This was our year

23rd December 2020

We started 2020 trumpeting in our Year of Cathedrals Year of Pilgrimage campaign in The Times and finished the year in The Times again …

English Cathedrals. This was our year. A Year Like No Other.

… but with a very different story as the Dean of Rochester opened the crypt at Rochester Cathedral as a Covid-19 test centre for the local community after the area recorded one of the worst coronavirus infection rates in the UK.

Liverpool Cathedral Christmas Services

February and early March saw sound and light experiences at Bradford, Carlisle, Gloucester, Sheffield and Salisbury cathedrals; Birmingham’s choristers set off on a pilgrimage of their own to Scotland and Rochester hosted the first Cathedral At Night experience – one of the planks of our Year of Cathedrals Year of Pilgrimage campaign – under Luke Jerram’s Museum of the Moon which attracted a record-breaking 120,000 visitors before the exhibition ended in early March.

On March 15 all public worship was suspended. We closed our doors on March 23 to keep people safe and protect the NHS.

We began to explore new and imaginative ways of reaching out to our congregations and visitors; live streaming worship, bell-ringers rang handbells from their living rooms, organists uploaded pieces, choristers recorded their parts from home and stitched together new music. Facebook groups and telephone trees were set up to make sure those more vulnerable and isolated could stay connected. And prayers were offered every day. EVERY DAY.

Many of our cathedrals lit up blue to support the NHS each Thursday through lockdown to chime in with the national clap for the carers initiative.

It was the first time in 800 years that our doors were locked for Holy Week – the most special time in the Christian calendar. But that did not deter our cathedrals from being able to offer a rich daily programme of prayer, worship, reflections and meditation – including keeping the watch, a dawn service and lighting the Easter Candle. Lincoln and Lichfield cathedrals were illuminated every day through Holy Week; Salisbury created an online pilgrimage, Canterbury announced that its famous bell “Harry” would toll each evening to say thank you to all those frontline workers and to remember each day’s victims around the world, the choristers of Bristol Cathedral sang together as usual on Easter Day – but this time from their own homes as a choir in lockdown; and there was a poem for every day of Holy Week from the poet in residence at Worcester Cathedral.


May saw Exeter Cathedral’s needle workers making scrubs for their local hospital and many of our cathedrals supported their local food banks which were experiencing a huge rise in demand. Lichfield Cathedral’s Big Picnic for Hope initiative saw 23 of our cathedrals join in the call for people to picnic at home on VE Day to raise funds. Together they raised almost £9,000 for the Trussell Trust and hundreds more for individual local food banks.

Cathedrals began to count the cost of being in lockdown, York Minster announced it was closing its Minster School, Chichester closed its café, Canterbury estimated the lockdown had cost it over £1m in lost visitor income so far, Chester announced plans to close its Falconry and Nature Gardens, and Worcester announced the lockdown had cost it £25,000 in lost revenue. All our cathedrals began to explore new ways of creating income streams and reaching out for donations.

Our peregrine webcams at Salisbury, Wakefield, Chichester, Winchester and Norwich became the new “must-see’ shows in lockdown.

June and July saw the start of our journey to re-open safely and welcome back public worship. We limited numbers, introduced hand sanitiser stations, there was new signage to remind people of the health and safety messages, and for some, a one-way system to keep people safe. And then Leicester became the UK’s first full local lockdown city as coronavirus cases rose there – a stark reminder we were living through a pandemic.

Over 10,000 paper angels with people’s prayers written on them went on display in Ripon Cathedral. They were made in lockdown to say thank you to health workers, carers and all those engaged in frontline services and to help support the vital work of both the Yorkshire Air Ambulance and the Cathedral. They caught the public’s imagination, capturing as they did, a moment in time, and are still on display now.

2020 This Was Our Year at English Cathedrals Wing Prayer

By the end of summer our cathedrals that could open had achieved the Visit Britain consumer charter mark We’re Good to Go meaning all the necessary steps were in place to open with confidence. And they did.

There were summer dinosaur trails, Salisbury’s major art exhibition, Spirit and Endeavour opened to visitors, Hereford’s historic Mappa Munda was back on show, open air cinemas opened on some of our cathedral greens. Carlisle’s Fratry project was finally achieved. St Albans held the first Cathedral At Night event, and then a second and both Worcester and Lichfield followed suit. Our Pilgrim Passports went back on sale as more cathedrals welcomed more people back into their buildings.

September brought a spring in our steps with the news that choral worship could return to our cathedrals with Portsmouth Cathedral Choir and Guildford Cathedral Choir both making history as the first two cathedrals to perform choral evensong live on BBC R3 since lockdown.

Our cathedrals were voted Travellers’ Choice Winners in the 2020 Trip Advisor awards. Lichfield Cathedral was the only cathedral shortlisted in this year’s Museums and Heritage Awards, Winchester came out top of its category for most improved heritage development in the UK Heritage Awards for its Kings and Scribes Exhibition, and Bradford Cathedral won Small Visitor Attraction of the Year in its local White Rose Awards.

The contemplative touring art installation by sculptor Peter Walker, The Leaves of the Trees, made up of 5,000 steel leaves, each featuring the word ‘HOPE’ began its tour of a number of our cathedrals. The Chester Cathedral Community Cross went up in the cathedral nave; a new community art installation that focussed on local people’s experience of lockdown.

2020 This Was Our Year at English Cathedrals Hope

There were more announcements of emergency funding awards from the National Lottery Heritage Fund and support from the Church Commissioners to keep cathedral lay clerks singing.

St Albans Cathedral launched a Crowdfunder to fund a socially distanced firework display from undisclosed locations that everyone could watch from the comfort of their own homes – it was so successful it raised £30,000 for local charities too.

Peterborough and Chichester announced the return of their tours, Bristol announced it would host its first event since lockdown, and Gloucester welcomed Luke Jerram’s installation of the Earth’s surface, Gaia in its nave as a key part of its Beacon of Hope fundraising campaign designed to support the recovery of the city and the county.

While the month of October might have brought us darker nights and a rise in the infection rates, it also saw more cathedrals bring back music, benefit from financial boosts, host nationwide art projects, and make preparations to mark the season with hope, love and light.

Sixteen of our cathedrals were amongst the 445 heritage organisations across the country to receive a financial boost to help them survive the pandemic thanks to the Government’s £1.57 billion Culture Recovery Fund with a further four cathedrals receiving funding from the Arts Council.

Steep rises in Covid-19 infection rates across many parts of England and the introdution of a new Tier system, saw our cathedrals release a special prayer for the healing of the nation as they marked the Feast of St Luke, the patron saint of medicine and healing on Oct 18.

Durham Cathedral launched an online Community of Prayer following the success of its digital worship which had seen the rapid build of an online community.

Carlisle, Chelmsford, Ely, Exeter, Salisbury, Lichfield, Liverpool, Portsmouth Birmingham and Gloucester Cathedrals were lit up as part of Light of Hope 2020, created by the sculptor, Peter Walker for All Saints-Tide.

Peterborough Cathedral created a special prayer trail to help people find space to lament and acknowledge the effects of Covid-19 on their lives and those of their community. And Love and Remembrance was at the heart of York Minster’s worship with a new art installation there called People we Love.

November was a month back in lockdown. Cathedrals pledged themselves to a month of prayer following the call by the Archbishops of Canterbury and York and other senior church leaders.

Salisbury Cathedral announced it would pierce the night sky with three beams of light every night until the end of lockdown as a mark of hope, and cathedrals took their Remembrance services online featuring virtual poppy drops, remote civic services and wreath laying.

There were more grants announced from the Government’s Cultural Recovery Fund with 28 cathedrals benefitting including grants of £2.1m to St Paul’s and £1.9m to Durham Cathedral to help with financial stability.

As news of a possible vaccine programme broke, many of our cathedrals offered their spaces to their local health providers including Guildford, St Edmundsbury, Lichfield and Blackburn Cathedral.

A doctor turned on the Christmas tree lights at Durham Cathedral in recognition of the life-saving work of her and all her NHS colleagues throughout the pandemic. The full choir of Leicester Cathedral received quick lateral flow Covid tests (which had successfully enabled students to go home for Christmas) to allow them to perform carol services – the first time they had sung together since the lockdown in March.

2020 This Was Our Year at English Cathedrals Nurse Lights

A unique prayer wall spelling out the words HOPE in seven foot letters opened in Southwell Minster as an invitation to the community for prayer and reflection and Durham Cathedral’s Nine Lessons and Carols will be broadcast in prisons across the country this Christmas Eve for the first time.

Rochester Cathedral’s crypt has just been converted into a Covid testing centre after the area recorded one of the worst coronavirus infection rates in the UK.

The Chichester Nativity has just gone on display in Chichester Cathedral. Local heroes of the Covid-19 pandemic have been immortalised in huge voile banners in a unique presentation of the Nativity Story for 2020.

Its creator, visual arts expert Jacquiline Creswell summed it up when she said: “I wanted to give it meaning in our real lives.

“What we have tried to do is deliver the story of Christmas to show the wonder, the hope, the love and the joy – framed by where we are right here, right now.”

A Year Like No Other

Happy Christmas. Happy New Year.

Photo credits: so many, thank you all. In particular Ash Mills, Peter Walker, James Billings, Danny Lawson.