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Arran J. Calvert on Life With Durham Cathedral

Arran J. Calvert has published on the topics of space, time, singing and LEGO building. Here he tells us about his new book, Life with Durham Cathedral: A Laboratory of Community, Experience and Building, and how at Durham Cathedral the only constant is change.

‘Are you here for morning prayer or Antiques Roadshow?’ These were the first words of my final day of fieldwork at Durham Cathedral. Spoken in jest by a familiar steward, we stood waiting by the North Door as Fiona Bruce finished a piece to camera. As I approached the end of my fieldwork, I had reviewed fourteen months’ worth of notes, scraps of paper, pictures, rough drawings, sound recordings and all manner of bits in between. I wondered how I was ever going to make sense of it all. My notes didn’t inspire confidence. Much of what I had written was in the kind of shorthand that only makes sense in the moments you’re writing them. Nevertheless, if I didn’t have anything at this point, I never would, I repeated to myself.

It was a warm, early September day, and as we finally entered the nave, it was a hive of activity. Crowds of people stood in long queues holding all shapes and sizes of what they hoped would be their retirement plan. Pews were pushed aside for tables around which even more people crowded as expert passed their eye over various items as cameras swept around looking for their shot.

It was an excitable day as the community welcomed people from across the northeast. While I did make sure I stood around enough tables to ensure my face would be on TV at least long enough for a freeze frame picture, my main intention was to explore a part of the Cathedral I had yet to see, the ‘bits upstairs’. I had been pestering the Verger for weeks, all the while knowing how busy he always was. But, three days before the Antiques Roadshow rolled up, he pulled me to one side and said, ‘Come and see me when the Roadshow are here, I’ll need a break from it all, and with all the commotion, we can slip off. Although that’s never easy.’

As the morning slipped into early afternoon and my interest in antiques had abandoned me, I wandered to the Verger’s office in the north transept and hung around. I learned in those fourteen months that the best opportunities come when you’re ‘strategically placed’. A few minutes later he strode past me and flicked his head, indicating for me to follow.

I chose not to write about this in my book because I wanted to keep my ethnographic examples to the kinds of experiences most people can have in their daily lives in Durham Cathedral. This particular event was very much a privilege. However, what I experienced during my walkabout around the back passages and upper corridors influenced much of my approach to this book. It felt like a parting gift from Durham Cathedral.

One of the skills of fieldwork is to always be open and alert to everything. At the most unexpected moments, things happen that can suddenly bring everything together. Notes of interest that made no sense for the past six months can suddenly fall into place at any moment. Hidden away in the tight corridors between towers, passages used by masons, carpenters and, many centuries later, electricians, and in the roof cavity above the nave were what I at first took to be moments of history. Laid bare, these moments of history aren’t cased off and protected like museum pieces but are in the process of ‘doing their job’. I had long thought about the structural stonework of the building but had not spared a thought for the structural woodwork. As I closely examined the roughly hewn oak beams doing their job in supporting the roof above and the nave’s stone vaulted ceiling beneath, below which the Antiques Roadshow was busily recording, I was faced with the varying depths of time that are always ongoing in these ancient cathedrals. My hand rested on the beam of an oak tree felled and shaped by hand a thousand years ago, whose acorn sprouted centuries before that, closer to the life of Jesus than my own. In a building where ‘authenticity’ is a constant concern, this was as authentic as I could imagine.

Authenticity runs throughout the book, in each of the three sections (Life in Durham Cathedral, Experiencing Durham Cathedral and The Living Cathedral), what it is at all points ‘at risk’ and thus requiring negotiation is authenticity. Yet, what authenticity really is, seems vague. To some, it is the materials of the building. To others, it is the life of the building.

Following the fire of Notre Dame de Paris in 2019, a World Heritage Site just like Durham Cathedral, debate raged on how to restore it. While tenders submitted plans for a rooftop pool or replacing the Gothic spire with a glass one, it was settled that it would be returned to its ‘last known state’. This being its state following the restoration works of Viollet-Le-Duc following France’s July Revolution of 1830 and subsequent riots. The issue is that Viollet-Le-Duc aimed to create the perfect Gothic Cathedral, not the Notre Dame de Paris at its ‘last known state’ before the revolution. Once again, what and when authenticity is, seems vague and elusive.

Durham Cathedral has had its architect chasing the perfect Gothic Cathedral. In 1795, James Wyatt was appointed Consulting Architect and began what is now considered largely destructive works in search of a coherent architectural experience. His work was heavily critiqued by draughtsman and architect John Carter leading in part to a wider national debate on the protection of historically significant buildings.

Today, what becomes preserved or conserved is not simply materials of a bygone age but human actions, thoughts, and intentions. One of my central arguments in this book highlights exactly this; the materials and their inherent historical materiality are symbiotically created through a building/community relationship.

To care for the authenticity of Durham Cathedral, then, is not to ensure it remains unchanging but to understand that it is and will continue to change through the inherent negotiations that take place within the building/community relationship. That is why the title of this book uses the preposition with and not in. As long as people dwell in Durham Cathedral, change will be inherent, and this essential aspect is now well understood. As the current architect, Chris Cotton, has commented, ‘the only constant in Durham Cathedral is change’.

Life With Durham Cathedral: A Laboratory of Community, Experience and Building

212 pages, 19 illus., bibliog., index

978-1-80073-760-0 HB

978-1-80073-780-8 ebook

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