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In the cathedral, after dark

Location: Norwich Cathedral cloisters, The Close, Norwich, NR1 4DH

Map showing location of Norwich Cathedral

Animals appear all over the cathedral, carved into the walls and doorways, on lecterns and misericords, and carved high into the roof. Norwich Cathedral roof bosses contain images of animals – both real and imagined, biblical and folkloric – that tell stories that would have been familiar to people in medieval Norwich. Exactly what these images meant is a bit of a mystery to us, though, and the carvings prompt more questions than they answer.

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The pelican, glazed and golden, who so often these days
gets mistaken for a phoenix, tells the story, always the same story, 
of hiding in the dark – packed away four hundred years ago, 
an idol, a frivolity, 

remembering only her fiery making, and the bloodied
compassion she gave in plucking her own flesh
from her breast to feed to her starving babies. 
Those babies were gone, 

missing for centuries, but their footprints and silhouettes
whispered around the lectern still. The animals are saddened
and heartened by this story, the mother, the saviour, 
the loss, all wrapped up

in a gilded bird whose head is permanently bowed.
Up in the nave, a hart lies in a pool of unmoving water 
and speaks gently of the clink of the stonemasons’ voices.
A wheelbarrow full of monkeys

cackles from the misericords as a lion with dog’s paws
jolts awake – a lively storyteller freed of his usual 
place at the long-dead bishop’s feet. He tells the story 
of the cathedral’s eating,

the barrels of food brought on the river and noted
in the cathedral’s rolls; the pepper and salt fish and almonds
and saffron, the honey, the oatmeal, the wine. 
The lion’s stone jaws drip.

From high on the ceiling, pairs of birds and bats
screech from their boat, and edge down the pillars 
to the altar to tell their stories of floods
of paint and voices, 

their dizzy, upside-down life. From the other roof bosses, 
doves and angels flutter and remember the sound
of a full Sunday congregation, the smell 
of incense. 

And outside the doors, a gold dragon breathes blue flames
onto a woodland scene, and a lion bats away a king’s dagger. 
Death’s pale horse escapes the open mouth of hell. A dog fights
a bear, and two cockerels square off. 

The seven-headed beast is sure of his purpose, but the others
don’t take so quickly to malice, despite their gruesome faces. 
These cloistered beasts slip down in the dark, and creep 
in their painted pairs to knock on the oak doors.

The fox, sequestered inside in a carved doorframe, talks circles
around the gathered animals, tells tricksy tales of the cathedral’s
beginnings and tries to convince the birds they’d be better
off eaten. They flap their wings

and threaten to fly back up to the ark in the same moment
as the fox threatens to open the door to the apocalypse, 
to the beasts outside, but the pelican croaks and soothes 
until the fox stops

his game and the birds cease their flapping and the lion 
is no longer salivating. The pelican lets the beasts in anyway. 
The stone and metal and wooden animals look at one another 
and remember that they arrived here together, 

that the beastly and the beautiful are not 
all that different.

Follow the trail

Go to Cow Tower for poem 13: Receipt for the building of Cow Tower