When you think of the great cathedral cities of England, places like York, Durham and Lincoln spring to mind. But what about our second city? Birmingham has a city-centre cathedral too, and although it’s a lot smaller and less impressive than others around the country, it’s worth a look if you’re in town.
Between the shops of Corporation Street and the business district of Colmore Row, you will find a little patch of peace and quiet in Birmingham city-centre – St. Philip’s Cathedral.
St. Philip’s Church was built here in 1715 by the English Baroque architect Thomas Archer – it celebrated its 300th anniversary last year. The grassy churchyard surrounding the building contained over 60,000 burials, and there remain some almost illegible gravestones and burial chambers from those days.
The pretty clocktower is sadly not open to the public, as access is not safe enough (although you might get lucky if you ask for a private tour). You won’t get a panoramic city view from up here – the best place for that in Birmingham is at Marco Pierre White’s restaurant and bar on the top floor of The Cube.
A new Diocese of Birmingham was established in 1905, as the city had expanded following the Industrial Revolution. This meant Brum had to have a bishop, and a seat for him – hence the need for a cathedral. The statue above is that of Charles Gore, Birmingham’s first bishop. In an act of heroism, Gore chose not to spend funds on the construction of a flash new cathedral, but to re-use the existing St. Philip’s Church.
Inside, it feels a bit like being in a school assembly hall rather than a cathedral. I’ve been to the nearby cathedrals of Worcester and Lichfield recently, and you could easily get lost in either but you wouldn’t want to spend much more than ten minutes inside Birmingham Cathedral. It’s free to enter and is open to all every day of the year for quiet reflection or prayer, or just for a wander around.
It’s very proud of its stained-glass windows by local boy Edward Burne-Jones. There are four in all, depicting the birth, last judgment, crucifixion and ascension of Christ. The cathedral suffered major bombing during WWII, but the stained-glass windows were removed and later replaced, unharmed.
In spring and summer, office workers (and the odd nutter) sit on the grass surrounding the cathedral to eat their lunches.
If you’d prefer to salute St. Philip with an alcoholic beverage in hand, there is a cracking wine and cicchetti bar called Fumo (1 Waterloo Street) overlooking the square. Settle down at a window-front booth facing the cathedral with a glass of the wine of your choice from most regions of Italy – read my review of Fumo here.