Clifton Cathedral

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Bristol, Clifton Cathedral

CLIFTON R.C. CATHEDRAL. Pembroke Road, Clifton.

Clifton was one of thirteen RomanGlossary Term Catholic sees, or bishoprics, established in England in 1850. The present structure is the newest of the 20th century English Cathedrals, replacing the now derelict 19th century Cathedral of the Apostles on Park Place, Clifton.

Set amidst expansive Victorian villas west of Pembroke Road, the Cathedral's scale and visual impact have a surprising piquancy, yet it does no violence to its neighbours. Commissioned in 1965 from R. Weeks, F.S. Jennett and A. Poremba of Percy Thomas Partnership, it was the first cathedral designed in response to the Second Vatican Council's emphasis on liturgical essentials: the primary requirement was for a congregation of 900 grouped as closely as possible around the altar during Mass. The major elements were established in three months and were executed essentially unchanged. Construction took place 1970-73 by John Laing & Son Ltd, also the main contractor at Coventry Cathedral.

Car parking and ancillary accommodation is provided underneath the main building, with a presbyteryGlossary Term to the north. The two main entrances are the portal of St. Paul from Clifton Park and the portal of St. Peter from Pembroke Road, both reached via stepped bridges, with an additional processional entrance at the liturgical west end. Exterior claddingGlossary Term is pre-castGlossary Term concreteGlossary Term panels of pink Aberdeen granite aggregateGlossary Term, with contrasting white concreteGlossary Term piers marking the angles and portals. Concentric stages of walling rise to a steep double pyramid roof. A crowning cross sits within the slim tripartite spireGlossary Term of bevelled fins, rising to 167' and visible from afar because of the high plateau setting.
In plan the church is an irregular hexagon subdivided internally into varied polygons. The controlling moduleGlossary Term for all angles and dimensions is an eighteen inch equilateral triangle; a classicalGlossary Term approach partly responsible for the building's apparent unity. The exposed white concreteGlossary Term interior is dramatically successful because of its exceptional finish. It was cast in-situ using Russian redwood formworkGlossary Term, the crisp texture emphasised by concealed natural lighting.

A low ambulatoryGlossary Term under galleries leads into a BLESSED SACRAMENT CHAPEL to the east, a BAPTISTERYGlossary Term defined by a low wall, then a small LADY CHAPELGlossary Term at the north-west angle. There is a palpable sense of emergence as one enters the NAVEGlossary Term - broad, low and simple beneath complex roof structures with timber acoustic cones. The flexible seating is grouped in fan form so that no one is over 50ft from the sanctuaryGlossary Term steps - a more succinct plan than Liverpool, where seating 'in the roundGlossary Term' places some of the congregation behind the celebrant at Mass. The structure is based on three concentric hexagons of reinforcedGlossary Term concreteGlossary Term: the outer walls, then the ring beam on piers forming the naveGlossary Term walls; and an inner ring suspended over the sanctuaryGlossary Term. They are tied together with star-like radiating beams, converging to support a funnel-like lanternGlossary Term which floods the sanctuaryGlossary Term with concealed lightGlossary Term and gives an impression of ever-increasing height.


The original DOORS of fibreglassGlossary Term and metallic filler by William Mitchell were replaced in glass 1995. NarthexGlossary Term WINDOWS by Henry Haig, the larger depicting 'Pentecost' and the smaller 'Jubilation'. Stained glass set in epoxy resin. STATIONS OF THE CROSS around the ambulatoryGlossary Term, in low relief cast concreteGlossary Term by William Mitchell, each worked in an hour and a half. Their raw brutality jars with the setting. Mitchell also made the LECTERN to Ronald Weeks' design. ALTAR designed by Ronald Weeks in Portland stoneGlossary Term. The FONTGlossary Term by Simon Verity has a Portland stoneGlossary Term baseGlossary Term sculpted with doves and fish supporting a massive PurbeckGlossary Term stone bowl. It is top-lit from a lightGlossary Term well piercing the galleryGlossary Term and stands in a shallow pool lined with black stone - typical of the delight the designers took in their subject, and the intensely spiritual symbolism they achieved. SCREENGlossary Term to the Blessed Sacrament Chapel and votive CANDLESTAND by Brother Patrick of Prinknash Abbey. Bronze MADONNA in the Lady ChapelGlossary Term by Terry Jones. ORGAN with ash case and tin pipes, by Rieger of Austria. In the spireGlossary Term hang two bells, the only fittings taken from the former Pro-Cathedral.

Clifton Cathedral was beset with constraints: a small four acre site; an unpromising suburban context; and a small budget (c. £600,000 - the result was called the "ecclesiastical bargain of the 1970s"). Despite or because of these, and in less than eight years from commissioning to consecration, the architects and craftsmen produced a church of superlative quality. Paradoxically the structure is of considerable three-dimensional complexity, and yet the simple spatial arrangement is understandable the moment one enters the building. It attains a mystic simplicity through careful use of humble materials and masterly manipulation of lightGlossary Term. Mary Haddock described it as

a heart-lifting Christian temple, inspiring reverence but not awe. A sermon in concreteGlossary Term.



Small stones or rock chippings used in concrete and similar hard-setting materials.


(lit. walkway): Aisle around the sanctuary of a church.


Division of a church designed to house the font; also a separate building for the same purpose.


Moulded foot of a column or pilaster. An Attic base is the form used on an Ionic column, with two large convex rings joined by a spreading convex moulding.


External covering or skin applied to a structure, especially a framed building.


A term used for the architecture of Ancient Greece and Rome, revived at the Renaissance and subsequently imitated around the Western world. It uses a range of conventional forms, the roots of which are the orders, or types of column each with its fixed proportions and ornaments (especially Doric, Ionic and Corinthian). Classical buildings tend also to be symmetrical, both externally and on plan. Classical architecture in England began c. 1530 with applied ornamental motifs, followed within a few decades by fully-fledged new buildings.


Composition of cement (calcined lime and clay), aggregate (small stones and rock chippings), sand and water. It can be poured into formwork or shuttering (temporary framing of timber or metal) on site (in-situ concrete) or pre-cast as components before construction. Reinforced: incorporating steel rods to take the tensile force. Pre-stressed: with tensioned steel rods. Finishes include the impression of boards left by formwork (board-marked or shuttered), and texturing with steel brushes (brushed or bush-hammered), picks or hammers (pick-hammered or hammer-dressed).


Synthetic resin reinforced with glass fibre; also called glass-reinforced polyester (GRP). GRC: glass-reinforced concrete.


Vessel in a church or chapel for baptismal water, usually of stone or lead.


Temporary framing of timber or metal used for casting concrete; also called shuttering.


A long room or passage; an upper storey above the aisles of a church, looking through arches to the nave; a balcony or mezzanine overlooking the main interior space of a building; or an external walkway.

Lady chapel

A chapel dedicated to the Virgin Mary (Our Lady).


Circular or polygonal windowed turret crowning a roof or a dome. Also the windowed stage of a crossing tower lighting a church interior.


Compartment of a window defined by the uprights or mullions.


A predetermined standard size for co-ordinating the dimensions of components of a building; hence modular planning, etc. In classical architecture, the module is usually a multiple or fraction of the width of the order or type of column used.


Enclosed vestibule or covered porch at the main entrance to a church.


The body of a church west of the crossing or chancel, often flanked by aisles.

Portland stone

A hard, durable white limestone from the Isle of Portland in Dorset. Portland roach is rough-textured and has small cavities and fossil shells.


Of concrete: cast as components before construction.


The part of a church lying east of the choir where the main altar is placed. Also a priest’s residence.


A dark limestone from Purbeck in Dorset, which can be polished; used especially in the first two centuries of English Gothic architecture.


Of concrete: incorporating steel rods to take the tensile force.


The architecture of the Roman Empire, to which most of Britain belonged from 43 to c. 410 A.D. Our knowledge of Romano-British architecture depends mostly on archaeological reconstructions from foundations and fragments, though some notable fortifications and other military works survive above ground level in recognizable form.


(Scots): A rounded bartizan or turret, usually roofless. An angle round is set at a corner.


Used for the area around the main altar of a church.


In a medieval church, usually set at the entry to the chancel. A parclose screen separates a chapel from the rest of the church. A rood screen was placed below a representation of the Crucifixion (called a rood).


Tall pyramidal or conical feature crowning a tower or turret. Broach: starting from a square base, then carried into an octagonal section by means of triangular faces. Splayed-foot: variation of the broach form, found in England principally in the south-east, in which the four cardinal faces are splayed out near their bases, to cover the corners, while oblique (or intermediate) faces taper away to a point. Needle spire: thin spire rising from the centre of a tower roof, well inside the parapet.