Time Team made Sir Tony Robinson an expert in what lies beneath the ground. Now, he tells Sarah Freeman why he is turning his attention to some of the country’s most iconic landmarks.
Sir Tony Robinson isn’t what you’d call a religious man. However, having spent a good few months of last year exploring some of England’s most impressive and important cathedrals, he can see the advantages of an ecclesiastical life.
“Inside these rather grand monoliths the thing that strikes you instantly is that these are places where no one will be rushed. In the outside world, people operate for most of the time at top speed. Not here. Cathedral deans don’t pace, they glide serenely through the aisles and I rather liked that. Just being in their company makes you slow down and that is a lovely antidote to modern life.”
Robinson, still best known for playing Baldrick in Blackadder and turning Time Team into an unlikely TV ratings winner, visited six churches in all, including York Minister, for his new series Britain’s Great Cathedrals.
While he didn’t find his faith and he won’t be found kneeling in the pews any Sunday soon, even before filming started he admits to a long fascination with the story of their construction and survival.
“Most people visiting a town pop inside the cathedral, gasp and then come back out again,” he says. “It’s easy to see why. I mean, look at York. It’s quite awe-inspiring, but what I really wanted to do was peel back the layers and discover the people and the history on which these places are built.
“My one concern was that they we might end up with six versions of pretty much the same story, but it quickly became apparent that while these great big buildings have much in common, they each occupy a peculiar and particular chapter in the story of Great Britain.”
The series opens with York Minster and within the course of 60 minutes lays bare both the lives of the early vicars, who spent more time in the city’s ale houses than at prayer, and the succession of more honest Archbishops whose moral compass was less easily swayed.
“The north of England has always been full of difficult buggers and York Minster has been home to a good few of them,” says Robinson. “There is a temptation to see Archbishops as being cut off from the real world, but actually the best of them are very firmly rooted in the politics of the day.
“Take Dr Cyril Garbett, who was Archbishop of York during the Second World War and who was one of the first to speak out against the Holocaust. He called the massacre of Jews in Poland ‘the greatest crime in history’.”
The most contentious issue the Minster has found itself at the centre of in recent years is the ordination of the first female bishops. It was in January 25, 2015 that the Right Reverend Libby Lane, walked up to the altar to be made Bishop of Stockport in front of more than 1,000 people. The two-hour service was briefly interrupted by heckles from the Rev Paul Williamson, who had yet to be convinced that women should be allowed occupy the higher orders.
“I spoke to the Dean of York Minster Vivienne Faull and she has some lovely memories of that day. Even now when she talks about Libby Lane, there is something joyous when she remembers how struck she was that she chose to wore stilettos. For those in the congregation that day who had waited so long to see the first female bishop, it was a sign, quite rightly, she was going to do things her way.”
These days, cathedrals like York Minster are both a tourist attraction and a place of worship. More than 690,000 people visited in 2017 and, while it’s their entrance fees which keep the place running, finding the balance between commercial and spiritual demands is not always easy.
“I think York gets it right. These places are money pits and without the income they receive from visitors they would begin to crumble. I know that there are some people who would like them to be free to enter, but we do have to be realistic. We no longer live in the 19th century when wages were so low these great big cathedrals could easily afford to have 100 workers on-site without worrying about how they were going to pay the wage bills.
“However, what I particularly loved about York Minster was how every so often the general bustle of the day would stop and within a second it would revert to a place of stillness and a place of prayer.”
England is home to 44 cathedrals and given they have witnessed Henry VIII’s Reformation and Second World War bombing raids as well as the ravages of time, it is a minor miracle that the likes of York Minster have remained standing at all.
“Most of us remember the fire in the 1980s which ripped through the south transept, but when you start digging into the history of the place you realise just how close we have come to losing it. In 1967 a building survey revealed that the Minster and in particular the central tower was close to collapse. The news was greeted with shock, not just in York, but across the whole country and beyond and the fundraising campaign, which successfully added £2m to the coffers, shows I think what these places mean to people.”
When the work to strengthen the foundations got underway, a team of civil engineers spent day times down in the bowels of the building, while at night archaeologists grabbed a rare chance to carry out excavations in some of the Minster’s most ancient corners, revealing the remains of both the headquarters of the original Roman fort and the cathedral’s Norman predecessor.
“One of the things I never forget when I am doing these programmes is what a privileged position I am in. I get to nosy around the places which are off limits to the regular visitor and I always leave feeling incredibly lucky.
“At York, one of the things which impressed me most was this huge, ornate book called The King’s Book of York Heroes. After the First World War there was a feeling that those who had lost their lives in the conflict were in danger of being forgotten and so the city put together a book, which featured not just the names and biographies of the York fallen, but also individual photographs.
“There are now 1,447 entries, including George Edwin Ellison, who died just before the ceasefire at 11am on 11 November 1918. I’ve always thought that standard war memorials are pretty drab affairs, so easy to walk past without giving a second glance and I thought the book was just wonderful, imaginative way of commemorating the sacrifice.”
While Robinson may have started his life as an actor, history has been a lifelong passion which he traces back to his parents. “On holidays our family could generally be found looking around old Cornish churches and castles and I loved it. I like the stories these places have to tell. In a few weeks I’m off to Egypt on a hunt for mummies. A different country, a different chapter of history, but for me still the same excitement.”
Britain’s Great Cathedrals, Channel 5, March 30, 8pm.