Playing God: A helter skelter and mini-golf are tempting new visitors into sacred spaces

“If you can’t have fun in a cathedral, do you really know what fun is?”

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When I was a child, my grandparents would take me to the helter skelter that stands on the edge of Brighton Pier. I remember my heart lurching between thrill and sheer fear as, each time I rounded one side, I found myself heading straight for the sea, only to verge away from it as soon as I had reconciled with my fate, and then back round again, until I would land safe and sound, with a thump, at the bottom. I’ve regularly thought back to the helter skelter’s precarious position, so close to the pier’s edge.

Last week, Norwich Cathedral installed a 55-ft-tall helter skelter in its nave, open to the public for £2 a ride until 18 August. It seems to me that a cathedral is a much more suitable environment for such a ride; there is no fear, when spiralling down from the top of the 900-year-old building, of plunging into the Channel. As the Dean of Norwich, the Very Rev. Jane Hedges, tells me over the phone, the helter skelter will offer visitors a far more romantic pursuit: “the opportunity to more closely admire the cathedral’s extraordinary medieval ceiling.”

The ceiling’s bosses – the points at which the ribs of the roof join together – are the particular focal point. They depict scenes from the Old and New Testaments, including the Creation, the Fall, the birth of Jesus and the Last Supper, and date back to the 1400s. “During the Reformation they were white-washed. They were uncovered again in the Victorian times and repainted in the 1930s. That’s why they’re in such good condition,” the Dean explains.

The installation in Norwich follows Rochester Cathedral’s introduction of a temporary mini-golf course in its nave at the beginning of August. The nine-hole course, its organisers say, is an educational initiative: each of the holes includes a model of a bridge in Kent or the rest of the UK, and is designed to inspire young people into taking an interest in civil engineering. Funded by the Rochester Bridge Trust and open free-of-charge to visitors, the course features models of Rochester’s original Roman bridge and the Queen Elizabeth II Bridge at Dartford. 

While the organisers of these initiatives say the primary reason for their installation is educational, both Norwich’s helter skelter and Rochester’s mini-golf course reflect a modern trend of historic spaces offering visitors more exuberant activities than the typical services of a religious building. 

“We’ve got to engage people so that they value these buildings, and they love them and they feel they belong to them, even if they’re not religious,” the Dean of Rochester, the Very Rev. Dr. Philip Hesketh, tells me over the phone. These new activities follow Peterborough Cathedral’s exhibition of the astronaut Tim Peake’s spacecraft, which was on show to the public – and available for visitors aged 13 and up to climb inside – from August to November 2018. This month, a gin and prosecco festival will be held in the grounds of Peterborough Cathedral.

While the theme-park slant is new, cathedrals – and, more locally, churches – have long been sites of more than just spiritual practice: their halls provide a location for meetings of church-affiliated groups such as choirs or Brownie packs, as well as secular community meetings, be they exercise classes, playgroups, or soup kitchens for the homeless. In recent years, musicians have made the most of the extraordinary acoustics of churches and cathedrals: alongside its regular services, London’s Union Chapel hosts pop and rock gigs (although its pundits sip mugs of hot chocolate and nibble on Tunnocks teacakes rather than downing pints, since alcohol is not permitted); and in 2011 the musician Laura Marling even went on an 11-date cathedral-only tour, taking in Winchester, York Minster and Central Hall Westminster. 

The Dean of Rochester adds how, over the centuries, his cathedral has been used as a “market space, a saw pit, and even a stable.”

Inclusivity has long been a central value of Norwich Cathedral. “It used to be a Benedictine monastery,” the Dean says, “and one of the things at the heart of Benedictine life is offering hospitality to the people who come. We want to make sure anybody and everybody that comes to our doors wants to come in and feels welcome when they do so.”

While the mini-golf at Rochester may not be strictly religious, other exhibits surrounding the course do encourage the visitors to engage with spirituality. The Dean describes activities concerning “how we might be bridge-builders in our communities” and tasks on “conflict resolution. We also have a place where people can write prayers for issues in their lives or in the world. Those prayer boxes, which we then pray to the following day, have been absolutely stuffed with messages, and we’ve almost run out of candles each day.” 

Both initiatives have received criticism. James Mather, a Church of England Rector working in West Norfolk, tweeted: “I imagine some small part of this venerable sacred building will be reserved for anyone who might wish to, er, say their prayers”; while the Guardian reports a Dutch tourist, Greetja Boedeltja, saying it was a “shame” the helter skelter at Norwich obscures a large glass window that she wanted to see. But, as the Dean of Rochester points out, some criticism is inevitable: “Sadly, Christians have never been able to agree with each other over the last 2,000 years.”

In fact, the cathedrals seem to be following instructions from the Archbishop of Canterbury, who last year at the National Cathedral Conference said: “Cathedrals are fun. If you can’t have fun in a cathedral, do you really know what fun is?”

The Dean of Norwich is keen to tell me about the smiles the helter skelter has put on the faces of visitors. When we speak over the phone, she reads aloud comments she and her team have received from people who have visited the cathedral in the last few days: “I love it. It’s a celebration of life and joy to the heart, spiritually and physically – maybe you can’t separate them,” reads one; “You can see that God is here by the smiles on the faces of the people coming down the slide” seems to be her favourite.

The hope of attracting a wide crowd to spaces usually reserved for a select group is proving successful. The Dean of Rochester says that since the mini-golf course opened at the beginning of August, 300-400 visitors have flocked to the cathedral each day – far more than he imagined. “We’ve engaged in really serious and wonderful conversations because of this, which we would not have had before," he adds. 

Meanwhile, the Dean of Norwich says that the cathedral is releasing 800 tickets for the helter skelter each day. So far, they have sold out every day, and hundreds more visitors have been entering the cathedral simply to see others ride the helter skelter, and to look up at the bosses on the ceiling while reclining on the designated cushioned areas. 

The Dean is pleased to have welcomed a wide variety of ages into the cathedral, but there is one difference between the older and younger visitors: “A little girl I was showing round this morning could see the ceiling with her naked eye; her parents had to use binoculars.”

Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman's culture assistant.