Ever since confirmation of the lottery fund grant of £4.2 million to “revitalise” the cathedral in 2019, until its reopening on the 12 August 2021 there has been the development and then completion of a great amount of change and addition.
Throughout the cathedral’s nearly 900-year history, it has seen itself change drastically throughout the ages. From being a simple church made of timber after the Norman occupation, then being made into stone in 1180, to the construction of the present-day structure in the 15th century. This year marks another change in the cathedral, of course a bit more modest, though making it a much more modern, educational, and in ways a much more inclusive experience for every visitor.
Ambitious planning, outside and in St Nicholas Cathedral
One of the biggest new additions to the cathedral is the opening of Café 16, made possible by the Oswin Project. The Oswin Project is a Northumberland based charity that gives carefully selected criminals a second chance outside prison. This café will give prison leavers training, mentoring and employment; giving them experience in catering, baking, cleaning, and other aspects of café operation. The produce to supply the café is freshly made in the café itself, and its Bakery in HMP Northumberland. This has been shown to be great new addition to the Cathedral as it gives more of an incentive to visitors to stay longer. It also supports the local food industry, gives employability skills to prison leavers, and gives them a chance to excel in a career.
The renovation has also benefitted the surrounding area of the cathedral. Among the features of this refurbishment was the installation of new seating, made to be more usable for the elderly and the disabled. Along with this, there is now a new outdoor trail, known as a ‘ribbon’ of stone, which forms a route around the perimeter of the Cathedral to encourage visitors to engage and interact with the churchyard and beyond. Integral to the trail are carvings of simple words that represent values for living such as love, peace, justice, and worth. These words will make the visitor pause, and consider their own life and how they could possibly do better.
Flinging wide the doors
Inside there is a tactile Orientation Table, a map to help visitors navigate the remodelled building, and the inclusion of animations played within the alcoves on the right-hand side of the cathedral to explain the development of Newcastle and the Cathedral itself.
However, this renovation has led to the removal of one former feature; the pews that have been present in St Nicholas Cathedral since the 1880s. Each one was sold for up to £450 to restaurants, hotels, or even remade into garden furniture, resulting in income of £10,000 to £20,000 from sales. The pews are to be replaced by “plain, simple benches and chairs”, the description of project manager Lindy Gilliland, which offer flexible seating for visitors to experience contemporary events in the historical setting.
Of course, there are reasons for the removal of such a great feature of the cathedral. One being the placement of the retail section, in which sections of the removed pews were put up for sale as crosses and other items. There are the usual postcards, books, pens and pencils you would find in a good old giftshop of a historical place. Also on sale are Pilgrim Passports, part of the national campaign for 2020 Year of Cathedrals, the point being to visit every cathedral in the UK and get a stamp for each one. This promotes the idea of a journey around the UK, to discover your values of life and take opportunities which may make you a better person.
An enlightened place in the city
Overall, I believe that the revitalisation of St. Nicholas Cathedral has truly enlightened the image of the cathedral, giving it a more of a true purpose. It has given opportunities to reformed offenders to get their lives back on track. It has given the Cathedral a better appearance from the outside, with more comfortable benches and a psychologically stimulating ‘ribbon’ trail. Of course, the pews will be missed by some. However, their removal can give more opportunities for the Cathedral to hold events that were not possible before; for the people of Newcastle.