I have walked across the city, searching her gardens for what I seek, but I am too late. Snow flowers everywhere in forgetful white and sound seems to belong to another place. Except for the sharp wind which cuts my ears, I hear nothing. I find my way to the cloister where I am sheltered from the storm, although I see its violence in the swirling snow. I walk its circuit, watching the blizzard through the arches of the stone tracery, but hearing nothing, not even the wind, as if the world is very far away. This was why the cloister was built after all – to allow the scholars to exercise in bad weather. There was no question that exercise was necessary, and healthy for mental exertion too.
A cloister is one of those rare human artefacts which performs the same function in opposing conditions, like an umbrella-parasol. In this wet northern island, a cloister provides shelter from the rain and snow, whilst further south it is the fierce sun it shades. It is a Gibsonian affordance: its structure enables exercise in intemperate conditions and invites me to walk. I walk. And think. It’s protection is all around me, I am cloistered within walls and gates which are themselves within walls and gates. It is an enclosed and guarded space, but it is not a prison. The arcade of the cloister draws my feet and my thoughts onwards. There are no windows to the outer world and the arches open inwards onto a garden. It is a sacred space in the purest sense: a space set aside and special. Only a blackbird disturbs the stillness as it picks the leaf litter under the holm oak in search of food. The holm oak, Quercus ilex, is magnificent. Holm is an archaic word for holly, which is recorded in the botanical ilex. The leaves are not prickled, but the tree is evergreen. It was planted in the nineteenth-century so is a mere juvenile of its kind, but it has a presence which makes it worthy of veneration. It is known to millions worldwide having starred in a popular film. Fame has not turned its head.
I feel the cloister’s history as I walk. It is not a sense of going back in time, but that all of its time is here present to me. The ground level is the same as it was when it was built in AD1389 and the patina of time has been gentle on the stone. Even the carved graffiti connects me with the unknown lives who have walked there before me, and who, like me may walk there again, although I leave no trace. The memorial stones embedded in the paving and walls mark the lives of those whose walks have ceased.