Of Cathedrals and Bits of Paper

There are autumn leaves in England too. And rivers. And even sunshine. I made an abortive trip to Durham today to renew my British passport. Turns out it was unnecessary, because although the both the form and the woman on the helpline informed me that I need to give in my Australian passport too, I don’t. Which means it isn’t quite so urgent, and I can do it by post. Which I will do, because it’s cheaper. Aaaagh!

But Durham is lovely. The last time I was there, nearly four years ago, my cousin Richard and I built a snowman outside the cathedral. Today there was just sunshine. Durham cathedral is something special. York minster is wonderful too – enormous, pale, Gothic, intricate and grand, it was my first experience of a medieval cathedral, and I will never forget it. But Durham cathedral is friendly. Even as you approach it, it radiates quiet. Its Romanesque archways squat solidly and invite you in. Inside, it is something like a forest, and something like a cave. Its fat, round grey pillars are carved with zigzags and diamonds. It doesn’t have as much stained glass as York, but its rose window glitters magically in its heavy setting, and where the light from the windows touches the stone, it blossoms like a rainbow. Durham Cathedral is the resting place of St Cuthbert and the venerable Bede, which makes it a shrine for medievalists and pilgrims alike. I wasn’t allowed to take pictures inside, so here are the cloisters:

There is something quite wonderful about the way it is cared for, and opened up to the public. It has some wonderful modern sculptures which speak of death and resurrection, and the spiritual in the ordinary. The low-ceilinged, zigzag-roofed chapel at the back is cool and quiet and somehow replenishing – it gives me goosebumps just to step in there. At the moment it contains an exhibition called ‘The Museum of my Life’:

We all have them at home: significant objects stashed away in drawers, cupboards full of memories, photograph albums full of people closest to us. This project asked people to reflect on their own lives and to tell the stories and identify the objects which would make up the museum of their life.

The objects were displayed in what looked like ordinary chests of drawers, but when you opened the drawers they were topped with glass. It was heart-breaking seeing the objects displayed there: family photographs, paper packets of flower seeds, old postcards, pipes, dolls. All the ephemera which makes a life. Strangely, it seemed quite at home there, amongst the medieval paintings and the ancient stone, worn by the feet of ordinary people over centuries.

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