In the late 1970s, I found myself in Durham, whose gigantic cathedral sits atop a rocky promontory on a bend in the river Wear. The story goes that monks carrying the remains of the hermit-saint Cuthbert from Viking-ravaged Lindisfarne, ended up there after following two milk-maids looking for a dun (brown) cow. At that point, Cuthbert’s remains became immovable – a sign, they thought, that his new shrine should be built there. The present edifice was begun in 1093 by the conquering Normans. I went to look at it.
You can see the cathedral from miles all around,
Perched high on its river-bend rock
Like a castle, exuding its status and power,
To which pilgrims would piously flock.
I wasn’t a pilgrim, I sought no-one’s bones
And needed no guide to direct me;
I wandered towards it, just curious to know
How this Norman-built pile would affect me.
As I crossed Palace Green – a calm, peaceful place –
The cathedral itself seemed to grow
Till it loomed huge and menacing, blocking the sun
From its visitor, cowering below.
Persevering, I manfully aimed for its door –
Now ominous, solid and black . . .
Then, just like the coffin with Cuthbert inside,
I stopped. Unlike him, I turned back.
This fortress, this edifice, wasn’t for me.
No doubt it’s magnificent inside;
But its size reeked of wealth and the things of this world,
And its stones shouted “power” and “pride”.
I wondered what Cuthbert, the hermit, would think
If he saw where they’d buried his bones.
As I retraced my steps along old Dun Cow Lane,
I thought I could hear Cuthbert’s groans . . .