It’s often the way that when you live near a tourist destination you tend not to visit those places yourself. I’ve lived near Cambridge for a long time but I’ve never done the College tours, the open top bus nor the ghost walk, I’ve only been on a punt once and that was last year. Oh, I’ve seen the spring bulbs along the Backs, but it’s a pitiful effort when we’re talking about one of the world’s loveliest cities. Much as I love Cambridge, for me it’s been a place of work or retail rather than a leisure choice, except for the Arts Picturehouse, the best cinema in the region. So I started a new regime – to get along to some of the city sights that I have so far neglected.
I pass All Saints’ Church in Jesus Lane on every bus journey home; every time I think ‘wonder what it’s like behind that door’. I knew it housed some William Morris artwork so it seemed like a worthy No 1 on the list.
Pushing open the plain wooden door didn’t prepare me for what I would see on the other side: a burst of glorious, warm, vibrant colours and motifs on every surface from stone floor to wooden vaulted ceiling. It’s a magnificent sight to behold. Arts & Crafts fills every surface, every corner, every floor tile. I don’t have any religious faith but this place is awesome. In the real sense of the word.
The list of notable Victorian designers and craftsmen involved in creating this treasure is formidable: the building was designed by George Bodley in the 14th century decorated style and was built between 1863-70. Bodley also designed the alabaster font, the pulpit, the oak aisle screen and the wall stencils.
Edward Burne-Jones designed the main stained glass window, which was made by Morris & Co. The individual figures in the windows were designed by Burne-Jones, Ford Madox Brown, William Morris, Kempe and Douglas Strachan. I know next to nothing about Kempe, Leach and Strachan, but I want to know more now.
What I loved most about the interior was how very ‘arty’ it is without being in the least pretentious. It’s high-quality artistic skill and thought as part of everyday life. The designs are rooted in tradition, religious symbolism and in nature. The walls have the soft glow of fresco, the colours are of the earth, both above and below it. It feels like the craftsmen have been in, enjoyed doing their work and left about an hour ago. The natural world can’t be ignored here, whether in the tile designs, the earthy tones, or the grainy wood, I’ve never seen anything like it. Stylised for sure, but so different, so inviting, so tactile.
Now I know that not only are there more William Morris gems around town, but also George Bodley and Frederick Leach have other works here too, so I’m going to explore Cambridge not as a resident, a worker, or a shopper, but as a tourist from not very far away.