Clifton Park, Bristol, BS8
The cathedral church of the Diocese of Clifton, and the first cathedral to be conceived and built in England after the Second Vatican Council. It is perhaps the most consistent and successful example in England of the rigorous application of modern liturgical principles to church design. In the words of the list entry, ‘Clifton Cathedral achieves a rare integration of materials and spatial quality which is remarkable for a cathedral of any period’. Its internal success is most apparent when the building is in use and full. The plan is built around a series of irregular hexagons, with the altar placed slightly off-centre. Furnishings of note include the large inscribed stone font by Simon Verity, glass by Henry Haig and concrete Stations of the Cross by William Mitchell. Externally, the building is a powerful landmark in the Clifton Conservation Area.
In October 1834 the foundation stone was laid for a large new church in what is now Park Place, Clifton. This was built for Fr Leo Edgeworth, a Franciscan. It was designed in neoclassical style by Henry Goodridge, who at this time was also working for Bishop Baines at Prior Park, Bath, and who almost certainly actively encouraged the scheme. As planned, the church would be capable of seating 2,500. The church would be encircled with a giant order of Corinthian columns, and topped with a lantern loosely modelled on the choragic monument of Lysicrates on the Acropolis. ‘Had this great classical building been quickly finished it would have stood out as the largest, most splendid Catholic church in England’ and ‘a clear challenge to the Gothicists’ (Little, pp. 75 and 103). The ambitious plan proved excessively so, and the choice of site catastrophic; its edge was to slip down towards a nearby disused quarry under the weight of Goodridge’s building. The nave and transepts were substantially complete but remained roofless, and the unfinished building was abandoned by 1838. Instead a smaller chapel dedicated to St Augustine was built alongside in 1842, from which the Clifton mission originated (the building survives today within St Catherine’s Court). Work resumed on Goodridge’s building in 1843, but again soon had to be abandoned.
After he became Vicar Apostolic in 1846, Bishop William Ullathorne OSB engaged Charles Hansom (who had built for him a Gothic church at Coventry) to complete the church to a smaller design, under a lighter timber roof. Dedicated to the Holy Apostles, this was opened by Bishop Ullathorne in September 1848. In 1850, with the restoration of the Catholic hierarchy, this became the provisional cathedral (pro-cathedral) of the Diocese of Clifton. In the 1870s the west end was remodelled by Hansom in Italian Romanesque style, but a tall intended campanile was not built. The building was furnished and enriched over time, with important glass by the Hardman firm. It was slightly damaged by wartime bomb damage, and the roof repaired in 1950s. It was about this time that fears about the stability of the building again resurfaced, and in 1964 an architect’s report concluded that extensive works (estimated cost £86,000) were needed, particularly to stabilise the foundations.
In 1965 a major donation by an anonymous group of Catholic laymen allowed for the possibility of building a purpose-built cathedral on a more convenient site in Clifton, and Bishop Rudderham appointed the Percy Thomas Partnership to prepare designs. An 1840s villa, the former home of Dame Monica Wills, was demolished to make way for it. Unlike at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral (where the same architects had also submitted a design) there was no competition. The architects in charge were Ronald Weeks, Frederick Jennett and Antoni Poremba and the contractors were John Laing & Son Ltd. (who had also built Coventry Cathedral). Work began in March 1970, Bishop Rudderham laying the foundation stone on 26 September. A presbytery was built at the same time. The building was due for completion in 1972 but a strike by construction workers delayed things, and the new cathedral was consecrated by Bishop Rudderham on 29 June 1973, when Cardinal Heenan preached. The cost was just £600,000.
The cathedral was the first to be conceived and built in England after the Second Vatican Council, and the brief (prepared by a committee of liturgists) called for a single worship space in which 1000 people could gather in active participation around the high altar. Unlike at Liverpool, the altar was not placed centrally, but slightly off-centre, with (moveable) seating arranged around it in horseshoe fashion. Furnishings of note include the large inscribed stone font by Simon Verity, and striking concrete Stations of the Cross by William Mitchell. Notable for the quality of its board-marked concrete, the cathedral won the Concrete Society Award for 1974, and in 2000 it was awarded Grade II* listed status.
The two bells in the new cathedral belfry are the only furnishings brought from the pro-cathedral. That building went through various vicissitudes after 1973, and was finally converted in recent years to student flats.
The cathedral has undergone little alteration since it was opened. In 1995 the original fibreglass and metallic filler doors by William Mitchell were replaced in glass. The building was closed for major repairs at the time of the writer’s visit, and most of the photographs in this report were taken at the time of a previous visit in 2014.
The building and its principal fittings and furnishings are described in some detail in the list entry (below), and repetition is unnecessary. Briefly, in addition to its qualities as an outstanding ‘sermon in concrete’, this is perhaps the most consistent and successful example in England of the rigorous application of modern liturgical principles to church design. Internally its success is most apparent when the building is in use and full. Furnishings not mentioned in the list entry are a small bronze statue of Our Lady in the Lady Chapel, by Terry Jones, and the organ, made by Rieger of Austria for the opening in 1973, with an ash case whose design reflects the geometrical characteristics of the cathedral building. The Henry Haig glass in the narthex (which might perhaps be more accurately described as dalle de verre, or slab in resin glass rather than stained glass) depicts Pentecost (the larger panel) and Jubilation.
Roman Catholic Cathedral. 1969-73 to the designs of Ronald Weeks, E S Jennett and Antoni Poremba of the Percy Thomas Partnership. Pre-cast concrete panels and in-situ concrete. Lead-clad pitched roofs stepped between tiled flat roofs. Irregular, elongated hexagon in plan, with west door set in one of the longer flanks, and the altar and sanctuary set on axis with this – almost, but not quite in the centre of the building. The building set over a car parking area in the sub-basement. Polygonal, board-marked concrete piers flank the St Peter and Paul’s doors’ to Clifton Park and Pembroke Road, and mark the corner between these doors. Raised walkway with board-marked concrete balustrade to each entrance. Irregular composition of offset, superimposed, part-hexagons rise in three layers to culminate in the smallest hexagon, above the sanctuary; this has pairs of windows to three sides at the base, of irregular hexagonal form, with lead surrounds. From this smallest hexagon a tall, lead roof rises, of irregular pyramidal form. This has inset panels of glazing to the liturgical west, and from its apex rises a spire comprising three linked ribbed concrete uprights, one taller than the others and of triangular section with a bevelled top. The west door has a heavy projecting board-marked concrete canopy.
Dramatic interior with board-marked concrete to walls, deep upstand beams of roof and to galleries. Pyramidal timber acoustic cones’ set in lower ceilings. Complex natural top-lighting, above and behind sanctuary and to the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the latter separated by screen, designed by Brother Patrick of Prinknash Abbey. Walls of narthex inset with stained glass by Henry Haig. Narthex gives on to baptistry area; font of Portland stone by Simon Verity. The Stations of the Cross are low relief panels of light-weight cast concrete, each one worked in 1« hours by William Mitchell. His original doors replaced with clear glass in c.1995, but the lectern made by him to Weeks’s design remain.
A new cathedral in Clifton was commissioned in 1965 to supersede the Pro-Cathedral (already listed) of the 1830s. The Percy Thomas Partnership produced a powerful and dramatic building, which is perhaps the most important work of one of Britain’s largest post-war architectural practices. Clifton is often described as being the first cathedral in the world to accord completely with the liturgical guidelines issued by the Vatican in November 1963 (Building, 15 June 1973, p.73). Its planning is more succinct and successful than that at Liverpool Metropolitan Cathedral because it places the altar to one side, with a horseshoe of seating for the congregation. This quickly became a preferred alternative to the notion of seating entirely in the round’ because of the clearer view it gave everybody of the celebration. Built in a remarkably short space of time to a low budget (£600,000), Clifton Cathedral achieves a rare integration of materials and spatial quality which is remarkable for a cathedral of any period. George Perkin in Concrete Quarterly (January 1974, p. 23), described it as having a remarkable serenity and delight’ coupled with an apparent simplicity’. Mary Haddock, in Building (20/27 December 1974, p.43) admired the hint of theatre in the design; the absence of clutter and garish church ornament; the fine materials and the use of colour; the cold design in stained glass – … a heart-lifting Christian temple, inspiring reverence but not awe. A sermon in concrete.’ The Cathedral won the Concrete Society Award for 1974.
Sources Building, 25 February 1967, p.88 Architect and Building News, 1/15 January 1969, pp.22-29 Building, 15 June 1973, p.73 Concrete Quarterly, January-March 1974, pp.22-32 Building, 20/27 December 1974, pp.39-43 Information from William Mitchell.
Listing NGR: ST5728373587
Architect: Percy Thomas Partnership
Original Date: 1973
Conservation Area: Yes
Listed Grade: Grade II*