Sharp fronds scratch the backs of my hands as I step down onto Sandham Bay.
My boots disturb some sandfly who flurry up the beach ahead of me with each step I take.
Our progress alarms a group of swallows nestling in the dunes. They sweep across us and dart towards the shore.
Racing after them go a million grains of sand stirred from the beach surface by a lively gust.
The grace of the birds is echoed by the granular wind. All the while seals roll in the swell and the breeze sweeps through the marram grass.
There is something enchanting about the ambient hum of nature on a gentle day, but here, at Lindisfarne, it approaches the ineffable.
I wonder how it appeared to Cuthbert as he walked up the causeway 1350 years ago, the fringes of his habit trailing in the receding tide.
Goodness, he was a quirky old chap and as characterful in death as he was in life… Over his first thirty, or so, years he gained a reputation in the north as an energetic holy man, travelling great distances to minister to poor and rich alike. He was pious and humble but good for a miracle, too, once sawing a girl in half in front of an audience of hundreds only to reveal her in one piece moments later,
a feat which earned him the nickname ‘the 7th century Paul Daniels’ .
He arrived on ‘Holy Island’ around 665 AD to become Prior of the monastery here.
Cuthbert was an intense, solitary soul, and before long became vexed at bumping into friendly friars on his walks along the coast. Tired of making small talk, he retired in a fit of pique to take up some real estate on a small island nearby.
There, with only the sounds of nature for company, he lived an ascetic, contemplative life in a roofless tower.
Towards the end of his innings, Cuddy was coaxed out – gaunt, leathery (and damp, one imagines) – to become Bishop of Lindisfarne, a post he held until his death in 687.
A lone gannet out on a reconnaissance run flaps its 6ft wings in languid flight.
It passes high above a cormorant labouring to keep its stocky bulk just three feet above the waves. Chalk and cheese, I think to myself, looking up to compare the two, then tripping on a plastic bottle protruding from a random pile of tideline detritus.
“We used to stuff ‘em with bus tickets, pay-slips, pennies, photos, squeeze all the air out of ‘em, screw on the lid and stuff ‘em into a recess between a block of stone before mortaring” – words spoken just a day earlier by Iain Wilmshurst, Head of Works at Durham Cathedral and 40 years a servant there.
Iain started his career as a 16-year-old apprentice in the masons’ yard.
“It’s all I’ve ever known”, he told me standing in front of the north transept, looking up at St Josephs window.
“I started on the 3rd of June 1974. My father worked in the Finance Office. I left school and came straight here.”
Iain sealed no messages in his plastic time capsules, apparently, although a large number of the fresh, replacement stones dotted around the north-wall of the cathedral bear his initials for future generations to ponder over.
It’s Iain’s job to care for the fabric of Durham.
With him (and the Chief Architect) lies the responsibility of viewing the cathedral in micro form, restoring or replacing external masonry then deciding where to allocate resource for the next phase of work. Thus his eye is trained to see blemishes, but upon my arrival here such minutiae could not have been further from my mind.
There were butterflies in my stomach as I came down the A690 towards the city and caught my first sight of its three towers.
They stirred a memory of a conversation four months earlier. Returning from Lincoln by train, I had begun chatting with a dog-collared gentleman called Philip. Predictably, the conversation turned to cathedrals and I learned that the Rev Mr North was a priest in Sunderland, ordained at Durham. He told me how his parishioners identified with the cathedral as a personification of their region; how he could fill a bus on every occasion an event took place there.
A cathedral to be proud of then… and (of all of those in England) the one I had been most keen to see. Pre-tour research had done much to stoke my enthusiasm.
In the words of my old friend, Alec Clifton-Taylor, Durham was:
the incomparable masterpiece of Romanesque … an architectural experience never to be forgotten … Completed in only 40 years, with every part vaulted. It was a prodigious achievement. (The Cathedrals of England)
(Prodigious. Remember what I told you about York? Un-vaulted. Two and a half centuries to build… Durham’s rise seems almost miraculous by comparison. I wonder who could have been behind that?)
John Harvey (opted for Salisbury on his front cover but…) teased me further with this:
Perfect in all its parts… none of the [other] Romanesque cathedrals can be considered remarkable as examples of design. (English Cathedrals)
Whilst Bill Bryson had me gasping for air in superlatively declaring Durham
[the] best cathedral on planet Earth (Notes from a Small Island)
An hour after first seeing them from the road, I felt the towers nearby. I’d spent the last 60 minutes lost between ring roads, pedestrian zones and cramped college car parks, but was now bounding through woodland towards the River Wear. A break in the trees and there they were!
Immense, castle-like: the west front appeared to almost project itself beyond the side of its river-cliff. Could it actually be carved from it?
The explosion of lush foliage running closely beneath it along the bluff edge in a long green fringe further emphasised its affinity with its natural surroundings. Unbothered by a pair of kamikaze toddler tricyclists and a pursuant female screaming downhill after them, I took a moment to soak it all up.
Transport yourself back to 995. It’s over 100 years since the monks of Lindisfarne first fled from Viking invasion, carrying with them the uncorrupted remains of the now sainted Cuthbert.
Their most recent runaway has led them to a riverside peninsula on a looped bend in the Wear.
They hide beneath the trees for a while… Then, hearing that the Danes are done with their pillaging, the holy men decide to return to their old digs but are prevented – St Cuthbert won’t budge! Rather than admit they are simply too exhausted to haul him any further, the monks interpret it as a miracle from God. Hallelujah!
They enshrine Cuthbert’s magic bones on the very spot.
Then – to cut a long story short – Norman came along a century later and did a nifty job of sprucing up the shed a little.
Iain and I walked back towards the entrance at the north-western end of the cathedral, past the nave’s three tiers of porthole-like Norman windows. How simple and how satisfying was that semi-circular Romanesque arch top, I silently opined. With Gothic innovation came complication; power sacrificed in pursuit of elegance.
A bald-pated, elderly man, squinting through half-crescent glasses, offered me a bookmark with the cathedral’s services listed on it. I took it, politely.
He seemed surprised that Iain didn’t take one.
“Would you not care for service information, sir?” he asked.
“I work here”, Iain smiled.
Lifting his head to look through his glasses, the friendly octogenarian realised his mistake…
“So you do! I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”
Laughing, Iain and I took a seat at the back of the church, where we had started our interview 20 or so minutes earlier.
“I love the view from the west window ledge, straight down the nave and over the choir screen to the rose window”, he told me.
I turned to look at the ledge. It seemed to be around 20 feet from the floor of the nave. “No-one’s allowed to go up there now. There’s only a low handrail and the walkway is narrow,” said Iain.
I told him I’d buy him a pint if he took me up.
“The key’s in my office”, he replied, appearing to consider it, perhaps as much for his satisfaction as my own. But, alas, Health and Safety won out. He looked torn to the last, though, and might have been up for humouring me had I persevered. I made it easier for him, he was a jolly nice chap, after all, with a wife and three daughters…
“I wouldn’t want you to lose your pension”, I quipped, “I’m a clumsy Knave, I might fall and split my skull.”
Had I fallen…
I’d happily have led another life wrapped around one of those piers…
You remember what the experts said about Durham. They were right: it’s a masterpiece. For me, though, what made the experience ‘unforgettable’ was not the Norman skill and innovation it encapsulated but just how visceral it felt. Was it its human core that made it thus? For the place is every bit as rugged and rough-hewn as Cuthbert must have been.
I felt a strong, proud humanity in it.
It had soul.
There was undoubtedly something of Lindisfarne there, too – in the silence, the song, the chatter of prayer and the murmur of the wind.
Durham had slowed the mind and affirmed the ineffable. It had made me feel just as I did on Sandham Bay, as I climbed back up through the marram grass bound for Emmanuel Head…
 Cuthbert’s actual nickname was “Wonder Worker of Britain”.