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"Nowhere is there a cathedral of greater originality, of more complete harmony or more obvious and striking unity" than at Exeter. The Cathedral forms a class of itself, as far as details go. No building of its age shows us the taste of that age in greater perfection. Exeter Cathedral does not hold its high place in the hierarchy of churches in virtue of the area of ground which it covers. It does not rank in magnitude with the great cathedrals of Wessex or the greater church of Canterbury, or with Lincoln, or with York, but in originality, in harmony, in unity, it bears comparison with the proudest of them all. Exeter is one of the smaller but most beautiful of cathedrals in England.
Of the Saxon church, which Bishop Leofric used as his cathedral, no fragments now remain above ground, though its remains were excavated in the 1970s. Doubtless, it was greatly inferior to the Norman edifice which Bishop Warelwast, nephew of the Conqueror, commenced to build to the east of it in 1114. Apparently, almost a century was spent on the work, which was finished by Bishop Marshall very late that same century, according to the plan and foundation of his predecessors. The chapter house was added by Bishop Bruere in the mid-13th century.
This great Norman structure, of which only the towers survive, stood complete for just over a hundred years, before changing tastes and, possibly, structural problems caused Bishop Branscombe to consider largely replacing it. Perhaps the consecration of the architecturally perfect Salisbury Cathedral inspired him to produce the grandeur which is the St. Peter's of today. His new Decorated Gothic Cathedral - unsurpassed in richness of detail - was begun some time in the 1270s, but only the Lady Chapel (at first detached) was nearing completion by the time of his death. Detailed accounts of subsequent construction work is recorded in an annual series of fabric rolls, still preserved at the Cathedral. Peter Quinel, Branscombe's successor and friend, carried on the work with the erection most of the quire. His was a bold step to insert arches and then remove the inner walls of the two massive towers erected by Warelwast, and to open them out as north and south transepts, inserting large windows. This feature is quite unique, except for a copy in the collegiate church at Ottery St. Mary. Bishop Bitton oversaw the completion of the presbytery by Roger the Master Mason, just before his death. The Great East Window is credited to his workman, 'Walter the Glazier' who produced the dazzling biblical portraits in 1304.
The wealthy, Bishop Stapledon was able to provide the Cathedral with many endowments for extensions of the 'new work'. The nave was begun around 1310 and the vast pulpitum there dates from his time. These constructions were completed by Bishop Grandisson in the late 1330s and the stonework of his windows is considered to be the best example of the period. Further, his magnificent screen is the glory of the West Front. This beautiful facade, with its sculptured figures, was probably finished around 1342 and would originally have been highly painted.
Thus the Cathedral stood complete, substantially the same building that we see today. There were alterations in the following centuries, but few additions. The chapter house was re-roofed in the mid-15th century after a major fire there and the decaying stonework of the great East Window was replaced in Perpendicular style in 1390, though much of the original glass was retained. Chantry chapels - mini-structures in their own right - appeared throughout the Cathedral in the 15th and early 16th centuries. Particularly notable are the twin versions, at the eats end of the quire, to Sir John Speke and Bishop Oldham (1518/19).