Friday, 18 November 2016

The Mappa Mundi

It's 25th October, just over three weeks ago, and I'm in Hereford. It's only my second visit to this most English of cities, so close to the Welsh Border. I passed through with Mum, Dad and M--- during a Christmas hotel break in 2003, on Boxing Day I think, but we didn't stop. We had to get back for lunch at the hotel. I remembered glimpsing some nice shops and a lot of people, and promised myself a return visit sometime.

Well, it had taken thirteen years, but here I was, on a dull, damp day in 2016. During those years I had learned that Hereford Cathedral had within it the famous Mappa Mundi, the largest still-existing medieval map of the world. 'Mappa Mundi' is of course just Latin for 'The Map of the World'. It was worth driving twenty-odd miles from the caravan to see this seven hundred year old wonder.

As I entered Hereford, I found myself liking the look of the place. It was a smallish city, and seemed notably green and pleasant, even under a grey sky. If it had a drawback it was the road system, which concentrated the traffic from all the main roads entering the city onto an inner-city bypass that was very congested. On the other hand, much of the city centre was pedestrianised, making walking about safe and easy. It was indeed a city that made you want to walk about and explore, but more on that later in this post. I'll cut to the chase, and deal with the main attraction first.

So, having parked Fiona, I had made my way to the Cathedral, and after a look-around inside, had paid the admission to the Mappa Mundi Exhibition, gleefully getting an age concession. When you do this, by the way, you begin by saying 'I'd like a concession, please,' the words 'on account of my being sixty-four' or 'because I'm an Old Age Pensioner' remaining unsaid. I mean, it is always perfectly clear that I'm neither a child nor a student. That said, the man at the desk must have been having a bad day, for he looked sourly at me, and said, 'Student?' 'Well,' I said, 'that wouldn't be impossible, as anyone can be a mature student, can't they?' (You could see that I wasn't going to be the butt of his secret angst) 'But actually,' I continued, 'I'm just an interested tourist on holiday, wanting to look at the Map.' And I could have added, 'So take my money and give me a ticket, and less of your argee-bargee, if you don't mind, or it will be the worse for you.'

I think he did realise from my manner that I wasn't just another mindless, dithery old biddy off a coach. He relaxed a bit. In fact, he became quite affable. In the end, we had nearly ten minutes' conversation on various topics, including his elder brother, who made a mysterious living as a wine-taster. I got the impression that this elder brother had somehow managed to swan through life feather-bedded, and that the man before me had not. It was none of my business. Another person arrived to purchase admission and I was able to escape.

The Exhibition was well-presented. They explained the making, purpose and known history of the Map. For instance (click on any of these shots to enlarge it):

The Map was drawn on vellum - calf skin carefully prepared for writing on - and this had texture and crinkles. A technical team had laser-scanned it to produce a 3D model you could touch and feel. I duly ran my fingers over it.

Then into the Map Chamber! There was the Map itself, as seen on TV, together with some other exhibits that were related to it, either directly, or at least coeval with it. First however the Map. It was much as I had expected, amber-coloured with age. It wasn't quite as large as it had seemed on the TV history programmes that I'd watched over the years. You couldn't say it had great visual impact. But closely-approached, there was a lot of fascinating detail to make out. A couple were examining it together, enthralled. I got talking to them, and we bumped into each other several times afterwards in the main part of the Cathedral:

The map was basically a religious document, a stylised diagram of the world in which geographical accuracy was subordinated to showing places mentioned in the Bible and other texts that were important to the Christian Believer. So Jerusalem was at the very centre, with the then-known world arranged around it. Everyone was hard put to identify the British Isles, but they were there too, right on the edge, at the seven o'clock position. Even China was there, but only as a name - again close to the edge - somewhere at the top of the Map. You'll gather from this that the top edge of the Map was East, the bottom edge West, with North to the left and South to the right. Naturally all names and annotation were in Latin.

The map also included fanciful drawings of people and animals believed to inhabit far-flung corners of the world, such as headless persons with eyes and mouths in their chests; and of course sundry mermen. mermaids, unicorns, basilisks and dragons. In early medieval times these things could still be taken seriously; but I should think the makers of the Map wanted also to emphasise that perfection and normality could only be found near Jerusalem, and that the further away from the holy centre of Christendom one went, the more outlandish the life forms. A warning perhaps to be content with one's lot, and not to travel.

Helpfully, a much clearer English version of the Map was nearby, so one could identify places and creatures. Here are some comparisons:

That's Great Britain and Ireland just above! Don't they look odd, all crammed in on the edge? And yet the Mediterranean Sea was also shown in a strange way...

...although Venice for instance was clear enough if you peered more closely... was Jerusalem:

Another big part of the Exhibition was the Cathedral's Chained Library: books on shelves that were secured with a chain so that they couldn't be taken away.

The chains must have made the books quite awkward to handle - and it couldn't have been a quiet place, that library, with chains clanking all the time!

I won't say much about the rest of the Cathedral. It was interesting enough, though not as special as (say) Gloucester or Peterborough. They had made some very colourful and attractive embellishments to the old tomb of St Thomas:

I was glad to see several fine examples of the Gurney Patent Heater - a little bit of Cornwall - which were churning out copious quantities of heat, very cheering on such a damp day.

Outside I found a modern (2005) metal moustached figure leaning on his bicycle and contemplating the Cathedral:

It was of course the composer Sir Edward Elgar, who was a Hereford resident for a few years, from 1904 to 1911. The sculptor was Jemma Pearson. I felt it was odd to see him here. I associate Elgar chiefly with Worcestershire.

I spent another hour wandering through Castle Green and down to Victoria Bridge on the River Wye, a pretty substantial river at Hereford. It seemed very attractive. It would be even nicer in bright sunshine:

Then back through the city centre. Herefordshire is an agricultural county famous for its cattle, and sure enough I came across the headquarters of the Hereford Cattle Society, with a model bull over the doorway:

The Hereford Bull theme was repeated in the High Street, near the entrance to the big indoor Market, with this big metal statue:

By this time, I had only twenty minutes to get back to Fiona, so I didn't dilly-dally, not wanting to exceed the three hours I'd paid for. I drove off to have a look at Hay-on-Wye. I'm not sure yet whether that deserves a post. 


  1. Is this the map which got you onto the moor...?

  2. I'll give you a serious reply: no. Mainly because the Mappa Mundi doesn't show any roads, not even any pilgrimage routes (odd, that). It doesn't show Okehampton, either, not even Dartmoor (not holy enough, of course).


  3. I love Hereford! It has been my home base for travel on several occasions. I am always glad to be back.


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