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  • Monique Sliedrecht

Contrasts




I’m sitting in the Riverside Cafe next to the River Wear in Durham. After the heavy rains of the last days, the level of water is high and it is going at a pace, rushing its way through the city centre as I write. Sitting at the window I feel as though I’m on a boat! It’s interesting to be so near the river with all this movement.

What is it about rain in the northeast at this time of year? I seem to recall that the last time I was here, I ended up being in York on a Thursday during an extreme all-day downpour. Well, yesterday was Thursday, and I had a similar experience, dodging puddles and skirting the streams of water flowing down the Bailey, past Durham Cathedral.

I’ve been in the city of Durham with my colleague, Murray, to visit our current Wayfarer Fellow, Angela, at St. John’s College, Durham University, and to meet the prospective new fellow for 2023.

Angela is a composer and musician from London who has been working on some new compositions while in Durham, and leading a choir for people who ‘can’t sing’. A couple of days ago we had the privilege of hearing one of her new pieces, made during this autumn Michaelmas term. It was a beautiful composition, responding to the passing away of her brother one year ago.



As the rain was refusing to let up on that Thursday afternoon the three of us decided to retreat indoors and visit the Cathedral Museum.



What met us when we arrived was so unexpected. We stepped into the most incredible open space containing a marvellous display of ancient stones and Celtic crosses, dating back to the time of the Vikings and earlier. I was especially intrigued by various carvings, including a Roman memorial stone that showed distinctive font which would have certainly influenced the Welsh artist, David Jones, in some of his works.





Equally stunning were the extremely fragile and almost fully intact books of ancient scripture and chronicles in the climate-controlled display room. One thick volume even had the written words by the Venerable Bede, in his own hand!



A smaller book had pages delicately and beautifully stitched together. How people valued paper and words then! So much as to protect the knowledge with their lives. Monks even faced martyrdom protecting these treasures. We cannot begin to comprehend this dedication now with all the surplus we have at our fingertips.





At the end of the tour, a large glass case containing the wooden remains of St. Cuthbert’s coffin was displayed in a round vaulted room. Many fragments of the Seventh Century coffin had been preserved and reassembled. The naively drawn guardian angels took my breath away.






The richness of that journey through the museum, enhanced by the expert guidance of the invigilators and volunteers, stood out against a later experience that same day.




The rain had not stopped falling. Angela went back to meet someone, so my friend and I thought it might be an idea to watch a film in the evening. Two hours later.... I can only say that I went away very disappointed, and stepped back out into the dark rainy streets with a great sense of bleakness.

For me, the film was anything but positive or enriching. As my friend who was with me said - while the writing was very good, the film played with the audience, almost manipulating us in a way that felt uncaring. He’s right, I think!

I travelled an interesting path that day. From an afternoon of exceedingly phenomenal history and beautiful curation in a space, to later watching one of the bleaker films I’ve seen, I was brought from one pure emotional response to another.

With the first experience I felt richer, and with the latter I went away feeling somewhat poorer.

Thankfully, a good sleep and a drive to the edge of the island of Lindisfarne at low tide wiped the evening’s scenes from my mind, and I felt ‘level’ again, brighter and more hopeful, more in line with my afternoon museum adventure.



While on a tight schedule without much time to stop and walk around this special place, I was moved by the sense of history in relation to Cuthbert, the ancient saint of Lindisfarne, and so many others. I felt grateful for this precious occasion - a spur-of-the-moment detour we decided to make in the middle of our travels back to Edinburgh. We were struck by the beauty of the sunset in the sky over the Holy Island. It was a moment of respite and light before we returned to the heavy queue of cars heading north on the motorway. I registered it in my mind as a place to revisit sometime - a pilgrimage.

Life is full of contrasts, and of contradictions even.

The decision of which way to turn, what to dwell on or discard, is very much up to us, and is based on these two questions:


What makes me feel poorer?

and

What makes me richer?



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