A knavish emissary…
Remember, this is a notepad… There are gaps, below – significant ones, in fact – as I experienced a quite ridiculous amount of wonderful things on my cathedral tour, all of which I simply didn’t have time to share unless I chose to pass up the chance of glutting on many more!
I am now in the writing-up phase and feeling rather like Mr Creosote, bloated with material and teetering on the brink of vomiting it all out… Whilst I have, to-date (13th January 2015), regurgitated three of the seven cathedrals visited on tour (Sheffield, York and Durham), my thoughts have now turned to the composition of a grander narrative… If you’re interested in hearing more, contact me.
Live Twitter feed #theknaveontour
Entry 11: Sunday 17th August (10:39) – The Notepad has run its course…
This and the notepad above have both proved highly useful tools in capturing thoughts and shaping ideas but now, as my tour is nearer its end than its beginning, its time to focus Knavish energies on collecting material from both into an extended travelogue, to be shared on www.thecathedralknave.co.uk in due course. Get excited!
Entry 10: Wednesday 13th August (17:59) – Into the Lakes
On Thursday 14th August, I’m off to Carlisle Cathedral via Hadrian’s Wall, then driving to the northern tip of The Lake District, parking in a small village called Mosedale, and walking 3.5 miles up a bridle way to a bunkhouse halfway up Skiddaw. It has no mains electricity or mobile phone reception, so I think it’s fair to say it won’t have any wifi either. Now you’re in the know…
Entry 9: Wednesday 13th August (17:37) – Holy Island (briefly) and Durham
[Pictures to follow]
I’m descending from Snipe Point at the far north of Holy Island, the North Sea, currently in gun metal grey, at my left; stretched out ahead me, a short crescent of white sand, backed by dunes covered with marram grass.
There is a fresh bite to the northwesterly wind at my back, accompanied by a regular but unthreatening scattering of rain from titanium skies.
As I step down onto Sandham beach, I’ve not walked far before I disturb some sandfly. So regular becomes their reaction to each footfall, that I soon wonder if they are providing me a natural escort – The Knave in procession! Suddenly, a flurry of activity as a flock of swallows, disturbed by my progress, dart across my path down to the shore. Millions of grains of sand are stirred from the surface of the beach by the gusting wind and carried with it after them. Thus the breath of Aeolus is briefly given particular form and seems as playful as the birds riding the air streams.
I stumble over a plastic bottle.
“We used to stuff them with bus tickets, pay-slips, pennies, photos, then squeeze all the air out of them, screw on the lid and stuff them into a recess between a block of stone before mortaring”. Information volunteered by Iain Wilmshurst, Head of Works at Durham Cathedral, and 40 years a servant, since becoming a 16-year-old apprentice in the masons yard.
“It’s all I’ve ever known”, he tells me.
“I started on the 3rd of June 1974. My father worked in the Finance Office. I left school at 16 and came straight here.”
We’re standing in front of the north transept looking up at St Josephs window. Iain sealed no messages in the 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. Or not!
Presumably, two hundred years hence a quick Google (or equivalent) search on ‘IW stone mason Durham Cathedral’ will immediately resolve the mystery of those two letters.
The deciphering of any initials found on the bricks of the north nave wall that Iain and his team have spent 30 years tending to, would need to be resolved by a trip to the cathedral archive. 200 years ago, in response to the badly weathered nature of the stone on the outer walls of the north nave, a team of Durham masons had simply shaved two to three inches off the entire side of the church – decorations and all.
Find their names! Bring them to trial!
Iain has pointed out some of the shaved stones still extant, some almost concave, and explained how difficult it is to replace them. Drawing up an accurate template is impossible due to each stone’s peculiar imperfections. As a result, the masons under Iain’s tutelage simply have to chisel back each stone to the correct level once it’s been laid in place.
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 blemished but, upon The Knave’s arrival here, no minor deficiencies in the stonework had been of concern.
There were butterflies in my stomach as I came down the A690 towards the city and caught my first sight of its three towers, the Norman pair at the west front so reminiscent of the transeptal versions of Exeter, The Knave’s ‘home’ cathedral. However, aside from this similarity, the two could not be more different. The latter is a fine example of decorated gothic, exemplifying some of the very best innovations in medieval architecture.
Durham is staunch, immovable, rugged Romanesque – light on elegance, heavy on power.
A conversation of four months hence comes back to me. I was returning from Lincoln by train and begun chatting with a dog-collared gentleman called Philip. Predictably, the conversation turned to cathedrals and before too long I learned that Reverend North was a priest in Sunderland, ordained in 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 that there was an event taking place there.
Iain and I walk back towards the entrance at the northwestern end of the cathedral, past the nave’s three tiers of porthole-like Norman windows. It appears to be half ship, half castle. There is something so indescribably satisfying about the form of that semi-circular Romanesque arch top that was lost with Gothic. Sometimes simplicity is laudable.
With innovation comes complication; power is sacrificed for elegance, tending towards grandiloquence, at times.
We walk back in and an elderly gentleman with a bald pate, squinting through half-crescent glasses, offers me a bookmark with the cathedral’s services listed on it. He seems surprised when Iain doesn’t take one. “Would you not care for service information, sir?” he asks; “I work here”, Iain smiles. Lifting his head to look through his glasses, the friendly octogenarian realises his mistake…
“So you do! I didn’t recognise you with your clothes on!”
We all laugh and Iain and I take a seat back in the nave where we started our interview 20 or so minutes earlier.
We met initially by the Durham Cathedral LEGO model. The arrangement was to meet at 15:45 but he was a little late. As I stood looking at the wonderful structure – currently boasting 90,000 bricks, all custom made for the project – I found myself wondering whether his slight tardiness was in some way a reflection on quite what he thought of geeky cathedral keenos who want to waste his time with silly questions, such as “how many bricks do you think comprise the cathedral?” But my thoughts were utterly unfounded. Iain simply hadn’t diarised our meeting and so had to be chased around the place by Durham’s energetic Marketing and Events Manager, Catherine Hodgson, who had kindly arranged for me to meet him in the first place.
There will be 350,000 bricks in the LEGO model, by the way, but I have no idea if this bears any relation to the number of stones in the real version.
Iain had no idea either but guessed at 1 million. Whilst Catherine was equally uncertain (when I asked her the same question by email a couple of days later) she did get back to me with this rather lovely piece of trivia:
I’m not entirely sure how the number of bricks in the model corresponds to the number of LEGO bricks in the Cathedral. However, one of the LEGO volunteers worked out that the LEGO model is a 1:39 scale model of the actual Cathedral. That means you could fit 59,319 LEGO Durham Cathedrals into the real Durham Cathedral and to do that you’d need 20,761,650,000 Lego bricks!
Each of the piers of the nave at Durham is the same in circumference as it is in height – 6.6 metres – meaning that you could wrap precisely 3.492 Cathedral Knaves around each of them. I’d happily live another of the lives I may yet have to come wrapped around one of these piers, I think to myself, taking in the silence, the ambient hum of pockets of activity, song, prayer, the chime of bells, the howl of wind.
[Nature and cathedrals – consider]
Afterlife is not a topic we broach, though, for we have already established that we are neither of us religious souls, a point perhaps best exampled by the fact that we are sitting with our feet upon the prayer rail. As we chat, it becomes clear that the relationship Iain has with Durham is more objective than spiritual, but there’s never any doubt that he appreciates the place. A fact that is perfectly clear when I ask him about his favourite part of the building.
“I love the view from the west window ledge, straight down the nave and over the choir screen to the rose window”
I turn to look at the ledge. It seems 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,” says Iain. I tell him I’ll buy him a pint if he takes me up. “The key’s in my office”, he says, appearing to consider it, perhaps as much for his satisfaction as my own. But, alas, Health and Safety won out, something with which he’s had to become more familiar as he has moved increasingly away from masonry towards administration. He looks torn to the last, though, and might have been up for humouring me had I persevered. I make it easier for him, he’s a jolly nice chap, after all, with a wife and three daughters…
“I wouldn’t want you to lose your pension”, I quip, “I’m a clumsy Knave, I might fall and split my skull.”
Entry 8: Monday 11th August (23:20) – Whitby, Durham and a lost notepad…
I wash down 75mg of Sertraline with a sip of Innis & Gunn. I’d normally take my anti-depressants after breakfast but holiday fractures routine – particularly this crazy dash around England. The happy pills have been good for me, though, that’s for sertain… A year ago, had I lost a notepad containing three days jottings it would have ruined my evening and disrupted my sleep; 12 months on SSRIs and I chose instead to head for the nearest pub, grab a pint and a wifi connection and get as many words down on paper as I could. Here they are…
Well, I can only deduce that there must be two Himalayan mountain roads running out of Whitby.
I’ve come here for a whistle-stop visit en route to Durham. Walking down the high street disorientated, I hear two friendly older ladies just behind me responding to greetings from every soul they pass. They’re dressed in white blouses with black pinafores and – like the overwhelming majority of other Yorkshire ladies with whom I have had cause to interact this tour – seem friendly. It would be a good bet to ask them for directions, then, I decide.
“Ladies, where’s the best view in Whitby, to get a nice shot of the place?”, I flash my lens; they take a step back. “You should head t’Khyber Pass, pet, up the 199 steps”.
They point me in the right direction. I thank them with a smile, and make an about turn, but reaching the end of the High Street, I’m suddenly confused. The steps evidently climb a cliffside out of Whitby, but there are two of those scoring their way up from the harbour now in front of me.
I’m distracted briefly by a white flash in my peripheral vision, then a splash.
I turn just in time to see an Arctic Tern flying off with a small fish in its beak. No-one else seems to have caught it – they’re all too distracted by the imminent arrival of a classic car rally coming through the town as one of a number of events to mark the regatta weekend.
Remembering again my that I don’t know where I’m going, I ask a gaggle of men in luminous yellow bibs whether I should head down the pier or over the bridge to the Khyber Pass?
“Aye, lad, head stret down’t pier…”. Having woven my way through the crowd, I’m half way down it when I see (on the other side of the harbour) a steep set of steps cutting their way up the cliffside, whilst Whitby’s tightly packed houses spill back down it. Were those marshals having a laugh, I wonder? Misdirecting the lanky, floppy-haired Southerner for a bit of a giggle? I take an about turn and thread my way back through the same crowd, avoiding any witty barbs from my bibbed friends by walking t’other side of’t ice-cream van that they were gathered in front of. Over the bridge and a sharp left later, down a narrow, cobbled street, beneath high-sided buildings of various eras – the 16th century Black Horse (‘now serving tapas’) amongst them – I reach the bottom of the steps, which I bound up, knavishly, stopping half way to look back over the tumbling jumble of rooftops.
I can also see the harbour more clearly from this prospect. It appears as if a half-open pair of pincers, through which fisherman could just about squeeze their boats.
Another 99 leaps later and I’m at the top, the Abbey at my back, taking in the view back down to the regatta crowds and beyond them the moors in the distance…
Spotting the bright yellow gents still milling about below, I find myself asking, so are there actually two Khyber Passes in Whitby or did my friendly lady friends say “or” rather than “up”?
Hastening back to Rowan now, I’m just upon the 199th step when a young kid in front of me asks his mother, “why didn’t they just add one more at the end?”
I smile and laugh, but don’t wait to hear the answer. We’re now heading back out of Whitby on the A171, my hour in situ having elapsed. I still have to make Durham in good enough time to take it in before meeting its Head of Works, Iain Wilmshurst – 40 years its cathedral servant! The A171 runs just inland from the coast with the North York Moors to my left and the sea, unsighted, at my right. It’s a pleasant road but lacks the drama of the A169 I took into Whitby around an hour earlier. Heading due north of the busy Scarborough road, it was a slow burner at first, gently wending and rolling its way alongside hedgerows, past occasional Sycamores and fields of lazy cows but then, just past Pickering, it erupted. A short steep climb beside an unmistakable Yorkshire wall opens onto a wide-angle view across rusty lavender moorlands, interspersed with greens of motley hues. The grass is immediately longer and rougher and the wind cranks up its volume as it incessantly mauls the moorland faunas with its powerful gusts. The sky’s mutability enhances the drama of the scene further, staging a cloud play which regularly changes the dusky mauves and grey-greens of Heathcliff’s stage to dark charcoals and blacks, then back again, as the sun briefly reappears. This is a stark and powerful landscape.
I don’t feel like I’ve had enough time to take it all in before the sea appears and the panoroma changes again. Dropping down Blue Bank hill that classic English quilt appears, hedges at the edges of each of the patchwork panels, but some are also dotted with copses and homesteads that lead the eye down towards the wind-whipped, white-tipped waves of Robin Hood Bay and a brief glimpse of the Abbey.
With the exception of a trip through Staithe – once home to that legendary 18th century sailor, Captain Cook [elaborate?] – the drive to Durham is far less impressive. [mention return to A1 here which will – when I write up what will become its first mention – link back]
I arrive in Durham a good hour before I had expected to.
As I’m a stickler for schedule, I decide to waste some of the time I’ve gained by using the satnav on my iPhone 4S to get me to St Chad’s College where I’ll be staying the evening.
I’m told it’s an 8 minute journey. An hour later, I arrive – the site of the east end of the cathedral ameliorating my mood. My ethereal pilot has taken me in all directions from my location other than that from whence I came – the A690 (towards Sunderland) …RE-ROUTING…; the A167 for Chester-le-Street …RE-ROUTING… – and all because its disembodied, pre-programmed memory could not express to me that “bear right onto the A690” actually meant “take a u-turn at the next roundabout, counter-intuitively retracing your steps , to take a small slip road off the A690 into the congestion charging city centre where your room for the night is located”. I should just have asked a human (generally my fall back when my orienteering self-confidence desserts me). In a sardonic twist of fate, I soon enough learn from the friendly receptionist, Vicki, that I need to head back out of the congestion charging zone, along the A690, up the hill out of town and towards the A167 to park my car in Trinity Hall, their sister college, on the west side of the cathedral (and the river).
[Woodland; photos on the riverside; first experience of Durham; meeting with Catherine and Iain; Knave endorsement; notepad misplacement]
Tweets from the day
Entry 7: Sunday 10th August (11:45; 17:10) – Wet Wet Wet
A reminder flashes up on my phone – ‘meeting Iain Wilmhurst tomorrow’. That would be the Head of Works at the Durham Cathedral Stone Yard. I’m now keener than ever to meet this master carver having spent a good portion of my time in York Minster engrossed in their excellent exhibition ‘Stone-by-stone’, focussing on the business of restoring the east front. 3,500 stones are to be assessed for repair or replacement over the next decade.
In some instances, it’ll just be a case of scrubbing off the bird poo (a particular scourge of cathedral masonry, apparently)
but, in others, where blocks may have cracked under the pressure exerted by their peers (…) more critical repair work will be necessary and, in some cases, completely new stones will have to be sourced and painstakingly shaped. The final repair bill for the work will stack up to around £5,000,000. Overseer of the whole shebang, The Master Mason is not simply the most skilled chiseller in the stone yard, he’s a designer, an engineer and a builder, too. I titillate myself with the thought that I may be permitted a glimpse behind the scenes at Durham.
I’ve been in the Minster now for close to 3 hours and I’m flagging, having been up since 7am.
Neither York’s incessant drizzle nor the soaring bulk of the Minster has been able to wash away the cranial creepings of last night’s beery indulgence. Most of Saturday evening was spent with Cousin Jay and his lady wife Penny in The Greystones pub, Sheffield, drinking a plethora of Thornbridge brews.
And the night – my night, at least – was spent on the sofa of their new house-cum-building-site, whilst they slept at friend’s place locally. To me then the honour of spending the first night Chez Young… Whilst washing my hair beneath the cold tap of their bathroom basin (the only source of running water in the house), I am suddenly aware of the uncanny resemblance the knotted dangle of the hanging light fixture bears to a CCTV camera. Are they watching me to ensure that I do not bespatter their freshly plastered wall, I think to myself in a fit of half-cut paranoid anxiety?
[That’s all for now folks. Off to see my step-sister Ceri for the first time in two years.]
[Why do clementines taste so foul immediately after one has brushed one’s teeth?]
Entry 6: Saturday 9th August (16:55) – Twittermania
Today’s list of tweets is nearly as long as, well, it’s a long list (of which there is some elucidation in Entry 5, below)
Entry 5: Saturday 9th August (16:44) – Teething problems
Well, Sheffield Cathedral is another Manchester, it seems! Rather underwhelming from without – the excretion of bricks added at the south-west end of the building in the 1960s a particularly egregious addition (see above, left) – but charming within. The light and long, clean lines of the interior are striking upon first entering as is the stark minimalism of its west end with simply glazed, modern lancet windows. There is a real variety to the architecture – the east end of the cathedral the oldest (14th century), with significant additions in the late 19th century when the strikingly deep north transept was added, and 21st century updates made in the last few years in the form of light, tan-coloured Lincolnshire stone (Barnack?) and robust oak pews, whose shadows create a chiaroscuro on the floor of the nave, the regularity of which is transfixing! This rather surprising experience – for I was expecting little of Sheffield (that’ll teach me!) – was heightened by some ‘in-play’ tweeting with the wholly virtual presence of Canon Missioner, Keith Farrow. Cheers, Keith, I much enjoyed it, and sorry to have to turn down the invite to hear you preach tomorrow – I have a tight schedule to keep to!
Ridiculously tight, in fact, as I have discovered today. A 10 minute walk to take in a cheeky pint at the Sheffield tap and get some early, raw content up on the Knave Notepad was foiled by malfunctioning wifi! And did I have a card reader with me for transferring photos from the D700 to my computer? Why, no, of course I didn’t. 45 minutes right there that could’ve been better spent, but here are the notes I thrashed together there – a first attempt at thinking around how to introduce The Knave’s cathedral tour, travel-writing style – whilst the text you’ve just read comes from Nero (whose coffee is decided less impressive than his reputation).
[Pictures to follow]
Whilst I flirted with moving towards a more 21st century form of navigation, five or so years ago, the decision to boycott such a radical change was made for me when I learned that my long time musical idol, Bob Dylan, had sold his soul – or rather his voice – to a satnav company.
He who penned Visions of Johanna (“…the ghost Electricity howls in the bones of her face…”), Tangled Up in Blue (“…and every one of those words rang true, and glowed like burning coals, rolling off of every page like they were written in my soul, from me to you, Tangled Up in Blue…”) and the once important (but now rather cliched) Blowing in the Wind, reduced to an in-car jester by the lure of the corporation dollar. No, it’ll be the classic map for me. Firstly, I enjoy studying them beforehand – challenging the memory to hold on to road and junction numbers (A14, A1, M1, Junction 33, 6140, etc). I also like their tactility – how they become crumpled as you grip them between your hand and the steering wheel; how they invariably lose their staples; get stepped on by wet boots or caught beneath shopping bags; fall slowly to pieces (by which time you can pick up another two-year-old map at a motorway service station for £1.99).
Most of all, however, I am entertained by the thought that, sooner or later, it will almost certainly become illegal to use one whilst driving. Yes, to read a map at the wheel of a car will soon become inherently knavish.
[Cf. Voice memos on iPhone… for more potential introductory material – recorded whilst driving, naturally.]
Walking out of the driveway that I’ve rented for the day, I suddenly realise I ought to work out how to get to the city centre. I view it as a sufficient enough achievement to have brought Rowan and myself to Crown Place, perched on a hill about 10 minutes walk from the city centre, for we have come here circuitously having fallen off the end of the A57 (the last road number I could remember) to find ourselves flailing in a morass of unfamiliar route numbers scattered all over a disarmingly large roundabout. 20 minutes later, we were back where we started having established that the required turn off was exit number two.
I bask in the warm glow of my stubbornness for a moment before asking a flat capped satnav machine for directions.
“Where are yuh meckin’ fuh, exackly”, he enquires…
[Much more to follow… Quite when I am unsure!]
Entry 4: Saturday 9th August 2014 – KNAVE-OFF!
Keep on eye on the Knave Notepad the morning after each Knave visit… For now, here’s the Knave’s live Twitter feed:
Entry 3: Friday 8th August 2014 – A teaser…
On the eve of the commencement of The Knave on Tour, a draft of the opening two paragraphs of his travelogue:
One square inch of pressure for each of the years of my life, I reflect, as I crouch down to attach the air hose to the nozzle of the fourth and final tyre just as the machine runs out of puff. An inauspicious omen on this the 34th anniversary of my birth. At least my dipstick is in good condition, I observe, as I pull it out at the side of the petrol station for a birthday clean. It appears encircled by an oil puddle rainbow of diffracting light at my feet. This forecourt kaleidoscope reminds me that I ought to check the engine oil, so I put my dipstick away and open the car bonnet.
There are many different strata of car-carers and, I’ll tell you now, I’m not one of those who will ever hoover an engine. This is largely due to the fact that every Sunday throughout my adolescence my heart would sink as I watched Mr Swinburn take a Dyson to his prized metallic blue Mondeo – the final ritual of a three-hour wash, wax and polish. No. No engine suction for me, but I have found that I have felt more inclined to care for my little Ford Fiesta since I named it in May. Indeed, Rowan, my trusty silver steed, has benefited greatly from my newfound inclination to tend to him. Four new spark plugs have given him a tenderer growl than ever, and an oil change has him flying along like a blood-transfused Lance Armstrong. Rowan was purchased in 2002, the same year that Baron Eyebrows of Oystermouth was enthroned as the 104th Archbishop of Canterbury.
Read more about the Knave and his tour, here…
Entry 2: Sunday 3rd August 2014 – Re-defining the Knave notepad
Whilst on tour The Knave will need to keep a notepad close at hand in order to capture information, experiences, maybe even original thoughts. For this, an ordinary notepad will do – such as that above. But it’s all very well keeping himself in the loop, what about the hordes of hungry fans – their eyes eagerly glued to smartphones, tablets, laptops – baying for bulletins, for daily updates?
The Knave Notepad will be used at the end of each tour day to share notes, draft extracts and impressions of the places he has visited and the people he has met. There will be no room here for the refined, elegant style to which regular followers of The Knave have become accustomed [scoff!] – no, what you see here will be altogether rawer. Polished pieces will follow post-tour!
Entry 1: Tuesday 31st July 2014 – Hymn to the Butresss (a quite ridiculous poem)
Gibbosity: a protuberance or swelling
The Knave gives you…
Hymn to the Buttress
Oh, phlegmatic buttress!
How thou flyest
I’th face of Strumpet
Tis thanks to thee,
The nave forfends gibbosity.
© The Cathedral Knave, 29th July 2014