"Sheffield Cathedral is for those of all faiths - and no faith," Canon Keith reveals as he lifts the lid on the building's incredible history
“Most people do the jaw drop when they walk in here for the first time,” says Revd Canon Keith Farrow, as he gazes up at the extraordinary High Altar at the epicentre of Sheffield Cathedral.
“I know outside it can look a bit foreboding; one previous Dean described it as looking like a cadaver - after an attempted clean-up of the stonework left it looking grey and dead - but inside it’s absolutely full of light.
“Walking into the main room is an experience, one that every Sheffielder should have at some point.”
The sight is nothing new for Canon Keith, as he is known to most, who has been a residentiary Canon at Sheffield Cathedral for the past six years. The family man, who has three grown sons, was also previously the vicar of a parish in Wadsley Bridge, a chaplain at Wakefield Prison, and even once trained as a psychiatric nurse.
“The only thing I haven’t been is Pope,” he laughs.
“The term Canon comes from an old word meaning measurement, as a Canon’s life is measured by times of prayer and devotion.
“While I certainly don’t wander around like an ethereal monk, prayer is very core to what is otherwise a very varied and thrilling job.”
Sheffield Cathedral is the proud seat of the Bishop of Sheffield, and despite having more than a quarter of a million visitors through its doors every year, Keith reveals many people living in Sheffield tell him they have never set foot inside his ‘office’ of Sheffield Cathedral.
“If you’re out there, and you haven’t been in, it really is one for the bucket list,” he says.
“This is your Cathedral, the people of Sheffield, and it doesn’t matter to us what faith you are of, or if you’re of no faith, this space is yours - whether for quiet contemplation, or to enjoy the beautiful history inside.”
As the Canon turns to continue our tour of the Cathedral, his awe and appreciation is evident.
“It’s like a Tardis, it just keeps going and going - and there are centuries of history lying beneath our feet,” he says.
“For nearly 1,000 years, prayer has happened on this site, and it is the oldest building of continuous use in the city.
“There was evidence of the shaft of a Saxon cross going back to the 9th century dug up in Sheffield, and we have records in our archives that Queen Elizabeth I asked churchwardens to ‘pull down ye stone cross outside ye parish church.' This site was originally home to the Parish Church of Sheffield.”
Today, the east end of the church is easily the oldest part, with stones in the east wall of the sanctuary dating back to the 13th century.
“It is a constantly changing building,” Keith explains.
“After it became a Cathedral in 1913, there were great plans to extend it, out to where the Cutlers Hall is today.
“The industrial people of Sheffield poured financial support in for the extension, which was to include a 2,000 seater nave. They were determined to make it a Cathedral truly worthy of this great industrial city.
“Unfortunately, two world wars followed, and by the time peace was restored, people seemed to have less of a stomach for building such a big cathedral, though the foundations of the originally proposed extension and nave remain to this day, under the feet of people walking through Cathedral Square.
“If anyone has a spare hundred million lying around, I’m sure we could get plans moving again..?” he adds, a twinkle in his eye.
Keith describes the building as ‘higgledy-piggledy’ in places, but ‘always telling a story.’
“It’s been redeveloped over the years, of course, but always in a very eco-friendly way, with a lot of reused materials, so there is Norman and Saxon stonework dotted around.
“I think it’s beautiful; as if the history of Sheffield is literally scratched into its walls.”
Keith leads us to the Chapter House meeting room next, built in the 1930’s by Sheffield industrial family, the Tozers; then the Chapel of the Holy Spirit, where the acoustics are apparently beautiful for singing; and the atmospheric Crypt Chapel of All Saints. It is here, Canon Keith reveals, that he himself one day hopes to be laid to rest, perhaps close to his favourite window, which is inspired by a vision of the Heavenly city.
The tour culminates at the very famous Shrewsbury Chapel, where we see the tombs of the 4th and 6th Earls, dating back to the 1400’s.
“The carvings on them are astonishing,” Canon Keith says as he runs his fingers along the shining stonework, once brightly painted, and now with just a few remnants of colour in place.
But perhaps what is most impressive about the Cathedral is that, while the years behind it are certainly evident at every turn, it has also proven it isn’t afraid to move with the times.
In addition to constant improvements and adaptation, the Cathedral has in recent years acquired a gift shop and a cafe, where Canon Keith describes the coffee as ‘heavenly.’
“We’re the only Cathedral I know of to have dental and doctors surgeries attached, as part of the Cathedral Archer Project,” says Keith, referring to the homeless charity premises, which moved into its walls in 2007.
“At the end of the day, this is a community hub, and we want the community to use the space, either for a bit of peace and quiet, or to attend an event.
“We’re a bit like Arkwright’s shop - open all hours, every day of the year.
“Our strapline is ‘a place for all people,’ and that’s exactly what it is. We hold banquets, dinners, and concerts here, as well as numerous meetings and gatherings.
“And if you do come for an event, feel free to stay for the service, and listen to the beautiful singing and music which echoes around the walls.”
At this, Canon Keith raises his eyes once again to the high arching ceiling, where golden birds fly along the curves of concrete, and ancient text is scrawled alongside heavenly images in the windows, illuminated by sunshine.
He shakes his head, and smiles that smile of pure awe once again.
“Extraordinary and ordinary,” he adds, simply.
“Life happens here.”