When we hear the word ‘recycling’, images enter our minds of the numerous bins and boxes in varying shades of black, green, blue and brown, into which we (most of us) now sort our household waste. While in the 21st Century our eagerness to re-use materials is more about environmental awareness and concern over diminishing resources than it is for its economic benefit, recycling is certainly no recent fad. Indeed, amongst the masonry at Worcester Cathedral we can see evidence of the practice dating back to nearly a thousand years.
The building of the Cathedral in its present form was begun under St Wulfstan in the 11th Century, although a Priory had been on the site since 680. With the older structure badly damaged by the ravages of time, lawlessness and invasions, it was taken down and a new one built from scratch. Quarrying and transporting stone was a very expensive process, and so all of the existing Anglo-Saxon masonry would have been re-used in the new structure. Little of this material is immediately recognisable, but there are components of Anglo-Saxon arches in the eastern slype (narrow passageway) of the cloisters, started in 1084 and known as the parlour. On the north side of this passageway is a blind arcade, made out of bases, shafts and capitals turned in the Anglo-Saxon manner, creating a pleasant vista set above the plain stone bench that runs throughout.
At the entrance to St George’s Chapel in the Northeast Transept can be seen a later example of recycling. Originally known as the Bishop’s Chapel, it was enclosed in the 15th Century with a stone screen in the Perpendicular Gothic style. This screen was later removed, possibly in the 18th Century. It then re-appeared in 1812, this time as a reredos (the screen behind the high altar).
It would remain there until the Victorian restoration of the Cathedral, led by George Gilbert Scott. Scott installed a new reredos of his own design, and the screen was moved to St John’s Chapel in the southeast transept. It wasn’t to stay there for very long.
In 1935 a decision was made to create a military chapel in which all memorials and regimental colours would be moved, and a stained glass window commemorating the 1914-1918 Great War installed. This was the former Bishop’s Chapel, where the Perpendicular Gothic screen had first been installed. As part of the 1930s renovation work, the screen was moved from St John’s chapel back to its original location, where it can still be seen today. For a period spanning six centuries, this screen has been chopped and changed about to suit varying needs and trends. Clearly, recycling is nothing new – and our Cathedral’s very masonry is testament to that.