Waverley Station, Edinburgh. A Friday afternoon in May 2008. I walk up to the Travel Centre, pick up a ticket and sit down, waiting for my number to be shouted like at the butcher’s counter at Tesco but with less food miles. A few minutes before, I had been sitting in the shadow of the Scottish Parliament, trying to decide what to do with my Saturday, the first in a long time that I had all to myself. The friend I met that day suggested going to Durham, since I had never been there, and so there I was at Waverley, ready to book tickets. The next morning, about 7.30, I was on the train south from Dunbar, sitting back with the papers, ready to see where the day took me.
I still think of that day often, the first solo day trip but certainly not the last. I have been to Durham, many, many times since, most recently about six months ago. Sadly, the Cathedral was being used for a service (I know, imagine that. A church being used for what it’s meant for) so I didn’t get time to ponder and wander, as I have done quite a few times before. But we walked around the cloisters instead, looked at the Lego model of the Cathedral, before moving on. It was enough just to be there, in this magnificent place, even while lingering wasn’t possible on this occasion.
I realised I was an atheist when I was 15. Luckily my interest in religion, even while not practising one, continued unabated and a lot of my happiest memories have been in places linked to one faith or another, like Samye Ling in Dumfries and Galloway, Iona and of course Durham Cathedral. The first time I went to the Cathedral was at quite a tough time in my life. It soothed my soul more than a little bit just to walk around that magnificent building, to look up at the ceiling, down at the floors and just around. Every time I’ve been since has been just the same. I start by walking down the centre aisle then down the side to the Chapel of the Nine Aisles, making sure I pay particular attention to the Millennium Window along the way with its bright colours reflecting on the stone walls and the floor below. More often now, I stop by the memorial to those imprisoned within the Cathedral following the Battle of Dunbar in 1650, thinking on what it must have been like to be imprisoned within those walls, not sure whether you were about to be executed or sent off to the colonies.
Not so far away is the shrine to St. Cuthbert, a small chapel dedicated to the memory of the ascetic Bishop of Lindisfarne. I’ve always liked to sit there and imagine the monk in a basic hut not so far away on Holy Island, looking out to sea and pondering life’s imponderables. Usually I go back up to the Nave, sit awhile and think on myself. Lately, though, life has been better and I haven’t had to sort my life out while sat on a wooden pew. Instead I’ve been able to enjoy the building on its own terms rather than using its architecture to help me think and hopefully come to the right conclusion. A particular favourite recently has been the Galilee Chapel at the far end of the Cathedral, where the Venerable Bede is buried. The Galilee Chapel also allows a glimpse into the changes the Cathedral has gone through. The jagged ceiling arches bear traces of paint and stylings from centuries past. I only noticed them a year or two ago and since then I’ve made a point of looking closer every time I’m there.
The Nave is undoubtedly my favourite part of the church, blessed as it is with a view all the way up to the Rose Window. Above is a stunning ceiling, curved and usually bathed in sunlight from the surrounding windows. The whole thing is kept up by pillars with chevrons that sound garish but really aren’t. That was the height of fashion in 1093, apparently. I tend to sit there the longest, to think but also just to stare open-mouthed at the building around me.
I am lucky to have been to many places over the last nine years or so. Many of them have been beautiful, others inspirational. Some of them have been both, quite a few neither, if I’m honest. Since I moved to Glasgow, I haven’t been to Durham as much. Instead of being an hour down the road, Durham is now three hours away and more expensive too, sadly. But I still manage to get there once a year at least. I know when I do that it will be a very easy day trip, one of the few places that never gets worse the more times you go. A crucial part of a Durham day trip is undoubtedly the Cathedral just as it was the first time I was there, when I didn’t know things would get better, no small part because of going to places like Durham.