I am standing at an overlook outside the rail station in Durham. Mist covers the city, and slow rain leaves slicks along the path to my right. Past the lines of brick houses and motorways stands the newer Catholic church, Our Lady of Mercy and St. Godric. It’s barely a century-and-a-half old; I suspect the mortar between the stones is still wet. In the distance, on a cliff above the unseen River Wear, stand the ghostly white towers of Durham Cathedral. For a moment there on the overlook, I find myself wondering: isn’t it a bit perverse for me to be here? I am a Witch and a Heathen, after all; what use do I have for churches? But I had no idea if I would ever return to the U.K., certainly not with a spare day and a spare punch on my rail pass, and I hated to turn down the chance to walk stones in waking that I have only walked before in dreams.I take the puddled steps down and cross over a highway bridge, then go down again, past construction sites and roundabouts, past shops with names like the Velvet Elvis and the Fighting Cocks Public House, and down to another bridge, this one spanning the Wear, before I look up. Durham Cathedral, and the castle standing to its left, abut the cliff. I had seen this image before in photographs, the cathedral waiting atop the valley, the river lined with trees hiding the modern city. I take a photograph many others have taken before me. It’s unoriginal, perhaps, certainly inferior to the shots taken by professionals with actual cameras instead of cell phones, but their photographs would not be my photographs. Theirs could only be art, never memory.
Up now, into the market district, where brass Poseidon stands watch over the square; back now, in search of the hidden road to the cathedral. I find an alley off Silver Street, next to a building marked the Nine Altars Café, which leads up a long and steep hill parallel to the river. At least it’s a pleasant place to be out of breath. Eventually I come to the top, and the reality of the place sinks in.I have never been a Christian, and for the most part I have little use for Christian trappings. I have always preferred my religion to focus on the small, the oblique and personal: offerings of candy, cigarettes, and dollar bills at the shrines of the loa in the New Orleans Voodoo Spiritual Temple; weather-worn hammers and eggshells at Herne’s Hollow at the Gaea Retreat outside of Kansas City; coffee tables set as altars in the living rooms of my parents and their coven, lined with dishes of salt and water, incense, black iron swords. But cathedrals have their own kind of power, and despite how little I care for the religion they represent, I can’t help but feel drawn to them. Durham, in particular, has held a grip on my soul for many years.
I knew everything about the cathedral at 19, or thought I did. I loved its in-betweenness: built just after William’s conquest, Durham is the last of the great Romanesque cathedrals, already turning toward the Gothic. I studied its floor plans through textbook photographs, learned the names of all the parts of the structure: the nave and the choir, the transept, the narthex. I knew it, then, more intimately than I knew the floor plan of the dormitory I lived in, yet it existed for me only on paper, and in imagination, as opposed to the pale stone before me now.
I walk in silence down the aisle of the nave. Far above slender tendrils of stone join in pointed arches, one of the famed developments of this cathedral, portending the more famous Gothic cathedrals that soon followed it. The force of those points staggers earthward through the pillars. The pillars – yes – I remember these now, the joy I felt in examining their photographs, so many sets of identical twins: the pillars with carved chevrons, with rough Doric lines, with spiraling diamonds cut into the stone.
Books will say that Durham Cathedral has been open since 1093, when the current cathedral started construction and superseded the previous church on the site, which had been completed about 75 years prior. Workers laid carved stones together for the next fifty years until the vaults were finished, and then the cathedral was “finished.” At least that was how I understood it, but a man and a woman dressed in purple cloaks — I must admit, they look like nothing more than Hogwarts prefects — correct this. In fact, the cathedral hardly looked anything like it does today when it was “finished” in the 1130s. The far eastern end, now adorned with a rose window in the Gothic style, didn’t exist until middle of the 13th century; neither did the towers. Although an enormous door of wood and iron stands at the western end of the cathedral, seeming to lead out to the cliff face above the Wear, in fact that door has been blocked off by an altar on the other side for more than 800 years, when the Galilee Chapel was added. The stained glass in the windows now, the prefect tells me, is only a hundred years old or so, and some of it newer than that. The only place where original stained glass still exists is in the Galilee Chapel, which is where I decide to explore next.
I try to identify the old glass and do not have much luck of it; then I look at a rack of tea candles, available to light for a small donation. I sometimes light candles in churches, despite my Paganism, because my wife is a lapsed Catholic and she likes to light them for her sister. As I reach into my pocket for a coin to drop in the box, I realize that the candles are for prayers to the saint entombed behind me: the Venerable Bede.
Bede’s bones lay in a slab of black rock, his name engraved in gold letters on the top. For a moment I am awestruck. Bede was a doctor of the Catholic Church, author of the Ecclesiastical History. To call him a giant in the world of early England is to vastly understate his importance. As a middling Anglo-Saxonist, I have encountered his writings many times over the course of my studies; from just a scholar’s perspective, his tomb deserved a pilgrimage, yet I had no idea he was there. I thought Durham only held the remains of Cuthbert, a saint I knew mainly from his appearances in Dungeons and Dragons; I had no idea that the father of English history lay here too.
I walk back into the nave, still reeling from the surprise, when another of the Hogwarts attendants catches my eye, a middle-aged woman, auburn hair, glasses, a smile both motherly and mischievous. “Hello,” she says. “Are you finding everything all right?”
“Yes, yes – it’s wonderful,” I say, and mean it.
She has a name tag attached to her purple gown; Marian, it says, and below that, her title, Bedesman. Marian raises an eyebrow. “Ah, you’re not from around here, are you? An American? Are you a student?”
I nod, and tell her that I am in the United Kingdom for a few weeks to study pilgrimage. She assumes that my interest is in medieval devotion, like the journeys petitioners would make here to visit the tomb of Cuthbert. I don’t correct her; although I have long since stopped being ashamed to call myself Pagan in public, my old sense of caution remains strong in places like this monument to Christ. Some part of me holds enough superstition to believe it best to give the God of Abraham his space.
Marian takes me by the arm and guides me through the cathedral, even into places where visitors aren’t supposed to go, like the chapter house, once the place where monks met to listen to lectures, and now mainly the storage room for the choir’s coats during practice. She explains every detail, often flipping to a photograph in a small book of laminated pages to illustrate her points. There are clefts in the columns that the eye passes over, assuming them to be nothing more than the accidents of history, but Marian tells me how in the old days, before pews were brought in, there were iron scaffolds set into those clefts; how after the Venerable Bede was brought to Durham from his native Jarrow, a monk used to comb the dead saint’s hair; and how the great gold-and-teal clock of Prior Castell, which dominates the southern narthex above the door to the chapter house, originally had only one hand to tell the time. “In those days they weren’t so particular,” Marian tells me. “Knowing the quarter of the hour was good enough.”Marian only stops talking to occasionally check on me — “Oh, dear, if I’m boring you, please, feel free to go explore on your own,” she says — but I am rapt by the history flowing from her lips. The story she tells is of a building that is hardly a static artifact, but rather always in the process of being created again. It’s not just that the rose-windowed Chapel of the Nine Altars, which now dominates the view of the cathedral, didn’t exist until over a century after the cathedral was “finished.” Nor is it even that the tomb of St. Cuthbert was once adorned in gold and jewels, the most lavish site in England, but during the Reformation Henry VIII ordered it stripped to a bare slab. No, what makes me understand the living nature of the cathedral is to think of how the Iconoclasts broke out all the colored glass, thinking that the depiction of saints was blasphemous. Too close to little gods, I suppose. For centuries, the walls hung with only clear glass; then the times changed again, and the windows changed with it, until at last the only old glass left was in the Galilee Chapel with the Venerable Bede.
I mention my amazement at finding Bede in the cathedral to Marian. “I really should have known he was here; maybe I did know once, and forgot,” I say. “I had no idea he had been translated here.”
“Translated?” Marian smirks. “Don’t be so polite. Bede wasn’t ‘translated’ to Durham – we nicked him!”
This comforts me, being a child of a religion often willing to steal from anything not nailed down, to hear that even the saints could be stolen, and that we could laugh about it a thousand years on.