Behind the scenes at Portsmouth Cathedral 

The Cathedral Church of St Thomas of Canterbury is an architectural masterpiece in the heart of Old Portsmouth.

The huge, sand-coloured Romanesque-style cathedral is a concert hall, community space, art gallery, and above all a religious sanctuary which has witnessed war and peace and has been destroyed and rebuilt. 

The cathedral's nave. Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

The cathedral's nave. Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

Dating back to 1180, Portsmouth Cathedral may have been transformed throughout the centuries but it still prides itself on its original aim – a place for recharging spiritual batteries and a resting place for the troubled and bereaved.

Known as the Cathedral of the Sea, it started life as the Church of St Thomas, dedicated to Thomas Becket after he was murdered at Canterbury Cathedral in 1170.

The Diocese of Portsmouth covers 139 parishes across south-east Hampshire and the Isle of Wight and is led by the Rt Rev Christopher Foster, Bishop of Portsmouth.

The medieval building has an iconic lighthouse central tower, restored in 2016, which was used as a lookout point. Finally completed in 1991, the cathedral has seen many kings and queens – from King Charles II to Queen Elizabeth I – grace its halls and now welcomes more than 17,000 visitors through its doors each year.

Hope Glew, 15, and some of the choristers rehearsing for Evensong at Portsmouth Cathedral. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Hope Glew, 15, and some of the choristers rehearsing for Evensong at Portsmouth Cathedral. Picture: Habibur Rahman

‘The cathedral reflects the changing, growing and unfolding of the Christian faith,’ says head guide Margaret Wilson, who has been volunteering at the cathedral since 2012. 

‘It’s Romanesque architectural style draws people from all over the world as it also has hints of gothic which is quite rare,’ she explains, as we walk around St Thomas’ Chapel which is the oldest part of the cathedral. 

Margaret, 72 and originally from Glasgow, is just one of 27 volunteers who give up their time each week to hold 19 cathedral tours for visitors. 

She explains: ‘I was the head of history at the school I used to teach at. It’s been easier for me to remember the information than some people.

Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

‘We’re all vintage volunteers, but we do our bit for travel and tourism. In July alone last year, we had 1,900 visitors from 16 European countries, 20 worldwide and from 43 areas of Britain as well as local residents.’

To the right of the Quire, which is the central part of the old church, is the navy aisle. 

Margaret says: ‘When naval officers and the marines took up a subscription and donated so much money to the cathedral, people felt an area of the church should be dedicated for them.’

It’s easy to see the close connections of the cathedral with the seafaring community as hundreds of memorials scatter the walls, from HMS Isis to a fragment of HMS Victory’s flag from the Battle of Trafalgar. 

Musical director David Price  and the cathedral choir practising for Evensong. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Musical director David Price and the cathedral choir practising for Evensong. Picture: Habibur Rahman

The Mary Rose grave sits in the centre of the aisle which holds one of the 97 skeletons recovered from the wreck after it was recovered from the bottom of the Solent in 1982. 

‘The cathedral has played a role in reuniting families as it holds archives of 355 boy seamen who were lost in the two world wars,’ says Margaret. ‘We have had many people coming in to try and find names.’ 

Alongside the guides, several volunteer shop staff work in the cathedral six days a week as well as vergers who roam the building making sure all events run smoothly. In total, there are 23 non-clergy staff who deal with issues such as music, administration and fundraising. It costs in the region of £15,000 a week to run. 

Throughout the year, Portsmouth Cathedral hosts exhibitions and has welcomed Journeys Festival International and Fairtrade pop-up exhibitions in recent months. There was even a bit of controversy when a nude painting had to be removed from an exhibition last summer.

Hanging in the cathedral nave, which was completed in 1939, is Pete Codling’s Soup of Souls exhibition which was completed while he spent time in the cathedral tower hermitage and drew inspiration from the stories of the Solent. 

It’s rare to wander into an empty cathedral, a verger tells me, due to the number of events, clubs and rehearsals each day. From Holy Communions to baby and toddler groups during the week and worship services to Evensong, normal attendance for a typical Sunday service averages more than 230 people. 

Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

Picture: Portsmouth Cathedral.

At its core is worship. Portsmouth Cathedral employs four Cathedral Canons and the Dean, who is in charge of the team of clergy and non-clergy staff.

Today (March 16), Canon Anthony Cane is being installed as the new Dean and will work alongside Cathedral Canons Anthony Rustell, Jo Spreadbury, Nick Ralph and Peter Leonard. 

‘There is just something so special about Portsmouth Cathedral,’ says Canon Peter. ‘The fact that people have prayed here for more than 800 years – it’s as if their stories have seeped into the walls. It’s sacred.

‘Something about it feels safe – and that is exactly what I want a church to be.’ 

Canon Peter, 49, has been standing in as Dean for eight months and says the role has been different ‘with more responsibility and reassurance’ than his previous role as Canon Chancellor.

‘The best thing about my job is the people,’ smiles Canon Peter. 

Ahead of his installation, Canon Anthony Cane, 57, who was Canon Chancellor at Chichester Cathedral, says: ‘I am thrilled to be joining the cathedral and diocese as Dean of Portsmouth.

‘What a privilege to have the chance to live and pray at the heart of a vibrant, diverse city and diocese.’

The history of the cathedral: 

1180 – Wealthy Norman merchant Jean de Gisors gave land to canons of Southwick Priory to build a chapel dedicated to St Thomas of Canterbury, who was assassinated and martyred 10 years earlier.

1642 – During the English Civil War, the cathedral’s medieval tower and nave was destroyed.

1660 – After the restoration of the monarchy, Charles II authorised a collection in churches across the country to raise the £9,000 to rebuild the tower and nave, which was completed in 1693.

1939 – The outer quire aisles, the tower, the transepts and three bays of the nave were completed. Work was halted because of the Second World War. 

1991 – In November the completed building was consecrated in the presence of Queen Elizabeth The Queen Mother.

The music of the cathedral:

The song school and music department at Portsmouth Cathedral is run by organist and musical director Dr David Price assisted by suborganist Sachin Gunga. 

Like every cathedral in the country, except Manchester, David runs separate choirs for boys and girls.

David says: ‘The boys start earlier because their voices change, and the girls start later because their voices mature and blossom beautifully as they get older.

‘We will mix for big events such as the Dean’s installation, Christmas and Easter services. 

‘The aim for me is equity of experience rather than strict equality between the two choirs. The best bit is making the music and the morning rehearsals are a joy.’

To be a chorister requires commitment and discipline.

After getting through auditions, the 24 boys aged seven to 14 and 24 girls aged 10 to 18 give up six to 11 hours per week for rehearsals.

‘It’s quite a good escape and we’re close with friends here,’ says 15-year-old Hope Glew who has been part of the girls choir, Cantate, for nearly five years.

‘The amount of things we learn during rehearsal is amazing,' says Millie Ansell, 17, who is head chorister.

Both from Portsmouth High School, they rehearse here Tuesday and Thursday, sing in Evensong on Thursday and sometimes weekends too.

The choirs have completed tours in Iceland and Belgium, as well as performing at many prestigious events such as the commissioning ceremony of HMS Queen Elizabeth.

Musical director David Price. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Musical director David Price. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Musical director David Price with head chorister Millie Ansell, 17, left, and Hope Glew, 15. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Musical director David Price with head chorister Millie Ansell, 17, left, and Hope Glew, 15. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Sub-organist Sachin Gunga playing the organ. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Sub-organist Sachin Gunga playing the organ. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Canon Jo Spreadbury. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Canon Jo Spreadbury. Picture: Habibur Rahman

Picture: Habibur Rahman

Picture: Habibur Rahman