Thursday 5th October…how to build a cathedral


exeter-exterior.jpgThis evening we went to a talk at the splendid Devon Rural Archive in Shilstone, about which I knew very little…..P3080037.JPG

‘The DRA was launched in 2006 by the Fenwick Charitable Trust with the aim of providing a much needed resource for the people of Devon. Our focus lies primarily with the building and landscape heritage of this county but we hope that historian, archaeologist and genealogist alike will find us a useful facility for furthering their research. With the support of our patron Lucinda Lambton, we hope that our work will encourage the preservation of sites which are all too often lost to age and development without true recognition. In our purpose built archive in the grounds of the Shilstone estate near Modbury we have a growing reference library, display gallery and lecture room as well as regular exhibitions and events that make the DRA the perfect place to start your research into Devon’s rural heritage.’

The talk was by the Exeter Cathedral Archaeologist John Allen on the history of the building, how it was built, how it changed etc etc. There was a packed audience of about 100 people, average age about 65 I suppose (pity!). Not only was John a very knowledgeable speaker but he was entertaining to boot and obviously well-practiced at giving these sort of talks. Fairly early in his talk he could see we were all very involved and decided to concentrate on the first two periods of building, Norman and Early Gothic, leaving the later periods for another talk. It was a sensible move as there was so much to get through.

His first slides showed people picnicking on the green in front of the Cathedral, and then another shot of a similar area with dozens of skeletons, the point being that this was always a religious site and in fact, at the green, bodies are buried up to 12 deep (unbeknown to the picnickers above)…astonishing!


One of the interesting aspects was where did all the material come from for building the cathedral…..whilst some was fairly local stone came from East Devon and Caen in France as well.

‘Exeter Cathedral is magnificent and some have claimed that it possesses the most varied geology of any British cathedral. Materials from over 20 different quarries, many of them local, were used in its construction. The outer and inner Cathedral walls are made of Salcombe Stone, a sandstone quarried from Salcombe Regis in East Devon. Between these walls is a loose filling of the same volcanic trap (lava) quarried two miles west of the river Exe, also used in the construction of the City walls. Chalk mines at Beer, also on the east  coast of Devon, were worked to provide stone for use in some of the Cathedral’s sculptures, which can be seen on the impressive image screen at the front of the building.

More local geology can be seen inside the Cathedral. For example, the pillars supporting the Patteson Pulpit are made of a Devonian limestone that can take a polish. This rock has been deformed by the earth’s movements, such that some of the corals within it appear elongated.’

And something that satisfied my curiosity was finding out that the reason Norman buildings are so dark is structural…they were frightened to insert larger window apertures in case the walls came down.

Exhibitions~~element83.jpgOutside of the talk we were able to look at an exhibition of watercolours by one of the early nineteenth century travellers in Devon, and also admire the library and resource centre. I ascertained that this whole effort is privately funded which is unusual to say the least and the main work of the DRA is its research project…

Since 2006 the Devon Rural Archive’s small team of Consultant Archaeologists have been recording the history, significance and development of manor houses and farmhouses in Devon from Domesday to the present day….Using the 1765 map of Devon by Benjamin Donn as a starting point, nearly 1000 sites have been identified for further invesigation by our team; this includes both manor houses and farmhouses and their associated outbuildings as well as many parks and gardens. To date we have reported on approximately 130 of these sites through our archaeological surveys which are supplemented by map and document research in our own and other archives. Most of the reports are available to view in our library……’

Why isn’t there an institution like the DRA in every County….there should be!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s