I know very few things. One of them is that good days should be cherished for who knows quite when you will need to remember them and hold them close. I am fortunate that I’ve had many good days in my life. About ten years ago, I was having a bit of a tough time. One Friday afternoon, with the next day free and no earthly idea of how to fill it, I was sitting just by the Scottish Parliament in Edinburgh, in fact in the close that looks onto the MSPs offices, the ones with the thinking pods in the windows. I was thinking of one of my favourite books, Notes From A Small Island by Bill Bryson, and in particular the section about Durham. Bryson raved about Durham and I hadn’t been before. I thought and I marched straight up to Waverley Station to book a ticket. The next day, I was on the train, just about to get off, and I got my first glimpse of that Cathedral on the hill. I walked right up to it and straight in. On that bright May morning, I walked around the Cathedral, looking up at its ceilings, down at its marble floor, and I realised that things were going to be okay. They were, as it turns out. Ever since, Durham has been very special to me. I don’t get there as often as I used to; geography mostly to blame. Nearly a decade on, I can’t help feeling the same peace as I did then.
I am not religious. If I am anything, I prefer to be like Norman MacCaig and be a Zen Calvinist. Durham Cathedral is one of the most significant churches in the Church of England, not natural Zen Calvinist territory by any measure. It is certainty when the world, the universe and everything else is everything but. Maybe that’s why I like to go there and think. I’ve sat there in wooden pews and come away with grand plans to sort out my life, even if they don’t actually pan out the way I intended. These days, I’m happy just to think and to look. If I come away with any clarity, I’ve got lucky. When I was there recently, my abiding thought was that my backside was square and I couldn’t sit there any longer. So, I moved.
The Cathedral is a place which needs to be appreciated in different ways. On foot, on the move, it needs a couple of circuits to see the familiar haunts, to look and down at the right moments, the right windows and plaques, the zig-zags and pillars. Then I sit. Often for a while. Then I walk around again. I make sure I see St. Cuthbert’s Shrine, thinking of how he preferred the waves and solitude of Lindisfarne to more refined cares. I usually stop by the tomb of the Venerable Bede and think of the line I read in a book by Alan Bennett once, sung by Dame Maggie Smith in revue about how the Venerable Bede could hardly spell and barely read. Sometimes, like when I was last there, I sit in the cloisters, the only bit I take a photo in deference to the big signs, and think of Harry Potter, scenes of which were filmed there. I’m not awaiting my Hogwarts letter, it would just be nice to visit.
When I was last in the Cathedral, I was talking about the Battle of Dunbar, when the victorious Cromwellian forces marched 3,000 prisoners to Durham, some destined to die within its walls, others executed while some were transported to America as slaves. There’s a plaque in the Chapel of the Nine Altars. Nearby is my favourite window, the one dedicated to Archbishop Ramsey, the Transfiguration Window, brown with a shaft of light in the middle. I always like to find the sweet, self-reverential touch where the Cathedral appears in the window. The Millennium Window nearby, more modern with its images of northeastern life, reflects its colours on the stone on sunny days, like the ceiling above the nave where the light shines in on its curves.
As I said, I’ve been fortunate to have many bright days. Durham has factored in quite a few of them, like when I was there during the Lumiere Festival a few years back and images from the Lindisfarne Gospels were projected on the walls. Or when I was there during a heatwave at the end of March, walking by the river in shorts. I never fail to thrill at the sight of the Cathedral as I approach, even if lately I’ve come by road, which is almost as good. It’s the best building on Earth and I’m just glad I’ve been, on cold winter days and long summer ones, in all moods and hues, to sit under its ceiling and admire it, admire the world around, really, and live life just a wee bit brighter from having been there.