Two men appeared outside my kitchen window. This is no mean feat, as my flat is three floors up. Below them I could hear noisy clattering and voices shouting instructions. Then braces, brackets, poles and boards appeared. Jack In The Beanstalk style, an ugly metal structure was shooting up, as a long, thin section of scaffolding quickly and skilfully grew towards the flat above me. I opened the window to have a chat with them. I figured I was going to get to know them in the weeks to come, so best introduce myself now.
“I don’t suppose you want a cup of tea?” was my rather flat introduction. “We’ve to be done by 4, so we’d better push on, thanks though.” “And how long will you be here?” I tried not to act too much like a sheep-worrying dog, not that it mattered either way; they were only doing their job. He responded with open friendliness, “I’ve no idea, we just put it up for the lads who’ll be coming to do the work next week.” I’m not delighted about my metal beanstalk, and I’m hopeful that it won’t be here for long, but I’m quietly prepared to get used to it.
The Rosslyn Chapel, just a few miles outside of Edinburgh, was brought to global attention when Dan Brown used it as the location for the finale of his book, The Da Vinci Code. From 1997, every inch of the chapel was clad in scaffolding for 13 years, after which sections of it remained under scaffolding for additional stonemasonry and restoration. In the end, it was a full 16 years before it was scaffolding-free. I didn’t ever see it under its obliterating facemask, but I can tell you – it is magnificent now. I just hope the scaffolding outside my kitchen window isn’t there for 16 years!
Every few months I take the train from Edinburgh to York. At Durham, the line runs along a high viaduct, providing magnificent views of the ex-mining town. Rows of red brick houses run down steep hills. They look like dolls houses, juxtaposed, as they are, against the substantial magnificence of Durham Castle and Cathedral, built on elevated land and moated by a twisting section of the River Wear. I lived there for a short while and was disappointed when, after only a few weeks, the central tower of the Cathedral was wrapped in scaffolding, then clad in white tarpaulin. It has been like that for the last three years. I have an underlying sadness each time I pass through Durham, and the hulking plaster of Paris cast on the tower does little to stifle my sadness.
“From Gerry to Bernadette, My wish for us (page 50), with all my love.” This was the inscription on an early edition (1973) of Seamus Heaney’s ‘Death of a Naturalist’ that I found in the War on Want bookshop on Botanic Avenue in Belfast in 2012. I gave it to my husband as a Valentine’s Day present that year. The reference to page 50 took me to a poem called ‘Scaffolding’. I found the handwritten words unbelievably poignant. That he (Gerry) had been brave enough to give this as a gift to her (Bernadette) and to write those daring words in the fly cover. There was something about knowing their names – ordinary, commonplace Irish names – that brought them alive to me. I hoped that it had worked out between them, and that the metaphorical poem, Scaffolding, had been borne out in their marriage.
I’m next due to travel to York by train in March. I’ve recently learned that, in March, Durham Cathedral’s cast is to be removed. There is something within me that is linked to that particular bulk of scaffolding. I’ve a feeling that my sadness might be lighter on this journey.
Scaffolding, by Seamus Heaney
“Masons, when they start upon a building,
Are careful to test out the scaffolding;
Make sure that planks won’t slip at busy points,
Secure all ladders, tighten bolted joints.
And yet all this comes down when the job’s done
Showing off walls of sure and solid stone.
So if, my dear, there sometimes seem to be
Old bridges breaking between you and me
Never fear. We may let the scaffolds fall
Confident that we have built our wall.”