Morning glory: England’s cathedrals

Blackburn Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Mary the Virgin with St Paul)

How many times in a year do you wake up excited about what is going to happen that day? I felt that way on most of my “cathedral days”. Driving through the night, sometimes, to arrive just before dawn, I had no need for a map: these English architectural masterworks are easy to find, towering above their cities as many of them have done for more than 900 years.

On a still summer evening more than 40 years ago, next to a ruined watermill on the banks of the River Avon in Gloucestershire, I was trying to work out how to use the Graflex 5in x 4in Speed Graphic camera I had just bought from Exchange & Mart, the eBay of the era. I had this wonderful object but no subject, and – frustrated by the dull routine of studying for an engineering degree – I was desperate to be a photographer. I planned to travel the country photographing English cathedrals, then to travel the world photographing wars. Should I continue with my degree or go to Vietnam? It never quite happened that way; I changed to psychology and completed my degree. But I did become a photographer.

Strangely enough, in 2007 – more than 25 years later – I won a commission to photograph eight British cathedrals for the Royal Mail. Then, with English Cathedrals (1989) by Edwin Smith and Olive Cook as my guide and a pack of “Anglican Cathedrals of England” Classic Trumps, I set out to photograph all 42.

I loaded up my car with a stepladder, three camera boxes and a very large tripod, swathing the ladder in a blue padded sleeping bag, like a body, to muffle the annoying rattle of the aluminium. I began by photographing the aesthetic highlights of each building, but the images seemed to merge with one another. In order to differentiate each place I needed to find a more rigorous and systematic approach, so I adopted the simple strategy of photographing the naves looking along the central axis. There were other decisions to be made: whether to photograph from east or west, for example. I always tried both, and often entered during darkness, setting up my equipment in front of the west door and waiting for the sun to come up behind the altar. The viewpoint added depth to the visual experience of the building, and the discipline of this strict approach was liberating as I simply looked, allowing the power of the place to unfold in the dark.

The sense of mystery was absent, however. I found it by accident at Rochester just before dawn. When I entered, the lights were all turned off and the huge, silent space seemed locked in time, as if it were there just for me. In the half-darkness, the very air was tangible. I knew then that this was what I needed to discover in all the cathedrals. It was not easy to arrange to have the lights turned off, but I soon realised that it was essential, allowing the buildings to come quietly to life in the tentative morning light. When the lights finally went back on, as services began and visitors and school groups started to arrive, the magic evaporated at the click of a switch.

At York Minster, which has its own police force, the constable showed me the light switches in a small wooden cupboard hidden behind the pulpit in the south transept, and left me to it in the dark at 5.30am. I became expert at finding lighting controls. Chester had one light in the crossing that could not be turned off: it had been on for 15 years and no one had ever found the switch. At 8am on the dot the cleaners in their flowery housecoats turned on all the lights despite my pleading; I had taken only one shot and left wanting more.

Peterborough Cathedral (Cathedral Church of St Peter, St Paul and St Andrew)

In Exeter at 6am there was a man praying halfway down the right-hand side of the nave, and I waited four-and-a-half hours for him to leave. There, too, I photographed the organ as a gift for the retiring organist. In Coventry I was invited to join the dean for Morning Prayer. At Canterbury I got into trouble for creeping in early without permission, in my stockinged feet to avoid making any noise. At Ripon a coachload of Spanish tourists arrived every time I was ready to photograph (I finally got the photo at about one in the afternoon, when they had gone for lunch). At Wells I agreed to photograph the triforium gargoyles for an exhibition in the visitor centre. In Carlisle I could not find the nave: Oliver Cromwell had knocked it down in 1649. In Gloucester, early one July morning, I heard the faint sound of the King’s School choir drifting through the exquisite 14th-century cloisters. There were two men with rifles shooting pigeons inside Peterborough. In Coventry, the light on the Graham Sutherland “Christ in Glory” tapestry could not be turned off, as light always has to shine on Jesus.

Air rifles or the Mappa Mundi: the memories of peripheral things remain as vivid as the historical highlights of each place. I did plenty of research before each visit, and once I felt I had completed the photography, I would spend time sitting in the nave, absorbing the power of a place where for centuries people had experienced the energy, fear and balm of religion. Everything about these places has already been said, but they have not all been “experienced”.

Early in the morning, with the whole day ahead, working alone in these vast, calming spaces with their supreme expression of everything English, I often felt a paradoxical sense of panic. It reminded me of not knowing where I should be during a quickly unfolding news story. The light changed fast as a big cloud, unseen, passed in front of the sun; a verger turned a light back on; I forgot to remove the dark slide from my Sinar camera; it was too dim to focus; and the battery ran out on the phone I used as a timer for the long exposures. What I thought was going to be incredibly simple became intricate, complicated and utterly absorbing. The journey was memorable and wonderfully hypnotic, a kind of reflective pilgrimage. My cathedral days involved hours of driving and thinking, with my reference Polaroids drying in the sun on the dashboard.

England passed by.

“The English Cathedral”, by Peter Marlow, is published by Merrell (£45);

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved. You may share using our article tools. Please don't cut articles from and redistribute by email or post to the web.