At the year’s turning we are now well into the building phase of the ‘Alban Britain’s First Saint’ project. The Chapter House is having its insides completely changed to accommodate the new Education Centre, new Library and Adult Study Centre; and the revamped café is being raised to the level of the new entrance building on Sumpter Yard, so as to provide one open, accessible welcome area. The virgers’ vestry has been demolished, and the old brick ‘pyramid’ which used to house the kitchen is also set to be brought down in the coming weeks. The archaeology dig will also end soon, and then we can start on the new build.
At the start of December the archaeologists made their most important discovery: the tomb of Abbot John of Wheathampstead, one of the most interesting and successful of the mediaeval Abbots of St Albans. The papal seals that were found in his grave are a testimony to the privileges that he won for his monastery, and of his own national and international influence as he steered the Abbey through the Wars of the Roses. John also improved and beautified the building, and attracted many new pilgrims – so it is a good omen that he should appear just as we are trying to do the same through the ABFS project, which above all aims to make the Abbey much better known, and to provide better resources to welcome and inform new visitors.
As John would wish, in due course his body will be laid to rest again, with proper prayer and ceremony.
Aside from the building work and archaeology taking place, lots is also taking place behind the scenes. Our interpretation scheme, which will help engage visitors with the history of the Abbey, is taking shape. The story is emerging through the footsteps of pilgrims with refreshed story themes, timelines, audio visual and web based aids and more traditional interpretation panels. The project has scope and funding for new guided trails and a host of activities from festivals and artists in residence to talks, café events and special exhibitions.
In parallel to the new interpretation, two specialist groups are working on the recolouring of the Wall Paintings (to bring some of the medieval wall paintings back to their former glory through illuminations) and the reconstruction and relocation of Amphibalus’ shrine. We hope the wall paintings illumination will be ready to be a key feature of the new interpretation scheme when it opens in 2019.
In the New Year we are joined by two new Heritage Lottery funded posts. Laura Bloom will become the new Visitor Services Officer, working with staff and volunteers to improve the whole visitor experience; and Lindsay Wong will join us from the Jewish Museum in London, to be the Community Engagement Officer, reaching out to some of our target audiences and drawing more people into the Cathedral.
Meanwhile, business has gone on as usual through the year, and we are especially pleased that this year our visitor numbers have continued to rise despite the building work.
We had a wonderful pilgrimage in June, when we welcomed the first woman diocesan bishop, Rachel Treweek, and the Dean of Christ Church, Oxford. In 2018 we shall welcome TV historian Professor Diarmaid MacCulloch and Brother Stuart Burns, from the Anglican Benedictine Abbey at Mucknell. Put the Pilgrimage date in your diary: Saturday 23rd June. Other special events to come are the installation of our new Sub Dean, Abigail Thompson, on February 24th; Holy Week and Easter preached by Bishop David Wilbourne (BBC Radio 4 will be broadcasting our 8.10am service and BBC Radio 3 will broadcast Evensong at 3pm); the diocesan Easter Monday pilgrimage; a big evangelistic event with Soul Survivor at Pentecost; and a number of special services and events, including Poppy Field, a son et lumière light installation, around the centenary of the end of World War I in November.
Through all the upheaval, it has been a good year. Pray for a good 2018.
You are older than the world can be
You are younger than the life in me
Ever old and ever new
Keep me travelling along with you.