Ode to the Scaffold

I am the child of an unlucky generation. They come around every once in a while. I doubt I am alone in thinking that those born in the middle of the nineties were dealt a very poor hand by the powers that be. The downsides range from the petty to the preposterous. As children, we were the last to sit KS3 SATs. We were the first to do those banal functional skills tests and we were the last to do official coursework before controlled assessments came in (though in all honesty I’m pretty thankful for that). The housing market is dire, the economic recession goes on and now our own country is following America down a frustratingly intolerant road. And to top it all off, we were the first generation to have no escape from the tuition fee hike, leaving us £6,000 per year worse off than those born the year before. It’s a rough world.

I guess growing up with the Disney Renaissance in full swing was a deal sweetener. That, and knowing nothing of the silent fear of the Cold War – though I shouldn’t be so surprised if war doesn’t come to us sooner or later.

But there’s another, less-discussed downside to being a child of the mid-nineties: the scaffolding. By some divine trick, ours is the lot to find half of the world’s wonders in need of repairs when we go on our travels.

Or maybe that’s just my luck.

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I mentioned the scaffolding on Durham Cathedral tower in a previous post. It’s got several affectionate names in the student body, most commonly ‘the Condom’. It’s a fitting title, I suppose, balancing the right level of good humour and disdain. If you saw the last music video of the Northern Lights (see below), you can see it in the background in several of the wide shots. One of the reasons we moved the filming of this year’s music video into the city streets was to keep the Condom out of shot. Watch this space.

All old buildings need a good deal of looking after. Durham’s cathedral is almost a thousand years old. Repair work of this type is vital and takes time, and I’ve grown up around Canterbury Cathedral, so I’m well-acquainted enough with scaffolding to know that it’s rarely finished in less than a couple of years. Unsurprisingly, then, it wasn’t completed ‘in 2017’ as we’d been told, and it may well take another year or two to come down. Even so, I’ll be back in Durham to see it when it’s gone, of course.

So our university cathedral was under scaffolding for my graduation. Big deal. Well, I thought I’d use my time in the north to visit some of the most beautiful sites England has to offer. Of course, I’m talking about Lindisfarne Priory on Holy Island. Even the name sounds magical. The reality, however…

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…was a little frustrating.

If Durham Cathedral’s condom was a pain, the Lindisfarne scaffolding was nothing short of a disfigurement; so much so that when we looked for its silhouette as we drove north along the coast, it took some time to realise that we were actually looking at the priory. I should consider myself lucky, really. I only had to travel some forty minutes from Durham to see the priory under iron. I feel sorry for the Japanese tourists who came a good deal further than forty minutes away…In the end it meant we got to spend more time exploring the rest of Northumberland’s historical beauties, which I can’t complain about, but it gives me a real reason to return. Perhaps that’s the upshot of all this repair work.

It is, however, becoming a very frustrating trend. One such occasion where I was in the shoes of the Japanese was on my trip to Fes in my whirlwind tour of Morocco back in 2015. Fes is famous (or perhaps infamous, for want of a better word) for its labyrinthine medina, which is almost unnavigable without a guide, but also for its tanneries, a pungent but colourful sight.

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Not on our trip, though.

Even my flying visit to Chefchaouen was memorable for the scaffolding. I don’t have any photos of the building work there, for various reasons… you can refresh your memory of that particular adventure here. I do have plenty of sketches, though.

Repair work is a necessary fact of life. Without it, many of our most precious monuments would simply fall apart. And if it deters initiatives like the Junta de Andalucia’s plan to ‘refurbish’ its Moorish castles, I’m all for it. If anything, it’s become something of a game to me, and I can’t resist a chuckle when I see the next building under repairs. Perhaps next it’ll be the Sphinx, or the rock church of Lalibela. It’s a lottery, and I’m fairly certain my being born in the nineties has nothing to do with it.

The one truly good thing I can take away from it is that it does one wonder for us all: scaffolding tends to be the bane of the camera, and without one’s eye glued to the viewfinder, one finds there is so much more to see. I’ve taken to using my sketchbook to capture all the details the camera cannot see. Imagination and a pencil can create far better memories than any digital record.

Keep on working, O men and women of the scaffold. And for all the fury you hear from the building site, remember that you’re preserving more than just the masonry. You’re preserving a real memory. BB x

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