Durham Cathedral Jimmy Carter was president 42 years ago


Excerpt from “The Road to Little Dribbling” by Bill Bryson

Just outside Gloucester Road tube station in London is an open space that once had a large planter in the middle. The planter contained hardy shrubs and was surrounded by a low wall where people could sit to eat a sandwich or wait for friends. I wasn’t sensational but I was pleasant.

Then, one day, the council took away the planter, turning the open space into a kind of barren square. Shortly after, when I passed, a few council officials in bright yellow vests stood in the newly created void taking notes on clipboards. I asked them why they had removed the planter, and they told me that the borough no longer had the resources to manage the planters. And I thought, is that really what we’ve come to now, in this cheap and shitty discouraging time we live in all the time – that we can’t even afford a few shrubs in a pot?

Now hold that thought for just a minute as we drive north to the beautiful old town of Durham and stand before the majestic pile of stone that is Durham Cathedral. I once spent a pleasant morning being shown around by Christopher Downs of the Cathedral. I was a bit surprised, frankly, to find out that a cathedral needs a full-time architect, but it does. It is in the nature of old buildings to crumble, and they need constant attention to prevent this from happening. Stone, on the one hand, is not as eternal as one might think. Even hard stone tends to crack and crumble after a few hundred years of exposure to wind and rain. When this happens, Christopher told me, the masons carefully cut out the old stone and slide in a new one. Why, I asked, didn’t they just remove the existing stone and rotate it to give it a new face.

He looked at me, surprised at my architectural naivety. “Because the stones are only about six to nine inches thick,” he explained. It turns out that the walls of Durham Cathedral are not solid stone, as I had always vaguely assumed, but rather consist of an outer skin six to nine inches thick and an inner skin thick similar and between a cavity five and a half feet in diameter. , which the builders filled with rubble and rubble held together with some sort of gloopy cement-like mortar.

So Durham Cathedral, like all great buildings of antiquity, is essentially a huge pile of rubble held in place by two thin layers of cut stone. But – and this is the really remarkable thing – because the sticky mortar was contained between two impermeable layers, the air could not penetrate it, so it took a very long time – forty years to be precise – to dry. As it dried, the whole structure slowly settled, which meant that the cathedral’s masons had to build doorposts, lintels and the like at slightly acute angles so that they would wedge over time in the correct alignments. And that’s exactly what happened. After forty years of slow subsidence, the building settled into an irreproachable position of horizontality, which it has maintained ever since. To me, that’s just amazing – the idea that people would have the foresight and dedication to ensure a perfection they themselves might never see.

Now I’m no expert on this, but I’m pretty sure we’re much richer today than we were in the 11th century, and yet back then they could find the resources needed to build something as splendid and timeless as Durham Cathedral and we can’t afford to keep six shrubs in a planter. And there’s something seriously wrong with that, if you ask me.

President Carter began planning for today when he was in office 42 years ago. Too bad, so sad – instead of being prepared or, perhaps, avoiding environmental collapse, we get an anemic climate emergency declaration – so disappointing.


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