The Twentieth Century Society

Campaigning for outstanding buildings

Twentieth Century Gothic: St Edmundsbury Cathedral

Completed just five years ago, in 2005, the clean stonework of the tower of Bury St Edmunds cathedral can easily be mistaken for a meticulously executed conservation job on a late medieval building. Although the history of the site dates back to the eleventh century, it was not until 1914 that the Diocese of St Edmundsbury and Ipswich was formed and the Parish Church became a Cathedral- notably the very same year that marks the beginning of our Society’s remit. The surviving C16 nave by John Wastell- the architect of the Bell Harry tower at Canterbury and the vaults and upper parts of King’s College Chapel at Cambridge- incorporates part of the church of St James which replaced St Denys’s church on the site in the years 1065-97.

Several more years were to follow before the cathedral was increased in size and prominence. Architect Stephen E Dykes Bower (1903-1994), on whom we hope to publish a volume in our monograph series, was appointed in 1943. The first part of Dykes Bower’s scheme was realised in 1959-61 and comprised a new porch at the NW end of the C16 nave, along with new bays of cloisters to the north side of the nave. In 1963-70 a new quire, a Lady Chapel, St Edmund’s Chapel and the crossing were also added.

Dykes Bower retired in 1988 (and died six years later, in 1994) but his commitment to this ambitious project lived on, generously supported by £2 million left by him to a Trust for the completion of the Cathedral. Alan Rome succeeded as Cathedral Architect and the Cathedral Centre and Song School were built in 1988-90. Further reworking of Dykes Bower’s designs by Warwick Pethers and Hugh Mathew, a generous grant of £5.15 million from the Millennium Commission, and more support by funds raised through an appeal eventually led to the completion of the cathedral tower. As part of this Millennium Project, works were also executed on the North Transept and the East Cloisters, the Chapel of the Transfiguration, Crypt and Cloisters were consecrated in 2009, and the vaulted ceiling under the Tower was completed this year.

Although this in effect finished off the building, further interventions to the church’s fabric are being decided as this piece is being written. In response to current requirements for equal access opportunities for both able and disabled users, an access study was commissioned. Four different options all aim to provide a single point of access to the church, and these were discussed by the Society’s Casework Committee in June. Following this discussion the Society objected to the conclusion of the study which favours an access ramp to the NW porch.

Although this option has gained the support of the Cathedrals Fabric Commission and English Heritage, we believe that it would irreversibly damage this particularly elegant part of Dykes Bower’s initial scheme. What is more, the Society is deeply concerned that the ramp would not provide a comprehensive solution, and disabled users would still need to follow a completely different and considerably longer route to the Cathedral Centre outside the church’s opening hours, or during services. The Society has written to the Cathedral and supported an alternative solution: the introduction of two reversible ramps to the west door of the church’s nave. This would be a much better compromise between improving access and preserving the historic fabric of the building.

Listed at Grade I in 1952-following the church becoming a Cathedral and Dykes Bower’s appointment as Cathedral architect-St Edmundsbury is a rare realisation of the Gothic idiom in the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. Irreversible piecemeal alterations to any phase of this very special building threaten to corrode its character and all necessary change must aspire to maintain the high standards set by Dykes Bower’s vision. We hope the Society’s response to these latest proposals will help towards this objective.

Christina Malathouni