The story of the Crib at Hereford Cathedral written by the Dean of Hereford

Nativity scenes are a beautiful part of Christmas celebrations.  I remember being in Rome for Christmas 1981, and the tradition of going around the churches of Rome to view the Cribs on Christmas Eve – which was the most elaborate and eye-catching? Some had shooting stars, babbling brooks, changing lights and a cast of thousands that wouldn’t have shamed a Cecil B de Mille spectacular.  Was the first Christmas really like that?

At Hereford we’ve been more modest, but our Crib has changed and developed over the years.

When I arrived at Hereford, I found one which was charming but very small – made of woollen knitted figures. Below is an image of another that some may recognise.

Christmas 2002. We needed to re-imagine the Crib and so joined forces with Herefordshire College of Art and design with pupils from Haywood High School. We used re-cycled materials – CDs, bicycle parts and the baby Jesus appeared in a supermarket trolley. 


Well, it caused a storm! I really did receive a letter from ‘Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells’, and the Crib was even mentioned on TV where a woman in the audience described it as ‘an insult to all Christians’. Another, in the Hereford Times letters page opined…’are the children going to gather round to sing ‘Away in a Trolley?’ Others were more supportive. Another Hereford Times reader wrote: ‘If he is really to be ‘born in us today’, won’t he be content with just as humble a manger-  a supermarket trolley’?

Well, we weathered the storm but for the next few years went down a more traditional route and joined forces each year with a different local school. For the first year, 2003, Sandy Elliott and I worked with students at Aylestone School where Sandy was Head of Art. The central figures of the story were inspired by traditional Italian themes and by the style you see in Naples.


Next year, the shepherds joined the scene, with figures made by pupils at Hereford Cathedral School, using clay for the faces and hands.

Each year, the Crib was dedicated on a Saturday in early December, with singing provided by members of the Hereford Junior Singing Club.  Mums and dads, families and friends joined them for coffee and mince pies afterwards. 

Then came a glorious angel, made by pupils at Whitecross School. Here we see the angel, with other crib figures as the choir sang alongside them at the conclusion of evensong on Christmas Day 2005.

Three Wise Men followed in 2006, with figures made of chicken wire and colourful materials – made by pupils at Bishop of Hereford Bluecoat School.

Finally, in 2007, the piece de résistance, Kenny the Camel made an appearance, made by pupils of St Mary’s RC High School.


This crib was brought out for several years, and drew together the school communities around Hereford. But eventually it began to show signs of wear. Sandy and I then worked with Paul Caton, a wood carver living at Lingen, above Presteigne.   He worked in limewood and, the first year produced beautiful figures of the Holy Family, with an angel, three wise men, shepherds and a sheepdog with lambs in following year. Each figure was given by a generous donor.

When Paul Caton was working on the wise men when I visited him at his workshop in Lingen.  He said, ‘I’ve used a piece of wood for one of the wise men which has a very visible knot, running right through the face.  I think I’d better start again and re-carve him.’   ‘No, don’t do that, Paul. I said, ‘that imperfection, far from coming across as a blemish is rather beautiful – perhaps we try to make Christmas too perfect each year?’

So there we have it – the Crib this year, moved from its traditional place in the South Transept but still offering that great message of hope and light in our dark world.


One thing is certain – even our lime-wood crib will not last for ever.  New Deans will come and with them, new ideas and insights, and the crib will receive a new interpretation, just as we have tried to do here over the years. With what better words to close than those that the choir sings at the crib as it ends Evensong on Christmas Day?


O little one sweet, O little one mild,

In thee Love’s beauties are all distilled.

Then light in us thy love’s bright flame,

That we may give the back the same

O little one sweet, O little one mild.


My prayers for you all this Christmas