British Cathedrals are often good places to eat. Mindful of providing the full experience for the tourist market most large cathedrals are well-attuned to the culinary needs of visitors. Sometimes the restaurants are squeezed into the holy places in a slightly insensitive way but cathedrals do often have the ideal space for a café in the form of the refectory. The best cathedral that I have eaten in is undoubtedly St David’s in Wales, where the refectory is a very pleasant place to go. But the most interesting refectory in use as a restaurant, even if the food isn’t great, is probably that of Chester Cathedral.
The Early English Gothic refectory, originally part of the medieval Benedictine abbey, dates from the thirteenth century and is constructed in the red local sandstone used throughout the Cathedral and in many places in the region. It’s an impressive monastic space although the roof is entirely modern dating from 1939. For most of its recent history (from 1613 to 1876) the refectory was part of the King’s School, presumably used as the school dining room. But it has a very interesting ancient pulpit approached through a long arcaded staircase.
Here a monk will have sat reading the scriptures while his colleagues enjoyed their repast. The walls contain the carved graffiti of seventeenth-century scholars and the early twentieth-century east window contains a whole selection of saints at the centre of which presides St Werburgh, to whom the original abbey was dedicated. At the other end a colourful stained glass window commemorates the millennium under which hangs a rather tired looking Mortlake tapestry which is not well displayed. But the full effect of the refectory is a good one, although the over-priced sausage rolls are probably best left un-sampled.
Stairs to the pulpit
Mortlake tapestry depicting Paul and Elymas