Material from Belgium used in world's "most important" new cathedral artwork

A bit of Belgium has helped create a new and internationally important artwork at one of the UK’s most historic cathedrals.

The €1.1m memorial is dedicated to Britain’s military elite, the Special Air Service (SAS), and is a stained glass window made of 3,000 pieces of coloured glass, along with a sculpture.

The cathedral's dean has hailed it as "one of the most important pieces of new cathedral art in the world". What is far less well known is that Belgian material was used in its making: the ledger stones at the foot of the monument are black marble from a mine near Mons.

Called “Ascension”, the nine-metre high installation took two years to make and will be a focus for pilgrimage and worship in the 1,300-year-old cathedral, which houses the world-famous Mappa Mundi and Chained Library.

Dean of Hereford, the Very Reverend Michael Tavinor, describes it as a “marvellous addition to the beautiful artwork in this historic cathedral and I know it will draw visitors from all over the world.”

It is hoped these will include people from Belgium who may be unfamiliar with this relatively unexplored part of the UK. Surrounded by a clutch of pleasant market towns, Hereford has, in fact, been the commercial centre of local farming communities for hundreds of years and all roads lead, albeit gently and calmly, lead to this fine city.

The cathedral, of course, dominates and no visit here is possibly complete without seeing the 13th century Mappa Mundi (Latin for “world map”), the largest medieval map of the world in existence. Measuring about 64 x 52 inches and drawn on a single sheet of velum, it’s actually much more than a mere map: think of it as a social encyclopaedia of life in the 13th century.

Another “must see” is the cathedral’s 16th century Chained Library, the largest of its kind in existence. In the Middle Ages books were so rare, and valuable, that they were often chained for safe keeping.

Hereford Cathedral has also put its 1217 Magna Carta on display in a special exhibition running to 31 December 2017. ‘Law, Life and Landscape’ celebrates the 800th anniversary of the document, which forms the centrepiece of the presentation in the cathedral library’s exhibition gallery.

The 1217 Charter brought to an end a civil war in England which the more famous 1215 Charter of Liberties had failed to conclude. It was the first to be called 'Magna' (Great), to distinguish it from the smaller Forest Charter published alongside it. Hereford Cathedral possesses one of only four surviving official copies of the 1217 Magna Carta. It is too fragile to be on permanent display, although it did go on a 37,000-mile world tour in 2015, when it was seen by 25,000 people.

Aside from these unique features, the cathedral,used since Saxon times, contains some of the finest examples of architecture from Norman times to the present day.

Castle House, tucked away in a quiet historic quarter of Hereford and just a two minute walk from the magnificent cathedral, makes for an ideal base for any visit to this lovely city. Castle House is a superb, family-owned boutique hotel right in the heart of the city, boasting classic Georgian architecture and 24 individually designed suites and bedrooms, including “Number 25”, its  new 8-bedroom townhouse which is particularly suitable for families, those after a bit of extra privacy and longer stays. This fine hotel boasts a pretty terraced garden leading down to the old castle moat and, all in all, benefits from a relaxed and informal ambience.

It's very easy to see why it was included in 20 of the most Charming UK City Hotels by The Good Hotel Guide 2017 (and also featured in USA Today, America’s leading newspaper).

Perfect for discovering both Hereford and the wider Wye Valley, it also houses the splendid Castle restaurant and bistro which offers some of the best dining in all of Herefordshire, including its pretty terrace (nice for duck watching on the nearby moat).

The restaurant is expertly overseen by Claire Nicholls, one of England’s premier female chefs (who said all the best chefs are male?) who sources much of her fresh and seasonal ingredients from local farmers and artisan producers, including the hotel’s own farm.

This superb two-rosette restaurant and bistro are perfect for an elegant (expect crisp white table cloths and napkins) and enjoyable dining experience.

Hereford is also home to many different culinary tastes and, for something rather more informal, try the award-winning Beefy Boys. Following a second consecutive Top 10 finish at The World Food Championships in America, its team of four young founders opened a restaurant a couple of years ago in Hereford’s Old Market Development, a prestige shops/leisure complex. 

Specialising in burgers (using, of course, 100 percent Herefordshire beef), street food and cocktails, the go-ahead owners also recently won the UK Burger Battle and boast an international fan base. As proud Herefordians, they are also keen to support local - sourcing their ingredients, branding and designs from the immediate area. The food is of excellent quality and the staff super friendly.

Another great spot for lunch or dinner is The Green Man (curiously previously called the Naked Boy), a stylish and striking 15th-century black and white dining inn, in the picturesque village of Fownhope, just a short drive from Hereford.

Tastefully refurbished, the food – again, much of it locally sourced -   is as excellent as the delightful surroundings and children are made welcome too.

With its atmospheric original oak beams, standing timbers and big log fire this lovely pub also offers tasteful accommodation, parts reputedly haunted (which could be linked to the site previously being a place for hangings!). In its past life it was also a courthouse and the positive verdict of people who dine here is one more reason why you really should include it on any visit to the area.

When it comes for things to do you’re spoilt for choice in Herefordshire and, with its stunning natural backdrop, this is the perfect place to be at one with the Great Outdoors. One good example is Sir Roy Strong's Laskett Gardens. Set in ornate Herefordshire grounds, this is largest private formal gardens to have been created in England since 1945.

Sir Roy, the former director of the Victoria and Albert Museum and National Portrait Gallery in London, and his late wife Julia purchased The Laskett, an early Victorian house midway between Hereford and Ross-on-Wye, in 1973 for just £32,000.

The grounds, constructed on a four-acre field, contain a rose garden, orchard, fountains and an array of herbaceous borders. The garden design was inspired by the great gardens of the pre-1914 era, by Italian gardens like the Villa Lante and by those of Tudor and Stuart England.

Sir Roy, set to celebrate his 82nd birthday, is (as his name suggests) still going strong,not least helping to oversee the 600 bottles of cider the garden’s orchards produce each year.

For students of eclectic church architecture check out All Saint's Church at Brockhampton between historic Hereford and the market town of Ross-on-Wye. One of a few thatched churches in the country, it is open every day for visitors. 

Another popular local “landmark” is the Whitney-on-Wye Toll Bridge, built in 1779 and one of only eight privately-owned toll bridges in the UK.

It’s situated in rolling countryside just outside Hay-on-Wye, world famous for its annual book festival. Despite being 240 years old, the bridge has had only four owners – including one family who held on to it for 180 years.

The fees to this day are still governed by the UK government and can only be changed with a new Act of Parliament.

Maggie and Grahame, the very friendly current owners, who have been there for six years, have cleverly diversified the business and now operate a range of activities, including camping (with space for up to 20 small tents), canoeing and fishing on the River Wye. Hay-on-Wye itself is a lovely place to while away a few hours. It has great book shops, antique shops, cafés, pubs and ice cream parlours.

People travelling with children will also love the Small Breeds Farm Park and Owl Centre at nearby Kington and its wonderful collection of miniature and rare creatures.

Just a few minutes out of Hereford town centre is another terrific place to visit, The Send Climbing Centre where kids (and adults) can learn a new skill under the tutelage of a friendly team of experts. There are 50 roped lines and 50 indoor obstacles to clamber over. You don’t have to be an experienced climber – there are taster classes for newcomers as well as family sessions lasting up to one hour. Set in a former munitions factory, the centre only opened last year but has already proved a big hit and is a great way to get fit while having fun. 

For visitors from Belgium (and, it has to be said, quite a few Brits!) Herefordshire is probably an unexplored part of Britain but, with its glorious history and countryside to match, it’s well worth discovering.

As a small sparsely populated county, it has a relatively low profile but it’s rapidly innovating. In 2011 the county’s tourism generated £400m (with 6,688 jobs in the industry out of a total workforce of 112,000) and a new university is due to open in 2019 (the first new university to open in the UK in 40 years).

For its City of Culture 2021 bid it said Hereford is “a beacon for inspirational arts and culture and a county in which people of all backgrounds are proud to live, work and visit”.

This is evidenced by any visit, no matter how short, to the county.

Accessing the area from Belgium can be easily done via Eurotunnel which offers easily the quickest and most efficient way of crossing the English Channel.

The super efficient Eurotunnel car train service runs between Folkestone and Calais via the channel tunnel in just 35 minutes. Once on-board passengers stay with their vehicle throughout the channel tunnel crossing in bright, air-conditioned carriages.

So (especially with the still favourable exchange rate) there’s never been a better time to discover Herefordshire, one of Britain’s best kept “secrets”.

The region, which straddles two areas of outstanding beauty, has several claims to fame, including the country’s biggest poetry festival and also being the birthplace of modern-day tourism.

Herefordshire is known to have the darkest skies in England but, clearly, when it comes to tourism this laid-back county of less than 200,000 inhabitants is a real shining star.

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Martin Banks

Martin Banks

Martin Banks is a highly qualified journalist with many years experience of working within the EU institutions. He is an occasional, and highly valued, contributor to EU today, writing on a wide variety of issues.

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