When not looking up, it’s worth a trip down into the underbelly of a cathedral or abbey. While the soaring heights and stained glass are awe inspiring, save a little respect for the undercroft. Used in abbeys as a cellar for storage as well as a sleeping quarters for the lay brothers, the undercroft is often the part of the ancient building that survives intact and unaltered by the changing centuries.
In cathedrals, going underneath takes you into the crypt, the home of tombs, shrines to relics and small altars. According to the needs of the community, the undercroft was versatile. Chester cathedral currently uses it as a gift shop.
Chester cathedral, one of a string of dissolved abbeys converted into cathedrals along the Welsh border, is built from red sandstone. Chester (Caer in Welsh), dates back to Roman times and still boasts plenty of Roman history (city walls, temples and an amphitheatre). A Christian basilica probably was on the original site and dedicated to Saint Peter and Saint Paul until Saxon times when the dedication switched to Saxon princess, Saint Werburgh.
In 1053, a Benedictine abbey was established by the Earl of Chester (a title now held by the Prince of Wales). Started in the Norman style, the abbey church was extensively rebuilt in the Gothic style and by the time of the Dissolution, the cloisters (still intact today), central tower and souther aspects were refashioned in the Perpendicular.
The undercroft dates from that early Norman abbey. Basic in design, its vaulted ceiling has been whitewashed to give a sense of lightness. The vaulting is a key feature of the undercroft as it supports not just the ceiling, but the weight of structure above it. The various designs of vaulting repeat themselves throughout the building in the roof and chapels ceilings.
Barrel vault – the simplest with semicircular sections formed as if a barrel has been cut in half.
Groin vault – A series of barrel vaults cross-sectioning each other.
Rib vault – more geometry, and strength
Fan vault – the vaulting fans out.