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About A Week: St Bavo's

Peter Hinchliffe spends a magical afternoon in a Dutch cathedral.

You'd think it would be easy to find a way into a cathedral. Those grand arched I doorways, ready to welcome in the world ...

St Bavo's in Haarlem. Holland, defeated us.

We walked all the way round the 15th Century building, arriving back where we'd started in Grote Markt, the town's broad cobbled square, without having found a way in.

Feeling somewhat foolish, my wife asked a stallholder.

"Ah yes." came the reply m good English. "'You want No 23. That's the entrance."

So round we went again. Tagged onto one side of the cathedral is a parade of tiny shops fronting onto Oude Groenmarkt, the old vegetable market. We checked off the numbers. Sure enough, there was a sign hanging over No 23. Entree. So in we went, along a narrow blue-and-white tiled passage, through a door, stepping out into a huge enclosed space filled with silence and light.

St Bavo's isn't a church filled with elaborately carved wood and painted figures. The building itself does the talking. The immense vaulted ceiling compels you to look upwards.

Uncluttered as the church is, there are still surprising things to see. The Dog Whippers Chapel, for example. There's a picture of a dog whipper. whose job it was to remove troublesome and rowdy canines from the cathedral. Practical folk, the Dutch, and apparently always have been.

Centuries ago, on wet days, they used their cathedrals as places in which to meet, talk and perambulate. Some of them would bring their dogs aiong. The whipper ensured that the Bavokerk did not echo to the sound of discordant barking.

On a central pillar in the Brewer's Chapel two black marks indicate the heights of a giant and a dwarf. Daniel Cajanus, who died in Haarlam at the age of 46 was 8ft 8ins. Simon Paap. who died in 1828 at the age of 39, was 2ft 9ins.

The real wonder in St Bavo's and one of the wonders of the world is the Christian Muller baroque organ. Constructed between 1735 and 1738 it has 5,068 pipes and is just over 98ft high. The 10-year-old Mozart played on it. So too did George Frederick Handel.

We not only saw the organ. We heard it played at full throttle, as you might say. You'll gather that I am not a music critic, though one of my greatest delights is listening to good music.

And the music in St Bavo's was glorious! Ritter, Couperin and Bach, a jolly gavotte by William Boyce and a more modern piece by Felix Alexander Guilmant. All played by Jos van der Kooy, who rounded off an hour-long free concert (what I might term a Yorkshireman's concert) with his own improvisations on an old hymn.

I never saw Mr van der Kooy. The organ console is hidden from view. A pillar was in the way when he took his brief final bow from a side balcony. But that was a glorious afternoon in St Bavo's, with filtered sunlight adding a glow to the white walls and a golden edge to the wooden chairs.

Just remember if ever you go to Haarlem, the number which gives entry into musical magic is 23.


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