Sunday, 6 June 2010

Signs and Wonders

Durham Cathedral & Castle from Railway Station

And the people bowed and prayed
to the neon god they made,
and the sign flashed out its warning
in the words that it was forming,
and the sign said: “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls”
and whispered in the sound of silence.

Paul Simon. The Sound of Silence

LAST TUESDAY I SPENT THE DAY wandering the narrow, cobbled streets of Durham in the northern English rain with an old friend from Utah. Richard had never been to Great Britain before this long journey, we met at grammar school in Bermuda forty-mumble years ago.

Like me, Richard has his roots in this part of the world, his mother’s family were converts to Mormonism in Lanarkshire, Scotland in 1849, sailed to the Americas in 1853, and eventually trekked across the plains to the Rocky Mountains. Richard’s great-great-grandfather, James Campbell Livingston, 1833-1909, was appointed by the Mormon Prophet Brigham Young in 1860 to be head of the quarrying operation for the construction of the Salt Lake Temple. Livingston lost his right arm in a blasting accident in 1870, but continued to supervise the granite quarry until the Temple was completed and dedicated in 1893. James Campbell Livingstone had three plural wives and 18 children, and held a number of Church offices, including that of Patriarch.

Salt Lake Mormon Temple, Utah

When we arrived at Durham Railway Station, which is on high ground, we found the City well sign-posted and were able to make our way down to the River Wear, then up to the Cathedral and Castle. The only traffic (besides pedestrians) seemed to be very small buses and the odd bicycle, and we were able to walk in the street easily and safely as we climbed the hill. The buses had electric signs flashing their stops and ultimate destinations.

I have visited Durham Cathedral before, on a cold but dry winter’s day in 2006. That day I was on a coach tour and had to walk around the building rather quickly, and I was only able to see the major attractions there. Last Tuesday we had plenty of time.

I was pleased to notice that outside the main doors to the Cathedral there was no sign indicating entrance fees (Westminster Abbey, in London, had a £10 charge years ago). There were several other signs at the door in Durham. One covered the policy on dogs, only guide dogs being permitted inside. An elderly, ginger-coloured with a grey muzzle, Labrador was tied to a post outside the door, on a leash long enough that the dog could sit just inside the archway. The dog was friendly, and rather a charming touch. Mind you, in my perfect world Cailean would go everywhere. Once inside the doors, there were large signs telling visitors that no indoor photography was permitted, and that postcards were available in the gift shops. A large wood and glass box had a notice to say that it costs over £3 million a year to maintain the Cathedral, donations appreciated. If one is a UK taxpayer, one can use an envelope provided and there is some benefit to that. The glass case did not have a great deal of money in it, and only a half-dozen envelopes. Hard times, or do the regular Anglican worshippers use direct debit payments?

We walked along the nave to the high altar where we were told that we might stay only very briefly as a Mothers’ Union service was to be held in fifteen minutes’ time. We’d noticed many women wearing lapel pins, and some wearing blue robes, along with male and female priestly types swooshing back and forth importantly. We headed back to the rear of the nave and asked at the information booth where the Café was. Just off the Cloisters, several doors and twists and turns and it would appear before us. But, we were warned, the restaurant would be packed to its ancient arched ceilings with really old ladies from the Mothers’ Union. We got chatting to one of these ladies, all the way from her home in Wales for the service. It was a national conference.

As we walked along the Cloisters (my favourite part of these very old cathedrals and abbeys, I could imagine sitting there to meditate many centuries ago, away from the world) I held my camera out through the arches to take a (probably illegal) photograph. God did not strike me dead, and I quite appreciate that. I’d prefer not to die in a church in case it would be thought I was a religious type.

Durham Cathedral Tower from Cloisters

The Cloisters’ walls had many signs on them, rooms and exhibits in this door and that. The Café was as far down as one could get. As forecast, it was crammed with grey-haired ladies, many (perhaps most) looking a bit wobbly with sticks, crutches and Zimmer frames. Some were clinging to slightly steadier women. One wonders if the Shrine at Lourdes might be a bit like the tea-room at Durham Cathedral during a conference.

Richard and I pushed through the doors and joined the massive queue. I explained the difference between a line (American) and a queue (English) to Richard while we shuffled ever so slowly towards the buffet with its rapidly decreasing comestibles.

Most of the Mothers’ Union crowd seemed to be eating soup (it would turn out to be tomato and basil) with a large bread roll and a knob of butter, with a cup of tea. A few made do with just tea and a scone. We did see a few plates with clearly over-cooked broccoli and cauliflower on them, which Richard wondered at. My father liked his vegetables cooked to a tasteless sludge, but it was because he had (like all these Mothers) dentures and could not manage crisp foodstuffs.

We moved at glacial speed and reached the counter just as hundreds of little old ladies were alerted to the start of their service in the main body of the Cathedral. We were able to ask for scraps left in the serving dishes (I had pork stroganoff and roast potatoes with the last slice of Victoria sponge cake for dessert), and when we turned around the Café was almost empty. Tapping canes and frames could be heard moving along the Cloisters towards the service.

A sign by the food cases said that the Cathedral’s own ale and mead were available. I’m betting not a single little old lady went for that option. Not while in control of a Zimmer! I should note that there were no mobility scooters inside the Cathedral, and they must not be permitted as the doors were not friendly-looking, and the entrance passage involved two or more right angles, and the Cloisters were beyond more twists and turns.

These Signs made me Wonder

After our meal, which turned out to be substantial (if expensive), Richard went to see Saint Cuthbert’s famous door-knocker. One may enter the Cathedral for free, and walk past the replica of the original door knocker on the main doors, but to see the real thing near the Café costs a fiver. I wasn’t that eager. I went in search of the Toilets.

One must go out of the end of the Cathedral most distant from the high altar windows, and then a sign points to the left and right, around a corner. A smaller sign suggested a Resource Centre was around that corner too, but I couldn’t see it. Of course, the sign read MENS instead of MEN’S. Should one send a message to God in blue pencil, or let it go? Hell, put it on a website, embarrass the Deity.

The Mothers’ Union service was under way in the main body of the Cathedral, and Richard and I stood at the back to watch and listen. The preachers were so far away that one could not really see them, or determine their gender, and the sound system was not the best. The hymn singing was so dreadful that I reckon the congregation had new and/or unfamiliar books. I certainly didn’t know the few words I could make out. The Lord’s Prayer was mumbled, but I noticed a family of Asians standing at the back near us intoned the Prayer perfectly and clearly, before resuming their personal conversation in Mandarin or something exotic.

There did not seem to be any recent signs or notices with a Christian message. In the very old chapels within the Cathedral one could see some writing on the walls, often damaged courtesy of Henry VIII in the 1530s and Oliver Cromwell in the 1650s. Old tombs and monuments had headless bodies. The signs all seemed to be towards gift shops, all in English, and not terribly well done. Assuming they get their £60,000 a week, it doesn’t go very far. Perhaps it costs a bundle just to dry clean all those robes?

Richard climbed the spiral stairs up the Cathedral’s main tower. I sat outside on the Green and made conversation with a couple who, like me, were knackered from all the walking inside.

When Richard emerged we went across to Durham Castle and joined a wonderful tour with an attractive young guide. She was a PhD student, had lived in Alabama for twelve years, and had an international sense of humour. This Castle was new to me, though some parts of it are nearly 1,000 years old. It is in use by Durham University, the Keep is now student residences. The best part, in my opinion, was a very old Norman chapel in the basement that had vanished for generations, and that has recently been rediscovered and cleared out and opened to the visiting and worshipping public.

An hour or so later, we walked back down the hill, taking photographs, and made our way to the Railway Station by following the many helpful street signs. On the way I excused myself and dodged into a public toilet down many slippery stairs (it was still drizzling rain) well below street level. A very small toilet with only three urinals and two cubicles. I was the only person there and stood at the urinal nearest the door. Then Richard decided he’d use the facilities too, and came in and went over to the third urinal just as I was leaving and another bloke was coming in quietly. The stranger stood at the middle urinal. Not looking, Richard thought the only other person there was me, but I’d gone outside. A minute later Richard emerged looking a tad flustered. He’d said, thinking I was at the urinal, “That’s a fine stream you’ve got going there. You won’t be coming down with prostate cancer any time soon.” Then he realised he was talking to a complete stranger. I do not know what the fellow said, but Richard suggested we get our skates on.

Waiting for the Train to Alnmouth

We were at the Station just in time to catch the northbound train heading to Dundee; it stops in Newcastle and Alnmouth before crossing into Scotland. A very, very long train, this one. We had to walk through carriage after carriage to find seats. There were many unoccupied seats, and most had small notices to say they were reserved. In fact, few people boarded the train in Durham and Newcastle, and almost none in Alnmouth where we got off. I wonder if one can actually disregard reserved signs on trains. Had the seats been reserved and vacant since the train left King’s Cross?

Cailean had been alone in the flat for eleven hours, but had not peed indoors. He needed to go out for sure! After a short walk, I came inside and wrote a dozen postcards and popped them in the pillar box across the street. I suppose, more correctly, one should write and post any postcards where they were purchased. “Having a lovely time ...” rather than “Had a lovely time ...”

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