What next for Cathedral’s helter skelter priest?

The Helter Skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' projectPi

The Helter Skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' projectPictured is Rev'd Canon Andy BryantByline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

Eighteen months ago a helter skelter in Norwich Cathedral brought the city worldwide headlines. Millions saw the images of the fairground ride inside the medieval masterpiece, thousands queued to climb towards the stunning cathedral roof and slide back down. 

“The moment when I knew that we had really arrived was when we were featured in the Daily Telegraph cartoon. It had a helter skelter in the House of Commons and Boris was saying something like, ‘This should distract them from Brexit!’” The Rev Canon Andy Bryant still sounds astonished by the reaction to his plan to allow people a better view of Norwich Cathedral’s magnificent medieval roof bosses. 

The helter skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' project.

The helter skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' project. Picture: Sonya Duncan - Credit: Sonya Duncan

The helter skelter hit the headlines, not only in Britain, but right around the world. “There were some really bizarre moments. There was one point when someone phoned up from a holiday on the Greek islands to say that Norwich Cathedral was on the news. I spoke to a Norfolk woman in the cathedral whose daughter, who lived in Vanuato, had told her about it!” said Canon Andy. “There was one crazy morning when I did 19 interviews back to back.” 

It had all begun in Rome, in the Sistine Chapel, when Canon Andy was gazing at Michaelangelo’s incomparable ceiling – and daring to compare it to Norwich Cathedral. “Michaelangelo was a genius but the medieval roof bosses in Norwich Cathedral are just as good, but no-one ever gets to see them,” he said. So he began thinking about how to get people up high enough to view the works of art and eventually moved  from impractical ladders and walkways to the dizzyingly audacious - a funfair ride. 

The Helter Skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' projectBy

The Helter Skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' projectByline: Sonya DuncanCopyright: Archant 2019 - Credit: Sonya Duncan

“Originally I wanted a ferris wheel but we couldn’t get one through the doors. They all come mounted on huge lorries,” he explained. When he happened across a helter skelter which could be taken apart Seeing it Differently (the name of the whole project which also included tours of the cathedral and other ways of looking at the famous roof bosses) was born.  

Roof bosses in the nave seen from the helter skelter during Seeing it Differently. Photo: Norwich Ca

Roof bosses in the nave seen from the helter skelter during Seeing it Differently. Photo: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith

Roof bosses in the nave seen from the helter skelter during Seeing it Differently. Photo: Norwich Ca

Roof bosses in the nave seen from the helter skelter during Seeing it Differently. Photo: Norwich Cathedral / Bill Smith


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Ten thousand people rode the helter skelter, another 30,000 came to see it and take part in linked activities. Queues snaked across the Cathedral Close. 

“It was lovely, it was wonderful, it was bemusing,” said Canon Andy. “I think the thing I took the most pride in was the wonderful atmosphere in the cathedral. The word that was repeatedly used by people was ‘joy’. There was just this most fabulous, busy, excited atmosphere in the cathedral. When people were waiting to go on you couldn’t tell who was in which group. It was like everyone knew each other although it was the first time they had met.” 

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“I wanted to bring in people who might never have thought of coming into a cathedral,” said Canon Andy. “I had a really strong sense that Norwich people were proud of us and glad that we were doing something different. We were proud of our city and county and what we had to share. 

“So many people said that they would come back and that Christmas our services were up, every single one. 

“We were really on a high from that and working towards Dippy {The Natural History Museum's iconic Diplodocus cast, which should have arrived in Norwich Cathedral last summer} and then everything stopped.” 

As coronavirus swept into the country the cathedral closed. During the first lockdown it was completely shut, perhaps for the first time in centuries. “Having a helter skelter didn’t stop our worship,” said Canon Andy, adding that apart from periods in Puritan times, and when lightning toppled the original wooden steeple, services continued – until last spring.  

The rhythm of daily services has begun again, although without congregations, and Canon Andy’s current project is very different to the joy of the helter skelter. The cathedral’s covid memorial is made up of many small crosses, each representing a Norfolk victim. Every Wednesday at noon a member of the clergy holds a service, alone, to remember the dead.  

“Part of our role is to provide those moments for people to express their faith,” said Canon Andy.  

Canon Andy Bryant with the Covid memorial at Norwich Cathedral in January 2021, when the number of d

Canon Andy Bryant with the Covid memorial at Norwich Cathedral in January 2021, when the number of deaths across Norfolk from the pandemic passed 1000. - Credit: Bill Smith / Norwich Cathedral

“People of all faiths and of no faith come into the cathedral and it puts them in touch with that sense of otherness. When I see pictures of intensive care units, with all the nurses and doctors working together, I get that sense of something bigger, something literally awe-some.” 

His father was a vicar and he said: “The only thing I was sure of was that I didn’t want to be a vicar!” 

Instead he studied anthropology at university and researched changing attitudes to church by  spending three months with members of a Birmingham congregation. “I talked to them about faith and church and God and there was something so exciting about it,” he said. Inspired, he trained for ministry himself. “I have always felt that there was a God, I have never doubted that, but I have a kind of love hate relationship with church.” That sense of standing on the edge of church informs his mission to bring people into the cathedral. “I have always had this thing about how can we ensure that cathedrals are accessible to everyone,” he said. “I love it when the cathedral is full of people because it belongs to the city, the county, everyone.” 

The Helter Skelter installed in Norwich Cathedral as part of their 'Seeing It Differently' project

Rev'Canon Andy Bryant with the helter skelter in Norwich Cathedral - Credit: Sonya Duncan

He longs to welcome crowds again – but is not sure whether a return of the helter skelter is the way to do it. “After the pandemic it feels like it belonged to a different era,” he said. “But there is something in me that wants to do something that’s fun again when life returns to normality. We have all had such a rough time as a city that we need to do some fun things. “We are hoping that Dippy Dinosaur is coming this year,” he said.

He is also looking forward to finally meeting his first grandchild – born during the second lockdown. 

“And I still have this vision of a ferris wheel which is really nice and slow and genteel and you get more time to see the bosses. Because the helter skelter wasn’t just ‘What silly thing can I do?’ There was a genuine desire to share the roof bosses and share the story they tell. And the story they tell is the story of the Bible.” 

And if he does find a way of getting a ferris wheel into the cathedral he is determined to have several goes. “I got one ride on the helter skelter. This is still quite a sore point!” he laughed.  

A cathedral clock is part of this picture quiz.


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