Clifton Park, Clifton, Bristol, BS8 3BX
Commissioned 1965. Completed 1973.
Ronald Weeks, E.S. Jennett and Antoni Poremba of the Percy Thomas Partnership
Grade II * (listing no. 21271209)
Exterior: Concrete cladding in pinkish brown granite aggregate, contrasting white concrete pillars, lead clad pitched roofs, triple concrete spire.
Interior: greyish-white concrete walls and ceiling, punctuated by wooden acoustic cones, pale marble floor
Place of worship
Mass is held Monday-Friday 7:30am. Please check the website before visiting and for other times of worship.
Clifton Cathedral has been described as ‘heart-lifting’ and the ‘ecclesiastical bargain of the 1970s’. It was created for around just £600,000, and in fact a larger budget might have produced a less successful building. The concrete exterior is boldly austere and modern, with a landmark concrete triple spire. The interior has a clever structure, makes the most of simple materials and features high-quality craftsmanship. It uses natural light ingeniously – to flood the nave and as a decorative feature that plays up the texture of the pale concrete walls.
The design revolves around a guideline from the Second Vatican Council that brought the congregation closer to the altar, so the altar is placed centrally. Highlights inside include Henry Haig’s abstract stained-glass windows, a Portland stone altar by Ronald Weeks, a Portland and Purbeck stone font by Simon Verity, and expressive ‘Stations of the Cross’ images cast and cut into the concrete walls by William Mitchell.
Opinion on the exterior is divided but, over time, the Cathedral seems to have settled into its surroundings rather well. Outside, the entrances from Pembroke Road and Clifton Park are reached via stepped bridges, with an additional ‘processional’ entrance to the west of the site.
Visitors enter a low-ceilinged narthex (porch) lit by Haig’s stunning windows. They then emerge into the huge space of the nave, flooded with natural light from the hidden lantern overhead. Following the Vatican Council’s then-new guidelines, the congregation of 900 are grouped as closely as possible around the altar during Mass. To achieve this, the altar has been brought forward and Clifton’s six-sided design means that the entire congregation faces whoever is at the altar leading proceedings. This contrasts with Liverpool’s circular Roman Catholic Cathedral, where some of the congregation are seated behind the celebrant.
The claim that this is the world’s first Cathedral to respond to ‘Vatican Two’ is a good one. The architects were allowed to see a confidential copy of the draft recommendations of VII on liturgy and church layouts about five weeks before the Council terminated and published its report. They then had their sketch plan of the centralized seating plan completed within days of seeing the draft.