early Christian site, and suggest that a church had been created in the 7th century. It was in 956AD that the Archbishop of York gifted land in Southwell where the Minster church was established soon after. Until the 19th century, Southwell Minster served as a 'sub cathedral' in the archdiocese of York, but in 1884 it became the cathedral for the new Diocese of Southwell.
During the first half of the 12th century the church was completely re-built and, on first entering, the traditional austerity of the Norman nave is not that unexpected. Bold, solemn simplicity were the hallmarks of Norman architecture and this example does not disappoint. Sadly, all that remains from the Saxon period is a tessellated floor and a very impressively carved lintel (tympanum) over a doorway in the north transept.
Beyond the crossing, however, Southwell Minster takes on an altogether different persona. Here, the original choir being replaced in the 13th century, you are treated to a spectacle of Early English (Gothic) clustered columns, elegant lancet windows, and splendid carvings.
But, arguably, the best is yet to be discovered. Through the north choir aisle is the magnificent late 13th century octagonal Chapter House. Written descriptions cannot do it justice - it is the epitome of the Decorated period of art and remains unrivalled amongst other chapter houses. From the slender, marbled columns to the great traceried geometrical windows, this light and lovely space is Southwell's jewel in the crown.
When standing in the church today, it is extremely difficult to visualise the scene of destruction and defacement we may have been confronted with after the Civil War. Even though extensive repairs were carried out after the troubles had ceased, the church was again reported to be in a poor state of repair at the beginning the 19th century. At this time the old 'pepperpot' towers were removed, eventually being restored with the unique pyramids of lead that have provided such a defining feature of the cathedral.
The Archbishops' Palace was also partially destroyed during the Civil War, but impressive ruins can be seen from the grounds on the south side of the church.
Keeping pace with the requirements of the modern visitor, Southwell Minster has established a visitor centre, a shop and a cosy refectory with some delightful treats to sample. What is very refreshing is that the church appears to have a lively and active following. As well as the normal religious ceremonies and worship, there are numerous concerts, exhibitions and talks scheduled throughout the year. Should you be tempted to discover Southwell Minster via one of these events, all well and good, but do put it on your list of 'must visits' if ever you find yourself in the area. It is simply a beautiful building dominating a quiet, picturesque little Nottinghamshire town of equally impressive period structures.