Chester Is Overwhelming in Its Englishness, Its Cosy Cathedral Displaying a Continuity of History

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A little display commemorates John Cornwell. The 35 sailors who died on HMS Chester at the Battle of Jutland on 31 May 1916 are all listed here, including:

John Travers Cornwell, VC, BOY A typed transcription gives Admiral Beatty's citation for the Victoria Cross. Cornwell was mortally wounded, Beatty says, but he "remained standing alone at a most exposed post till the end of the action, with the gun's crew dead and wounded all around him. He was 16 1/2 years. I regret that he has since died, but I recommend his case for special recognition injustice to his memory, and as an acknowledgement of the high example set by him." Next to the fading typescript, an old picture postcard of the ship.

All around me, in Chester cathedral, I hear the triumphant crescendos of the Eroica. Beethoven is interrupted, every so often, when the conductor sets the oboes or the violins right. It is a dress rehearsal for a Chester Philharmonic concert. An orchestra of very serious amateurs.

I can't remember when I was in a place which so overwhelmed me with its feeling of Englishness. Chester was, of course, built as a frontier town, facing the Welsh. People at a boundary have to make their allegiances clear.

Like all English cathedrals, it is littered with evidence of war. An RAF flag hangs from the south transept wall. Opposite it, a white ensign. A little plaque commemorates Czech soldiers who came to England in the second world war and were based in Cheshire.

I read about a captain in the Light Dragoons, dead at Waterloo, "Killed by a musket shot in the Hour of Victory!" A window speaks of the battles of the Chester Brigade in 1914-18: France, Egypt, Palmyra, Salonika, Gallipoli, Mesopotamia, Italy, East Africa. In 1792 an Irish naval lieutenant died in Chester "on a journey to see his Aged Parent". The Church of England has always been the British armed forces at prayer.

In 1895 a captain in the Light Infantry died in Poona and is honoured here by his fellow officers. Immediately beneath his memorial lies the grave of Chester's most famous monk, from the days when the cathedral was an abbey. Ranulph Higden wrote a history of the world, the Polychronicon, from the Creation down to 1352. (He died in 1364.) It was one of the books Caxton printed.

In churches outside England it is rare to have this sense of continuity; of history carrying on into the present. I can look at the misericords in the monks' choirstalls: a monster kills a knight; a woman beats her husband; a fox shams dead; a portcullis falls on the horse of Sir Gawain (a local hero). …