When I was a teenager, the option of going to University was never encouraged. In those days a girl was expected to become a secretary or hairdresser, find a husband and marry. I was engaged at 18, married just before my 20th birthday and by 25 had three small sons. We lived in Sunderland.
Six years later I was invited to Durham to meet a vicar I knew from the Samaritans organisation. (suicide prevention service). I fell hopelessly in love with the City and as my boys were now at school all day, decided it was time to resume my education.
The vicar sent me to meet his secretary who also worked at St Aidan’s College. When I arrived she told me that she had just received a cancellation of a university place. This means, she said, that I could have an interview with the College Principal immediately.
The formidable lady in question – a bastion of the British Empire – summoned me and imperiously pronounced “We are a gels ( girls) college”. That’s fine,” I said, “I am a gel”. I don’t understand how, but somehow I passed her inspection. I became a St. Aidan’s Maiden. Half an hour later I sat with the professor of one of the faculties, told him that I had recently achieved a Grade A in A Level sociology, so he might as well take me now rather than wait another year until I had another qualification. He agreed. Four days later I returned to Durham to enrol.
I had thought of studying law, but when I arrived the queue for law was too long for me to wait, otherwise I would have not been back in time to collect the boys from school. The shortest queue was for Sociology/Psychology. I registered. Five days later I began my three years BA Hons. course.
I was totally enthralled by both subjects, in particular studying the vagaries of human behaviour – a fascination that has remained with me over the years, and which now provides me with the basis for this story.
I have always been intrigued why people challenge themselves to achieve the seemingly impossible, whether climbing mountains, rowing solo across the Atlantic or skydiving out of planes. I appreciate that these have an element of danger and excitement, but there are thousands of others who simply strive to be unique – one look at the Guinness Book of Records will amaze – or appal you, at the antics that people get up to in order to achieve their three minutes of fame and become a legend in their own lunch hour.
But most of these activities pale into insignificance when compared with those of two extraordinary people whose endeavours leave me spellbound. The first is Gary Bevans. In 1987 he visited the Sistine Chapel in Rome and was captivated by Michaelangelo’s magnificent ceiling. He noticed that its shape and size were similar to the English Martyrs’ Church in Worthing, Sussex, where he regularly attended.
On returning home Gary was consumed by the idea of painting a replica of Michelangelo’s masterpiece in his local church. He approached his Priest and Bishop for their permission, they agreed and thus began a remarkable journey. Gary had never received any formal art training but being employed as a sign writer, he developed skills that proved invaluable for recreating the intricate architectural features of the original chapel. He was 33 – the same age as Michaelangelo, who, in 1508, began painting the Sistine Chapel, taking four years to complete it. Gary however, spent five and a half years as he could only paint during the evenings after work each day and at weekends.
He initially planned to paint the panels in his garden shed and then fix them to the ceiling. However the screw holes damaged the artwork. Instead he used 7500 2” screws to fix hundreds of 8ft x 4ft plywood panels to the ceiling. He then sketched details onto them, and next carefully painted in acrylics. He also had to fill in three ceiling vents and remove a number of modern light fittings that would certainly have looked out of place illuminating ‘renaissance’ artwork.
He installed scaffolding to reach the ceiling and worked there every day. He claims that despite painting for so long with his head in a difficult position, he has never once had a neck problem. He attributes this to God who, he says, endowed him with the artistic talent and willpower to complete this mammoth project. It also probably helped that the paints he used were mixed with holy water. If faith can move mountains, Gary’s amazing achievement proves this.
The exterior of the church is an unremarkable 1960’s building, but on entering, one is dazzled by the splendour of the Sistine Chapel without the ordeal of confronting hordes of Japanese tourists with selfie sticks, as in Rome. Trip Advisor gives Gary’s replica a five star rating and more than 30,000 people viewed it last year. I cannot wait to see it for myself when it re-opens in the spring.
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The second unique personality to introduce you to is Johan Huibers, a Dutch building contractor, carpenter and ardent Christian believer in the Creation. Several years ago he had a nightmare that a fierce storm flooded the entire province of Noord Holland where he lives. Around the same time he had just read the story of Noah’s Ark to his children, and this, combined with his bad dream, convinced him it was prophetic.
As a result he vowed to build a replica of Noah’s Ark, literally of biblical proportions, copying the measurements in cubits as written in the Bible. His wife initially laughed at his idea, saying “Fine you finish building it, then we’ll go on holiday to the moon”. But he persisted, completing his first Ark 13 years later.
However Johan was not satisfied with this vessel, as it was only half the size of Noah’s. So he sold it and began work on a larger one. Once more, he laboured non-stop, this time with the support of amateur carpenters including a hairdresser, butcher and teacher. Together they spent four years creating an outstanding vessel at a cost of around £5m. When he opened it to the public, he wryly admits certain things were not quite ship-shape, with the result that the authorities closed the boat to the public until it meets their stringent Health and Safety regulations.
Johan’s dream is to sail his ‘replica of God’s ship’ to ‘God’s land’ – Israel. He proclaims his love for the Jewish state saying “ I love the country and its people. They don’t obey rules, do whatever they want, drive like madmen, shove whilst standing on line and don’t listen to anyone – just like me!
But it will take more than passion to achieve his dream. His 2,500 ton Ark, constructed from beech and pine, is 410ft long, 95ft wide with five decks reaching 76ft high. However, it has no motor but then, I guess, neither had the Biblical one. To get it to Israel pulled by tugboats would cost around $1,300,000.
Saying this, I feel that if anyone can do it, Johan can. Considering what he has already achieved, which frankly is outstanding, maybe the final hurdle is only kid’s play.
Johan is convinced that we are approaching the End of Days but most people are not aware of it. The water will come, of that he is certain. His projection may not be so far from the truth bearing in mind global warming signs of rising sea levels. I am not, however, planning to book my passage just yet. Not for any reasons regarding the viability of his Ark, but because the very thought of going on any cruise gives me the horrors.
By the way, for those of you wondering how I survived my academic life at Durham, below is my degree ceremony photograph. It was very special to have my parents and my sons there. I would like to think that, in some small way, it inspired them to achieve the academic successes they did. I must ask them some time !