May 15th, 2008

Durham Cathedral

We had lunch in a pub in Osmotherley (Yorkshire has the most wonderful place names- Saxon, Viking) then went on to Mount Grace Priory, where we spent the afternoon. As you may have gathered, I like Mount Grace a lot. After the Reformation, part of the front range of the Priory became a private house and that 's still there and still has a roof over it- a harmonious blend of medieval, Tudor and Victorian. The gardens are very pretty. There's a big pond- which may once have been the Priory fish pond.- which was full of thousands and thousands of tadpoles. 

Then we carried on to our hotel- which is in Washington, a village with links to the family of the first president.

Next morning we drove into Durham. 

Cathedrals are all different. You'd think a thousand years of similar use would have ironed out the wrinkles and they'd all feel very much the same- but they don't. Some of them leave me cold. Hereford for instance. Durham on the other hand moves me deeply. It's one of those buildings. It's Romanesque- but bigger than any Romanesque building has any right to be. The art books go on and on about how the Gothic style allowed medieval architects to build up and up- it's an art historical cliche- but not yet possessing the pointed arch doesn't seem to have inhibited the man who designed Durham. I climbed the central tower and about three quarters of the way up I was having visions of being carried down again on a stretcher- or in a wooden box. First the pain, then the raw naked fear of being on a level with the birds- and only a thin, high wall of pierced and fretted stone between myself and the abyss. It was a horrible experience and I'd hate to have missed it. 

Durham cathedral is also a fortress. There is a castle in the city, but the cathedral dwarfs it. These were the badlands once- Scots to the north, Vikings to the east, bold, bad barons challenging the king- and the Bishops of Durham were also warlords- with the title of "Prince". Their cathedral is an affirmation- of the power of the church, of the power of civilisation, of the power of faith. 

Huge, massive, craggy, patriarchal- I'm weighing up adjectives to describe how it feels- but the one I keep coming back to is northern. I don't mean northern in the sense of ice and snow and white bears, I mean northern as in rocks and heather and bare, rolling hills. Not ultra-northern, not hyperborean, but northern enough to make a Roman shiver. The Romans are all over this part of England. As Robert Graves more or less said, the Empire was most intensely the Empire in its rind. Durham is only a few miles south of the wall. By which I mean THE WALL. Hadrian's- the wall at the end of the world.  For hundreds of years after the legions left the locals were using Roman stones- filched from Roman buildings- with Roman carving on them- to construct their hovels. Durham cathedral is the sort of building the Romans would have eventually got round to making if they'd never gone away. 

Prince Bishop


Prince Bishop


The Church is an Ark

Full- as with birds and beasts- of the souls of men,

Which are tiresome to deal with even in friendly weather,

And this church in particular is an Ark that rides a storm-

Poised above the hollow of a wave.

Swords have been drawn here, heads and hands hacked off,

Manhoods cut away

To fall with a squiggle and a slither-

And the power of the king is a long long, way down south.

In a place like this, then, it is all to the good

For the guiding hand of the father to be weathered and notched

And a little heavy in its application.

Love is not necessarily douce.  

Can you think what it took

Through forty days of rain and forty nights of rain,

The under decks awash,

The unsaved bobbing by like white bellied fish

Adrift on the swell, to carry such a cargo-

Yip yip, yah yah, squawk squawk, go the souls-

All without loss to landfall under the rainbow?

Medieval Durham had the status of a County Palatine- and functioned as a quasi-independent city state under the rule of its Bishop,who bore- though never officially- the title of Prince.