If you’re visiting Salisbury, near Stonehenge in Wiltshire, then the historic Salisbury Cathedral, which has the tallest spire in Britain, is a must-see on your itinerary. But if you’re there later in the afternoon, rather than simply exploring inside and admiring the imposing exterior of this impressive medieval cathedral, why not stay to experience Choral Evensong?
Many people visit British cathedrals each year to look at the historical monuments and artifacts displayed. Although this can give you a good sense of history and traditions, one way of taking it a step further is to attend a service. In Salisbury cathedral, and most other cathedrals up and down the country, the ancient tradition of choral evensong, which dates back to about 1549, is still going strong and is sung daily by choirs of men and child choristers.
It takes place up in the quire – the area where there are choir stalls, nearest the high altar – and involves a short service. At Salisbury this is extra special, as the quire stalls are the largest, earliest and most complete set in Britain.
Although you can sit in the nave and listen to the sounds of the choir singing, it’s far more atmospheric and quite a unique experience to sit up with the rest of the congregation in the spare choir stalls or in designated seats. Not only do you get an up close and personal view of the choir, and get to hear fantastic singing at close quarters, but you also get to see all the other activities involved in the service, plus a great view of the historic building.
During the week at Salisbury cathedral, choral evensong is held daily at 5.30pm (Monday to Saturday) and at 3.00pm on a Sunday. The service is sung by the cathedral choir during term times and, during holidays, many visiting choirs arrive to take their turn at singing the service.
If you’ve never been to a church service before, it can seem a bit intimidating, but do give it a go. Choral Evensong is free to attend and you don’t need to book; neither do you need to pay an entrance fee to the cathedral in order to get in, if you’re attending a service. There are sides people on duty to help guide you to the right area and show you where you can and can’t sit and they’ll be a service guide waiting at your seat, so you can follow along and see exactly what’s going on, being said and being sung.
If you go on a Saturday or Sunday, then there’s usually at least one hymn for everyone to join in with, and for special services, such as Saints Days or Feast Days, there may be a short sermon to listen to. But generally during the week, the Choral Evensong service is relatively short, lasting 30 to 45 minutes.
Sit back and enjoy listening to the mesmerizing voices of the choir and the organ voluntary at the end, and take in the breathtaking view of the stained glass windows beyond the high altar, the intricate carvings on the choir stalls or the high ceilings above you. It can offer a quiet time of reflection, an insight into the history and daily routines in this historic building and of traditions that continue to be followed.
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Written by Rachel Newcombe for EuropeUpClose.com